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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

1 Kings 2

 

 

Verse 1-2

DAVID’S DEATH-BED

1 Kings 2:1-2

"Omnibus idem exitus est, sed et idem domicilium."

-PETRON., Satyr.

IN the Book of Samuel we have the last words of David in the form of a brief and vivid psalm, of which the leading principle is, "He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God." A king’s justice must be shown alike in his gracious influence upon the good and his stern justice to the wicked. The worthless sons of Belial are, he says, "to be beaten down like thorns with spear-shafts and iron."

The same principle dominates in the charge which he gave to Solomon, perhaps after the magnificent public inauguration of his reign described in 1 Chronicles 28:1-21; 1 Chronicles 29:1-30. He bade his young son to show himself a man, and be rigidly faithful to the law of Moses, earning thereby the prosperity which would never fail to attend true righteousness. Thus would the promise to David-"There shall not fail thee a man on the throne of Israel"-be continued in the time of Solomon.

With our Western and Christian views of morality we should have rejoiced if David’s charge to his son had ended there. It is painful to us to read that his last injunctions bore upon the punishment of Joab who had so long fought for him, and of Shimei whom he had publicly pardoned. Between these two stern injunctions came the request that he would show kindness to the sons of Barzillai, the old Gileadite sheykh who had extended such conspicuous hospitality to himself and his weary followers when they crossed the Jordan in their flight from Absalom. But the last words of David, as here recorded, are: "his (Shimei’s) hoar head bring thou down to the grave with blood."

In these avenging behests there was nothing which was regarded as unnatural, nothing that would have shocked the conscience of the age. The fact that they are recorded without blame by an admiring historiographer shows that we are reading the annals of times of ignorance which God "winked at." They belong to the era of imperfect moral development, when it was said to them of old time, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy," and men had not fully learnt the lesson, "Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." We must discriminate between the vitia temporis and the vitia hominis. David was trained in the old traditions of the "avenger of blood"; and we cannot be astonished, though we may greatly regret, that his standard was indefinitely below that of the Sermon on the Mount. He may have been concerned for the safety of his son, but to us it must remain a proof of his imperfect moral attainments that he bade Solomon look out for pretexts to "smite the hoary head of inveterate wickedness," and use his wisdom not to let the two offenders go down to the grave in peace.

The character of Joab furnishes us with a singular study. He, Abishai, and Asahel were the brave, impetuous sons of Zeruiah, the sister or half-sister of David. They were about his own age, and it is not impossible that they were the grandsons of Nahash, King of Ammon. In the days of Saul they had embraced the cause of David, heart and soul. They had endured all the hardships and fought through all the struggles of his freebooting days. Asahel, the youngest, had been in the front rank of his Gibborim, and his foot was fleet as that of a gazelle upon the mountain. Abishai had been one of the three who, with jeopardy of their lives, had burst their way to Bethlehem when David longed to drink of the water of its well beside the gate. He had also, on one occasion, saved David’s life from the giant Ishbi of Gath, and had slain three hundred Philistines with his spear. His zeal was always ready to flash into action in his uncle’s cause. Joab had been David’s commander-in-chief for forty years. It was Joab who had conquered the Ammonites and Moabites and stormed the City of Waters. It was Joab who, at David’s bare request, had brought about the murder of Uriah. It was Joab who, after wise but fruitless remonstrance, had been forced to number the people. But David had never liked these rough imperious soldiers, whose ways were not his ways. From the first he was unable to cope with them, or keep them in order. In the early days they had treated him with rude familiarity, though in late years they, too, were obliged to approach him with all the forms of Eastern servility. But ever since the murder of Uriah, Joab knew that David’s reputation and David’s throne were in his hand. Joab himself had been guilty of two wild acts of vengeance for which he would have offered some defense, and of one atrocious crime. His murder of the princely Abner, the son of Net, might have been excused as the duty of an avenger of blood, for Abner. with one back-thrust of his mighty spear, had killed the young Asahel, after the vain warning to desist from pursuing him. Abner had only killed Asahel in self-defense; but, jealous of Abner’s power as the cousin of King Saul, the husband of Rizpah, and the commander of the northern army, Joab, after bluntly rebuking David for receiving him, had without hesitation deluded Abner back to Hebron by a false message and treacherously murdered him. Even at that early period of his reign David was either unable or unwilling to punish the outrage, though he ostentatiously deplored it.

