Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, April 20th, 2024
the Third Week after Easter
Tired of seeing ads while studying? Now you can enjoy an "Ads Free" version of the site for as little as 10¢ a day and support a great cause!
Click here to learn more!

Bible Dictionaries

Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

Search for…
Prev Entry
Next Entry
Resource Toolbox
Additional Links


JOAB, the son of David's sister, was a man of the very foremost ability. Had it not been for David, Joab would have climbed up into the throne of Israel. As it was, he stood on the steps of the throne and faced the king all his days. Notwithstanding their family relationship, David and Joab were much of an age, and that, no doubt, helps to account for a good deal that went on between the uncle and the nephew Joab was a stern, haughty, imperious, revengeful man. His only virtue was a certain proud, patronising loyalty to his king. Joab's ambition might surely have been satisfied, for he was in more respects than one the most privileged man in the land. Even the king himself was afraid of his commander-in-chief. The sovereign took his orders meekly from his subject. After his own contemptuous way, Joab was always true to David. That is to say, he made short work with any one else who was false to David. And he performed some splendid services both as a soldier and a statesman in the extension and consolidation of David's kingdom. In his own well-read and picturesque way, Dean Stanley describes Joab very aptly as the Marlborough of the empire of Israel.

Over-ambition, to put it all in one word, was Joab's besetting sin; over-vaulting ambition. But what more would Joab have had? you may well ask. Only, do not ask that any more about Joab, or about any other ambitious and self-seeking man. Look into your own heart and answer. If you look well into your own heart, you will see there that as long as any one else has anything at all of his own, it does not matter how much you have. Joab was king in all but the crown. King, and more. But as long as his weaker uncle wore the crown, Joab's heart raged like hell. Jonathan gave over to David all that he possessed, and all that he ever expected to possess, and died a king. Joab envied David and every one else all that they had, and died an outcast. Pride, jealousy, malignity, revenge, assassination, with now and then a gleam of satanic loyalty lighting up his terrible heart-such is the son of Zeruiah. The land trembles as Joab rises on the stepping-stones of murdered men to the shining top of power and honour, only to fall under the sword of a too-slow justice an outlaw from the love and the pity of all men.

David was all heart, and passion, and sensibility; while Joab was all self-will, and pride, and as hard as a stone. David's sudden and unparalleled exaltation was never forgiven him at home. His brothers and his sisters were sufficiently proud of David toward all their neighbours; at the same time they could never enough let him see how much they thought themselves as good as he was when they were alone together. But it was Joab who carried all that to a head. David and Joab were by far the ablest members of a very able household; but David was hampered with his heart, till Joab, having no heart, got the mastery. And thus it is that, already, and before David has well sat down on the throne, we hear him saying such things as these: 'The sons of Zeruiah,' David burst out, 'be too hard for me. I am this day weak, though anointed king.' And you may be sure that when that so unkingly speech was reported to the sons of Zeruiah, it did not make them any the less hard for David. Joab's temper was not any sweeter, nor his hand any lighter, after that and many suchlike deplorably foolish speeches of David. Already David lay and writhed in a net of ten thousand invisible threads and stings; and a chain of iron is soon to be forged for David by his own besotted hands. Men of much heart are always men of much mischief to themselves and to other men. To keep much of a heart with all diligence every moment-what a superhuman task is that! To keep much of a heart, to keep it in, to keep it down, to keep it open, but not too open-who is sufficient for these things? David yielded to Joab out of simple good-nature yesterday, and again today, and he will yield something far more important tomorrow, and so on. Each time he yields it is an act of rare courtesy, fine consideration, and most beautiful good-feeling and good-will-all touched, at the same time, with a certain tincture of fear. In any other world but this, and to any other man but Joab, David's heart would be an open heaven. But as it is, David wakens up too late to find out that he is king in nothing but in name. Neither his royal word, nor his personal liberty, nor his children, nor his tears over his dead children, are his own. Such is the mischief of too much heart and too little will in one member of a family, and too little heart and too much will in another. Let both look at David and Joab, and learn, and lay to heart. For we are all in this world, and in families, for this end, to learn how to rule our hearts; now to reduce and now to enlarge; now to harden and now to soften our hearts. The heart is the man. In this world, and in the world to come, the heart alone is the man. And we are in this world and in its families to make ourselves an everlasting heart.

