Joab Character Study – Bible Study on the Life of Joab

Name: Joab

Meaning of name: Yahweh is father

Ancestry and family life: Joab is the son of Zeruiah (David’s half sister.) He is often identified as the “son of Zeruiah.” It is significant because that is his mother and it is rare for men to be identified as the son of a mother rather than the father. But Zeruiah was David’s half sister, which made him a nephew to the king.

In addition, Joab had two brothers who both have roles in army, Abishai, and Asahel.

Abishai often functioned as second in command of the army. Asahel is described as “swift-footed as one of the gazelles.” Asahel was killed by Abner when chasing him.

When and where he lived: Joab lived during the time of David(roughly 1000 BC). Israel had only been unified as a kingdom in recent years under Saul. There were many enemies, most notably the Philistines. Joab also served during two different civil wars. The first was between David and Ish-bosheth. And the second was between David and Absalom.

Training and occupation:

2 Samuel 8:16 – Joab the son of Zeruiah was over the army.

Joab was the commander over David’s army. He was a soldier through and through. Joab led the army into battle and devised military strategies. At times he also served as David’s adviser and gave him counsel, often unsolicited.

There is no record of Joab ever losing a battle.

2 Samuel 3:39 – And today, though I am the anointed king, I am weak, and these sons of Zeruiah are too strong for me. May the LORD repay the evildoer according to his evil deeds!

David admitted on more than one occasion that Joab and his brothers intimidated him. Joab was a mighty warrior. He was fierce. And the army was very loyal to him.

Weaknesses:

1. Man of bloodshed (not quick to make peace or forgive) –

A. Joab kills Abner –

2 Samuel 3:26-32 – When Joab came out from David’s presence, he sent messengers after Abner, and they brought him back from the cistern of Sirah. But David did not know about it. And when Abner returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside into the midst of the gate to speak with him privately, and there he struck him in the stomach, so that he died, for the blood of Asahel his brother. Afterward, when David heard of it, he said, “I and my kingdom are forever guiltless before the Lord for the blood of Abner the son of Ner. May it fall upon the head of Joab and upon all his father’s house, and may the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge or who is leprous or who holds a spindle or who falls by the sword or who lacks bread!” So Joab and Abishai his brother killed Abner, because he had put their brother Asahel to death in the battle at Gibeon.

Then David said to Joab and to all the people who were with him, “Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and mourn before Abner.” And King David followed the bier. They buried Abner at Hebron. And the king lifted up his voice and wept at the grave of Abner, and all the people wept.

Abner was the commander of Israel’s army under Ish-bosheth. David called him to a talk peace. But Joab used the opportunity to murder him.

It is clear that David did not want this. Joab’s motivations were probably multi-faceted. Firstly, Abner had kills his brother Asahel. This was during a wary, but Joab didn’t seem to care. Secondly, Abner was powerful and influential. He could have continued to fight against Judah. As a powerful general, he was also a personal rival of Joab’s. So he had him killed. This shows Joab’s propensity to ignore orders and do what he thinks should be done.

The war was over. Joab should have extended an olive branch and attempted to unify the people. Instead he practiced “revenge diplomacy.” Joab’s form of diplomacy lacked any kind of subtlety. Either fall in line or be killed!

B. Joab kills Amasa –

2 Samuel 20:9-10 – And Joab said to Amasa, “Is it well with you, my brother?” And Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. 10 But Amasa did not observe the sword that was in Joab’s hand. So Joab struck him with it in the stomach and spilled his entrails to the ground without striking a second blow, and he died.

Amasa was David’s “bone and flesh” (2 Samuel 19:13). He was another of David’s nephews. Amasa had sided with Absalom during the revolt against David and served as Absalom’s commander over the army, in effect replacing Joab.

2 Samuel 19:13 – And say to Amasa, ‘Are you not my bone and my flesh? God do so to me and more also, if you are not commander of my army from now on in place of Joab.’

David made the astonishing move of appointing Amasa as his new commander after defeating Absalom. Most likely David was upset with Joab for disobeying his direct command to spare his son. Amasa was his family member and David forgave him for taking sides with Absalom. Perhaps this was also a move to try to bring about some unity among the various factions.

