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LAST BATTLES AND THE MIGHTY MEN.
2 Samuel xxi. 15-22; xxiii. 8-39.
In entering on the consideration of these two portions of the history of David, we must first observe that the events recorded do not appear to belong to the concluding portion of his reign. It is impossible for us to assign a precise date to them, or at least to most of them, but the displays of physical activity and courage which they record would lead us to ascribe them to a much earlier period. Originally, they seem to have formed parts of a record of David's wars, and to have been transferred to the Books of Samuel and Chronicles in order to give a measure of completeness to the narrative. The narrative in Chronicles is substantially the same as that in Samuel, but the text is purer. From notes of time in Chronicles it is seen that some at least of the encounters took place after the war with the children of Ammon.
Why have these passages been inserted in the history of the reign of David? Apparently for two chief purposes. In the first place, to give us some idea of the dangers to which he was exposed in his military life, dangers manifold and sometimes overwhelming, and all but fatal; and thus enable us to see how wonderful were the deliverances he experienced,339 and prepare us for entering into the song of thanksgiving which forms the twenty-second chapter, and of which these deliverances form the burden. In the second place, to enable us to understand the human instrumentality by which he achieved so brilliant a success, the kind of men by whom he was helped, the kind of spirit by which they were animated, and their intense personal devotion to David himself. The former purpose is that which is chiefly in view in the end of the twenty-first chapter, the latter in the twenty-third. The exploits themselves occur in encounters with the Philistines, and may therefore be referred partly to the time after the slaughter of Goliath, when he first distinguished himself in warfare, and the daughters of Israel began to sing, "Saul hath slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands;" partly to the time in his early reign when he was engaged driving them out of Israel, and putting a bridle on them to restrain their inroads; and partly to a still later period. It is to be observed that nothing more is sought than to give a sample of David's military adventures, and for this purpose his wars with the Philistines alone are examined. If the like method had been taken with all his other campaigns,—against Edom, Moab, and Ammon; against the Syrians of Rehob, and Maacah, and Damascus, and the Syrians beyond the river,—we might borrow the language of the Evangelist, and say that the world itself would not have been able to contain the books that should be written.
Four exploits are recorded in the closing verses of the twenty-first chapter, all with "sons of the giant," or, as it is in the margin, of Rapha. The first was with a man who is called Ishbi-benob, but there is reason to340 suspect that the text is corrupt here, and in Chronicles this incident is not mentioned. The language applied to David, "David and his servants went down," would lead us to believe that the incident happened at an early period, when the Philistines were very powerful in Israel, and it was a mark of great courage to "go down" to their plains, and attack them in their own country. To do this implied a long journey, over steep and rough roads, and it is no wonder if between the journey and the fighting David "waxed faint." Then it was that the son of the giant, whose spear or spearhead weighed three hundred shekels of brass, or about eight pounds, fell upon him "with a new sword, and thought to have slain him." There is no noun in the original for sword; all that is said is, that the giant fell on David with something new, and our translators have made it a sword. The Revised Version in the margin gives "new armour." The point is evidently this, that the newness of the thing made it more formidable. This could hardly be said of a common sword, which would be really more formidable after it had ceased to be quite new, since, by having used it, the owner would know it better and wield it more perfectly. It seems better to take the marginal reading "new armour," that is, new defensive armour, against which the weary David would direct his blows in vain. Evidently he was in the utmost peril of his life, but was rescued by his nephew Abishai, who killed the giant. The risk to which he was exposed was such that his people vowed they would not let him go out with them to battle any more, lest the light of Israel should be quenched.
During the rest of that campaign the vow seems to have been respected, for the other three giants were341 not slain by David personally, but by others. As to other campaigns, David usually took his old place as leader of the army, until the battle against Absalom, when his people prevailed on him to remain in the city.
Three of the four duels recorded here took place at Gob,—a place not now known, but most probably in the neighbourhood of Gath. In fact, all the encounters probably took place near that city. One of the giants slain is said in Samuel, by a manifest error, to have been Goliath the Gittite; but the error is corrected in Chronicles, where he is called the brother of Goliath. The very same expression is used of his spear as in the case of Goliath: "the staff of whose spear was like a weaver's beam." Of the fourth giant it is said that he defied Israel, as Goliath had done. Of the whole four it is said that "they were born to the giant in Gath." This does not necessarily imply that they were all sons of the same father, "the giant" being used generically to denote the race rather than the individual.
But the tenor of the narrative and many of its expressions carry us back to the early days of David. There seems to have been a nest at Gath of men of gigantic stature, brothers or near relations of Goliath. Against these he was sent, perhaps in one of the expeditions when Saul secretly desired that he should fall by the hand of the Philistines. If it was in this way that he came to encounter the first of the four, Saul had calculated well, and was very nearly carrying his point. But though man proposes, God disposes. The example of David in his encounter with Goliath, even at this early period, had inspired several young men of the Hebrews, and even when David was interdicted from going himself into battle, others were342 raised up to take his place. Every one of the giants found a match either in David or among his men. It was indeed highly perilous work; but David was encompassed by a Divine Protector, and being destined for high service in the kingdom of God, he was "immortal till his work was done."