Doubtless in slaying Absalom, in spite of the king’s entreaty, Joab had inflicted an agonizing wound on the pride and tenderness of his master. But Absalom was in open rebellion, and Joab may have held that David’s probable pardon of the beautiful rebel would be both weak and fatal. This death was inflicted in a manner needlessly cruel, but might have been excused as a death inflicted on the battle-field, though probably Joab had many an old grudge to pay off besides the burning of his barley field. After Absalom’s rebellion David foolishly and unjustly offered the commandership of the army to his nephew Amasa. Amasa was the son of his sister Abigail by an Ishmaelite father, named Jether. Joab simply would not tolerate being superseded in the command which he had earned by lifelong and perilous services. With deadly treachery, in which men have seen the antitype of the world’s worst crime, Joab invited his kinsman to embrace him, and drove his sword into his bowels. David had heard, or perhaps had seen, the revolting spectacle which Joab presented, with the blood of war shed in peace, dyeing his girdle and streaming down to his shoes with its horrible crimson. Yet, even by that act, Joab had once more saved David’s tottering throne. The Benjamite Sheba, son of Bichri, was making head in a terrible revolt, in which he had largely enlisted the sympathy of the northern tribes, offended by the overbearing fierceness of the men of Judah. Amasa had been either incompetent or half-hearted in suppressing this dangerous rising. It had only collapsed when the army welcomed back the strong hand of Joab. But whatever had been the crimes of Joab they had been condoned. David, on more than one occasion, had helplessly cried, "What have I to do with you, ye sons of Zeruiah? I am this day weak though anointed king, and these men, the sons of Zeruiah, are too hard for me." But he had done nothing, and, whether with or against his will, they continued to hold their offices near his person. David did not remind Solomon of the murder of Absalom, nor of the words of menace-words as bold as any subject ever uttered to his sovereign-with which Joab had imperiously hushed his wail over his worthless son. Those words had openly warned the king that, if he did not alter his line of conduct, he should be king no more. They were an insult which no king could pardon, even if he were powerless to avenge. But Joab, like David himself, was now an old man. The events of the last few days had shown that his power and influence were gone. He may have had something to fear from Bathsheba as the wife of Uriah and the granddaughter of Ahithophel; but his adhesion to the cause of Adonijah had doubtless been chiefly due to jealousy of the ever growing influence of the priestly soldier Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, who had so evidently superseded him in his master’s favor. However that may be, the historian faithfully records that David, on his death-bed, neither forgot nor forgave; and all that we can say is, that it would be unfair to judge him by modern or by Christian principles of conduct.

The other victim whose doom was bequeathed to the new king was Shimei, the son of Gera. He had cursed David at Bahurim on the day of his flight, and in the hour of his extremest humiliation. He had walked on the opposite side of the valley, flinging stones and dust at David, cursing him with a grievous curse as a man of Belial and a man of blood, and telling him that the loss of his kingdom was the retribution which had fallen upon him for the blood of the House of Saul which he had shed. So grievous was the trial of these insults that the place where the king and his people rested that night received the pathetic name of Ayephim, "the place of the weary." For this conduct Shimei might have pleaded the pent-up animosities of the House of Saul, which had been stripped by David of all its honors, and of which poor lame Mephibosheth was the only scion left, after David had impaled Saul’s seven sons and grandsons in human sacrifice at the demand of the Gibeonites. Abishai, indignant at Shimei’s conduct, had said, "Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king?" and had offered, then and there, to cross the valley and take his head. But David rebuked his generous wrath, and when Shimei came out to meet him on his return with expressions of penitence, David not only promised but swore that he should not die. No further danger surely could be anticipated from the ruined and humiliated House of Saul; yet David bade Solomon to find some excuse for putting Shimei to death.

How are we to deal with sins which are recorded of God’s olden saints on the sacred page, and recorded without a word of blame?

Clearly we must avoid two errors-the one of injustice, the other of dishonesty.

