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The Way of Joab

by Bruce A. Ritter

Despite all of his natural talents, gifts, skills and training, Joab’s life came to a brutal and sudden end—why?

Beads of sweat dotted across his brow. Sharp pains jabbed from within the pit of his stomach, fueled by fear, desperation and helplessness. His hands and fingers locked onto God’s sacred altar, slipping from perspiration as he held on for dear life.

Suddenly, he heard a noise—someone was coming! Joab glanced over his shoulder and saw the shadow of his executioner stretch across the floor. The end was drawing near.

As he cowered and trembled, his face frozen in horror, Joab’s life flashed before his eyes…

Who Was Joab?

Joab was a nephew of King David. He and his brothers, Abishai and Asahel, served as military officers under their uncle. As a member of the extended royal family, Joab may have been the equivalent of a duke, earl or viscount, modern titles of nobility held by the nephews and distant cousins of the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II.

Joab grew up in God’s “church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38), ancient Israel. From his youth, he was taught God’s commandments, statutes and judgments, and he grew up learning the traditions, customs and practices taught and upheld by God’s ministry, the Levitical priesthood.

Over time, Joab developed into a skillful leader. As a leader at headquarters (Jerusalem), he often gave counsel to the king. For example, he correctly warned David not to number Israel, as he understood that nothing good would come from it (I Chron. 21:1-3). In effect, by numbering how many men were available to be used as troops, King David’s actions told God that he was placing his trust in men rather than in the One who enabled Israel to defeat its enemies.

Joab was also a field leader. After he had led a successful assault on the fortress of Mount Zion, he was promoted to the position of commanding general of David’s army (II Sam. 8:16; 20:23; I Chron. 11:6; 18:15; 27:34). Joab went on to mount successful campaigns against the armies of Syria, Ammon and Edom. In a sense, he managed the military arm of the Work of God.

When the Ammonites rebelled against Israel’s dominion (II Sam. 10:1-9), Joab led a humiliating defeat against them. The surviving rebels regrouped at Rabbah, Ammon’s capital city. Joab’s military leadership and tactics proved to King David—a skilled warrior in his own right—that he was responsible enough to besiege Rabbah and end the war. Delegating such an important task allowed the king to concentrate on other areas of his reign.

Under Joab’s command, the Israelite troops captured a heavily guarded fortress that protected the city’s precious water supply. This brought Rabbah one step closer to capture. But instead of leading the final attack himself, Joab shrewdly advised David to take over: “Now therefore gather the rest of the people together, and encamp against the city, and take it: lest I take the city, and it be called after my name” (II Sam. 12:28).

Joab came to be known for his political cunning, which he used to reconcile David with his wayward son, Absalom (14:1-24).

Yes, Joab had been blessed with natural talents, gifts, training and ability. Yet, despite all these wonderful attributes, his life came to a brutal and tragic end.


Two Trees—Two Ways of Life

In the Garden of Eden were two trees that symbolized opposite ways of living. The “tree of life” represented the way of give—selflessness, outgoing concern and care for others, cooperation, and reliance upon God—the way that bears the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” stood for the way of get—selfishness, vanity, pride, envy, bitterness, strife, competition, and total self-reliance—the way of the “works of the flesh” (vs. 19-21).

Despite all his talents, abilities, training and even knowledge of God’s laws, Joab lacked one crucial component: God’s Spirit. Without the power of God converting his mind, guiding his thoughts, and enabling him to build holy, righteous character, Joab chose to rely upon himself.

The great skills, gifts and responsibilities he possessed convinced him that he was smart enough to direct his own life. Joab did not understand that “the heart [natural mind] is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9)—or that “the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walks to direct his steps” (10:23)—or that “there is a way which seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 14:12). Joab was doing “just fine” in his own eyes. He saw no need for turning to God for help and guidance.

