Ishbosheth – The man who remained silent because of fear

Ishbosheth, ‘Saul’s son, was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel and reigned two years. But the house of Judah followed David’, 2 Sam. 2. 10. His name means ‘man of shame’ and he was originally called Eshbaal, 1 Chr. 8. 33. He was the youngest of King Saul’s four sons, his siblings being Jonathan, Malchi-Shua, and Abinadab.1 It has been suggested that the Jewish chroniclers changed his name because his original name sounded too much like the name of the god Baal, the idol worshipped by the Canaanites.

Ishbosheth was born around 1047 BC and there is some controversy as to when he became king.2 Some experts state that he became king when he was aged forty, while others believe he was between thirty-two and thirty-three. However, the scripture is clear that he was forty years old when he began to reign, 2 Sam 2. 10. King Saul, the first king of the nation of Israel, died with his three other sons in a battle against the Philistines at Mount Gilboa, 1 Sam. 31. 2. Whether or not Ishbosheth escaped from the Philistine slaughter or was not present at the battle is not known.

As the only surviving son of King Saul and under the Hebrew laws of inheritance, Ishbosheth became king with the full support of his uncle, Abner, 14. 50. By this time the northern kingdom of Israel was in ruins and there was no city that would acknowledge the rule of the house of Saul. Thus, Abner took Ishbosheth to the city of Mahanaim and there stated the right of Ishbosheth to the throne, from where he ruled for two years. Abner’s reasoning behind his setting up of Ishbosheth as king of all the tribes of Israel except Judah, was to grab power after the demise of Saul. Over an extended period of time, exactly how long we do not know, the conflict between the houses of Saul and David continued, but with David gradually becoming stronger.

It is in 997 BC that we get the first mention of Rizpah, one of Saul’s concubines. Rizpah, who was a Hivite, is the subject of an accusation by Ishbosheth that Abner had had a physical relationship with her, 2 Sam. 3. 15. Whether there was any justification for the accusation is doubtful, but relations between Abner and Ishbosheth soured and, as a result, Abner stated that he would now give all the house of Israel over to the control of King David, vv. 6-9.

Later in the same chapter, v. 14, we read that David demanded of Ishbosheth that he ‘deliver to me my wife Michal’. Michal was lshbosheth’s sister and King David’s first wife. As Michal had helped David to escape Saul, he in retaliation gave his daughter Michel to be another man’s wife. Ishbosheth sought to reverse that by telling Abner to take Michal from her present husband and give her back to David. Whether or not Michel was happy to return to David does not seem to have troubled Ishbosheth. It would not be long afterwards that Joab murdered Abner.

2 Samuel chapter 4 opens with the fact that when Ishbosheth heard that Abner was dead he lost heart, knowing that the man who had supported him, albeit for his own reasons, was gone. He now knew that his reign was over, and his position untenable. Indeed, the whole of the northern kingdom of Israel was greatly concerned, for they knew that it was Abner’s strength that gave them protection, not Ishbosheth’s. In fact, it was not long after that Ishbosheth was murdered by two military leaders while sleeping in his own bed. This led to Israel’s leaders ultimately making David king over both Israel and Judah.

What can we learn today from the divinely recorded exploits of Ishbosheth? He seems to be a man of few convictions, a weak man who relied on others, particularly Abner. He trusted in man rather than put his faith in God. The danger of such an action became clear when Abner stated his intention to give the kingdom to David, yet Ishbosheth said nothing, ‘because he feared him’, 2 Sam. 3. 11. The challenge comes to us; are we men and women of conviction, with courage to stand for those convictions? Or are we prepared not to allow the fear of men to inhibit our actions, Prov. 29. 25? Can we say with the Psalmist, ‘In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust’, Ps. 31. 1? Ishbosheth used his sister as a political pawn, having no feelings for her. The challenge of the Lord remains, ‘By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another’, John 13. 35.<



1 Chr. 8. 33; 9. 39.


Date according to Ussher, James Ussher, Annals of the World.