1. On the one hand, as we have said, we must not judge Abraham, or Jacob, or Gideon, or Jael, or David, as though they were nineteenth-century Christians. Christ Himself taught us that some things inherently undesirable were yet permitted in old days because of the hardness of men’s hearts; and that the moral standards of the days of ignorance were tolerated in all their imperfection until men were able to judge of their own deeds in a purer light. "The times of ignorance God overlooked," says St. Paul, "but now He commandeth men that they should all everywhere repent." {Acts 17:30} "Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies," said Our Lord. {Matthew 5:43-44} When Bayle and Tindal and many others declaim against "the immorality of the Bible" they are unfair in a high degree. They pass judgment on men who had been trained from infancy in opinions and customs wholly unlike our own, and whose conscience would not be wounded by many things which we have been rightly taught to regard as evil. They apply the enlightenment of two millenniums of Christianity to criticize the more rudimentary conditions of life a millennium before Christ. The wild justice inflicted by an avenger of blood, the rude atrocity of the lex talionis, are rightly abhorrent to us in days of civilization and settled law: they were the only available means of restraining crime in unsettled times and half-civilized communities. In his final injunctions about his enemies, whom he might have dreaded as enemies too formidable for his son to keep in subjection, David may have followed the view of his day that his former condonations had only been co-extensive with his own life, and that the claims of justice ought to be satisfied.

2. But while we admit every palliation, and endeavor to judge justly, we must not fall into the conventionality of representing David’s unforgiving severity as otherwise than reprehensible in itself. Attempts to gloss over moral wrongdoing, to represent it as blameless, to invent supposed Divine sanctions and intuitions in defense of it, can but weaken the eternal claims of the law of righteousness. The rule of right is inflexible: it is not a leaden rule which can be twisted into any shape we like. A crime is none the less a crime though a saint commits it; and imperfect conceptions of the high claims of the moral law, as Christ expounded its Divine significance, do not cease to be imperfect though they may be sometimes recorded without comment on the page of Scripture. No religious opinion can be more fatal to true religion than that wrong can, under any circumstances, become right, or that we may do evil that good may come. Because an act is relatively pardonable, it does not follow that it is not absolutely wrong. If it be dangerous to judge the essential morality of any earlier passage of Scripture by the ultimate laws which Scripture itself has taught us, it is infinitely more dangerous, and essentially Jesuitical, to explain away misdeeds as though, under any circumstances, they could be pleasing to God or worthy of a saint. The total omission of David’s injunctions and of the sanguinary episodes of their fulfillment by the author of the Books of Chronicles, indicates that, in later days, they were thought derogatory to the pure fame both of the warrior-king and of his peaceful son.

David slept with his fathers, and passed before that bar where all is judged of truly. His life is an April day, half sunshine and half gloom. His sins were great, but his penitence was deep, lifelong, and sincere. He gave occasion for the enemies of God to blaspheme, but he also taught all who loved God to praise and pray. If his record contains some dark passages, and his character shows many inconsistencies, we can never forget his courage, his flashes of nobleness, his intense spirituality whenever he was true to his better self. His name is a beacon-light of warning against the glamour and strength of evil passions. But he showed us also what repentance can do, and we are sure that his sins were forgiven him because he turned away from his wickedness. "The sacrifices of God are a troubled spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise." "I go the way of all the earth," said David. "In life," says Calmet, "each one has his particular route: one applies to one thing, another to another. But in the way to death they are all re-united. They go to the tomb by one path."

David was buried in his own city-the stronghold of Zion; and his sepulcher-on the south part of Ophel, near the pool of Siloam-was still pointed out a thousand years later in the days of Christ. As a poet who had given to the people splendid specimens of lyric songs; as a warrior who had inspired their youth with dauntless courage; as a king who had made Israel a united nation with an impregnable capital, and had uplifted it from insignificance into importance; as the man in whose family the distinctive Messianic hopes of the Hebrews were centered, he must remain to the end of time the most remarkable and interesting figure in the long annals of the Old Dispensation.


Verses 13-46

AVENGING JUSTICE

1 Kings 2:13-46.

The wrath of a king is "as messengers of death."- Proverbs 16:14

THE reign of Solomon began with a threefold deed of blood. An Eastern king, surrounded by the many princes of a polygamous family, and liable to endless jealousies and plots, is always in a condition of unstable equilibrium; the death of a rival is regarded as his only safe imprisonment. On the other hand, it must be remembered that Solomon allowed his other brethren and kinsmen to live; and, in point of fact, his younger brother Nathan became the ancestor of the Divine Messiah of his race.

