Why God Makes It Hard When It Ought to be Easy
2 Samuel 2-3
January 4, 2009
Why is life so hard?
It’s a question everyone has struggled with at one time or another:
- A young couple moves from Indiana to Florida to go to seminary. From the moment they get here, things fall apart. They can’t pay their bills, he can barely stay in school, she works full-time just to pay the bills, and the kids haven’t had new clothes in over a year. They came because they felt God’s call on their lives. What happened? Did they make a mistake?
- Another couple is married for almost twenty-five years when he suddenly, strangely comes down with a virus. The doctors treat it but he gets worse, not better. In two weeks he is dead. Life for her will never be the same. Deep in her heart, in the middle of a sleepless night, she wonders, Why did God let this happen?
- It started with forgetfulness that soon led to periods of incoherence. Eventually she could not take care of herself, so her husband hired a live-in housekeeper. Although she was only in her early sixties, the doctor confirmed the diagnosis: Alzheimer’s disease. For over three years she was confined in a special unit of a nursing home. For months on end she sat motionless in a chair, her hands clenched, her legs permanently crossed. With tears her husband prayed over and over for her to be released from the ravages of an incurable disease, but she lingered for years, trapped inside her own body, recognizing nothing around her. What higher purpose is being served?
- A young church with a bright future calls a promising young pastor. After impressive early growth, the church splits and then falls apart. No one can understand it because there were so many good people with so much willing spirit. The future was almost unlimited. Now the pastor is gone and the church is a shadow of its former self. How could this have happened?
Sometimes you find the best truth in the strangest places.
One of the great proofs of the Bible’s supernatural origin is that it speaks to every part of the human condition. Not only is there something for everyone in the Bible, but there is something meaningful for every situation we face in life. We would expect nothing less from a book that claims to be the very Word of God. If the message of the Bible comes directly from God, then it ought to speak to us at the precise point of our spiritual need.
Why does God make it hard when it ought to be easy? In order to answer that question, let’s take a safari to an often-overlooked portion of the Bible-2 Samuel 2-3. These chapters tell the story of David’s long struggle to become king over all Israel. There are two facts that will help you understand this story. The first is that during this period Saul was dead and had been dead for some time. The second is that David had been anointed king over Judah and was living in the city of Hebron. Everything that happens in this story flows from those two facts.
Not only is there something for everyone in the Bible, but there is something meaningful for every situation we face in life.
David’s Rising Star
The fact that Saul was dead meant that the throne of Israel was now vacant. Saul had forfeited his right to that throne through disobedience and rebellion. He had died in disgrace, committing suicide on the slopes of Mount Gilboa in a battle with the Philistines. Some of his supporters had rescued his body and given it a decent burial in Jabesh. And that brings up the point that Saul did have his followers. Lots of them, in fact. After all, he was the only king Israel had ever known, and even though he came to a bad end, there were thousands who mourned his death. But for good or ill, Saul was dead, the throne was vacant, and, since nature abhors a vacuum something was bound to happen.
The fact that David was king in Judah meant that he was still marking time in Hebron. He was God’s choice to rule the nation after the death of Saul. And you would think, from a purely human point of view, that this was his big chance. At the age of thirty, David seemed fully prepared to take over. But it didn’t work that way. Nothing in life is ever that easy.
Seven years would pass before David became king of the whole nation. 2 Samuel 2-3 tell us what happened during those seven years of turmoil and confusion. In order to understand these two chapters, there are five people you need to keep straight in your mind:
All of us are being tested continually. That, too, is part of God’s plan.
Saul, the former king of Israel, is now dead.
David is king of Judah but not yet king of the whole nation.
Ish-Bosheth, one of Saul’s surviving sons, is a puppet king in Saul’s place.
Joab was David’s number one general.
Abner was Saul’s number one general.
What it all meant was that after Saul’s death the nation was divided along north-south lines. The people in the north followed Ish-Bosheth and Abner. The people in the south followed David and Joab. Thus the stage was set for a civil war. Second Samuel 3:1 puts it this way: “The war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasted a long time.” As I read this passage, one question comes to mind: Why did David have to fight for what God had already promised him? Why this civil war if David was really God’s man to be king? Was there sin in his life? Was he out of God’s will? The answer to both questions is no. Then why didn’t God do what he had promised without all this fighting?
The story from David’s life in 2 Samuel 2-3 provides a framework for answering that question. Why did David have to fight for what God had already promised him? These two chapters–which are basically about a civil war in Israel–suggest two answers.
1. That the rightness of his cause could be slowly revealed (2:11-3:5).
The key is the word slowly. David was thirty when he became king in Hebron. He was thirty-seven when he finally ruled the whole nation. What was God doing during that seven-year period? He was demonstrating to the people of Israel that David was indeed his man. We see this fact in two ways.
Strange as it may seem to us, David needed those seven years in Hebron to be fully prepared to be king over the whole nation.
