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21. Profiles in Courage (2 Samuel 23)


In my last message, I told you about my friend, Karl Lind, who is waiting to be with the Lord. I called Karl this past week to tell him that my wife and I were thinking about him and remembering him in our prayers. I also told him I had used him in the introduction to my sermon, and then we reminisced about the “good old days” when Bible Baptist Church was just beginning and we met in a funeral parlor. I mentioned that as a boy, I was always looking around, wondering where all the bodies were. “That’s nothing,” Karl responded, “Martha (Karl’s wife) used to teach a Sunday school class across the hall from the embalming room. Every time the class met, they could smell the embalming fluid.”

Actually, a little whiff of embalming fluid might do us all some good from time to time, reminding us of our mortality. As my wife and I traveled up the East Coast recently, we saw a number of quaint little churches, many of which had an adjoining cemetery. It’s too bad this isn’t so in a big city like Dallas any longer, because death and the gospel ought to be closely linked. Every time we go to church, we should be reminded of the inevitability of death, and every time we attend a funeral, we should consider death in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Joe Bayly, now deceased, wrote a book entitled The View From a Hearse, an excellent book on the Christian and dying. When it was reprinted, the book was given a new title; I believe it is now titled, The Last Thing We Ever Talk About. I like the first title better, because I think we all should view life from the vantage-point of a hearse. Men and women nearing the time of their death usually have a very different set of priorities. I saw a film in which Malcolm Muggeridge was standing in the cemetery at the family burial place. As I recall his words, Muggeridge said something like: “I am standing here where my family is buried, knowing that it will not be long before I join them. I must say that when I look back on my life from this vantage point, I realize that many of the things I most dreaded in my younger days, I now prize as having played a very significant and profitable role in my life. Conversely, the things I thought were most needful, I have found to be the least significant and beneficial to me.”

Many are those who in their golden years look back on their earlier years in retrospect and see things differently. David is among that smaller group of individuals who in his golden years sees things not only in terms of his past, but also in terms of his eternal hope.117 David’s psalm in the first seven verses of 2 Samuel 23, is a kind of “view from a hearse.”118 We are told this is the last of David’s recorded words (verse 1). As David nears the time of his death, he looks back upon his life and forward to his eternal hope.

This psalm in the early part of 2 Samuel 23 may seem detached from and unrelated to the remainder of the chapter, which names and honors those mighty heroes who significantly contributed to David’s success. In fact, I believe the two sections of the chapter are very much related, as we shall soon see. For the moment, let me simply say that the entire chapter is about greatness. In verses 1-7, we see what it is that makes a great king. In verses 8-39, two sets of great men are named, the “three” and the “thirty.” In the process of describing their heroic conduct, we are told what made these men great in the eyes of God.

We draw very near to the conclusion of 2 Samuel (which in the Hebrew Bible is really just “Samuel,” since 1 and 2 Samuel were one book); indeed chapters 21-24 are a unit, an epilogue the author uses as his conclusion. Let us learn what makes great men of God. Let us listen and learn what the author has been trying to teach us throughout the entire book.

David’s Song of Salvation

1 Now these are the last words of David. David the son of Jesse declares, The man who was raised on high declares, The anointed of the God of Jacob, And the sweet psalmist of Israel, 2 “The Spirit of the LORD spoke by me, And His word was on my tongue. 3 “The God of Israel said, The Rock of Israel spoke to me, 'He who rules over men righteously, Who rules in the fear of God, 4 Is as the light of the morning when the sun rises, A morning without clouds, When the tender grass springs out of the earth, Through sunshine after rain.’ 5 “Truly is not my house so with God? For He has made an everlasting covenant with me, Ordered in all things, and secured; For all my salvation and all my desire,120 Will He not indeed make it grow? 6 “But the worthless, every one of them will be thrust away like thorns, Because they cannot be taken in hand; 7 But the man who touches them Must be armed with iron and the shaft of a spear, And they will be completely burned with fire in their place.”

As verse 1 indicates, the words of this psalm are David’s last words, not last in the sense that he spoke these words and died,121 never speaking another, but perhaps in the sense that these were his recorded words in the form of a psalm. I am personally inclined to follow the punctuation of the NASB, which starts the quotation marks at verse 2, rather than verse 1. If I understand the translators (and, more importantly, the text) the author of 2 Samuel supplies verse 1 as an introduction. It is not David who refers to himself in such elevated terms (“the man who was raised on high;” “the sweet psalmist of Israel”), but the writer. David was all that verse 1 claims him to be, but it is not David reminding us of this fact, at least as I read the text.

From his humble beginnings as the youngest son of Jesse, a man of no great standing in Israel, David is raised on high by God. David is the “anointed one,” the king, who is the offspring of Jacob, or Israel. On the one hand, being the descendant of Jacob was nothing to brag about either, but this notation does link David with the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12:1-3, etc.) and with the promise to Jacob that through his son Judah, the Messiah (anointed one) would come (Genesis 49:8-10).