Joab was ambitious. He wanted to retain his power. So rather than going softly into the night, he turned to what he was best at, violence. Once again, pretending to offer peace, Joab strikes Amasa unawares and kills him. It was violent and dishonorable.

Joab was very clear in his mind about what was right and wrong and what he wanted to do. For him, murder was acceptable as long as the enemy deserved it and it advanced a so-called “good cause.”

2. Disobedient to his king –

Though Joab seems very loyal to David, that didn’t mean that he obeyed him all the time. When David’s instructions disagreed with his own “better” judgment he sometimes considered himself justified in disobeying. The most famous example is in the killing of Absalom, David’s son.

2 Samuel 18:15 – And the king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders about Absalom.

David clearly commanded his military leaders to show mercy to Absalom (ie: not to kill him).

2 Samuel 18:9-14 – And Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak, and his head caught fast in the oak, and he was suspended between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. And a certain man saw it and told Joab, “Behold, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” Joab said to the man who told him, “What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.” But the man said to Joab, “Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not reach out my hand against the king’s son, for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, ‘For my sake protect the young man Absalom.’ On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.” Joab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” And he took three javelins in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom while he was still alive in the oak.

Reflect: Whose method of dealing with Absalom was correct? David’s gentle method or Joab’s swift justice? So what should Joab have done?

It could very well be that David was too gentle. If David spared Absalom (as he had a habit of being way too lenient toward his own children) it could have caused serious problems in the kingdom. Joab seemed to know that Absalom was still a serious threat, and so he dealt with him quickly.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter whose method was better. Joab had a clear command from God’s anointed king. The command did not violate any Scripture. So Joab should have obeyed it without question. It doesn’t matter who was right. It matters who had the authority. And David did.

3. Betrayed the king by supporting Adonijah –

2 Kings 1:5-7 – Now Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “I will be king.” And he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. His father had never at any time displeased him by asking, “Why have you done thus and so?” He was also a very handsome man, and he was born next after Absalom. He conferred with Joab the son of Zeruiah and with Abiathar the priest. And they followed Adonijah and helped him.

David planned to pass the kingdom to his son Solomon. But Adonijah was his second born (after Absalom). Adonijah wanted the kingdom and organizes a plan. He confers with Joab, who then supports him.

Reflect: Why would Joab do this? Joab had been loyal to David for decades. He fought battles for him. He was a fugitive on the run with him. Why at the very end would he support a usurper successor?

It could be that Joab considered Solomon illegitimate because of what he knew about the Bathsheba and Uriah incident. But that is speculation. The fact is Joab made a mistake. He should have went and told David what was going on. If he did, he might have even saved the life of Adonijah before things went downhill. It is not the place of a general to decide on who the next king will be. It is his place to loyally carry out orders of his king.

This betrayal highlights one of Joab’s recurring faults. He often seems to rely on his own judgment and opinion. Joab routinely did what he thought was best regardless of his orders. This is a form of pride. Joab was not the boss. He was not the king. He was under authority, but did not have a proper respect for David’s authority.

There is a saying that “might is right.” This quote is credited to Joab. Not really! But Joab did seem to follow it. He was powerful, a mighty warrior. And he was a deeper thinker. A lot of times his plans and counsel were very good. But he should have submitted himself to authority.

Strengths:

1. Loyal to David through thick and thin – It is interesting to label Joab as “loyal.” He disobeyed David’s orders on several occasions (killing Amasa, Abner, Absalom, supporting Adonijah). On the other hand, Joab fought at David’s side in many wars. On several occasions when others were rebelling against David, Joab stood by his side.

Joab was influential and powerful in his own right. But he used the power he had to help David. Even in the above cases where he killed these men, his motivation seems partly to protect David and execute wrath on David’s enemies when David wouldn’t.

Reflect: Should Joab be called loyal or not? Is it possible to be loyal and yet disobey the person you are loyal to?

In conclusion, we can see that Joab was loyal sometimes and not loyal other times. The vast majority of the time he supported David, but at several critical points he disobeyed.

Reflect: Does one wrong decision outweigh many right decisions?

