Hell is Family

Hell is Other People

Here is the plot description from Wikipedia of Jean Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit”.

Three damned souls, Joseph Garcin, Inès Serrano, and Estelle Rigault, are brought to the same room in Hell and locked inside by a mysterious valet. They had all expected torture devices to punish them for eternity, but instead find a plain room furnished in the style of the Second French Empire. At first, none of them will admit the reason for their damnation: Joseph says that he was executed for being a pacifist, while Estelle insists that a mistake has been made; Inès, however, is the only one to demand that they all stop lying to themselves and confess to their moral crimes. She refuses to believe that they have all ended up in the room by accident and soon realizes that they have been placed together to make each other miserable; she deduces that they are to be one another’s torturers.

Joseph suggests that they try to leave each other alone and to be silent, but Inès starts to sing about an execution and Estelle vainly wants to find a mirror to check on her appearance. Inès tries to seduce Estelle by offering to be her “mirror” by telling her everything she sees, but ends up frightening her instead. It is soon clear that Inès is attracted to Estelle, Estelle is attracted to Joseph, and Joseph is not attracted to either of the two women.

After arguing, they decide to confess to their crimes so they know what to expect from each other. Joseph cheated on and mistreated his wife; Inès seduced her cousin’s wife while living with them; and Estelle had an affair and then killed the resulting child, prompting the child’s father to commit suicide. Despite their revelations, they continue to get on each other’s nerves. Joseph finally begins giving in to the lascivious Estelle’s escalating attempts to seduce him, which drives Inès crazy. Joseph is constantly interrupted by his own guilt, however, and begs Estelle to tell him he is not a coward for attempting to flee his country during wartime. While she complies, Inès tells him that Estelle is just feigning attraction to him so that she can be with a man – any man.

This causes Joseph to abruptly attempt an escape. After his trying to open the door repeatedly, it inexplicably and suddenly opens, but he is unable to bring himself to leave, and the others remain as well. He says that he will not be saved until he can convince Inès to trust in him. She refuses, saying that he is obviously a coward, and promising to make him miserable forever. Joseph concludes that rather than torture devices or physical punishment, “hell is other people.” Estelle tries to persevere in her seduction of Joseph, but he says that he cannot make love while Inès is watching. Estelle, infuriated, picks up a paper knife and repeatedly stabs Inès. As they are all already dead, this attack does nothing and Inès even halfheartedly stabs herself, beginning to laugh. As Estelle comments on the idea of their being trapped here forever and laughs too, all three join in a prolonged fit of laughter before Joseph finally concludes, “Eh bien, continuons” (roughly “Eh well, let’s continue…”).

The power of the story is how well we can all appreciate it. “Hell is other people”.

We live in the little stories we tell ourselves casting ourselves as the central character. We construct little dramas imagining and hoping that we will attain or succeed or transform, often only to discover that when we finally arrive, it isn’t as we thought it would be.

David as King of Judah

Read 2 Samuel 2-4. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Samuel+2-4&version=NIV It’s a strange passage that gets very little attention. Why should it. Isn’t it mostly just early iron age political intrigue? What could it say to us?

Saul is dead, the Philistines are now free to raid Israel, Saul’s army has fled to the Transjordan with Ishbosheth Saul’s surviving son. David inquires to the Lord where he should go and so he goes to Hebron where he is anointed King of Judah. While he isn’t king over all of Israel, he’s king over a significant portion.

David, through his connections now with the Philistines and his private army in tact likely is protecting Judah from the Philistines and so now he settles in at Hebron. What is interesting is that the focus of the story shifts from David’s thoughts and deeds more to those of Abner and Joab.

Family Ties

Abner is Saul’s Alexander Haig. He’s in charge now and its quite clear that Ishbosheth is not Saul. He’s insecure like his father but he’s also weak, far less than tyrant Saul or valiant Jonathan.

Abner is either Saul’s cousin or uncle. Abner is part of Saul’s family and therefore now part of Ishosheth’s family if we imagine for a minute that Ishosheth is its head. This imagination can’t last long.

Abner will never himself be king, but Abner will be the strong man who looks out for the family interest. He will be the adult in the room when those in power lose themselves. Abner is a solid guy that you can call on to get things done.

Joab is David’s nephew and has been his military chief. Joab too wants to secure his future so pretty quickly Abner and Joab will get down to business over the question who will be king over all of Israel. Isn’t a civil war inevitable? Surely no one expected the house of Saul or the tribe of Benjamin to simply relinquish their claim to David. What starts with sort of battle-by-proxy turns into a full scale civil war.

Joab’s younger brother Asahel, tries to make a name for himself. He’s faster than the crafty old veteran Abner but he’s no match for him. Abner doesn’t want to fight Asahel not because he fears him, but he is ultimately a politician who wants to keep his options open with David, and therefore with David’s nephew Joab. Abner keeps warning Asahel to turn back and make a name for himself by taking on a lesser foe. Asahel won’t relent. Abner turns and kills him.