David’s recorded words begin then at verse 2. David begins by underscoring the fact that his words are not merely his own, but that they convey the very word of God, spoken to him and through him. David attributes his words to the Holy Spirit, who spoke through David. This is consistent with what the New Testament says about David and the other Old Testament authors:

10 As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven -- things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:10-12).

20 But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, 21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:20-21).

16 “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus” (Acts 1:16).

And so the following words of David are the very words of God, not in a way that is different from the rest of the inspired Scriptures, but in a way that sees these words, like all the other inspired words of Scripture, as a word from God. God spoke to David about what constitutes a righteous rule for a king. God’s king is one who should rule over men righteously. This righteous rule is the outgrowth of a healthy and appropriate fear of God (verse 3). Heathen kings think primarily in terms of being over others; God’s king thinks in terms of being under God. This is something which is clearly evident in the ultimate king, our Lord Jesus Christ:

30 “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 5:30).

6 Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; 7 for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 “For I also am a man placed under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, 'Go!' and he goes, and to another, 'Come!' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this!' and he does it.” 9 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the crowd that was following Him, “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith” (Luke 7:6-9, emphasis mine).

Put in biblical terms, God’s king is spoken of as God’s son (see 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7), not in the sense of being the offspring of God, but in the sense of being subject to the Father.

The outworking of a righteous reign is the blessing of the people. The reign of a wicked king is troublesome to the kingdom:

Like a roaring lion and a rushing bear Is a wicked ruler over a poor people (Proverbs 28:15).

When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, But when a wicked man rules, people groan (Proverbs 29:2).

Thus, we see the emphasis in Scripture of the necessity for kings to rule righteously:

10 A divine decision is in the lips of the king; His mouth should not err in judgment.11 A just balance and scales belong to the LORD; All the weights of the bag are His concern.12 It is an abomination for kings to commit wicked acts, For a throne is established on righteousness.13 Righteous lips are the delight of kings, And he who speaks right is loved (Proverbs 16:10-1).

8 A king who sits on the throne of justice Disperses all evil with his eyes (Proverbs 20:8).

26 A wise king winnows the wicked, And drives the threshing wheel over them.27 The spirit of man is the lamp of the LORD, Searching all the innermost parts of his being.28 Loyalty and truth preserve the king, And he upholds his throne by righteousness (Proverbs 20:26-28).

David describes this same truth poetically (also). He likens the rule of a righteous king to the illumination brought about by the rising sun on a cloudless morning (v. 4a). He further likens a righteous reign to the life-giving rains, followed by the life-giving warmth of the sun which causes the grass to spring forth (v. 4b). Righteous leadership inspires and enables productivity; wickedness stifles and suppresses it. Have we not witnessed this in those peoples oppressed by communism in recent times?

At verse 5, the subject turns to David and to his house (his dynasty). The KJV and the NKJV render the first line of the verse opposite to that of the other versions:

Although my house be not so with God; yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure: for this is all my salvation, and all my desire, although he make it not to grow (KJV).

“Although my house is not so with God, Yet He has made with me an everlasting covenant, Ordered in all things and secure. For this is all my salvation and all my desire; Will He not make it increase? (NKJV).

Compare the rendering of the NIV, NAB, and NRS versions:

“Is not my house right with God?Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant,Arranged and secured in every part?Will he not bring to fruition my salvationAnd grant me my every desire? (NIV)

“Truly is not my house so with God? For He has made an everlasting covenant with me, Ordered in all things, and secured; For all my salvation and all my desire, Will He not indeed make it grow? (NAB).

Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, Ordered in all things and secure. Will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire? (NRS)

The translators had a choice to make. The translators of the King James Versions (old and new) chose to render the first line in the negative; the others rendered it positively. Either way, the sense of David’s words is clear. In the first instance, David would be stressing his unworthiness, along with his house, in contrast with God’s grace in making the Davidic Covenant with him and with his descendants: “Neither I nor my descendants deserve this, but God has made an everlasting covenant with me, a covenant which assures a perpetual reign of righteousness.” In the second instance, David would still be emphasizing God’s grace to him and through him: “Is it not the case that God has, in fact, made my reign and those of my descendants after me righteous, based upon His covenant with me?”

The end result is that David confidently speaks of a reign of righteousness for his house. This is not due to David’s merits or self-righteousness, but rather to the grace of God, assured through His covenant with David (2 Samuel 7:14). Based upon God’s covenant with him, David is assured of an eternal reign of righteousness, signed, sealed, and delivered122 in the covenant of God as fulfilled (ultimately and permanently) in the person of Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.123 This is David’s ultimate salvation and desire, brought about by God, the author and finisher of all salvation. David’s song of salvation is centered in God, from whom, and through whom, and unto whom are all things.

