Ish-bosheth is the forgotten man of the supposedly United Kingdoms of Saul, David, and Solomon. Yet, far from being a footnote in history, he represents an important reality: namely that in its early years, David's kingdom was anything but united, and that the northern political impulse to resist southern domination was strong from the beginning. In fact, David initially only ruled parts of his own tribal area of Judah, while Ish-bosheth inherited Saul's foundation of influence not only over the tribe of Benjamin but several other tribes as well.
Who was this "man of shame" or "man of Ba'al" so little known to us today? He was the fourth son of Israel's first divinely anointed monarch, not initially meant to be king, but thrust into a position of great responsibility by the tragic demise of his father and brothers at Mount Gilboa. We know nothing of his spiritual life, his relationship to priests and prophets, or his feelings for God. Did he, like many of the people of his time, see Yahweh and Ba'al as essentially two words for the same being? Apparently his father did, for he called his first son "Jonathan" (gift of Yahweh) and his fourth son "Ish-ba'al" (man of Ba'al). The word "Ba'al" meant "Lord," having a meaning similar to the English word used today instead of Yahweh, the "Lord."
Whatever his religious attitude, Ish-bosheth seems to have been incapable of rising to the task before him. Indecisive and dependent on the strength of his uncle and general Abner, he failed to act decisively when Abner committed treason by sleeping with Saul's concubine. He then foolishly trusted Abner and allowed him to bring David's first wife, Michal, to Hebron, while Michal's pitiable husband could only follow along weeping. When Abner was slain by Joab, all Ish-bosheth is portrayed as doing to defend himself against impending doom was to take a nap and wait for his assassins to kill him.
This portrait of Ish-bosheth, of course, is unfair. It is written by the partisans of his enemy, David. Yet it does hold important lessons. Young men or women thrust into leadership by unforeseen events in their families cannot afford simply to trust the advisers, relatives, and powerful supporters of their royal parents. They must make their own way, build their own foundation, and act decisively at the critical moment.