Mighty warriors were in high demand in Israel’s formative years. Both David and his predecessor Saul prioritised the recruitment of not just able-bodied men in their army but valiant men whose gallant acts would have fueled the urban legends in Israel. The author closes out the book by paying homage to David’s Mighty Thirty and recounts their triumphs on the battlefield and their extraordinary accomplishments. However, David’s over-dependence on his valiant warriors becomes a stumbling block in his journey with God as his foolishness causes the death of multitudes in his country.
The Mighty Thirty
David and Joab had split their men into two groups, apparently based on their varying degrees of fearlessness. The core group consisted of three men with Abishai (the brother of Joab) chief over them. The larger group consisted of more than two dozen men, spanning multiple generations whom David had recruited since his early days in the wilderness running from Saul.
The core group included Josheb-Basshebeth who had killed eight hundred men with his spear in a single encounter. Next, there was Eleazar who single-handedly brought the troops of Israel victory against the Philistines at Pas Dammim. The third warrior was Shammah who stood his ground and struck down the Philistines in the middle of a lentil farm as the troops of Israel fled away. But God brought him the victory that day over the Philippines.
Besides the two groups of men, David had handpicked his head bodyguard whose feats surpassed anything anyone else had done in the land. Whether it be killing the Egyptian giant without a weapon of his own or killing a lion in its own pit, Benaiah had seemingly done it all.
He was held in greater honor than any of the Thirty, but he was not included among the Three. And David put him in charge of his bodyguard.2 Samuel 23:23 (NIV)
The details of the accomplishments of the rest of the men are not recorded but if the feats of the core group are anything to go by, we can safely assume that they would have had challenging initiations to gain the privilege of being part of David’s mighty men. These men included Eliam, Bathsheba’s father and Uriah, her late husband whom David had killed off. Those men were loyal to David from the very beginning of his rise but given how David treated some of them, the feeling was definitely not mutual.
During one of the skirmishes with the Philistines, David found himself in a stronghold near Bethlehem when he suddenly longed for the water from the well of his hometown. When his men got to know about David’s wishes, the ‘Three’ broke through the Philistine lines just to get water for their king. When they brought the water to David, he refused to drink it and poured it on the ground perhaps as an offering to the lord.
It seems a tad overly dramatic on David’s part to pour out the water on the ground and waste the efforts of the men who risked their lives. He said that he could not drink it as the men had risked their lives to quench his homesickness. Perhaps he was setting a precedent that no one in future set out on a dangerous mission for such a futile cause. But knowing David, he was making this statement and refusing to drink the water as he did not consider the optics of the request when he made it in the first place. Ever the politician, David could not risk tarnishing his image as the king who risked the lives of his closest men but was ok to kill one of those same men when he needed a drink from the pool of lust.
God knew about this unquenchable thirst that David had for recruiting mighty men into his army which had even caused his relationship with His Creator to grow sour in recent years. He used David’s own desires against him as his foolishness caused the lives of seventy thousand of his countrymen.
Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”2 Samuel 24:1-2 (NIV)
So the king said to Joab and the army commanders with him, “Go throughout the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba and enroll the fighting men, so that I may know how many there are.”
The author seems to think that God incited David to make him a conduit of His wrath on the people of Israel. However, if we read the parallel account in the book of Chronicles (1 Chronicles 21:1), it says that it was satan who incited David against Israel. The author of the book of Samuel might mean that since God is in control of everything, satan cannot do anything on his own. It was God who allowed satan to incite David into taking a census of recruitable men and thereby forsaking the wings of God that he previously sought for protection.
Conducting a military census, especially during peacetime, signalled the king’s intent to either start a war with a neighbouring nation or take stock of able-bodied men who could be drafted in the event of a sudden war. A similar exercise is carried out by our present-day democratic powers as well, to prepare themselves for attack from their neighbouring territories or terrorist groups. However, God had warned His people precisely against this activity in Deuteronomy (28:15-25) when He basically spelt out the consequences of such action.
God wanted Israel to depend on Him as their Ultimate Provider of both food and security. But David, much like Saul and the kings who came after him, highly valued strength in numbers. The security that his valiant warriors provided him helped him sleep at night. He would rather trust his men than trust the one who had brought him out of every pitfall of his life. Even Joab knew that what the king was asking was against the will of God.
David is on the home stretch of his reign as king of Israel. Just a while back he had fended off challenges from both Absalom and Sheba to his throne and wanted to ensure that such rebellion does not stir up again. When we read the names of his mighty men, there were some who were getting old as their sons were also part of the group. David might have wanted to refresh his platoon with the next generation of valiant warriors.
David was conscience-stricken after he had counted the fighting men, and he said to the LORD, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, LORD, I beg you, take away the guilt of your servant. I have done a very foolish thing.2 Samuel 24:10 (NIV)
David was guilt-stricken nine months and twenty days later when the census was completed. The same happens with us as satan uses us to betray God and abandon His path and when his work is done he leaves us to face the wrath of God. God clearly mentioned the consequences of taking a census and now David and Israel were left to bear it on their own. People think of the “Old Testament God” as a God different from the one who sent His Son in the New Testament. God has been the same throughout but because of his grace, we experience different consequences for our actions.
Why did seventy thousand innocent people die while the culprit David was spared? The death of such a large number would have affected David for sure. When his thoughtlessness had caused the death of eighty-five priests in Nob he was guilt-stricken as he knew it was his fault. Similarly, this latest death toll would have shaken him to his core. The plague would have brought shame on David as his disobedience resulted in the loss of lives of his countrymen. The king’s job is to protect his people but it was because of David that these men lost their lives.
We too sometimes revel in our achievements and past glory. We like to take stock of our lives, of all that we have amassed, be it our wealth, positions of power or family blessings and think that we deserve everything that God has done in our lives. Everything in our life is given to us by God but we fail to see that and credit our success to our talents and intelligence.
Throughout this book, we have seen Israelites take credit for what God was already doing. Whether it was David, Saul or even the sons of Eli, God’s acts of kindness have always been misrepresented by individuals who add it to their accomplishments. From Hannah, who thought it was the prayer of Eli that gave her a son to David’s men who idolised their king to such an extent that they were ready to die for him when he felt nostalgic, people in this book have struggled to acknowledge the works of God in their lives. Let us not make the same mistake and give all glory and honour to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ without whom we would have been condemned to eternal death.
- Why would David pour out the water that his men risked their lives to get for him?
- Why are the names of David’s men and their feats mentioned in this book?
- What is wrong with taking a census when the pagan kings do not get punished for it?
- Why would God incite David to carry out his wrath on the people of Israel?
- Why was David spared when 70000 of his countrymen lost their lives?