Notice how this psalm impacts Solomon, as seen in his psalm:

1 {A Psalm of Solomon.} Give the king Your judgments, O God, And Your righteousness to the king's son. 2 May he judge Your people with righteousness And Your afflicted with justice. 3 Let the mountains bring peace to the people, And the hills, in righteousness. 4 May he vindicate the afflicted of the people, Save the children of the needy And crush the oppressor. 5 Let them fear You while the sun endures, And as long as the moon, throughout all generations. 6 May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, Like showers that water the earth. 7 In his days may the righteous flourish, And abundance of peace till the moon is no more (Psalm 72:1-7).

Notice how later Old Testament writers pick up on the words of this psalm as they speak of its fulfillment in Christ:

1 Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch from his roots will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3 And He will delight in the fear of the LORD, And He will not judge by what His eyes see, Nor make a decision by what His ears hear; 4 But with righteousness He will judge the poor, And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked. 5 Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, And faithfulness the belt about His waist (Isaiah 11:1-5).

1 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” 2 “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall (Malachi 4:1-2).

David is no Universalist, thinking that the blessings of which he has written are for all mankind. The salvation of which he has written are his desire, his delight. Not all men find their hope and trust in God and in His salvation. Consequently, at the close of his song of salvation, David turns his attention to the fate of the wicked, of those who reject God’s salvation through the Messiah, God’s anointed. The imagery of verses 6 and 7 follows closely that of verse 4, only in contrast. When the righteous King of Israel (Jesus Christ) comes to rule the earth, His kingdom causes the righteous to flourish, as the rain and sun cause the grass to sprout and grow. But the wicked are not likened to grass; they are compared to thorns. Thorns are not valued, harvested, and stored up for future use. Thorns are dealt with at arm’s reach. The one who handles thorns does not take them in hand, lest he be injured by the thorns. He uses a metal blade to cut the thorns and to burn them in place.

This may be a good place to reflect on what David has written here. The message of the Bible is not a promise of salvation and eternal life for all men. It is the offer of salvation to all men. But apart from divine intervention, the wicked will invariably reject this offer. And because they do, they are condemned to destruction by fire. To put it bluntly and biblically, the wicked are condemned to hell:

4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. . . 11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:4-5, 11-15).

The good news of the gospel, offering salvation to all men, cannot be proclaimed in truth without the corresponding warning of eternal judgment from which men must be saved. David’s psalm of salvation looks forward in time to the coming of the Great King, the “Son of David,” the Lord Jesus Christ, whose coming spells salvation for the righteous (in Christ) and judgment for the wicked (apart from Christ). Ultimately, David’s “salvation” is not military, or physical, but spiritual.

Before moving on, allow me to suggest several implications and applications of what we have just read. First, righteousness should be reflected in those whom God has appointed as leaders. Righteousness is rooted in Christ’s work, not our own, but it is reflected in our concern for the poor and the needy, and our response to the wicked. How often parents deal positively with their children, but ignore or refuse to deal with their sin. The Bible requires us to abhor evil and to cling to what is good (Romans 12:9). Righteousness is reflected positively and negatively. To ignore one dimension or the other is to fail to practice righteousness as God requires it of His leaders.

David’s Mighty Men: Profiles in Courage
The Three (23: 8-12) and the Thirty (23:13-39)

    The Three (vv 8-12)

8 These are the names of the mighty men whom David had: Josheb-basshebeth a Tahchemonite, chief of the captains, he was called Adino the Eznite, because of eight hundred slain by him at one time; 9 and after him was Eleazar the son of Dodo the Ahohite, one of the three mighty men with David when they defied the Philistines who were gathered there to battle and the men of Israel had withdrawn. 10 He arose and struck the Philistines until his hand was weary and clung to the sword, and the LORD brought about a great victory that day; and the people returned after him only to strip the slain. 11 Now after him was Shammah the son of Agee a Hararite. And the Philistines were gathered into a troop where there was a plot of ground full of lentils, and the people fled from the Philistines. 12 But he took his stand in the midst of the plot, defended it and struck the Philistines; and the LORD brought about a great victory.

The first of the “three” mighty men is named Josheb-basshebeth, chief of the captains. He is said to have killed 800 at one time. The parallel account in Chronicles differs somewhat:

These constitute the list of the mighty men whom David had: Jashobeam, the son of a Hachmonite, the chief of the thirty; he lifted up his spear against three hundred whom he killed at one time (1 Chronicles 11:11).

The differences in the names in the two accounts is neither surprising nor great. The numbers differ considerably.124 In our text in 2 Samuel, we read that this man killed 800 men at one time; in Chronicles we read that only 300 men were killed. It is difficult to tell which text may have suffered from the error of a copyist, but either way, any man who stands up to several hundred of the enemy and kills all of them in a day is a mighty man of war.

The next hero among the big three is Eleazar, the son of Dodo the Ahohite. Chronicles also describes his heroism:

12 After him was Eleazar the son of Dodo, the Ahohite, who was one of the three mighty men. 13 He was with David at Pasdammim when the Philistines were gathered together there to battle, and there was a plot of ground full of barley; and the people fled before the Philistines. 14 They took their stand in the midst of the plot and defended it, and struck down the Philistines; and the LORD saved them by a great victory (1 Chronicles 11:12-14).