We have said that these were but samples of David's trials, and that they were probably repeated again and again in the course of the many wars in which he was engaged. One can see that the danger was often very imminent, making him feel that his only possible deliverance must come from God. Such dangers, therefore, were wonderfully fitted to exercise and discipline the spirit of trust. Not once or twice, but hundreds of times, in his early experience he would find himself constrained to cry to the Lord. And protected as he was, delivered as he was, the conviction would become stronger and stronger that God cared for him and would deliver him to the end. We see from all this how unnecessary it is to ascribe all the psalms where David is pressed by enemies either to the time of Saul or to the time of Absalom. There were hundreds of other times in his life when he had the same experience, when he was reduced to similar straits, and his appeal lay to the God of his life.
And this was in truth the healthiest period of his spiritual life. It was amid these perilous but bracing experiences that his soul prospered most. The north wind of danger and difficulty braced him to spiritual self-denial and endurance; the south wind of prosperity and luxurious enjoyment was what nearly destroyed him. Let us not become impatient when anxieties multiply around us, and we are beset by troubles, and labours, and difficulties. Do not be tempted343 to contrast your miserable lot with that of others, who have health while you are sick, riches while you are poor, honour while you are despised, ease and enjoyment while you have care and sorrow. By all these things God desires to draw you to Himself, to discipline your soul, to lead you away from the broken cisterns that can hold no water to the fountain of living waters. Guard earnestly against the unbelief that at such times would make your hands hang down and your heart despond; rally your sinking spirit. "Why art thou cast down, O my soul, and why art thou disquieted within me?" Remember the promise, "I will never leave you nor forsake you;" and one day you shall have cause to look back on this as the most useful, the most profitable, the most healthful, period of your spiritual life.
We pass to the twenty-third chapter, which tells us of David's mighty men. The narrative, at some points, is not very clear; but we gather from it that David had an order of thirty men distinguished for their valour; that besides these there were three of supereminent merit, and another three, who were also eminent, but who did not attain to the distinction of the first three. Of the first three, the first was Jashobeam the Hachmonite (see 1 Chron. xi. 11), the second Eleazar, and the third Shammah. Of the second three, who were not quite equal to the first, only two are mentioned, Abishai and Benaiah; thereafter we have the names of the thirty. It is remarkable that Joab's name does not occur in the list, but as he was captain of the host, he probably held a higher position than any. Certainly Joab was not wanting in valour, and must have held the highest rank in a legion of honour.
Of the three mighties of the first rank, and the two344 of the second, characteristic exploits of remarkable courage and success are recorded. The first of the first rank, whom the Chronicles call Jashobeam, lifted up his spear against three hundred slain at one time. (In Samuel the number is eight hundred.) The exploit was worthy to be ranked with the famous achievement of Jonathan and his armour-bearer at the pass of Michmash. The second, Eleazar, defied the Philistines when they were gathered to battle, and when the men of Israel had gone away he smote the Philistines till his hand was weary. The third, Shammah, kept the Philistines at bay on a piece of ground covered with lentils, after the people had fled, and slew the Philistines, gaining a great victory.
Next we have a description of the exploit of three of the mighty men when the Philistines were in possession of Bethlehem, and David in a hold near the cave of Adullam (see 2 Sam. v. 15-21). The occasion of their exploit was an interesting one. Contemplating the situation, and grieved to think that his native town should be in the enemy's hands, David gave expression to a wish—"Oh that some one would give me water to drink of the well of Bethlehem which is before the gate!" It was probably meant for little more than the expression of an earnest wish that the enemy were dislodged from their position—that there were no obstruction between him and the well, that access to it were as free as in the days of his youth. But the three mighty men took him at his word, and breaking through the host of the Philistines, brought the water to David. It was a singular proof of his great personal influence; he was so loved and honoured that to gratify his wish these three men took their lives in their hands to obtain the water. Water got at such a345 cost was sacred in his eyes; it was a thing too holy for man to turn to his use, so he poured it out before the Lord.
Next we have a statement bearing on two of the second three. Abishai, David's nephew, who was one of them, lifted up his spear against three hundred and slew them. Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, slew two lion-like men of Moab (the two sons of Ariel of Moab, R.V.); also, in time of snow, he slew a lion in a pit; and finally he slew an Egyptian, a powerful man, attacking him when he had only a staff in his hand, wrenching his spear from him, and killing him with his own spear. The third of this trio has not been mentioned; some conjecture that he was Amasa ("chief of the captains"—"the thirty," R.V., 1 Chron. xii. 18), and that his name was not recorded because he deserted David to side with Absalom. Among the other thirty, we cannot but be struck with two names—Eliam the son of Ahithophel the Gilonite, and apparently the father of Bathsheba; and Uriah the Hittite. The sin of David was all the greater if it involved the dishonour of men who had served him so bravely as to be enrolled in his legion of honour.