'It is worse than a crime,' says an astute politician, 'it is a blunder.' And though it was a clear enough crime in David to pass by Joab's murder of Abner, it came out afterwards to be a most terrible blunder. All David's after-life might well have been different but for that blunder. There might have been no 'matter of Uriah,' and no rebellion of Absalom, and none of the many other miseries that so desolated David's house, had he not committed this fatal blunder of letting Joab live. David knew his duty quite well. 'The Lord shall reward the doer of evil according to his wickedness,' David proclaimed over Abner's mangled body. Yes; but David held the sword for no other purpose than to be the Lord's right hand in rewarding all the evil that was done in Israel in his day. But, then, Joab was the most powerful and the most necessary man in Israel, and Abner had no friends, and David contented himself with pronouncing an eloquent requiem over Abner, and leaving his murderer to go free in all his offices and all his honours. Joab was deep enough to understand quite well why his life was spared. He knew quite well that it was fear and not love that had moved David to let him live. It was a diplomatic act of David to spare Joab, but David was playing with a far deeper diplomatist than himself. Very soon we shall see this respited assassin ordering David about and dictating to him, till we shall pity David as well as blame him. Joab's impunity speedily shot up into an increased contempt for David, till secret contempt became open insolence, and open insolence open and unavenged rebellion. Was it not a blunder?

In the corrupted currents of this world,
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft 'tis seen, the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but 'tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell'd,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.

'And it came to pass in the morning that David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. And he wrote in the letter saying: Thou shalt set Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire from him, that he may be smitten and die.' That dreadful letter shows us David's desperation, indeed; but it shows us also David's estimate of Joab. Had Jonathan been spared to be second to David this would never have happened. David would never have dared to send such a letter as that to Jonathan. But Jonathan was taken and Joab was left, and David had Joab for his tool to impress on our hearts the terrible portent of a bloodstained holiness. But how could Joab have the utter depravity and the cold blood to do it? you ask. How could he plan an attack, and sham a retreat, and risk a defeat, and all to murder a noble, spotless, unsuspecting comrade? It was not soldierly obedience. Joab did not care one straw for the king's letter. When it suited him, Joab could tear up the king's letters and throw them in his face. Unless you can tell us, we shall never in this world know why Joab murdered Uriah after that letter. Unless you are astute enough, and wicked enough, and then honest enough to tell us, we shall not know till the day of judgment what all passed through Joab's heart when he read that letter, and read it again with his glancing eyes. Joab had some sufficient motive for following out David's detestable orders. But unless you find out Joab's motive among your own motives, we shall have to leave him alone. It was like Pilate and the chief priests with our Lord between them. They also had their motives. Only, their motives are as plain as day, while Joab was a deep man-deeper, quite possibly, than any man here. And it came to pass that, when Joab observed the city, he assigned Uriah unto a place where he knew that valiant men were on the wall. And Uriah fell. And David said to Joab's messenger, Let not this thing displease thee. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord. And the Lord had Joab in His hand henceforth as the rod of his displeasure, and Joab had David's letter in his hand till, if there is a man on the face of the earth to be pitied from that time forward, it is David.

Better a living dog than a dead lion. David was the first lion of the tribe of Judah, and it is sad to see how his teeth and his claws were broken, and his sinews cut, by his tormentors. You are but a dog beside David. Only, you have this, that you are still alive, and young, and free, and unsold as yet, whereas David is dead. You are too young to have written any letters yet worth any one keeping. 'Destroy this letter as soon as you have read it,' David wrote at the top of it. 'Under the strictest seal of secrecy, and on the king's own business,' Uriah read on the envelope, and handed it with all speed and respect to his chief. 'Read and burn instantly,' wrote David in state cipher. But Joab was not the man to throw an autograph letter of the king into the fire. Joab recollected what prices such letters bring in the auction rooms, and, instead of burning David's letter, he folded it carefully, and buttoned it up in his breast-pocket. That letter was still deep down in Joab's breast-pocket when Benaiah at David's demand fell upon him and slew him in spite of the horns of the altar. You are still in your innocence, and have written no letters. And were you my only son, may I bury you first before you write your first letter to Joab.