Eleazar was fighting with David against the Philistines. Apparently the Philistines were prevailing over the Israelites, at least through the eyes of many of the Israelite soldiers who fled before them. Eleazar seems to have been defending a field full of barley, which the Philistines may have intended to plunder or destroy (compare Judges 6:2-6, 11). From the “they” of 1 Chronicles 11:14, I would understand that Eleazar was not fighting alone, but alongside David, even though most everyone else had fled. The Philistines fell before Eleazar, and he continued to fight to the point that his hand cramped, frozen to the sword. The battle was won, due in part to the courage and perseverance of Eleazar, but ultimately thanks to God, who gave the victory. When the people returned to the site of the battle, all that remained to do was to strip the dead of the spoils -- that is, to clean up after Eleazar.

The third of the big “three” is Shammah, the son of Agee. On this occasion, the Philistines were once again doing battle with the Israelites. They gathered for battle where a plot of land had a crop of lentils growing. Once again, it seems the Philistines want to deprive the Israelites of their crops. To win this plot of ground was to obtain necessary supplies and to deprive Israel of them. The people fled from the Philistines, but Shammah stood his ground. The Lord gave the victory, and Shammah held his ground, striking a number of the Philistines.

    The Thirty (vv 13-39)

13 Then three of the thirty chief men went down and came to David in the harvest time to the cave of Adullam, while the troop of the Philistines was camping in the valley of Rephaim. 14 David was then in the stronghold, while the garrison of the Philistines was then in Bethlehem. 15 David had a craving and said, “Oh that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem which is by the gate!” 16 So the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines, and drew water from the well of Bethlehem which was by the gate, and took it and brought it to David. Nevertheless he would not drink it, but poured it out to the LORD; 17 and he said, “Be it far from me, O LORD, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went in jeopardy of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. These things the three mighty men did. 18 Abishai, the brother of Joab, the son of Zeruiah, was chief of the thirty. And he swung his spear against three hundred and killed them, and had a name as well as the three. 19 He was most honored of the thirty, therefore he became their commander; however, he did not attain to the three. 20 Then Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, the son of a valiant man of Kabzeel, who had done mighty deeds, killed the two sons of Ariel of Moab. He also went down and killed a lion in the middle of a pit on a snowy day. 21 He killed an Egyptian, an impressive man. Now the Egyptian had a spear in his hand, but he went down to him with a club and snatched the spear from the Egyptian's hand and killed him with his own spear. 22 These things Benaiah the son of Jehoiada did, and had a name as well as the three mighty men. 23 He was honored among the thirty, but he did not attain to the three. And David appointed him over his guard. 24 Asahel the brother of Joab was among the thirty; Elhanan the son of Dodo of Bethlehem, 25 Shammah the Harodite, Elika the Harodite, 26 Helez the Paltite, Ira the son of Ikkesh the Tekoite, 27 Abiezer the Anathothite, Mebunnai the Hushathite, 28 Zalmon the Ahohite, Maharai the Netophathite, 29 Heleb the son of Baanah the Netophathite, Ittai the son of Ribai of Gibeah of the sons of Benjamin, 30 Benaiah a Pirathonite, Hiddai of the brooks of Gaash, 31 Abi-albon the Arbathite, Azmaveth the Barhumite, 32 Eliahba the Shaalbonite, the sons of Jashen, Jonathan, 33 Shammah the Hararite, Ahiam the son of Sharar the Ararite, 34 Eliphelet the son of Ahasbai, the son of the Maacathite, Eliam the son of Ahithophel the Gilonite, 35 Hezro the Carmelite, Paarai the Arbite, 36 Igal the son of Nathan of Zobah, Bani the Gadite, 37 Zelek the Ammonite, Naharai the Beerothite, armor bearers of Joab the son of Zeruiah, 38 Ira the Ithrite, Gareb the Ithrite, 39 Uriah the Hittite; thirty-seven in all.

    Three Men and a Little Drink (vv 13-17)

The incident described in these verses could have occurred before David became king, while he was still fleeing from Saul. The “cave of Adullam” is first mentioned in 1 Samuel 22:1. This is where David located after he fled from Gath. It is where a number of his kinsmen joined him, along with others who were also out of favor with Saul. At some point in time, David and his men were in this cave while they were at war with the Philistines. The Philistines had taken possession of David’s hometown of Bethlehem and were garrisoned there. Perhaps as they were running out of water and David was thirsty, he verbalized what was meant only as a wish. If only he could have but a drink from that well in Bethlehem. No doubt he had drunk from it many times in his younger years and grown particularly fond of the water it provided.

Some of his men could not help but overhear what David said. He had given no orders to fetch him some water from that well. He had not even intended that anyone would be prompted by his words to attempt to get some water from it. But to these three brave men, David’s wish was their command. The men left the safety of the cave, marched some 12 miles or so to Bethlehem, broke through the enemy lines, drew water for David, and then marched back another 12 miles to bring it to him.