The life of Joab is a classic study in the way of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Like the fruit of that tree, his decisions and conduct were a mixture of right and wrong—a blend of good and evil. He may have made certain correct decisions and had good intentions from time to time, but his pride, envy and selfish ambition—spiritual poisons—elevated him in his own mind. They led him to rely upon himself, and caused him to produce the wrong kinds of fruit. Ultimately, this led to his downfall.

Let’s take a closer look at Joab’s life, and see where he went wrong.

Bitterness, Treachery and Revenge!

Before David became ruler over all 12 Israelite territories, hostility existed between the house of Judah, which he led, and the house of Israel, ruled by Ishbosheth, son of Saul.

One day, Abner, commander of Ishbosheth’s troops, led a small army of soldiers to Gibeon. There, they accidentally crossed paths with Joab, who was also leading a small army of soldiers. Joab’s brothers Abishai and Asahel were with him. Tension mounted as every warrior stared across from opposite sides of a watering pool.

Abner made a proposal: Rather than fighting an all-out battle, he and Joab should settle hostilities through a contest of champions. Joab agreed. Twelve of the best warriors from each army got up to fight, tugging and pulling each other by the hair, and stabbing one another in the side with small swords. All 24 soldiers died on the spot.

Abner and Joab’s contest of champions had settled nothing. It only served to fuel even more hatred, causing every soldier to wield his weapon and fight. After a fierce and bloody battle, Joab’s troops gained the upper hand and defeated their opponents. The survivors fled, with the soldiers of Judah in hot pursuit.

Asahel chased after Abner, determined to kill him and take his armor as a trophy. Wanting to stay out of harm’s way, Abner tried to outrun him—but Asahel would not let up. So Abner tried to warn him away, telling him to choose another soldier to hunt down. But Asahel refused.

Finally, Abner said, “Turn back now, or else I’ll have to kill you!” Abner did not want to do this, for he knew that Joab would seek revenge for his brother’s death. Apparently, Joab had a reputation for taking matters into his own hands.

Yet when Asahel still refused to give up the chase, Abner concluded he had to defend himself. So he plunged the back end of his spear into Asahel’s stomach—and Asahel fell dead.

Joab witnessed the death of his brother, and let out a cry of rage. Then he and Abishai pursued after Abner, who managed to escape unharmed.

As professional soldiers, Abner, Joab and Asahel knew and understood the deadly risks of their bloody profession. And Abner did try to keep himself from harming Asahel.

But when it came to the death of his brother, these facts meant nothing to Joab. He allowed his emotions to stew in bitterness and resentment, which simmered into murderous thoughts and attitudes. Joab wanted revenge.

His opportunity would come some time later, when Abner and Ishbosheth had a falling out. Feeling betrayed, Abner sent messengers to King David, proposing to enter a peace agreement with him, promising to use his power and influence to persuade everyone in Israel to accept David as their ruler. The king gladly accepted.

Abner did as he said he would, and convinced the elders of Israel to accept David as their ruler. After having similar success with the elders of Benjamin, Abner, escorted by a company of soldiers, went to Hebron to tell David the good news. The king honored his former enemy with a great feast. At last, peace between Judah and Israel was finally within reach.

When Joab and some of his soldiers returned to Hebron from a military mission, he learned about Abner’s recent visit. Asahel’s death still haunted Joab; just as Asahel had refused to let go of pursuing after Abner, Joab refused to let go of seeking Abner’s death.

Told that Abner had already left Hebron, Joab angrily confronted King David: “What have you done? Why did you let Abner come in here, and then let him go? Abner is a deceiver—he came to trick you! All he wanted was to find out how strong your army is and to know everything you’re doing.”

The king tried to calm down his nephew, but Joab would not listen to reason. Instead, he devised a plan to get Abner, once and for all. Unbeknownst to David, Joab sent some messengers to catch up with Abner and tell him that the king urgently needed his counsel on a matter. Abner agreed to return to Hebron with the messengers.

When they came to a well at Sirah, about two and a half miles outside of Hebron, Abner was surprised to see that Joab and Abishai were waiting for him.