A. In the victories his soldiers won in battle (2:12-3:1).
Abner son of Ner, together with the men of Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, left Mahanaim and went to Gibeon. Joab son of Zeruiah and David’s men went out and met them at the pool of Gibeon. One group sat down on one side of the pool and one group on the other side. Then Abner said to Joab, “Let’s have some of the young men get up and fight hand to hand in front of us.” “All right, let them do it,” Joab said. So they stood up and were counted off-twelve men for Benjamin and Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, and twelve for David. Then each man grabbed his opponent by the head and thrust his dagger into his opponent’s side, and they fell down together. (2 Samuel 2:12-16).
This is like one of those wrestling spectaculars where twelve men get in the ring at once. Only here it’s twenty-four men, and they all end up killing each other. It’s a tie. So they just go ahead and have a regular battle, and verse 17 says, “The battle that day was very fierce, and Abner and the men of Israel were defeated by David’s men.” If you want the body count, just drop down to verse 30: “Then Joab” (remember, he’s on David’s side) “returned from pursuing Abner and assembled all his men. Besides Asahel” (that’s Joab’s brother, who was killed by Abner) “nineteen of David’s men were found missing. But David’s men had killed three hundred and sixty Benjamites who were with Abner.” That’s like winning a football game 360 to 20. It’s a kill ratio of 18 to 1 in David’s favor. The whole point is that God was demonstrating that David was his man by giving him overwhelming victory on the battlefield.
B. In the birth of his six sons at Hebron (3:2-5).
Notice what the last part of 3:1 says. “David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul grew weaker and weaker.” We’ve already seen how that was true on the battlefield. But look what comes next. Verses 2-5 are a list of six sons who were born to David by six different women while he was in Hebron. The sons are Amnon, Kileab, Absalom, Adonijah, Shephatiah, and Ithream. Among the wives, the one we know best is Abigail, the widow of Nabal. At first glance you may wonder why this list of sons is placed here. It appears to be out of place, but it isn’t. In the ancient world one way a king demonstrated his power and greatness was by having many sons by many women. That’s what this passage is stressing. That is, David was not only growing stronger on the battlefield, he was also growing stronger in the bedroom. That’s hard for us to accept, but there it is.
But this is polygamy, you say. Yes, and it was never God’s highest and best plan for mankind. But God permitted it in the Old Testament. David indulged himself this way, and he is still called “a man after God’s heart.” But-and this is a big but-one of the sons mentioned here is Absalom, who was to bring him nothing but heartache and shame. Thus David was sowing the seeds that would later bring forth bitter fruit. For the moment, though, these sons were a sign of God’s blessing.
And that’s the first answer to the question, Why did David have to fight for what God had promised? Because in the fighting and in the waiting God was writing his will in the sky for all Israel to see. It was as plain as day. Only the blind could miss it. David was God’s man-on the battlefield and in the bedroom.
2. That the purity of his motives might be openly revealed (3:6-39).
If the first reason had to do with external things, this one has to with David’s heart. It was important that the people of Israel knew that David was not only God’s man, but that he was the right kind of man. That is, they had to be convinced that God’s choice ought to be their choice as well. God did that by arranging the circumstances so that the purity of David’s motives might be openly revealed. This also happened in two ways.
A. In his willingness to welcome Abner to his side.
I’ve already mentioned that Abner was Saul’s number one general. After Saul’s death, he becomes the most powerful man in Israel. He is the one who put up Ish-Bosheth as a kind of puppet king. But make no mistake, Abner was the power behind the throne. Second Samuel 3:6-21 tells us how Abner came over to David’s side. It happened because Ish-Bosheth accused him of sleeping with Rizpah, one of Saul’s concubines. In the ancient world, women were a symbol of political power, and the more women a man had, the more power he had. Thus a king might have many wives and many concubines, and all of them together would make up his harem. Rizpah was part of Saul’s harem. After he died, the harem more or less passed on to Ish-Bosheth.
When Ish-Bosheth accused Abner of sleeping with Rizpah, he was essentially accusing him of trying to pull a bedroom coup d’etat. Abner was so upset that he decided to leave Ish-Bosheth and join David. It is here that you see something of David’s heart. After some negotiation, he welcomed Abner into his camp. If you read the story of David’s life, you will find that he had many character flaws. But one of his great strengths was that he knew how to forgive the past and turn enemies into friends. In welcoming Abner, David’s heart was openly revealed for all to see.
B. In his grief at Abner’s untimely death.
This was the final episode of the civil war. David had won on the battlefield and the opposing general had come over to his side. But before peace could be declared, Abner was assassinated. It happened because Joab was jealous of Abner and did not trust him. Remember, they had just been fighting each other. And in that battle, Abner had been forced to kill Joab’s brother Asahel in self-defense. So the assassination was partly revenge and partly jealousy.
Joab set up a trap to catch Abner alone at the well of Sirah. 2 Samuel 3:27 picks up the story.