When presented with this water, David did what at first seems very unusual 125– he refused to drink the water, and instead poured it out on the ground. This is not because he disdained the efforts of these courageous men, nor because he did not wish to drink the water. I believe his actions demonstrated that he refused to drink the water because the courage of those who obtained it was too noble to do otherwise. David never intended to put these men’s lives at risk, merely to satisfy his own desires.126 The kind of devotion his men showed to him was the kind of devotion that belonged to God. Pouring this water out before the Lord was David’s highest expression of appreciation and regard for these men. The water was a symbol of the blood these men nearly shed, serving him. The highest use to which this water could be put was the worship of God, and so David poured it out to the Lord.

    Abishai (vv 18-19)

Abishai was related to David, along with his brothers Joab and Asahel. These men were the sons of David’s sister, Zeruiah (verse 18; see 1 Chronicles 2:16). He must have been an enigma to David, as a review of his role in the life of David reveals. On the one hand, Abishai was a great warrior and military leader. He was the one who volunteered to accompany David into Saul’s camp in what appeared to be a virtual suicide mission (1 Samuel 26:6-12). He commanded some of David’s forces in a campaign against the Syrians and Ammonites (2 Samuel 10:9-14). He led a third of David’s troops against Absalom’s rebels (2 Samuel 18:2). He was given command of David’s troops in order to quell Sheba’s rebellion (2 Samuel 20:6). Under Abishai, the Israelite army was able to kill 18,000 Edomites in the Valley of Salt (cf. 1 Chronicles 18:12).

On the other hand, Abishai was a thorn in David’s flesh. When he and David came upon Saul in his camp, Abishai was eager to kill the king, God’s anointed (1 Samuel 26:6-8). He and his brother Joab were responsible for killing Abner, in retaliation for the death of their brother Asahel in battle at the hand of Abner (see 2 Samuel 3:26-30). Abishai and Joab also wanted to put Shimei to death for harassing David as he fled from Absalom, even though David was willing to pardon him (2 Samuel 16:5-14). When David was returning to Jerusalem and Shimei met him in repentance, Abishai was not satisfied. He urged David to let him kill Shimei because he had cursed the king (2 Samuel 19:16-23).

In spite of all of Abishai’s flaws, he was a mighty man of valor, whose courage and skill in war could not be denied. Abishai was given a prominent place in Israel’s military “hall of fame” because he was a mighty man of valor. Our text informs us that Abishai one time swung his spear against 300 men of the enemy’s army and killed them. Among the 30, Abishai ranked at the top, but he did not attain to the elite group of the “big three” (above).

    Benaiah, the Lion-hearted (vv 20-23)

I must confess, my favorite among David’s mighty men is Benaiah. This man is something else. He was the son of a valiant man, who had done mighty deeds himself (verse 20). Benaiah killed two sons of Ariel127 of Moab. In and of itself, this may not seem that impressive, but there’s more, much more. He also descended into a pit on a snowy day to kill a lion and succeeded! It may be that this “pit” was actually a cistern,128 and that the Israelite warriors could not get water from the cistern since the lion had fallen into it and now was unable to get out. Who wants to debate water rights with a lion? As important as water was to an army, Benaiah may have volunteered to go down into the cistern to bring the lion out, one way or the other. In spite of all the obstacles and difficulties, Benaiah succeeded.

But there is yet another incident which our author reports to show how great a hero Benaiah really was. A Goliath-sized Egyptian man confronted Benaiah on the battlefield. The problem for Benaiah was that he encountered this impressive fellow at a time when he had no weapons. The Egyptian had a spear like that of Goliath and was more than eager to do battle with Benaiah. Benaiah “went down” to the Egyptian, with only a club in his hand. David used this club to overpower the Egyptian warrior. Taking the Egyptian’s spear from his hand, Benaiah then proceeded to finish him off with his own weapon, not unlike the way David killed Goliath with his sword (1 Samuel 17:50-51).

The amazing thing about Benaiah is that he was the son of a levitical priest:

The third commander of the army for the third month was Benaiah, the son of Jehoiada the priest, as chief; and in his division were 24,000 (1 Chronicles 27:5).

We would not expect a levitical priest to take on lion-like men and real live lions. Here was a priest willing to dirty his hands and put his faith into practice. Perhaps it was as a reward for his faithful service that David put him in charge of his bodyguard, commanding the Cherethites and the Pelethites (2 Samuel 8:18; 20:23).

    A Long List of Heroes (vv 24-39)

The author concludes his fighters hall of fame by listing at least 30 men who were mighty men of war. He tells us that there were 37 in all, and yet the actual count is less. Part of this is probably because we don’t know how many “sons of Jashen” (verse 32) there were. Also, some of these men (like Uriah) had died and were replaced by others. If there was a kind of honor guard of 30 of the bravest and most heroic soldiers, the ranks would probably be filled by a new inductee when one of the group died.