It was the restless ambition of Adonijah which again brought down an avalanche of ruin. He and his adherents were necessarily under the cold shadow of royal disfavor, and they must have known that they had sinned too deeply to be forgiven. They felt the position intolerable. "In the light of the king’s countenance is life, and his favor is as a cloud of the latter rain"; but Adonijah, in the prime of strength and the heyday of passion, beautiful and strong, and once the favorite of his father, could not forget the banquet at which all the princes and nobles and soldiers had shouted, "Long live King Adonijah!" That the royalty of one delirious day should be succeeded by the dull and suspected obscurity of dreary years was more than he could endure, if, by any possible subtlety or force, he could avert a doom so unlike his former golden dreams. Was not Solomon at least ten or fifteen years younger than himself? Was not his seat on the throne of his kingdom still insecure? Were not his own followers powerful and numerous?

Perhaps one of those followers-the experienced Joab, or Jonathan, son of Abiathar-whispered to him that he need not yet acquiesce in the ruin of his hopes, and suggested a subtle method of strengthening his cause, and keeping his claim before the eyes of the people.

Every one knew that Abishag, the fair damsel of Shunem, the ideal of Hebrew maidenhood, was the loveliest virgin who could be found throughout all the land of Israel. Had she been in the strict sense David’s wife or concubine, it would have been regarded as a deadly contravention of the Mosaic law that she should be wedded to one of her stepsons. But as she had only been David’s nurse, what could be more suitable than that so bright a maiden should be united to the handsome prince?

It was understood in all Eastern monarchies that the harem of a predecessor belonged to the succeeding sovereign. The first thing that a rival or a usurper aimed at was to win the prestige of possessing the wives of the royal house. Nathan reminds David that the Lord had given his master’s wives into his bosom. Ishbosheth, weak as he was, had been stung into indignation against his general and great-uncle the mighty Abner, because Abner had taken Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah, Saul’s concubine, to wife, which looked like a dangerously ambitious encroachment upon the royal prerogative. Absalom, by the vile counsel of Ahithophel, had openly taken possession of the ten concubines whom his father, in his flight from Jerusalem, had left in charge of the palace. The pseudo-Smerdis, when he revolted against the absent Cambyses, at once seized his seraglio. It is noted even in our English history that the relations between the Earl of Mortimer and Queen Isabella involved danger to the kingdom; and when Admiral Seymour married Queen Catharine Parr, widow of Henry VIII, he at once entered into treasonable conspiracies. Adonijah knew well that he would powerfully further his ulterior purpose if he could secure the hand of the lovely Shunamite.

Yet he feared to make the request to Solomon, who had already inspired him with wholesome awe. With pretended simplicity he sought the intercession of the Gebira Bathsheba, who, being the queen-mother, exercised great influence as the first lady of the land. She it was who had placed the jeweled bridal crown with her own hand on the head of her young son (Song of Solomon 3:11).

Alarmed at his visit she asked, "Comest thou peaceably?" He came, he humbly assured her, to ask a favor. Might she not think of his case with a little pity? He was the elder son; the kingdom by right of primogeniture was his; all Israel, so he flattered himself, had wished for his accession. But it had all been in vain, Jehovah had given the kingdom to his brother. Might he not be allowed some small consolation, some little accession to his dignity? at least some little source of happiness in his home?

Flattered by his humility and his appeal, Bathsheba encouraged him to proceed, and he begged that, as Solomon would refuse no request to his mother, would she ask that Abishag might be his wife?

With extraordinary lack of insight, Bathsheba, ambitious as she was, failed to see the subtle significance of the request, and promised to present his petition.

She went to Solomon, who immediately rose to meet her, and seated her with all honor on a throne at his right hand. She had only come, she said, to ask "a small petition."

"Ask on, my mother," said the king tenderly, "for I will not say thee nay."

But no sooner had she mentioned the "small petition" than Solomon burst into a flame of fury. "Why did she not ask for the kingdom for Adonijah at once? He was the elder. He had the chief priest and the chief captain with him. They must be privy to this new plot. But by the God who had given him his father’s kingdom, and established him a house, Adonijah had made the request to his own cost, and should die that day."

The command was instantly given to Benaiah, who, as captain of the bodyguard, was also chief executioner. He slew Adonijah that same hour, and so the third of David’s splendid sons died in his youth a death of violence.