James 2:10 says that if we stumble at just one point we are guilty of breaking the whole law. God’s standard is high. And in the end, Joab fell short, as do we all.

2. Man of action –

Joab saw what needed to be done, and then he did it. No one would accuse Joab of being passive or lazy. He was vigorous and energetic. One of this great feats was being the first to go up to fight against Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 11:6).

This decisiveness was also a mixed bag. Decisiveness is great if you are doing the right thing! But decisively sinning is never good!

3. Faith in God –

2 Samuel 10:9-14 When Joab saw that the battle was set against him both in front and in the rear, he chose some of the best men of Israel and arrayed them against the Syrians. The rest of his men he put in the charge of Abishai his brother, and he arrayed them against the Ammonites. And he said, “If the Syrians are too strong for me, then you shall help me, but if the Ammonites are too strong for you, then I will come and help you. Be of good courage, and let us be courageous for our people, and for the cities of our God, and may the Lord do what seems good to him.” So Joab and the people who were with him drew near to battle against the Syrians, and they fled before him. And when the Ammonites saw that the Syrians fled, they likewise fled before Abishai and entered the city. Then Joab returned from fighting against the Ammonites and came to Jerusalem.

Here Joab was really up against it. His army was surrounded on all sides. But Joab didn’t panic. He didn’t run. Instead he made a plan and then he expressed faith in God. Notice that Joab didn’t demand God to give them a victory. He realized that God may or may not give a victory. In either case, God was still God. It wouldn’t hurt Joab’s faith.

Joab recognized that God was God and he was not. It was up to God to give a victory. Joab does not test God and say “if you give a victory, I will believe in you.”

Sometimes we come to God with our demands. We act like we deserve God to intervene on our behalf. But an important aspect of faith is believing that God is good and believing that He has a plan even if we don’t understand it. God is sovereign. His ways are higher than our ways. He does not guarantee to do what we think is good. But He will always do what is good.

Thus Joab’s faith here is a good model for us. We should recognize that God is in control and trust Him to do what is best, whatever that is.

4. Bold – Another strength we can see from Joab’s encounter with the Ammonites above is his courage.

2 Samuel 10:12 – Be of good courage, and let us be courageous for our people, and for the cities of our God, and may the Lord do what seems good to him.

Courage and faith are connected. Joab had faith that God would do what is best. And then he put all his energy into doing what he did best. His faith did not mean that he passively sat down and waited for God to do something. Instead his faith gave him courage.

Joab boldly led his armies into battle against a superior force which had them surrounded. And his boldness was infectious. Courage is an important quality for leaders. When soldiers see their general standing up to the enemy without fear, then they are likely to follow his lead.

A person who has faith can be more courageous than those who don’t because he knows God is with him.

Proverbs 28:1 – The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.

5. A good counselor –

2 Samuel 19:1-8 – It was told Joab, “Behold, the king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.” So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the people, for the people heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.” And the people stole into the city that day as people steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle. The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Then Joab came into the house to the king and said, “You have today covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who have this day saved your life and the lives of your sons and your daughters and the lives of your wives and your concubines, because you love those who hate you and hate those who love you. For you have made it clear today that commanders and servants are nothing to you, for today I know that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. Now therefore arise, go out and speak kindly to your servants, for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night, and this will be worse for you than all the evil that has come upon you from your youth until now.” Then the king arose and took his seat in the gate. And the people were all told, “Behold, the king is sitting in the gate.” And all the people came before the king.

Joab showed a lot of discernment here. He had a sharp eye to observe and understand a situation. Realizing that David’s soldiers felt shame after a victory, Joab knew that something needed to be done or David’s army would desert him. Knowing something needs to be done and doing it are different.

However, Joab boldly spoke up to the king. Notice that David doesn’t ask Joab’s advice. In fact, at this point David is likely very upset with Joab for killing Absalom. But Joab is not afraid. He isn’t nervous about how David might respond. He decides to speak up.

And his words are strong! He says “you love those who hate you and hate those who love you.” Joab did not mince words, but laid it out exactly like it was. Like it or not, David needed to hear this. Joab was exactly right. A failure to act quickly and encourage the people could result in a much worse situation than anything David had faced yet. At least in previous trials, David’s army stood by him. But now he was about to lose his army. What can a king do without an army?

