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  • Writer's picturePaul Coulter

Integrity: being consistent in your executions

In our family devotions (we read a portion of the Bible together as a family every evening) we are currently reading in 2 Samuel. The book continues the story of David, which begins in 1 Samuel, after the death of king Saul, which occurs in the last chapter of 1 Samuel, describing most of his time as king (his final days are recorded in the first chapters of 1 Kings). It is a roller-coaster of a read, containing some real highlights – especially God’s covenant with David (chapter 7) and his kindness to Mephibosheth the son of Jonathan (chapter 9) – but many lows – most especially David’s adultery with Bathsheba (chapter 11) and the messiness of David’s family, especially the rebellion led by his son Absalom (chapter 15 onwards).

What struck me as I read the first chapters 2 Samuel again with my teenaged children is a series of deaths (cheery stuff for family devotions!) Let me summarise them here, although you need to read the chapters yourself to get the full picture:

  • Chapter 1 – a young Amalekite comes to David, bearing Saul’s crown and armlet, with news of Saul’s death. He lies, claiming to have killed the former king, who actually took his own life after being wounded in battle with the Philistines. The man seems to hope to gain from this lie, thinking David will reward him for the news of the death of Saul. Far from doing so, David orders the man’s execution, asking “Why weren’t you afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” Whether David saw through the deception or was following the same principle he had followed himself in 1 Samuel that no one should kill a king anointed by God or seeing off one of the few Amalekites who survived after his own killing of many Amalekites (referenced in verse 1), we don’t know. David then laments the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.

  • Chapter 2 – David becomes king over the tribe of Judah and war ensues between his men and those of Ish-Bosheth, son of Saul, who reigns over the other tribes. Abner, commander of Ish-Bosheth’s army kills swift-footed Asahel, brother of Joab (commander of David’s army) and Abishai, who is pursuing him as he retreats from a battle. It seems Abner did all he could not to kill Asahel, warning him to give up the chase, and hitting him only with the butt of his spear.

  • Chapter 3 – Abner decides he is on the losing side and so decides to negotiate peace with David. As he returns home from the negotiations, Joab tricks him into returning and murders him. David curses Joab in strong terms and makes a public show of his own innocence in the matter, gaining favour with the people, but does not call for Joab’s execution.

  • Chapter 4 – two of Ish-Bosheth’s remaining commanders assassinate him and bring his head to David, expecting he will be pleased. David reminds them that he had someone executed for brining news of Saul’s death and commands that they too be executed because they killed “an innocent man in his own house and on his own bed”.

So, we have seven deaths in these chapters. Two are murders – Abner and Ish-Bosheth. Three are executions – the Amalekite and the two men who killed Ish-Bosheth. One (Saul) is a suicide but the Amalekite claimed it was what David classified as a murder. One is accidental (Asahel).

What strikes me in this, though, is how David acts. His execution of the Amalekite seems morally dubious because the man did not actually kill Saul, although David may not have known that. The fact that it happened on the battlefield does not justify it because Saul was wounded and unable to fight at the time. His execution of the killers of Ish-Bosheth seems less questionable, although it must have seemed strange to many in the ancient world that assassinations were not approved by a man like David who was quite happy to kill people in battle.

So, two executions ordered by David of people who had or claimed to have killed a rival king.

What about the deaths of Abner and Asahel then? Well, Abner did not deserve to be executed. He killed a man who was pursuing him from a battlefield, not someone vulnerable and too weak to fight. It seems to have been accidental and it was an act of self-defence. Joab murders Abner without any trial and David clearly knows Joab has acted unjustly as he curses Joab. Yet David does not order Joab executed. Why not? I can think of three potential reasons.

Firstly, Joab was David’s nephew – the son of his half-sister Zeruiah (1 Chronicles 2:15-16) – a fact we are pointed to by the repeated references in these chapters to the sons of Zeruiah. Is this a case of ‘blood running thicker than water’? Does David hold back because of family loyalty?

Secondly, Joab was powerful and influential. The last verse of Chapter 3, after David’s curse on Joab, reads: “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!” It seems David was afraid of Joab and not certain that he had the power to have him executed. As commander of the army, perhaps the soldiers would have followed him instead of David. Is this a classic case of ‘fear of man’ holding David back from acting justly?

