Abishai and Joab

or, Family Characteristics as seen in Scripture
by P. Fournier
A brother once told me that, while filling out papers to support his claim to being a conscientious objector for the military, he came across this statement: "Your beliefs must influence your life." How striking that the world should recognize that what we believe should make a difference in how we behave! We will look, with the Lord's help, at two brothers in Scripture who may show us, in type, what it is to submit what we are by nature to our blessed Lord.
As we look at the story of Abishai and Joab, we see that the men were of similar temperament. They were both courageous, fearless, but hot-tempered men. In the former, however, we see how his apparent love for David often kept him from doing what he would naturally have done. In the case of the latter, we see that almost without exception, he did what his natural tendencies directed him to do.
The First Instance of Devotedness
There are three striking instances in the life of Abishai that indicate that he was a man of faith and a true lover of David. The first instance is recorded in 1 Sam. 26:66Then answered David and said to Ahimelech the Hittite, and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, brother to Joab, saying, Who will go down with me to Saul to the camp? And Abishai said, I will go down with thee. (1 Samuel 26:6), "Then answered David and said to Ahimelech the Hittite, and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, brother to Joab, saying, Who will go down with me to Saul to the camp? And Abishai said, I will go down with thee." Abishai knew, of course, that Saul was only there because he sought David's life. To go down with David could only be at risk of his own life, and could only serve to subject himself to the animosity of the then-ruling king. Yet he goes with David, proving that devotedness to God's anointed, but rejected, king was the most important thing in his life.
What was it about David that had won this man's heart? Had he possibly been present, like Saul's son Jonathan, at the conquest of the Philistine? We know that he was David's nephew, the son of David's older sister Zeruiah. Yet, it would appear that he was at least the same age as David, and possibly a little older. But surely it was something more than the natural relationship that attracted Abishai's heart, for he is once and again set apart from his own brother Joab as having special affection for David.
The Second Instance of Devotedness
It has often been pointed out that Joab is not listed among David's mighty men in 2 Sam. 23, though both his brothers and his armor bearer are listed there. It is in this chapter that we see the second example of the outstanding devotedness of Abishai. I believe that Abishai was one of the three men spoken of in 2 Sam. 23:1616And the three mighty men brake through the host of the Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem, that was by the gate, and took it, and brought it to David: nevertheless he would not drink thereof, but poured it out unto the Lord. (2 Samuel 23:16).
And the three mighty men brake through the host of the Philistines, and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem, that was by the gate, and took it, and brought it to David: nevertheless he would not drink thereof, but poured it out unto the Lord.... And Abishai, the brother of Joab, the son of Zeruiah, was chief among three. And he lifted up his spear against three hundred, and slew them, and had the name among three. (vv. 16,18.)
Here we find one of the most extraordinary examples of devotion in Scripture. How it delights our hearts to think of these three men. Though having received no order from David, yet his wish becomes a command to them. And at what personal cost it was! It seems from David's comments that he recognized that he was truly unworthy of such devotion. But it appears that so great was the affection of Abishai, that no personal sacrifice was too great, if by it some good and blessing might come to David.
The Third Instance of Devotedness
Moreover the Philistines had yet war again with Israel; and David went down, and his servants with him, and fought against the Philistines: and David waxed faint. And Ishbibenob, which was of the sons of the giant, the weight of whose spear weighed three hundred shekels of brass in weight, he being girded with a new sword, thought to have slain David. But Abishai the son of Zeruiah succored him, and smote the Philistine, and killed him. Then the men of David sware unto him, saying, Thou shalt go no more out with us to battle, that thou quench not the light of Israel.
From the context I would gather that David was perhaps sixty years old at this battle, and so it is small wonder that he waxed faint. But if we remember that Abishai was little, if any, younger than he, our hearts would rejoice to see that the years had not changed his love for David. What a testimony it is to young people to see older ones going on with real affection for the Lord Jesus, and that it is manifest in their life and ways!
Remember, too, that this enemy was a giant, the brother of Goliath. Perhaps Abishai's thoughts went back to that time when, as a youth, David had fearlessly gone out against Goliath and all Israel had fled before him. Whatever might have been the thoughts of his heart, we find that he is once again heedless of personal danger to himself in his defense of David.
Having established the fact that Abishai's affections had been truly won by David, I think we find it very significant that Abishai's natural tendencies were so effectively curbed by a word from his lord. In the aforementioned reference to Abishai's willingness to go down to the camp of King Saul, we find that Abishai is all too ready to smite the king. "And David said to Abishai, Destroy him not: for who can stretch forth his hand against the Lord's anointed, and be guiltless?" 1 Sam. 26:99And David said to Abishai, Destroy him not: for who can stretch forth his hand against the Lord's anointed, and be guiltless? (1 Samuel 26:9). One short admonition from David was sufficient to keep him from his natural tendency.
Again we see in the case of Shimei, who cursed David when he fled from Absalom, how Abishai seeks to right the wrong done to David. "Then said Abishai the son of Zeruiah unto the king, Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? let me go over, I pray thee, and take off his head." 2 Sam. 16:99Then said Abishai the son of Zeruiah unto the king, Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? let me go over, I pray thee, and take off his head. (2 Samuel 16:9). He lacked understanding of the government of God to which David was willing to submit, and his hot temper would have prompted him to cut off Shimei's head.