So here we learn a lesson about good counselors. Good counselors first observe and understand a situation. Then they speak out. Sometimes they offer counsel without being asked because it is necessary. And always counselors speak words of truth even when they are painful to hear. Counselors cannot always wait until the most opportune moment. It is not always possible to give advice only when the listener is in a good mood. And good counselors don’t beat around the bush or speak in vague terms. They are clear and forthright.

2 Samuel 24:2-4 – So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, who was with him, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.” But Joab said to the king, “May the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it, but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” But the king’s word prevailed against Joab and the commanders of the army. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to number the people of Israel.

Here is another example of Joab offering good counsel. Once again David did not ask him for his suggestion. But Joab gave it nonetheless. If David had listened to Joab 70,000 people’s lives would have been spared.

Important acts and events:

Joab conquers Jerusalem and is made captain of the army (1 Chronicles 11:6) – From this event we see that Joab was a man of action, bold, and takes initiative.

How he died:

1 Kings 2:5-6, 34 – Moreover, you also know what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, how he dealt with the two commanders of the armies of Israel, Abner the son of Ner, and Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed, avenging in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war, and putting the blood of war on the belt around his waist and on the sandals on his feet. Act therefore according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace. 34 Then Benaiah the son of Jehoiada went up and struck him [Joab] down and put him to death. And he was buried in his own house in the wilderness.

Joab’s life ends sadly. He was a fugitive from the new king, Solomon. He sought refuge in the temple, but was executed there. His execution was actually ordered by David on his death bed. The king Joab served his whole life had him killed as one of his last instructions. Why did this happen?

It happened because of Joab’s pride. He put himself above the law on multiple occasions, leaning on his own intelligence instead of obeying his God given authority. Joab largely served God and normally obeyed his king. But doing right most of the time is not good enough.

Lessons from his life:

1. Violence begets violence –

Matthew 26:52 – Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.

This verse was true about Joab. He was not a peace loving person. At times he could have chosen peace, but instead chose violence. Jesus said that “blessed are the peacemakers.” Violence could be a swift and easy “solution” to problems, but God calls us to take the higher ground. And that means showing mercy even when it is not deserved. Joab could have chosen to show mercy to Absalom, Abner, or Amasa and he didn’t. Then finally he didn’t receive mercy either.

Another way to put this is that you reap what you sow. This principle is taught clearly throughout Scripture. If Joab had been more merciful during his life, David and Solomon would have been more merciful to him. But they used his own standard to punish him.

Think about this the next time you are choosing between forgiveness and revenge, mercy and judgment.

2. Good counsel can come from unexpected places – Joab is perhaps not the first person you would think of turning to to ask advice from. And yet on multiple occasions, God did speak through him. In the case of the census, 70,000 people could have been saved if David listened to Joab.

We can get wisdom from various sources. Moses received counsel from his father-in-law the priest of Midian. Gamalial prophesied without realizing it that “one man should perish for the people and not that the whole nation should perish.”

Even demons recognized and proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God.

While believers should seek counsel from godly sources, it is still a good idea to keep our eyes and ears open if other people take initiative to counsel us. It could be that God is using even unbelievers to share with us a nugget of wisdom which can help us.

3. Don’t take the law into your hands (submit to authority) –

Joab was loyal to David, but had a problem submitting to his authority all the time. Sometimes it just seems that Joab was convinced his own way was better. And he couldn’t bring himself to do it David’s way. That is pride.

God establishes authority (a chain of command) for a reason. God has established authority in the family, in the church, and in the government. He makes it clear who is in charge in every situation. He calls some to lead and some to follow.

The reason He puts some in places of authority is not necessarily because they are always smarter, always wiser, or always right. Even so, He calls us to obey our leaders. This makes an orderly society. Without established authorities, the world would revert back to the time of the Judges when “every person did what was right in their own eyes.”

Reflect: What authorities has God called you to follow? How can you better respect and support those authorities? Have you ever wanted to do something a different way than they required? How did you solve it?

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