JOAB was a strong character, but I believe that he typifies for us the Christian who seeks to do God’s will and God’s work in the strength of the flesh. He was a man who acted in the flesh and not in the spirit, whose work was bound to end in death and not in life.
1 Chronicles 11:5-7
Joab was a man of courage and strength. The fortress of Jebus seemed impregnable, but David said that the first man who captured it would be made chief and captain. From the fact that Joab was the first man to tackle these Jebusites in their rocky fortress and dispossess them and so was made Commander-in-Chief of David’s army, we know that he must have been a man of courage and strength. As we look at the Church today, we exclaim: ‘We need men of courage and strength for our time; that is just the kind of man we have need of. Give us more men like that!
2 Samuel 11:14-21
We see also that Joab was a man of loyalty and unquestioning obedience to his leader. Though the instructions must have seemed strange to him, and though he must have suspected what lay behind David’s orders, yet he did exactly as he was told. Even though the whole matter was terrible, it reveals Joab as a man who was loyal and unquestioningly obedient to his king. We say again: ‘That is a quality which we could do with in our churches today. Would that there were loyalty and obedience to the King among us. We need men and women who are characterised by unquestioning loyalty.’
2 Samuel 12:26-28
Moreover he was marked by real selflessness. Having taken Rabbah, he invited David to come and get all the credit for capturing the city, in spite of the fact that he himself had been responsible for the victory. Again you will agree that we could do with more of this quality in the Church, this selflessness which means that a man looks on the things of others rather than on his own. A willingness for others to be praised for what we ourselves have accomplished is a characteristic which would add to the richness of our Church life.
1 Chronicles 21:1-6
This chapter gives us a further glimpse into Joab’s good qualities. When David instructed him and his public officers to go out and number Israel and then to report back, Joab answered: ‘Even if the Lord should increase His people one hundred fold, would not your majesty still be king and all the people your slaves? Why should your majesty want to do this, since it will only bring guilt on Israel?’ Joab, however, [118/119] was overruled by the king, so he went up and down the whole country, finally returning to David to report the numbers recorded. But so deep was his repugnance to the king’s order that he refused to count Levi and Benjamin. Here, then, was a man who was prepared to stand against something which he judged to be destructive to his king and country, a man unafraid of speaking out against what was clearly wrong. Certainly this is one more quality which we could do with in our Church life, and one which we all approve of.
Where, then, did Joab go wrong? He had so many good points which we could wish to see in our churches today, but he also shows us what is destructive to that life. He had the right objectives; he wanted to see Israel secure and prosperous under God’s blessing; he wanted to see David firmly established on his throne; all his life was devoted to this end, and all his activities seemed directed towards what was good. We must consider, however, not his objectives but rather the means by which he obtained them. He was quite unscrupulous in this respect and in fact three times committed murder in order to achieve what he considered to be the right end.
2 Samuel 3:17-27
Abner had been Saul’s Commander-in-Chief and was now gaining great influence in Saul’s house, having his son, Ish-bosheth, in his power. He decided to betray Ish-bosheth and sellout to David, so he visited king David and offered to make a deal with him. David accepted him, thinking that the prospect of uniting Israel was a good one, but he seemed unaware of the dangers of Abner’s proposition. He had said to David: “I will gather all Israel unto my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with thee …” (v.21). In other words, Abner was to be the king-maker; it was he who proposed to give the kingdom, whereas we know that it was God alone who had given the kingdom into the hand of David. This would have been a very dangerous move, a very wrong move from such a man. When Joab came back from his raid, he heard of what had been going on and saw the danger of it. He could discern that just as Ish-bosheth had been beholden to Abner and dependent on him so now David might come under Abner’s power. If he had brought the people to be under David’s rule, then what was to prevent his taking them away again if it suited him? Joab may have been right in his fears but he was certainly wrong in the way he handled the situation. He saw the danger to David and the kingdom, and he had only one answer — the knife. So Abner was put out of the way. It may have been a foolish arrangement on the part of David; Joab may have been correct in suspecting it. The trouble was that he dealt with it with the arm of flesh. And that is always wrong.