Thirdly, Joab was useful to David. Later in 2 Samuel, it is Joab who David instructs to arrange the circumstances of the death of Uriah the Hittite, husband of Bathsheba, in order to cover up David’s sin (chapter 11). Is this a case of David finding a useful ‘henchman’ to do his bidding?

It seems that these three factors may have all played a part in David’s inaction against Joab, although the text particularly emphasises his fear of Joab. It is a sad picture of a man who was capable of such greatness. The man who composed such beautiful psalms of praise and lament. The man who refused to take Saul’s life. The man who killed Goliath and many other oppressors of God’s people. The man whose love for and loyalty to his friend Jonathan was legendary. Here he is, giving in to the must base of human instincts for self-protection. Enslaved to nepotism, fear of man and corruption. These things will reach their pinnacle in David in the sordid tale of Chapter 11, but we see the cracks appearing already in Chapter 3.

David in this case shows a lack of integrity, and that is the lesson I tried to draw out for my family as we reflected on these chapters. He was inconsistent. His curse upon Joab sounds impressive, but it was not matched by actions. I shared this as a lesson in integrity in our staff team in Living Leadership recently and one of my colleagues joked, “Yeah, have integrity in your murders!” Strictly speaking, he should have said “have integrity in your executions”. David was not the murderer, just the one who commanded execution twice but not on the middle occasion. We might say we need integrity in our executions too – not, I hope, in the same sense of the word as David, but in executing what we say we will do and acting consistently with what is true and just.

Integrity is precious. I said to my children, “Always keep your integrity – let that be one of the things you remember your dad saying” (I’m desperately hoping they’ll remember something!) I believe that with my whole being. Integrity is vital. I have seen many examples of people who lacked integrity and reaped devastating consequences. The poisonous fruit of compromise is seldom immediate. It takes time to ripen, but when it comes it is horrific. Read through 2 Samuel and into 1 Kings and you’ll see the problems that came from David’s compromise over Joab. Joab murders again, killing his cousin Amasa while greeting him with a kiss (2 Samuel 20 – sound familiar?) and he actually plots against David over the kings succession (1 Kings 1). David knows this guy is no good, so some of his dying words to his son Solomon are to make sure he gets rid of Joab (1 Kings 2:5), which Solomon does through a man called Benaiah (1 Kings 2).

God is calling for people who will stand by their principles (assuming those are really his truths!) He wants people of conviction who have the courage to speak truth in humility and to stand firm for what they believe to be right. Leaders with backbone. I have seen leaders often giving in because of what they call ‘compassion’ for others, by which I think they’re really saying they let emotions lead them. It feels good in the short term, but only hurts others in the longer term. Misguided compassion may be one of the world’s most destructive forces. It is not really compassion at all. It is the fear of man!

Integrity can be painful. It may mean you lose out. You cannot divulge some truth that would help explain an action someone else disproves of because you have promised confidentiality or know it would only cause more harm. You resign because something is wrong while others seem quite happy to hold on to their position despite knowing what you know. There may be loss because of integrity, but it is worth it. It pays dividends in this life, protecting others and gaining trust. Above all, it is what God desires and he is our final judge.

As I write this, I realise that no one can claim absolute integrity, and that certainly includes me. I am thankful that there can be forgiveness (if I need it from you over some lack of integrity in me, please contact me) and restoration (not always fully in this life, but certainly in glory). If you realise you have lacked integrity, then repent and seek God’s grace to bring restitution, where you can, to those your failings harmed and to limit future ramifications. It is not enough that you confess it to God. Go and repay those you harmed fourfold, like Zacchaeus promised to do (Luke 19:8).

So, maintain your integrity. Have the courage of your convictions. Resist nepotism and any other form of favouritism. Say no to convenient pacts with people of poor character just because they are ‘gifted’ or can offer something to your cause. And do not let the fear of man motivate you to do what is wrong or to refrain from doing what is just. By God’s strength and for his glory let it be so.

If you want to explore the theme of integrity, especially in leadership, further, I recommend Jonathan Lamb’s book entitled Integrity: Leading With God Watching (IVP, 2006).

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