Joab now wants Abner dead but can’t get to it right away.

Things deteriorate with Ishbosheth as the the civil war drags on and David’s side slowly gains the upper hand. Abner decides its time to cut a deal. Ishbosheth doesn’t like it but can’t stand up to Abner and simply becomes his dog.

David is ready to be magnanimous as he’s signaled all along. After Saul’s death he sent gracious overtures to Saul’s allies basically telling them if they come with him there will be no reprisals. He’ll honor Saul, his house, and be a good king over all. All he wants really is his first wife Michal back, who was given to another. Ishosheth agrees. Abner gets Michal. Her new husband crying and protesting all the way. With one threat from Abner he too heads home with his tail between his legs. David securing Michal was likely a political move as much as anything. Bedding a former woman who had slept with the king is a political act as much as anything. David knows politics and is shrewd.

David is happy the war is over and sees a future for Abner and his political connections. Joab still wants revenge. He tricks Abner and murders him. David honors Abner and curses his own cousin.

Two other scoundrels, like the Amalekite see and opportunity to score points with new king David and they take Ishosheth’s life. David reminds them about what he did to the Amalekite, has them killed, and hangs their bodies up in Hebron to remind everyone that David will not allow cheap political murders to happen even if people think they might do so to curry favor with him.

In the middle of this section is a summary passage where David is noted as now having six sons while being king of Judah for seven and a half years.

2 Samuel 3:1–5 (NIV)

1 The war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasted a long time. David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul grew weaker and weaker. 2 Sons were born to David in Hebron: His firstborn was Amnon the son of Ahinoam of Jezreel; 3 his second, Kileab the son of Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel; the third, Absalom the son of Maakah daughter of Talmai king of Geshur; 4 the fourth, Adonijah the son of Haggith; the fifth, Shephatiah the son of Abital; 5 and the sixth, Ithream the son of David’s wife Eglah. These were born to David in Hebron.

David Has Arrived

One of the clear messages from the text is that David has arrived. He is now the mature, magnanimous, politician/warrior/king who has come into his own first over Judah and eventually over Israel. We can tell, already, that the Philistines, the Ammonites nor anyone else will be a match for him. He can manage even veteran Abner. He can cut deals. He can put the needs of the country over his own needs. He is accumulating the accouterments of power. Isn’t this what all the preparation of David’s character up to now has been pointing to?

Kings are Captive to This World

At the same time we see right away that even as David grows in power he is increasingly subject to his own appetites and the relational bonds that bind. One of the ironies of human life is that the more power and responsibility you have the more bound you are to the rules and relationships around you.

  • David has to work with Abner in the political sphere
  • David has to secure first wife Michal. It’s not about romance or feelings or preference. It’s about his job.
  • David will be bound to Joab by family and necessity. Joab will be with him for many more years to come. Joab knows David needs him so goes ahead and murders Abner, someone David likely wished to keep around. David may curse Joab but he won’t fire him.
  • David begins accumulating wives and sons and as we see from the list wives for matters of international relations. These sons and connections will bear fruit, often bitter as the kingship develops. Here David seems a prisoner not only to the military/political necessities of his new office but also to the appetites of his own heart. Family matters will bring him much suffering to come.

The King Israel Needs, Almost

What we see here is that David has become the man God needs him to be, almost. He is the king Israel needs. He will put the interests of the flock ahead of his own. He will have the strength and the skills to save Israel from the Philistines. He will have the political savvy to manage the international relations for his time.

David will seem to be the entire package, almost. David’s strengths will make his flaws all the more obvious. David will have family troubles, troubles he will never conquer. David will be surrounded by regular people, the kinds of people in Sartre’s hell and David, will prevail. The only one David will most often fail to overcome is himself.

The pacing of the book of Samuel has always intrigued me. The story slows way down and get granular for the making of David and the unmaking of Saul. Once Saul is reduced to just a political house that David must contend with in a political way the text notes details about his kingship but the focus will be on what today we would call his “personal life”. The Philistines who were THE major issue at the beginning of the book are quickly rapped up, and we focus on David’s greatness and great failures.

Sartre’s Play Missed Something Important, Family

What these stories do is place David in Sartre’s box. He is there in that room with Abner and Joab, although the knives still work. There is Ishbosheth and his killers, and at each turn David seems to in public make all the right moves, but in private realize how trapped he is.

David begins to fill his box with family. He comes to Hebron with two wives and no sons, he reclaims Michal and though four more women (but not Michal) has six sons, some of those names we will revisit soon, in rooms of their own.

This is a transition story. We are moving from David as shepherd/singer/warrior/exile to David as king and the reviews are mostly good, mostly. The seeds of his destruction are beneath the public royal presentation.

