“But Abner the son of Ner, captain of Saul’s host, took Ishbosheth the son of Saul, and brought him over to Mahanaim; And made him king over Gilead, and over the Ashurites, and over Jezreel, and over Ephraim, and over Benjamin, and over all Israel. Ishbosheth Saul’s son was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and reigned two years. But the house of Judah followed David. And the time that David was king in Hebron over the house of Judah was seven years and six months” (2 Samuel 2:8-11).
No sooner had David begun his reign over Judah, he attracted another enemy to replace Saul. Abner, who was the commander of Saul’s army, retaliated by putting Ishbosheth on the throne of Israel in the hopes that it would anger David and stop the Israelites deflecting to him.
That word “but” reveals that David’s reign was not going to go smoothly and that opposition was always going to be close at hand. As soon as the work of God begins, the devil is not far behind seeking to destroy it. Abner was simply Satan’s tool to make as much trouble for David as possible.
Abner knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that David was the one that ought to reign over both Israel and Judah. “To translate the kingdom from the house of Saul, and to set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan even to Beersheba” (2 Samuel 3:10). He knew that David was God’s anointed king because he had heard as much from the mouth of Saul. “And now, behold, I know well that thou shalt surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in thine hand” (1 Samuel 24:20) … “Blessed be thou, my son David: thou shalt both do great things, and also shalt still prevail” (1 Samuel 26:25). He knew that the elders of Israel were inclined to accept David as king. “And Abner had communication with the elders of Israel, saying, Ye sought for David in times past to be king over you” (2 Samuel 3:17). So we see that Abner was not seeking to honour Saul by placing his son on the throne, but deliberately trying to provoke David.
To all intents and purposes Ishbosheth was just a pawn in Abner’s game, a puppet whose strings he pulled. “Through ambition and desire of rule, because he knew that Ishbosheth would have only the name of king, whilst he had the power” (John Wesley). If he could have, Abner would have taken the throne himself, for he was the true ruler of Israel. Abner simply did not want David as his sovereign.
The name “Ishbosheth” means “man of shame”, and was used by Abner in a shameful way. He was originally named Eshbaal, “baal” meaning “shame” and tells us something of Saul’s rebellion against God. “Saul begat Jonathan, and Malchishua, and Abinadab, and Eshbaal” (1 Chronicles 8:33). Ishbosheth must have known that David was destined to ascend the throne because Samuel had pronounced the end of Saul’s dynasty and he must have heard his father speak of it. “But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee … The LORD hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou … For the LORD hath rent the kingdom out of thine hand, and given it to thy neighbour, even to David” (1 Samuel 13:14, 15:28, 28:17). Though Ishbosheth may not have been a strong leader, he does seem to have willingly played along with Abner’s scheme, maybe because he was frightened of him. “And he could not answer Abner a word again, because he feared him” (2 Samuel 3:11).
Mahanaim, on the east side of the Jordan, was chosen as Ishbosheth’s headquarters because the Philistines were in control of much of Israel since the defeat of Saul. He reigned over Israel for two years “before the war broke out” (Matthew Henry) … “Two years – Namely, before the following war broke out, which continued five years” (John Wesley). Verse 10 is stating the length of the interval between the enthronement of Ishbosheth and the civil war than took place later rather than the actual length of his reign. This makes sense when we take account of the figures given in verse 11, that is, David began his reign over Israel seven and a half years after beginning to rule Judah, the war between the two camps lasting about five years.
This, the installation of Ishbosheth in Mahanaim, was engineered to further divide the nation and was an attempt to hinder the desire for a united land. Abner also knew that he would no longer be a man of position if David were to reign over both Judah and Israel, especially since he was caught sleeping when he ought to have been keeping watch. “And David said to Abner, Art not thou a valiant man? and who is like to thee in Israel? wherefore then hast thou not kept thy lord the king? for there came one of the people in to destroy the king thy lord. This thing is not good that thou hast done. As the LORD liveth, ye are worthy to die, because ye have not kept your master, the LORD’S anointed. And now see where the king’s spear is, and the cruse of water that was at his bolster” (1 Samuel 26:15-16). Was Abner a ruthless coward? As captain over the army of Israel, it seems he emerged unscathed from the battle with the Philistines. So this episode was for his own selfish reasons rather than trying to protect Saul’s household or kingdom, even though he was his cousin. Ishbosheth was simply a means to an end and to be used as a tool to undermine David.
The opponents to the work of the Lord are never far away and they will do all they can to disrupt and destroy it. We shall see a little more of Abner’s wicked heart in our next study as he tries to start a civil war.