The mention of Uriah is certainly of interest to us. Uriah was not just a draftee, but one of the elite warriors who fought for David and for Israel. It hardly seems possible that David did not know Uriah fairly well, and yet he was willing to take his wife, to deceive this war hero, and to use his loyalty and skill as a warrior as the means by which he would kill him.

We are not told any details about the heroism of this list of men in verses 24-39, but Bergen129 has pointed out some interesting facts about these men as a group. Perhaps all but twelve of these men were Judahites. At least three came from Benjamin. Another two came from Ephraim. One man may be from Dan, and another from the tribe of Gad. Three of the cities of origin are not mentioned elsewhere, and two are the name of more than one place. Three (including Uriah) were Gentiles. Once again we find Gentiles playing a part in God’s salvation of His people. It looks to me as though a number of those named here are men who joined David early in his public life, before he had become king and while he was fleeing from Saul.


As we come to the close of this chapter, we realize it is a part of the epilogue which serves as the conclusion to 1 and 2 Samuel. The author has been building up to the things he writes here, and they are an important part of what he (by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) is trying to communicate to his readers. What are some of the lessons ancient Israelites and contemporary Christians should learn? Let me suggest a few.

(1) The author is reminding us of the principle of plurality. Bergen makes the point that what God has done through David, He also accomplished through others:

“Yahweh the Warrior trained, strengthened, and gave victory on the battlefield to his anointed David, but he did not limit this treatment to David. Other soldiers of the covenant, such as Eleazar, could also experience this divine blessing.”130

There is a tendency to suppose that God limits Himself to one person, through whom He accomplishes much. In the New Testament, this “one man” mentality is thoroughly refuted. The church is the body of Christ, composed of those Jews and Gentiles who are “in Christ” through faith. Each member of the body has a unique function, which they carry out by means of their spiritual gift or gifts. No one should think of themselves as independent of the rest of the body (1 Corinthians 12:21-22), nor should anyone think of themselves as non-essential (1 Corinthians 12:14-19). The church is not ruled by one “pastor,” but by a plurality of elders (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1).

While many are willing to accept the plurality principle from New Testament times onward, some are still predisposed to think that the Old Testament was a “one-man show.” I would beg to differ. God divided responsibility for leading Israel among prophets, priests, and kings. He did not concentrate all power in one office or one man. Indeed, this is where Saul got himself into serious trouble, usurping Samuel’s role by refusing to wait for him, going ahead with the offering of the sacrifices (1 Samuel 13). It was also Elijah’s mistaken impression that “he alone was left,” when this was far from true (see 1 Kings 19). God works through a plurality of people to achieve His purposes. He is not restricted to one person, or even to a few.

(2) Courage, like cowardice, is contagious. Why when we read about Saul do we not find any mention of such “mighty men of valor”? As I read the account of Saul’s leadership over Israel, he was dependent upon mercenaries (1 Samuel 14:52). There do not seem to be groups similar to David’s “Three” and his “Thirty.” Why not? I would suggest that Saul lacked the “courage” of David and the ability to attract and inspire “mighty men of valor.” Saul’s father is said to have been such a man (1 Samuel 9:1), but I do not see this said of Saul himself. When Goliath mocked the people of Israel and their God, we do not see Saul stepping forward to silence him, nor do we find any of his followers willing to do so either. When Saul shrunk back from challenges, so did his men (see 1 Samuel 17:11, 24). Saul’s men seem more likely to desert than to stand tall (see 1 Samuel 13:5-7).

David was a man of courage. When a lion or a bear threatened his father’s flock, he refused to allow any losses. When Goliath blasphemed the name of God, David did battle with him and killed him. David constantly proved himself to be a man of courage. Is it any wonder he attracted like-minded men? The man who stood up to Goliath was surrounded with courageous men who would gladly take on Goliath’s descendants (see 2 Samuel 21:15-22). Courage inspires courage, and David was a man of courage. No wonder we find so many heroes among those closest to him.

The same is true today. Too often the people of God are intimidated by faint-hearted leaders, who are not willing to trust God and are frightened by any hint of opposition or adversity. What the church needs today, as always, is a company of “mighty men and women of valor,” through whom God will do great things, and through whom God will inspire others as well.

(3) Our text tells us a great deal about the measure of a great man or woman of God. Allow me to summarize some of the characteristics of the “mighty men of valor” apparent in our text.

Heroes are not just known by “body count.” It is true that in our text one of the measures of greatness is in terms of how many people the person killed. There are many other measures, as I will attempt to show, but let me begin by stressing that the “body count” method of measuring success is not very applicable to saints today. The Israelites of David’s day were constantly at war with their enemies, and success was measured by the number slain. Today, we are engaged in a “spiritual warfare,” which does not require us to kill our opponents. I sometimes wonder if some Christians have realized this.

Heroes emerge in times of crisis. The men who are honored in our text were not looking for fame; they simply refused to give in when things got tough. Difficult days challenge us to step up to the plate and to be counted among the “mighty men” of history.

