Summary: The career of Joab helps us understand how to temper pride with humility, and what happens when we don't.
The Price of Pride–the example of Joab
2 Sm 3:39
“the sons of Zeruiah are too hard for me. The Lord requite the evildoer according to his wickedness!” These words of David refer principally to a man named Joab, general of David’s army. David himself was a warrior. Today we would call him a “warlord,” because in his early career he was out of favor with the king of Israel, Saul, and was a kind of Robin Hood, with a band of bandits, preying on the Philistines of the day. So for David to say that Joab was “too hard” for him was like the Godfather saying one of his henchmen was too mean.
Joab’s career backs up David’s assessment. He is a good example of the proverb “pride goes before a fall.” His pride was earned. His name appears in 151 verses of the Bible–an astonishing number. You can hardly find a failure among his military exploits. Every time he came up against an enemy, that enemy was driven from the field. Once, he was attacked by two armies. The Ammonites were arrayed in front of their city, and the Syrians were out in the field; Joab and his army were trapped between them. With the courage and wisdom of a Robert E. Lee, he split his forces and himself led his half against the Syrians, while the other half held their position. The Syrians fled and then Joab mustered his forces against the others.
But Joab was treacherous, and had a heart full of vengeance and anger. In battle, Saul’s general Abner had killed Joab’s brother, Asahel. Peace broke out. But Joab, by deception, lured Abner into a secluded place and murdered him. Later, after the rebellion of Absalom, David was so sick of Joab he appointed Joab’s cousin, Amasa, as general of his army, even though Amasa had led Absalom’s army. Joab lured him away from his guards and fatally stabbed him in the abdomen, thus risking yet another split in David’s army.
Joab was a man of great physical courage, but his moral heart was almost non-existent. When King David committed adultery with Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, and sired a child by her, Joab conspired with David to have Uriah killed in battle so David could have her as his wife. The cover-up fell apart, as all cover-ups do, but it appears that Joab felt no remorse about his role in the tragedy of Uriah.
We have to remember that the kingdom of David was a patched together thing. The tribes of Israel didn’t care for the tribe of Judah, David’s clan, and were constantly feeling like second-rate members of the alliance. David tried to keep them together, but prideful subordinates like Joab did things that caused long-lasting resentments. And, because Joab was a winning general, David didn’t take actions to discipline him until it was too late. Success is a seductive result; it tends to mislead people into thinking everything is fine. It puts a coat of paint over cracks in the foundation, and contributes to worse problems when the breakup finally occurs.
What might Joab have done early in life to help him avoid all the awful and immoral actions he later took up? Humility, John Ruskin said, is the first test of a truly great man. Humility doesn’t mean you think ill of yourself. It means you think correctly of yourself. Joab might have asked wiser people than himself what he could do to improve. They would have told him to check his anger, and put himself in the shoes of others before getting mad at them. They would have told him to listen to the needs of others and, when appropriate, help them get what they needed. They would have told him to make friends, not with the powerful who could help Joab, but with the lowly whom he could help. And, I believe, they would have told him to examine his conscience every evening, determine what he did right and what he did wrong, and do more of the former and less of the latter the next day.
I said that David didn’t discipline Joab until it was too late to do real good. He told his son, Solomon, to kill Joab once David was dead. So Joab died in disgrace–killed right before the altar of the Lord. A distinguished career was extinguished in shame. May we all learn from his example to correct our faults now, and not make others correct them later.