We pause to ask whether the sudden and vehement outburst of King Solomon’s indignation was only due to political causes? If, as seems almost certain, Abishag is indeed the fair Shulamite of the Song of Songs, there can be little doubt that Solomon himself loved her, and that she was "the jewel of his seraglio." The true meaning of Canticles is not difficult to read, however much it may lend itself to mystical and allegorical applications. It represents a rustic maiden, faithful to her shepherd lover, resisting all the allurements of a king’s court, and all the blandishments of a king’s affection. It is the one book of Scripture which is exclusively devoted to sing the glory of a pure love. The king is magnanimous; he does not force the beautiful maiden to accept his addresses. Exercising her freedom, and true to the dictates of her heart, she rejoicingly leaves the perfumed atmosphere of the harem of Jerusalem for the sweet and vernal air of her country home under the shadow of its northern hills. Solomon’s impetuous wrath would not be so unaccountable if an unrequited affection added the sting of jealousy to the wrath of offended power. The scene is the more interesting because it is one of the very few personal touches in the story of Solomon, which is chiefly composed of external details, both in Scripture and in such fragments as have been preserved of the pagan historians Dios, Eupolemos, Nicolas Polyhistor, and those referred to by Josephus, Eusebius, and Clemens of Alexandria.

The fall of Adonijah involved his chief votaries in ruin. Abiathar had been a friend and follower of David from his youthful days. When Doeg, the treacherous Edomite, had informed Saul that the priests of Nob had shown kindness to David in his hunger and distress, the demoniac king had not shrunk from employing the Edomite herdsman to massacre all on whom he could lay his hands. From this slaughter of eighty-five priests who wore linen ephods, Abiathar had fled to David, who alone could protect him from the king’s pursuit. {1 Samuel 22:23} In the days when the outlaw lived in dens and caves, the priest had been constantly with him, and had been afflicted in all wherein he was afflicted, and had inquired of God for him. David had recognized how vast was his debt of gratitude to one whose father and all his family had been sacrificed for an act of kindness done to himself. Abiathar had been chief priest for all the forty years of David’s reign. In Absalom’s rebellion he had still been faithful to the king. His son Jonathan had been David’s scout in the city. Abiathar had helped Zadok to carry the Ark to the last house by the ascent to the Mount of Olives, and there he had stood under the olive tree by the wilderness (2 Samuel 15:18 (LXX)) till all the people had passed by. If his loyalty had been less ardent than that of his brother-priest Zadok, who had evidently taken the lead in the matter, he had given no ground for suspicion. But, perhaps secretly jealous of the growing influence of his younger rival, the old man, after some fifty years of unswerving allegiance, had joined his lifelong friend Joab in supporting the conspiracy of Adonijah, and had not even now heartily accepted the rule of Solomon. Assuming his complicity in Adonijah’s request, Solomon sent for him, and sternly told him that he was "a man of death," i.e., that death was his desert. But it would have been outrageous to slay an aged priest, the sole survivor of a family slaughtered for David’s sake, and one who had so long stood at the head of the whole religious organization, wearing the Urim and carrying the Ark. He was therefore summarily deposed from his functions, and dismissed to his paternal fields at Anathoth, a priestly town about six miles from Jerusalem. We hear no more of him; but Solomon’s warning, "I will not at this time put thee to death," was sufficient to show him that, if he mixed himself with court intrigues again, he would ultimately pay the forfeit with his life. Solomon, like Saul, paid very little regard to benefit of the clergy.

The doom fell next on the arch-offender Joab, the white-haired hero of a hundred fights, "the Douglas of the House of David." He had, if the reading of the ancient versions be correct, "turned after Adonijah, and had not turned after Solomon." Solomon could hardly have felt at ease when a general so powerful and so popular was disaffected to his rule, and Joab read his own sentence in the execution of Adonijah. On hearing the news the old hero fled up Mount Zion, and clung to the horns of the altar. But Abiathar, who might have asserted the sacredness of the asylum, was in disgrace, and Joab was not to escape. "What has happened to thee that thou hast fled to the altar?" was the message sent to him by the king. "Because," he answered, "I was afraid of thee, and fled unto the Lord." It was Solomon s habit to give his autocratic orders with laconic brevity. "Go fall upon him" he said to Benaiah.

The scene which ensued was very tragic.

The two rivals were face to face. On the one side the aged general, who had placed on David’s head the crown of Rabbah, who had saved him from the rebellions of Absalom and of Sheba, and had been the pillar of his military glory and dominion for so many years; on the other the brave soldier-priest, who had won a chief place among the Gibborim by slaying a lion in a pit on a snowy day, and "two lion-like men of Moab," and a gigantic Egyptian whom he had attacked with only a staff, and out of whose hand he had plucked a spear like a weaver’s beam and killed him with his own spear. As David lost confidence in Joab he had reposed more and more confidence in this hero. He had placed him over the bodyguards, whom he trusted more than the native militia.