Tool turned tyrant-that shortly sums up Joab and David for the next thirty years. Only an insult here and a humiliation there has been preserved to us out of the daily insults and humiliations that Joab heaped upon David. Joab had no more pity than a tiger, and the tiger's claws were never out of David's flesh from the matter of Uriah down to David's death. David had said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan had said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin, thou shalt not die. But David had far better have died and been buried beside his sin. Thou answeredst them, O Lord our God; Thou wast a God that forgavest them, but Thou tookest vengeance of their inventions. And Joab was just the instrument to glut himself in the divine vengeance. 'Joab insolently falls foul of David,' is one of Matthew Henry's plain-spoken remarks. And again, 'He calls David a fool to his face.' We have only one in a thousand of Joab's insolent speeches to David's face. But the sacred writer surely selects and preserves his very best instance of tool turned tyrant and his insolent speech, in the case of Absalom. Joab ran Absalom three times through the heart right in the teeth of David's command to spare and save Absalom alive. And then, when David broke out in that terrible sorrow which sounds in our hearts to this day, Joab would not have it. There has been enough weeping now for Absalom, said Joab to David. Let there be no more. And David dried his eyes on the spot like a cowed child, and turned to the business of the kingdom, cursing Joab all the time in his heart. It was David's sad case that made our Lord say in David's city a thousand years after, Verily, verily, I say unto you, whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And all Scripture is full of the same warning. Know ye not that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are whom ye obey? For of whom a man is overcome, of the same he is brought in bondage. All this of David and Joab is only the life of some of ourselves sold for nought, and written out with all plainness of speech, and put of God into our hands.

I have been sorely tempted to take up the mystical interpretation of Shimei and Joab. Those two Scripture characters so lend themselves to the mystical method. Those two thorns in David's flesh-and there are more like them-so suit into the secretest depths of our own spiritual experience. Those two bad men were, each in his own wicked way, of such rich and indispensable use to David, if David was to be searched out, hunted down, laid low, and saved at last. They so struck in, made of God and kept of God for the very purpose, to tempt, and to vex, and to humiliate, and to weaken, and to keep broken David's broken heart. They, Joab especially, were ever with David. Joab with his insolence, and his cruelty, and his family familiarity, and his equality in years, and all that eating in and growing, on to David's deathbed-I declare it is another parable of that cunning Nathan, and not a true and honest history at all! It is a subtle allegory all the time; and that, too, of our own life. Yes, that is it. It is my life and yours; if your life is at all like mine, or is going to be, you who are yet young. It is our own life under sin, as Paul says, and under grace. Under forgiveness, and then under vengeance, as David says, and had such a good right to say. Only, come, all ye who would learn beforehand the ways of God, and we will tell you as good as anything that ever was told even of David. As good. As sad. As painful. As awful. And still more amazing in its grace. Shimei cursing and throwing stones. Joab, first tool and then ever after tyrant. We will show you such a letter. A sackful of such letters. And the writer of them walking softly, and never ceasing from prayer and tears on account of them all his days. O sacred chronicler, look well to your laurels! If once we take pen in hand, where would you be-Shimei, and Joab, and Absalom, and Ahithophel and all! O Lord, open Thou my lips, and I will show forth Thy praise. Then will I teach transgressors Thy ways, and sinners shall be converted unto Thee. Thou art my hiding-place; Thou shalt compass me about with songs of deliverance. Thou shalt hide them in the secret of Thy presence from the pride of men. Thou shalt keep them secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues. Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the Lord.

Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Joab'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​j/joab.html. 1901.
adsFree icon
Ads FreeProfile