Now when Abner returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside into the gateway, as though to speak with him privately. And there, to avenge the blood of his brother Asahel, Joab stabbed him in the stomach, and he died.
What would David do? If he sided with Joab, the people of Israel would think he set the whole thing up. If that happened, they would never trust him as king. His reaction was critical. It took place in five parts.
First, he pronounced a curse on Joab and his house (vv. 28-29).
Second, he declared a period of public mourning (vv. 31-32).
Third, he composed a lament for Abner (vv. 33-34).
Fourth, he entered a personal fast (v. 35).
Fifth, he spoke of his personal anguish (vv. 38-39).
The way a man responds in a time of crisis tells a great deal about his character.
Notice how the people responded to David’s grief. “All the people took note and were pleased; indeed, everything the king did pleased them. So on that day all the people and all Israel knew that the king had no part in the murder of Abner son of Ner” (2 Samuel 3:36-37). This may seem small to you, but I assure you it was big to the people of Israel. The way a man responds in a time of crisis tells a great deal about his character. In this case, David’s grief revealed the purity of his motives. He was not trying to take the throne by devious means.
Let me summarize what we learn about David’s life from this story. God had a purpose in making David fight for what he had promised. Through the years of struggle and controversy the rightness of his cause was slowly revealed. Through the events involving Abner, the purity of his motives was openly revealed. By the end of it all, two things were clear:
1. David was God’s man to be king.
2. David was the right man to be king.
Strange as it may seem to us, David needed those seven years in Hebron to be fully prepared to be king over the whole nation. And the people of Israel and Judah needed the time to get to know David’s character. If they were going to trust him as king, they had to know what he was like. If we stand back and look at the situation, we can say with confidence, “It had to happen this way,” even though with all the intrigue and infighting and all the killing, it didn’t make much sense at the time. In fact, it looks like the usual political machinations that take place whenever a king dies-or a senator needs to be replaced. Suddenly life becomes very messy, alliances are made, broken, remade and broken again. Rumors spread, people talk, emails fly, threats and promises commingle as first one person and then another angles for the top spot. And somehow through all of it God works to accomplish his will.
Believing in Advance
I remind you again of the words of Philip Yancey. “Faith is believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” That’s my favorite definition of faith because it seems to be universally true. Right now-today!-lots of things don’t make any sense. Probably all of us have a secret list of things we would change if only we could. But faith, true God-honoring faith, looks at the perplexities of life and says, “I can’t see any reason for this, but I believe that one day I will look back and say ‘The Lord knew all along exactly what he was doing.’”
Faith is believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.
How does all this apply to us? I submit that David’s life is a pattern of how God deals with his children. It helps us understand why God makes it hard when it ought to be easy. Why do seminary students struggle? Why do godly men get passed over for promotions? Why do some people reel from one catastrophe to another? Why do some women struggle for years to overcome the memories of their past? Why do some couples spend all their lives almost-but-not-quite making it? Why do so many people have to wait so long for something really good to happen in their lives? And why do some churches seem to take three steps forward and two steps back?
The episodes in David’s life we have just discussed demonstrate four steps God is taking when he makes it hard when it ought to be easy. It is God’s plan to . . .
1. Vindicate us slowly.
2. Bless us openly.
3. Surprise us occasionally.
4. Test us continually.
Those four things taken together explain much of what happens to us. Some of you right now are in the vindication process. You are in the middle of a hard and difficult time, but it is God’s intention to ultimately display the rightness of your cause. It’s just not happening very fast. Some of you are being blessed openly, and that’s a wonderful thing. Enjoy it, because it won’t last forever. Some of you are being surprised by God with an unusual and unexpected circumstance. That is part of God’s serendipity. And all of us are being tested continually. That, too, is part of God’s plan.
God doesn’t work according to our timetable. </h6 class=”pullquote”>
One other point needs to be mentioned. God doesn’t work according to our timetable. We think, “Lord, I’m ready to move on. Let’s go.” And God says, “Not so fast. I have a bigger plan in mind.” A few days ago we received a note offering us a helpful insight:
I’ve thought a lot about what I wish and hope for, with my friends, and you know what….my thoughts are a bit different this year. I wish for you both, some positive (enough to praise him) some negative (not too much, but hopefully you’ll be able to praise him) and enough of life in between to know that you are in the middle of God’s plan for your lives! Just to know that, is enough to keep on going.
That strikes me as an entirely biblical way to think about the future. God sends hard times because we need them in order to grow. That, I suppose, is the final reason God makes it hard when it ought to be easy. He is developing character in us, and to do that adversity is essential. That is why life isn’t easy, why nothing works the way it’s supposed to, why we struggle so hard to get ahead. God’s agenda and timetable are often quite different from ours.
In all of this we have the example of Jesus Christ, who “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). If he had to learn obedience, how much more do we? If adversity was essential for the Son of God, how much more for us? Do not despair. The road is hard and the journey long because God made it that way. But there is a crown and a throne at the end for those who persevere.