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Did we pay him more mind, the Bible’s portrayal of Abner would surely appear as a case study in psychology and moral analysis. As Abner’s persona is partly eclipsed, however, by his proximity to David, Saul, and other more obviously “complicated” figures, we may easily fail to notice the interesting moral complexity of his life and career.
A kinsman of Saul (1 Samuel 14:50), Abner was a military leader, part of the royal court, and a sharer at the king’s private table. In one of the accounts, he is credited with originally bringing David to Saul’s attention (17:55–57).
With David’s rapid rise, however, the popular prestige of Abner was doubtless diminished as much as Saul’s, nor is it unwarranted to guess at his reaction when David’s superior military ability likewise earned him a place in the royal family and at the royal table. If the popular mind made David something of a rival to Saul, he was surely as much to Abner. Later, indeed, David’s open jeering of Abner in the presence of the army strikes one as the taunt of a personal contender (26:5,13–16).
But harder days for Abner lay ahead. As a royal relative and the recognized commander of Israel’s army, his responsibilities were considerably increased after the death of Saul and Jonathan at the Battle of Mount Gilboah. Indeed, the political stability of the northern tribes greatly depended on his personal authority during those troubled years, nor could the house of Saul have stayed in power had it not been for the backing of Abner. Events would prove that Saul’s lackluster heir, Ishbosheth, could occupy the throne only by Abner’s assent.
Following the Battle of Mount Gilboah, the Israelites were divided between the northern tribes, nominally ruled by Ishbosheth, and the tribe of Judah under David, a division rendering it easy for the Philistines effectively to control most of the northern area west of the Jordan. This hapless situation, threatening to become permanent, posed for Abner a true moral dilemma.
He was an instinctively loyal man, principled and innocent of personal ambition, but the sundry loyalties of even such a man may sometimes stand in conflict, and Abner was compelled in due course to choose between his expected adherence to the house of Saul and his more abiding concern for the nation’s very survival. Long accustomed to viewing David through the eyes of Saul, Abner experienced much of the same conflict of loyalties that had plagued the conscience of Jonathan some years earlier, and his painful resolution to that conflict, like Jonathan’s, would lead directly to the tragedy that ended his life.
When he did decide to join with David, Abner’s moral authority in Israel was such that he was able to bring with him, not only the army, but also the various tribal elders of Israel (2 Samuel 3:17–19).
Abner’s decision, though it probably took shape over some period of time, was brought to abrupt closure when Ishbosheth accused him of disloyalty to the house of Saul (3:7–11). Decisions about loyalty are particularly tough ones that often can “go either way,” so it is not surprising that not everyone would agree with Abner. The line of his critics and second-guessers extends from his murderer, Joab (3:24–30), all the way to certain modern commentators, one of whom writes of Abner’s “treachery.”
As we would expect, David himself took an opposite view of the matter (3:37), as did Solomon (1 Kings 2:32). Abner himself claimed that his decision was based on theological truth, not mere political expediency (2 Samuel 3:18). David, after all, had been anointed by Samuel and was recognized by the high priest Abiathar. Ishbosheth, in contrast, had nothing to recommend him beyond his descent from Saul, whose house the Lord had clearly repudiated.
Still, Holy Scripture does not disguise the fact that Abner’s resolve, for all its high-minded adherence to principle, was not untainted by some element of the fleshly and the mundane. In the end it was a sense of disgust with Saul’s son that drove Abner to David’s side.
Nor does the biblical narrator himself say, in so many words, that Abner was an honorable man; he simply tells the story and lets the reader decide. Indeed, he may not have known whether there was truth in Ishbosheth’s accusation. Only God, after all, can fully measure any man or his moral decisions.