Before Abner could suspect anything, Joab pretended that he needed to discuss an important matter with him in private. Abner let down his guard, certain that Joab would not use King David’s name as a guise for exacting revenge—yet that is exactly what Joab did. In a sudden change from friendliness to violent fury, he pulled out a small sword and thrust it into Abner’s belly.

Joab had allowed his thirst for revenge to run unchecked in his thoughts and attitudes. In his mind, he was justified in deceitfully using David’s good name to conspire against Abner—who came in peace—and lure him into a deadly trap.

Though God says, “Vengeance is Mine” (Rom. 12:19), Joab decided to exact revenge himself.

Playing It Safe

God called David “a man after My own heart” (Acts 13:22). Yet, like all human servants of God, David had flaws and weaknesses, which he needed to battle and overcome.

The lowest spiritual point in David’s life came when he committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his most loyal soldiers. When Bathsheba became pregnant with David’s child, the king knew that this great sin and act of betrayal would be exposed for all to see. But instead of repenting and seeking God’s forgiveness, David relied upon himself. He recalled Uriah from the frontlines of Israel’s war against Ammon, and tried to get him to sleep with Bathsheba so that Uriah would be deceived into believing that the unborn child was his own. But the king’s plan backfired.

David, still unrepentant, sent Uriah back to the frontline, along with a sealed letter to Joab. Upon reading the king’s letter, Joab was surprised by its message. In it, David ordered that Uriah be positioned at the forefront of the battle, where the fighting was heaviest—then Joab was to pull away the troops so that Uriah would be struck down and die.

Joab immediately realized that David had used Uriah—a loyal friend and servant—to unwittingly deliver his own death warrant!

Joab was faced with a life-or-death decision: Do the right thing and risk suffering the consequences for preventing a murder—or play it safe and allow an innocent man to die.

Joab played it safe.

In Ezekiel 22, God denounces the corrupt ways of the “prophets,” “priests” and “princes”—the religious and government leaders—of America, Britain and all the other modern nations descended from ancient Israel. Notice: “The people of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery, and have vexed the poor and needy: Yes, they have oppressed the stranger wrongfully” (vs. 29).

In the very next verse, God says, “And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before Me for the land, that I should not destroy it: But I found none.”

Leaders of true character and values are scarce! Sadly, like so many who wield power and authority in today’s world, Joab failed to “stand in the gap.”

Playing Politics

Today, there are leaders who roam the halls of government and big business using “office politics,” “spin doctoring” and situational ethics to get what they want. Such men and women are not above using flattery, bribes, extortion, deceit or any other kind of political manipulation to achieve their agendas. They live and work by a personal code of ethics: “The ends justify the means.”

God’s principle of serving those under you (Matt. 20:25-27) and esteeming others better than yourself (Phil. 2:3) are foreign concepts to such people—as they were to Joab.

Known for his outstanding speaking skills, U.S. president Ronald Reagan was called “the Great Communicator.” Similarly, Joab could have easily been called “the Great Manipulator,” due to being a master at political manipulation. Absalom, Joab’s cousin, must have learned from his worldly example, as he used strong-arm tactics to bully Joab into doing his will (II Sam. 14:28-33).

Stubborn Disobedience

Craving power, Absalom launched a military rebellion against his father, causing David to abandon Jerusalem and flee for his life. Joab played a pivotal role as the commander of David’s forces, eventually leading to Absalom’s defeat.

But despite all that Absalom had done, David could not bring himself to harm his son. The king gave his soldiers strict orders that Absalom should not be killed. Yet when a man reported that Absalom had been found alive, caught in a tree, Joab ordered Absalom’s execution (II Sam. 18:1-33).

Joab disobeyed his king, the one God placed to be the head of His people. In God’s eyes, rebellion and stubborn disobedience is just as evil as witchcraft (I Sam. 15:22-23)!