Heroes emerge when others fear and fail. Notice that in several instances the mighty men of David (and of God) stood firm at the very time that others fled in fear. When the hearts of some are growing faint, the hearts of mighty men and women grow strong in faith and courage. Heroes are not afraid to stand alone, as David did before Goliath, and as his followers did also.

Heroes have been prepared and predisposed to their heroism by their way of life. I have previously emphasized that heroes emerge in times of crisis. This is true, but there is a preparation which has gone before this. Those who stand fast in times of crisis are those who have learned to trust and obey in the normal times of life. Heroism is there before the crisis arises, but it becomes evident in the time of crisis.

Heroes are not frightened by the odds which appear stacked against them. Put differently, heroes are willing to live dangerously and to trust God by assuming certain risks. Jonathan was a “mighty man,” and it is no wonder that he was so fond of David. When Saul and his men were faint of heart, frightened by the large number of Philistines who opposed them, Jonathan went in pursuit of the enemy with these words, “Then Jonathan said to the young man who was carrying his armor, ‘Come and let us cross over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; perhaps the LORD will work for us, for the LORD is not restrained to save by many or by few’” (1 Samuel 14:6). David’s mighty men were not as impressed with statistics as they were with standing firm, trusting in God for the victory.

Heroes are willing to die, if need be. The heroes of the Bible were men who trusted in God. These men (and women) were not afraid to die because their faith was directed God-ward and toward the heavenly kingdom (see Hebrews 11). A man who is afraid of death is not one who is willing to live dangerously and to take risks.

Heroes work and train very hard, but in the end they look to God for the victory. In each of these cases of heroism, the men themselves are commended. They stood fast when others fled. They took the initiative when the need was apparent. And for their courage and skill, they are praised. On the other hand, it was not just because of their skill or courage that the battle was won. The victories these men won were humanly impossible. The author makes it very clear that in the final analysis, it is God who gave the victory.

Heroes take their duties and responsibilities seriously. As soldiers, these men were required to stand their ground and fight, and fight they did. Even when others fled, they stood fast. There is a strong sense of commitment to duty evident in these “mighty men.”

Heroes go above and beyond the call of duty, out of faith, loyalty, and love. The best illustration of this is the act of David’s three men, who fetched him a drink from the well at Bethlehem. David did not command them to get him a drink. If he had done so and they had obeyed, it would have been their duty. But David merely uttered a wish, and for them, his wish was their command. They risked their lives, fought their way to the well and back, all out of loyalty and love for David. True heroes seek to do that which pleases those in authority over them; they are not only compelled by their duty, but also by their desire to please the one they serve.

Heroes emerge where heroism is modeled, valued, and rewarded. Why does our author tell us about the “Three” and the “Thirty”? I believe it is partly because heroism was esteemed and these men were thought worthy of praise and commendation. David modeled courage in his own personal life, he valued and rewarded it in those around him. It is little wonder that heroes emerged in such an atmosphere, or that it did not in other times (like those of Saul).

Heroes are those who have the courage to identify themselves with God’s anointed. I am reminded that these “mighty men” are David’s “mighty men.” These are men who stood with David and for David, not just when the going was easy and when it was the popular thing to do, but when the going got tough, and standing with David put one in harm’s way. In the Book of Hebrews, it seems to me that one of the ways saints showed themselves to be heroes was to identify with Christ and with His church when it was dangerous to do so (see Hebrews 10:32-34; 13:1-3).

These are days when heroism may well be required. It is no longer popular (or safe) to be known as a Christian. There is, in my opinion, no “moral majority,” who will applaud Christians for their faith and obedience to the Word of God. We may well find some professing Christians fainting when times get tough. We may have to stand alone, at work, at school, even in the family.

David was a hero, a “mighty man of valor,” as were the men named in our text. But let us remember the greatest “hero” who ever lived – our Lord Jesus Christ:

1 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:1-3).

18 Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. 19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. 21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, 22 WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; 23 and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1 Peter 2:18-25).

It is He who is the source of our courage and faith:

5 Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, “I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU,” 6 so that we confidently say, “THE LORD IS MY HELPER, I WILL NOT BE AFRAID. WHAT WILL MAN DO TO ME?” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

I am not so sure heroism is so readily apparent today, not because there are any fewer heroes, but because true acts of heroism may not be so self-evident as a great pile of bodies would have been in David’s day. It may well be that the greater members of the body of our Lord (the church) are those who are hardly visible, while those in the spotlight may not be as important as we (or, worse yet, “they”) think (see 1 Corinthians 12:21-25). As I understand the Bible, there will come the time when every Christian will stand before the throne of God, and all our thoughts and deeds will be judged. What a joy and privilege it would be to have Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

117 “There is, however, a more prosaic but no less vital element in David’s ‘last words’. And it is the fact that these words represent in part David’s preparation for his own death. Here is where David’s experience touches ours. To be sure, he stood in the stream of redemptive history that led to the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ. His role was unique in the unfolding of God’s purposes. But his uniqueness does not obliterate the fact that he was like every other child of God, in that he lived and died. If anything, his role as the Lord’s anointed king and the sweet psalmist of Israel lifts him up as a model and exemplar as to how each child of God ought to prepare for death . . . ‘When we find death approaching,’ says Matthew Henry, ‘we should endeavour both to honour God and edify those about us with our last words. Let those that have had long experience of God’s goodness and the pleasantness of wisdom . . . leave a record of that experience and bear their testimony to the truth of the promise.’ . . . It is in the face of death that a living faith in (continued) Jesus Christ shines most . . . brightly in the depths of the Christian’s being.” Gordon J. Keddie, Triumph of the King: The Message of 2 Samuel (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1990), pp. 230-231.