With regard to the kind of exploits ascribed to some of these men, a remark is necessary. There is an appearance of exaggeration in statements that ascribe to a single warrior the routing and killing of hundreds through his single sword or spear. In the eyes of some such statements give the narrative an unreliable look, as if the object of the writer had been more to give éclat to the warriors than to record the simple truth. But this impression arises from our tendency to ascribe the conditions of modern warfare to the warfare of these times. In Eastern history, cases of a single warrior346 putting a large number to flight, and even killing them, are not uncommon. For though the strength of the whole number was far more than a match for his, the strength of each individual was far inferior; and if the mass of them were scarcely armed, and the few who had arms were far inferior to him, the result would be that after some had fallen the rest would take to flight; and the destruction of life in a retreat was always enormous. The incident recorded of Eleazar is very graphic and truth-like. "He smote the Philistines until his hand was weary, and his hand clave unto his sword." A Highland sergeant at Waterloo had done such execution with his basket-handled sword, and so much blood had coagulated round his hand, that it had to be released by a blacksmith, so firmly were they glued together. The style of Eastern warfare was highly favourable to deeds of great courage being done by individuals, and in the terrific panic which followed their first successes prodigious slaughter often ensued. Under present conditions of fighting such things cannot be done.
The glimpse which these little notices give us of King David and his knights is extremely interesting. The story of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table bears a resemblance to it. We see the remarkable personal influence of David, drawing to himself so many men of spirit and energy, firing them by his own example, securing their warm personal attachment, and engaging them in enterprises equal to his own. How far they shared his devotional spirit we have no means of judging. If the historian reflects the general sentiment in recording their victories when he says, once and again, "The Lord wrought a great victory that day" (xxiii. 10, 12), we should say that trust in God347 must have been the general sentiment. "If it had not been the Lord that was on our side, ... they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us." It is no wonder that David soon gained a great military renown. Such a king, surrounded by such a class of lieutenants, might well spread alarm among all his enemies. One who, besides having such a body of helpers, could claim the assistance of the Lord of hosts, and could enter battle with the shout, "Let God arise; and let His enemies be scattered; and let them also that hate Him flee before Him," might well look for universal victory. Trustworthy generals, we are told, double the value of the troops; and the soldiers that were led by such leaders, trusting in the Lord of hosts, could hardly fail of triumph.
And thus, too, we may see how David came to be thoroughly under the influence of the military spirit, and of some of the less favourable features of that spirit. Accustomed to such scenes of bloodshed, he would come to think lightly of the lives of his enemies. A hostile army he would be prone to regard as a kind of infernal machine, an instrument of evil only, and therefore to be destroyed. Hence the complacency he expresses in the destruction of his enemies. Hence the judgment he calls down on those who thwarted and opposed him. If, in the songs of David, this feeling sometimes disappears, and the expressed desire of his heart is that the nations may be glad and sing for joy, that the people may praise God, that all the people may praise Him, this seems to be in the later period of his life, when all his enemies had been subdued, and he had rest on every side. Even in earnest and spiritually-minded men, religion is often coloured by their worldly calling; and in no case more so, sometimes for better348 and sometimes for worse, than in those who follow the profession of arms.
But in all this military career and influence of David, may we not trace a type of character which was realised in a far higher sphere, and to far grander purpose, in the career of Jesus, David's Son? David on an earthly level is Jesus on a higher. Every noble quality of David, his courage, his activity, his affection, his obedience and trust toward God, his devotion to the welfare of others, reappears purer and higher in Jesus. If David is surrounded by his thirty mighties and his two threes, so is Jesus by His twelve apostles, His seventy disciples, and pre-eminently the three apostles who went with Him into the innermost scenes. If David's men are roused by his example to deeds of daring like his own, so the apostles and disciples go into the world to teach, to fight, to heal, and to bless, as Christ had done before them. Looking back from the present moment to David's time, what young man of spirit but feels that it would have been a great joy to belong to his company, much better than to be among those who were always carping and criticising, and laughing at the men who shared his danger and sacrifices? And does any one think that, when another cycle of ages has gone past, he will have occasion to congratulate himself that while he lived on earth he had nothing to do with Christ and earnest Christians, that he bore no part in any Christian battle, that he kept well away from Christ and His staff, that he preferred the service and pleasure of the world? Surely no. Shall any of us, then, deliberately do to-day what we know we shall repent to-morrow? Is it not certain that Jesus Christ is an unrivalled Commander, pure and noble above all His fellows, that His life was the most349 glorious ever led on earth, and that His service is by far the most honourable? We do not dwell at this moment on the great fact that only in His faith and fellowship can any of us escape the wrath to come, or gain the favour of God. We ask you to say in what company you can spend your lives to most profit, under whose influence you may receive the highest impulses, and be made to do the best service for God and man? It must have been interesting in David's time to see his people "willing in the day of his power," to see young men flocking to his standard in the beauties of holiness, like dewdrops from the womb of the morning. And still more glorious is the sight when young men, even the highest born and the highest gifted, having had grace to see who and what Jesus Christ is, find no manner of life worthy to be compared in essential dignity and usefulness with His service, and, in spite of the world, give themselves to Him. Oh that we could see many such rallying to His standard, contrasting, as St. Paul did, the two services, and counting all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus their Lord!
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