The Levite-soldier had no hesitation about acting as executioner, but he did not like to slay any man, and above all such a man, in a place so sacred, {2 Kings 11:15}-in a place where his blood would be mingled with that of the sacrifices with which the horns of the altar were besmeared.

"The king bids thee come forth," he said. "Nay," said Joab, "but I will die here." Perhaps he thought that he might be protected by the asylum, as Adonijah had been; perhaps he hoped that in any case his blood might cry to God for vengeance, if he was slain in the sanctuary of Mount Zion, and on the very altar of burnt offering.

Benaiah naturally scrupled under such circumstances to carry out Solomon’s order, and went back to him for instruction. Solomon had no such scruples, and perhaps held that this act was meritorious. {Deuteronomy 19:13} "Slay him," he said, "where he stands; he is a twofold murderer; let his blood be on his head." Then Benaiah went back and killed him, and was promoted to his vacant office. Such was the dismal end of so much valor and so much glory. He had taken the sword, and he perished by the sword. And the Jews believed that the curse of David clung to his house forever, and that among his descendants there never lacked one that was a leper, or a lame man, or a suicide, or a pauper. {2 Samuel 3:28-29}

Shimei’s turn came next. A watchful eye was fixed implacably on this last indignant representative of the ruined House of Saul. Solomon had sent and ordered him to leave his estate at Bahurim, and build a house at Jerusalem, forbidding him to go "any whither," and telling him that if on any pretence he passed the wady of Kidron he should be put to death. As he could not visit Bahurim, or any of his Benjamite connections, without passing the Kidron, all danger of further intrigues seemed to be obviated. To these terms the dangerous man had sworn, and for three years he kept them faithfully. At the end of that time two of his slaves fled from him to Achish, son of Maachah, King of Gath. When informed of their whereabouts, Shimei, apparently with no thought of evil, saddled his mule and went to demand their restoration. As he had not crossed the Kidron, and had merely gone to Gath on private business, he thought that Solomon would never hear of it, or would at any rate treat the matter as harmless. Solomon, however, regarded his conduct as a proof of retributive dementation. He sent for him, bitterly upbraided him, and ordered Benaiah to slay him. So perished the last of Solomon’s enemies; but Shimei had two illustrious descendants in the persons of Mordecai and Queen Esther. {Esther 2:5}

Solomon perhaps conceived himself to be only acting up to the true kingly ideal. "A king that sitteth on the throne of judgment scattereth away all evil with his eyes." "A wise king scattereth the wicked, and bringeth the wheel over them." "An evil man seeketh only rebellion; therefore a cruel messenger shall be sent against him." "The fear of a king is as the roaring of a lion, whoso provoketh him to anger endangereth his own soul." {Proverbs 19:11, Proverbs 20:2; Proverbs 19:8; Proverbs 19:26} On the other hand, he continued hereditary kindness to Chimham, son of the old chief Barzillai the Gileadite, who became the founder of the Khan at Bethlehem in which a thousand years later Christ was born. {1 Kings 2:7; Jeremiah 41:17}

The elevation of Zadok to the high priesthood vacated by the disgrace of Abiathar restored the priestly succession to the elder line of the House of Aaron. Aaron had been the father of four sons: Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. The two eldest had perished childless in the wilderness apparently for the profanation of serving the tabernacle while in a state of intoxication and offering "strange fire" upon the altar. The son of Eleazar was the fierce priestly avenger Phinehas. The order of succession was as follows:-

AARON

Eleazar Ithamar

Phinehas (gap.)

