“And I was gentle today, though anointed king. These men, the sons of Zeruiah, are more severe than I. The Lord repay the evildoer according to his wickedness!” (ESV – Read the chapter)
David handled the whole affair of Abner’s death in a way that was politically very smart. But, morally speaking, things aren’t quite so cut and dried. In our image-obsessed culture today, this story should really resonate. Today, the optics of our responding to injustice is often thought to be more important than its actual substance. But for David and also for us, God’s concern is just the opposite. If the substance isn’t there, the optics are irrelevant.
Here’s what happened: Saul’s lone remaining son, Ish-bosheth, had made a claim on the throne to counter David’s and the two families remained at war for several years. All the while, Abner, Ish-Bosheth’s general, gradually increased his position and recognition among those supportive of Saul’s camp to the point that he had more influence than did his lord. When Ish-Bosheth got suspicious in a way Abner deemed insulting, he took all that influence and switched to David’s side, uniting the nation. His subsequent murder at the hands of Joab as revenge for killing his brother, Asahel, threatened to derail the fragile peace that secured David’s position as king of the whole land before it started. David had to handle the whole thing well or risk several more years of conflict. But…
David was king. This meant that, short God Himself, he was the highest authority on justice in the land. He needed to be the one to hold people accountable for their actions, especially officials within his administration. Yet when it came to Joan’s cold-blooded, premeditated murder of Abner, David essentially did nothing.
Sure, he pronounced a curse on his family, and he washed his hands of guilt in the murder, but that’s it. Joab was never made to face justice for his actions. This was a weakness on his part that would haunt him throughout his reign.
When we refuse to confront injustice, we become unwitting participants in it. Too often—especially, it seems, among politicians–we make overtures toward battling injustice without actually confronting it head on in a meaningful way. There’s actually a name for this: virtue signaling.
David signaled a lot of virtue here, but he didn’t ever bother to call Joab to account. And while this is another of those places where the Scriptures present the story without commentary, we understand from the broader picture that what David did here wasn’t right. Well, it wasn’t totally wrong, but he didn’t get all the way to justice. And justice incompletely served is injustice fully unleashed.
As followers of the God who is just, we cannot rest in our efforts to pursue and secure justice in the situations where He calls us to join Him in His working. Now, our efforts are not always going to look the same, but we can always seek to see justice done. Virtue signaling, popular though it may be, is an offensive waste of time when justice is what is really the thing needed.