David responds, "Behold, my son, which came forth of my bowels, seeketh my life: how much more now may this Benjamite do it? let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord hath bidden him." v. 11. We find that Abishai submits to David's wishes. Once again, on David's return, Abishai is anxious to avenge his lord's maltreatment from Shimei. Yet, he submits again to David's will that Shimei not be put to death.
What a beautiful picture we have in all this of a man whose "beliefs influenced his life." He loved David, and was willing to submit his hot temper and hasty spirit to David's will. What an example for ourselves who have a much higher object.
David, though he was God's anointed, was still a failing man himself. The Lord whom we know is not only God's anointed One, but also God incarnate, perfect in wisdom, power and love. His will is always best for us. Has His love won our hearts? Do we believe that He knows best and wants the best for us? Are we willing to submit our rebellious spirits to His perfect will? If so, we too will know what is "that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God." Rom. 12:22And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:2).
Joab, Abishai’s Brother
Without going into much negative detail, perhaps it would be profitable to look a little at the life of Joab, Abishai's brother. This man served David for most of his life. He seems to have been a man of considerable intelligence and foresight. He was an effective and valuable general to David. We even find at times that he had greater wisdom than David, as in the matter of the numbering of the people (2 Sam. 24). Yet, he was motivated entirely by self-interest, as opposed to his brother who was motivated chiefly by his love for David. We find David's final appraisal of Joab in 1 Kings 2:55Moreover thou knowest also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, and what he did to the two captains of the hosts of Israel, unto Abner the son of Ner, and unto Amasa the son of Jether, whom he slew, and shed the blood of war in peace, and put the blood of war upon his girdle that was about his loins, and in his shoes that were on his feet. (1 Kings 2:5).
Moreover thou knowest also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, and what he did to the two captains of the hosts of Israel, unto Abner the son of Ner, and unto Amasa the son of Jether, whom he slew, and shed the blood of war in peace, and put the blood of war upon his girdle that was about his loins, and in his shoes that were on his feet.
Notice here that David does not mention the killing of Absalom, for there is no doubt that David was wrong in wanting to spare the life of such a guilty man as Absalom. Yet, a look at the circumstances surrounding the death of Absalom can teach us something of the utter disregard that Joab had for the will of David.
And Absalom met the servants of David. And Absalom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away. And a certain man saw it, and told Joab, and said, Behold, I saw Absalom hanged in an oak. And Joab said unto the man that told him, And, behold, thou sawest him, and why didst thou not smite him there to the ground? and I would have given thee ten shekels of silver, and a girdle. And the man said unto Joab, Though I should receive a thousand shekels of silver in mine hand, yet would I not put forth mine hand against the king's son: for in our hearing the king charged thee and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Beware that none touch the young man Absalom. Otherwise I should have wrought falsehood against mine own life: for there is no matter hid from the king, and thou thyself wouldest have set thyself against me. Then said Joab, I may not tarry thus with thee. And he took three darts in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom, while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak. 2 Sam. 18:9-149And Absalom met the servants of David. And Absalom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away. 10And a certain man saw it, and told Joab, and said, Behold, I saw Absalom hanged in an oak. 11And Joab said unto the man that told him, And, behold, thou sawest him, and why didst thou not smite him there to the ground? and I would have given thee ten shekels of silver, and a girdle. 12And the man said unto Joab, Though I should receive a thousand shekels of silver in mine hand, yet would I not put forth mine hand against the king's son: for in our hearing the king charged thee and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Beware that none touch the young man Absalom. 13Otherwise I should have wrought falsehood against mine own life: for there is no matter hid from the king, and thou thyself wouldest have set thyself against me. 14Then said Joab, I may not tarry thus with thee. And he took three darts in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom, while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak. (2 Samuel 18:9‑14).
Here we see that Joab acts in utter disregard to the manifest will of David. His only thought was to rid the earth of this man, not because he intended to kill David, but because his attempt to overthrow the government, to which Joab was attached, represented another threat to Joab's position of power.
So we see the contrast between these two brothers of such similar temperament. The one was motivated by an unselfish and intense love for David, and the other was motivated by an intense love of power.
It is with sorrow that we see one blot on the character of Abishai in that he is mentioned in 2 Sam. 3:3030So Joab and Abishai his brother slew Abner, because he had slain their brother Asahel at Gibeon in the battle. (2 Samuel 3:30) with his brother in connection with the death of Abner. It appears that though the primary force and actual murderer of Abner was Joab, yet because of the family relationship of Abishai and Asahel, Abishai was at least consenting to Joab's wicked deed.
What a lesson for us, that we may not be turned from obedience to our blessed Savior by some wrong, real or perceived, that may have been done to a member of our family. How often it has been so! May the Lord give to each one of us the unselfish and devoted character that was so often displayed in Abishai!
"Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”
My son, give me thine heart,
and let thine eyes observe my ways.