If you wanted to isolate these passages and derive some sort of moral lesson I suppose we could find one about polygamy. But it is family bonds that energize these stories. The sons of Zeruiah, David’s sister are what tie it together. Asahel’s ambition to be remembered for killing the great Abner. Joab’s more mature patient self-control to kill Abner out of revenge in defiance against his uncle David, knowing full well he’ll get away with it. The sons of Rimmon from Benjamin who have lived by the sword who imagine that killing Ishbosheth will ingratiate themselves by turning on their own tribesman to win a reward from David. What holds this transition together is family and its treachery. Family is the seedbed from which we spring and the fertile ground from which we practice our most cruel intentions. In the midst of this, innocently, David is multiplying family like none of us could imagine. Six sons in seven years through six different women. His political and leadership skills will be brought low by the fruit of his loins. The sons of Rimmon and the sons of Zeruiah will fill the room in which David must live. If there is anything that Sartre missed it is that the three in his room were strangers. For most of us the ones in the room are family, spouses, sons, daughters parents. Might we say “hell is family”?

If the book of Samuel explores the truth about monarchy it’s theme of family must be given prominence. Monarchy and family go together like daggers and blood.

When God Joined Our Family

As Christians when we read David we keep an eye out for Jesus. Again and again the New Testament wishes to remind us that Jesus is David’s son. Jesus is David’s heir. Jesus is the finisher of David’s mission.

We must see Jesus coming into our world and of course he comes with family. Son of David, questions of legitimacy.

Jesus will have David’s nobility and high-mindedness but far more courage. Jesus, unlike David seems both able to extend familial love to all yet not be bound by familial compromise like David finds in the sons of Zeruiah. He has no vengeance like Joab. He will not look the other way like David.

All of this will cost Jesus like it doesn’t cost David. David will later on escape Absalom’s snare as he did the snares of Saul and many others. Jesus, it seems, will be caught, scourged, killed. The family of humanity is not a safe place for Jesus.


In Sartre’s play those in the room mostly begin with self-justifying speeches. Their presence in hell certainly must have been a mistake. Isn’t everyone good at heart, doing the best they can?

The picture of humanity in these stories is revelation. It is people doing what they do.

  • Joab’s love of brother drives him to treachery.
  • Abner is just trying to figure out his next job and help Israel have a better king.
  • Ishbosheth doesn’t have a choice in turning over his sister to David.
  • Michal’s husband has no choice in going back when Abner snears.
  • Asahel is just trying to use his assets to live up to his potential
  • David is doing what is expected and political as he adds wives and concubines and sons and daughters. David securing Michal is just good politics.
  • The sons of Rimmon are using their position to climb the ladder of success. Surely it is in David’s best interest to eliminate the house of Saul

All of this adds up to the world they are living in. They might all feel it is unfortunate, but they in the end excuse themselves because “we had no other choice. We were only doing what was expected weren’t we?”

Hell is other people means hell is family too.


Jesus of course comes into the room and what he does is reveal ourselves to us.

  • Jesus next to David shows us all the ways David falls short.
  • Jesus next to Asahel and Joab show how they fall short
  • Jesus next to Michal and Paltiel her husband make both fall short
  • Jesus next to noble, strong Abner makes him look like a political opportunist in the midst of his family loyalty to the house of Saul
  • Jesus next to Ishbosheth is just hard to stomach.
  • Jesus hangs between the likes of the sons of Rimmon on his cross.

The crucified Christ hangs before the world seemingly defeated by it but at once exposes it for what it is and rescues it from itself. All at once.


You don’t have to use your imagination to see yourself in Sartre’s room. You live in it every day. The ones you share the room with are not strangers. It would be easier with strangers, until they weren’t strangers anymore. People are often more poorly behaved towards their family in ways they would never try with strangers. Strangers would snap back, hit back, call the police, sue in court. Family takes it, like David taking the treachery of Joab. What can he do? He’s family.

The life and death of Jesus are invitations to live in the room in a different way. David had nobility of office but catastrophe at home. The resurrection gives us the justification and the hopeful promise to spend a life in the midst of your big or little Sartre room in the way of Jesus. Jesus’ cheek turning, truth telling, learning to practice love.

As Americans we are at a disadvantage when it comes to love. Everyone is very positive on love, but our definition of live is skewed to the romantic and the indulgent. Jesus’ love, the kind that costs him, is what he is talking about when he admonishes us to love our neighbors, all the way up to and including our enemies.

When the Apostle Paul describes love he does it this way.

1 Corinthians 13:4–7 (NIV)

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Apply that standard to the characters of the story today. Do you see how Jesus shines and they all turn dim?

What if you have been forgiven. What if it is NOT true that you only live once, for the next few years or so. What if instead you have been freed from the fear of death and where you live is not a place you need to secure or keep score but a place where you have the challenge of learning to love hard to love people? Now suddenly you don’t have to say “I didn’t have a choice.” Now you an be free. Now you may even begin to shine.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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