2 Samuel 18:10-16
Here again we find Joab acting to protect David, in spite of himself. Absalom had rebelled against his father and sought to lead the whole country into revolution. If anyone needed to be put away and deserved to die, it was this troublemaker. Yet David had given instructions to the leaders of the three bands of his own soldiers that at all costs they should spare Absalom. It was ridiculous really, for the only way of saving David’s own life and preserving the kingdom was to be rid of this revolutionary. Joab was well aware of this, being a man of sound common sense, so that he took no notice of David’s orders or of the inhibitions of the soldier who brought him the information, but thrust his darts through the heart of Absalom. Was this the right way of ridding Israel of trouble? The objective was right enough, but we are still left wondering about the methods of this strong-armed Joab.
2 Samuel 20:4-10
What had happened had produced a break in the relationship between David and Joab, and it seems that because of this David had decided to replace Joab by making Amasa his new Commander-in-Chief. Abishai personally saved David’s life (2 Samuel 21:17) and Joab had been given his position as the promised reward for the man who captured Jerusalem, so David owed a lot to these sons of Zeruiah and yet he now proposed to come to terms with Absalom’s rebel commander and promote him to the position of Commander of the Israelite army. There seems to have been nothing in Amasa’s history or skill to warrant such an action; rather does it appear to have been a compromising attempt to re-unite Israel. Even so, Amasa was dilatory in discharging his new duties, and this gave Joab his opportunity. He took the matter into his own hands and dealt with Amasa in his usual way — by the knife. [119/120]
1 Kings 2:28-33
As Joab had lived; so he died. We are told that what is of the flesh must end in corruption, so we should not be surprised to find that this man who had always been ready to take matters into his own carnal hands finally perished in a violent death. With the introduction of Solomon, the king of peace, and the prospect of the building of the temple, how could such a man of carnal strength remain the Commander-in-Chief? His murderous actions were doubtless intended for the good of his nation: now that nation’s good demanded his own death. The flesh is of no avail. Its inevitable outcome is failure and death. Joab’s story provides a striking illustration of this spiritual truth.
We look at the contrast presented by David, the man of the Spirit. There is a sense in which we can say that even though David may have been wrong in some matters, his spirit was right. Just the opposite is true of Joab, who was often right in his judgments and concern, but so wrong in his methods. If we reconsider the events already described we may find that David was not so wrong after all. When Abner first came to him it was for reconciliation, and is it not true that our Lord is the One whose work is that of reconciliation? So David displayed a Christlike spirit in wanting to reconcile the divided people and bring them together. His was the spiritual way, whereas Joab’s method was by means of the knife. Again in the matter of Absalom, when he went astray and became a rebel, David’s desire was that he should be spared. Is it not characteristic of the Lord that He desires to spare the rebel and to restore him to a right relationship and a place in the home? We must therefore agree that there was a mark of Christ about this longing of David after the wayward Absalom.
Perhaps David was wrong to have chosen Amasa and offer him the position of captain of the army, but who can tell? It is true that he was not a man of such courage and spirit as Joab, but it may well be that he could have been influenced by the king and learned something of his spirit even as he served. Joab was not prepared to wait for this — the flesh can never wait — nor was he prepared to accept a second place in the kingdom’s armed forces. For him the knife was the only answer.
We may well argue that this is very far removed from our present world. Nobody ever dreams of taking a knife against another Christian in order to get his own way. We cannot try to put things right or to deal with wrongs by such violent methods. This is true, but it is equally true that we are all too prone to resort to carnal strength in trying to avoid perils or to right wrongs in church life. And if we refrain from the actual knife we have a sharp and deadly weapon in the shape of our tongue. The tongue can be like a razor-sharp arrow (Psalm 120:3-4). Joab’s killings were drastic but they were mercifully quick, it was all over in a second. The unkind tongue, however, can produce agonies which go on for years, making wounds which persist. We may protest that our aims are good ones. So were Joab’s. The question is not so much the objective as the method, and we must realise that we can never help the work or people of God by the arm of the flesh.
It seems fairly clear that in most of the cases, Joab was really expressing self-interest, though perhaps not aware of the fact. For him it was a question of the self-seeking of Abner and Amasa as well as that of Absalom which could not be tolerated. Well, we have to face such problems in our church, problems of self-seeking or of rebellion. We may speak or act violently, as Joab did, and that will only bring in death. Or we may follow that better way, the way of the Spirit of Christ.
David was a man of the spirit, a man who walked by the Spirit of God. For all his strength and good intentions, Joab was a man of the flesh, whose way had to end in death. The flesh always brings in death, that is why the Lord Jesus described it as being of no avail. God’s kingdom and God’s house are served by those who may not be faultless but who are ever learning to repudiate the flesh and be governed by the Spirit of Christ. “Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.”