118 “Matthew Henry aptly describes this as ‘the last will and testament of King David’. R. P. Gordon calls it ‘his enduring legacy to Israel’ and notes that it conveys ‘both the vitality of the dynastic hope and the idealizing of the Davidic king in inchoately messianic terms’. It reminds us, observes Peter Ackroyd, ‘of the last words of blessing pronounced by Jacob on his sons, as representatives of the tribes (Gen. 49), and . . . that of Moses (Deut. 33)’.” Gordon J. Keddie, p. 230.

119 Keddie concisely sums up the message of David’s psalm in verses 2-7: “The thought of David’s poem begins with the proofs of God’s blessings throughout his life, even to the threshold of eternity (23:1-4), goes on to state the promises of future blessing in terms of God’s everlasting covenant (23:5) and concludes with an implicit charge to prepare to meet the Lord who, while he keeps mercy for thousands and forgives ‘wickedness, rebellion and sin,’ will not ‘leave the guilty unpunished’ (Exodus 34:7).” Keddie, p. 231.

120 “This verse [5] is not the easiest to translate and it is possible that the last clause may refer, not to David’s ‘every desire’, but to the good pleasure of God.” (Keddie, pp. 234-235).

121 David’s last words to Solomon seem to be recorded in 1 Kings 2:2-9.

122 “In ordered in all things and secure we may have a legal phrase roughly comparable with the English ‘signed and sealed’’ the verb translated ordered . . . has a legal connotation in a few other passages (Jb. 13:18; 23:4; Ps. 50:21). Robert P. Gordon, I & II Samuel: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library, 1996), p. 311.

123 “The Targum of Jonathan interpreted this section as a prophecy of the coming Messiah. Jesus also seems to have understood this passage as messianic; his comparison of himself to ‘light’ (John 8:12; 9:5; cf. V. 4) and his prophetic parable comparing the wicked to weeds to be burned (Matt 13:30, 40; cf. V. 7) suggests that he was drawing upon images derived from this passage.” Robert D. Bergen, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, NIV Text: 1, 2 Samuel (Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1996), p. 464.

124 “The three were honoured above the rest, and named in order of precedence. The name of the first is given in a variant form in 1 Chronicles 11:11, and is different again in the LXX; the remainder of verse 8 is also problematic (cf. RSV, mg., NIV, mg.).” Joyce G. Baldwin, 1 & 2 Samuel: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), p. 292.

“1 Chr 11:11 states that Jashobeam the Tahkemonite, apparently the Chronicler’s name for Josheb-Basshebeth the Hacmonite, killed three hundred men. Assuming that both names refer to the same person, the existence of a copyist’s error becomes evident. However, it is impossible at this point to determine whether the reading in Samuel or Chronicles preserves the accurate figure.” Bergen, p. 469, fn. 47.

125 “Knowing what was involved in their acquisition of the liquid, David did something that initially appears to be absurd or insulting: he ‘refused to drink it.’ The gift of water acquired at such great peril represented something so precious that David considered himself unworthy to drink it.” Bergen, p. 470.

126 We recall that it was not always this way, as seen in David’s actions with Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah.

127 Gordon writes, “ariels is a despairing transliteration of the Hebrew word which may tentatively be rendered ‘champions’ (NEB; cf. NIV ‘best men’). Compare the treatment of MT ‘erellam (Is. 33:7) in the modern versions. In Ezekiel 43:15f. the word appears to mean ‘altar-hearth’ (cf. Is. 29:2, and possibly also 1. 12 of the Moabite Inscription). AV, relating the ‘ari element to the Hebrew for ‘lion’, translates by ‘two lionlike men’ (‘two lions like men’ in one earlier edition!).” Gordon, p. 313.

Personally, I am inclined to see at least a wordplay taking place here, because the Hebrew word for “lion” is very similar to the word transliterated “Ariel.” Thus, the translators of the KJV and the NKJV render ‘Ariel’ “lion-like.” A man who will take on two lion-like opponents will also take on a lion.

128 “A unique display of courage on his part – one to which David could somewhat relate (cf. 1 Sam 17:34-36 – involved going ‘down into a cistern [NIV, ‘pit’] on a snowy day’ and killing ‘a lion’; apparently this wild animal had accidentally fallen into an underground tank used for collecting and storing drinking water.” Bergen, p. 471.

129 Bergen, p. 472.

130 Bergen, p. 469.

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