Abishua Eli

Bukki Phinehas

Uzzi Ahitub

Zerahiah Ahiah {1 Samuel 14:3}

Meraioth Ahimelech

Amariah Abiathar {1 Samuel 22:20}

Ahitub

Zadok

The question naturally arises how the line of succession came to be disturbed, since to Eleazar, and his seed after him, had been promised "the covenant of an everlasting priesthood." {Numbers 25:13} As the elder line continued unbroken, how was it that, for five generations at least, from Eli to Abiathar, we find the younger line of Ithamar in secure and lineal possession of the high priesthood? The answer belongs to the many strange reserves of Jewish history. It is clear from the silence of the Book of Chronicles that the intrusion, however caused, was an unpleasant recollection. Jewish tradition has perhaps revealed the secret, and a very curious one it is. We are told that Phinehas was high priest when Jephthah made his rash vow, and that his was the hand which carried out the human sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter. But the inborn feelings of humanity in the hearts of the people were stronger than the terrors of superstition, and arising in indignation against the high priest who could thus imbrue his hands in an innocent maiden’s blood, they drove him from his office and appointed a son of Ithamar in his place. The story then offers a curious analogy to that told of the Homeric hero Idomeneus, King of Crete. Caught in a terrible storm on his return from Troy, he too, owed that if his life were saved he could offer up in sacrifice the first living thing that met him. His eldest son came forth with gladness to meet him. Idomeneus fulfilled his vow, but the Cretans rose in revolt against the ruthless father, and a civil war ensued, in which a hundred cities were destroyed and the king was driven into exile. The Jewish tradition is one which could hardly have been invented. It is certain that Jephthah’s daughter was offered up in sacrifice, in accordance with his rash vow. This could hardly have been done by any but a priest, and the ferocious zeal of Phinehas would not perhaps have shrunk from the horrible consummation. Revolting, even abhorrent, as is such a notion from our views of God, and decisively as human sacrifice is condemned by all the highest teaching of Scripture, the traces of this horrible tendency of human guilt and human fear are evident in the history of Israel as of all other early nations. Some thought akin to it must have lain under the temptation of Abraham to offer up his son Isaac. Twelve centuries later Manasseh "made his son pass through the fire," and kindled the furnaces of Moloch at Tophet in Gehenna, the valley of the sons of Hinnom. His grandfather Ahaz had done the same before him, offering sacrifice and burning his children in the fire. Surrounded by kindred tribes, to which this worship was familiar, the Israelites, in their ignorance and backsliding, were not exempt from its fatal fascination. Solomon himself "went after," and built a high place for Milcom, the abomination of the Ammonites, on the right hand of "the hill that is before Jerusalem," which from this desecration got the name of "The Mount of Corruption." These high places continued, and it must be supposed, had their votaries on "that opprobrious hill," until good Josiah dismantled and defiled them about the year 639, some three centuries after they had been built.

But whether this legend about Phinehas be tenable or not, it is certain that the House of Ithamar fell into deadly disrepute and abject misery. In this the people saw the fulfillment of an old traditional curse, pronounced by some unknown "man of God" on the House of Eli, that there should be no old man in his house forever; that his descendants should die in the flower of their age; and that they should come cringing to the descendants of the priest whom God would raise up in his stead, to get some humble place about the priesthood for a piece of silver and a morsel of bread.

The prolongation of the curse in the House of Joab and of Eli furnishes an illustration of the menacing appendix to the second commandment. "For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me, and showing mercy unto thousands (of generations) of them that love Me and keep My commandments."

There is in families, as in communities, a solidarity alike of blessing and curse. No man perishes alone in his iniquity, whether he be an offender like Achan or an offender like Joab. Families have their inheritance of character, their prerogative examples of misdoing, their influence of the guilty past flowing like a tide of calamity over the present and the future! The physical consequences of transgression remain long after the sins which caused them have ended. Three things, however, are observable in this. as in every faithfully recorded history. One is that mercy boasteth over justice, and the area of beneficent consequence is more permanent and more continuous than that of the entailed curse, as right is always more permanent than wrong. A second is that though man at all times is liable to troubles and disabilities, no innocent person who suffers temporal afflictions from the sins of his forefathers shall suffer one element of unjust depression in the eternal interests of life. A third is that the ultimate prosperity of the children, alike of the righteous and of sinners, is in their own control; each soul shall perish, and shall only perish, for its own sin. In this sense, though the fathers have eaten sour grapes, the teeth of the children shall not be set on edge. In the long generations the line of David no less than the line of Joab, the line of Zadok no less than that of Abiathar, was destined to feel the Nemesis of evil-doing, and to experience that, of whatever parentage men are born, the law remains true-"Say ye of the righteous, that it shall be well with him: for they shall eat the fruit of their doings. Woe unto the wicked; it shall be ill with him: for the reward of his hands shall be given him." {Isaiah 3:10}

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Kings 2:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-kings-2.html.

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