Callous and Heartless

Joab rebuked David for publicly mourning over Absalom, and, in one sense, he was correct in doing so. Public mourning over the death of a rebellious and murderous son would have set the wrong example for Israel. (When Israel wandered the wilderness generations earlier, God commanded Aaron not to publicly mourn over the deaths of his rebellious sons Nadab and Abihu – Lev. 10:1-7.) It might have also sent a mixed message, potentially causing the Israelites to feel guilty for supporting their king.

However, Joab was wrong in the way he rebuked David. He did not empathize with the great pain and grief his uncle suffered. Nor did Joab appreciate a father’s unconditional love for his child.

David was a type for Jesus Christ—the One who, as the Word, said, “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?…and not that he should return from his ways, and live?” (Ezek. 18:23), and who also said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which kill the prophets, and stone them that are sent unto you; how often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen does gather her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Luke 13:34).

Joab may have given good counsel, but he did so in a callous, heartless manner.

Again, the way of Joab was a mixture of good and evil, reflected by the ways of our modern world. For instance, there are people who sacrifice their time and money to help feed the poor and needy. Though such may have good intentions, they are acting on their own, without God’s divine guidance and direction. In the end, their good intentions amount to treating the effects, not the cause—applying band-aids to cancer. Only the arrival of the kingdom of God will solve all of man’s problems, the causes of which are spiritual in nature.

Ultimately, the fruit of their works is not borne from the tree of life, but from the wrong tree—the way of self-knowledge and earthly wisdom (Jms. 3:11-18).

A Shameful End

David came to the point where he could no longer trust Joab. But removing his nephew from commanding Israel’s army was not easy, as Joab had used his talents and skills to amass much power and influence and gain a loyal following. Yet eventually the king did remove him from his lofty position.

This did not sit well with Joab—especially when his cousin Amasa took his place as commanding general (II Sam. 17:25; 19:13).

When King David was forced to put down another internal rebellion, Joab saw the chaos and confusion as an opportunity to rise back to power. Again using treachery and deceit, he killed Amasa and assumed command of David’s army (II Sam. 20:8-13; I Kgs. 2:5). Not one soldier dared to bring Joab to justice—a testimony to how powerful and influential he was.

But Joab’s power grab was short-lived. As his death drew near, King David advised his son Solomon, whom he chose to become his royal successor, to waste no time dealing with his cousin Joab. He said, “Moreover you know 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. Do therefore according to thy wisdom, and let not his hoary head go down to the grave in peace” (I Kgs. 2:5-6).

After the king’s death, Joab—relying upon human reasoning, as usual—supported David’s son Adonijah and his claim to the throne (1:7; 2:28). But Adonijah’s attempt to become king failed miserably, and those who supported him paid dearly for not backing King Solomon.

Joab knew that Solomon would deal with him next. Seeking sanctuary from harm, he ran to God’s holy tabernacle. Joab assumed that no one would dare execute him as long as he held on to the horns of God’s sacred altar.

He was wrong (2:28-34).

The Irony

The name Joab means “The Lord is Father.” Yet, ironically, Joab failed to look to God for fatherly guidance and wisdom. He did not rely upon His Creator to direct his life.

Joab had been exposed and intimately privy to David’s righteous example, as well as his human weaknesses. From the former, Joab should have learned to “trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Prov. 3:5-6), and “Be not wise in your own eyes: fear the Lord, and depart from evil” (vs. 7). From the latter, he should have learned that even the most righteous servants of God must wage a lifelong battle against the pulls of human nature (II Cor. 10:3-6).

However, without God’s Spirit working within him, Joab was convinced that his talents, gifts and abilities were all he needed for success and prosperity. He spent his life relying upon himself, selfishly amassing power and influence, and the fame and wealth that come with it. In other words, he wasted his natural abilities chasing things that do not last.

But there is one thing that is permanent—truly lasting forever—holy, righteous, godly character. Only a tiny few have been offered the privilege to build and develop God’s character in their lives. And those who do—who reject the way of Joab and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—will go on to become priests, judges and rulers in the kingdom of God!