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Chapter 18

CHAPTER 18

Wars of David - Great Ammonite and Syrian Campaign against Israel - The Auxiliaries are Defeated in turn - The capital of Moab Is taken - Edom subdued - Record of David's officers - His kindness to Mephibosheth.
(2 SAMUEL 8, 9; 1 CHRONICLES 18-20)

BY a fitting arrangement, the record of God's promise to establish the kingdom of David is followed by an account of all his wars, though here also the order is not strictly chronological. In fact, we have merely a summary of results, which is all that was necessary in a history of the kingdom of God - the only exception being in the case of the war with Ammon and their allies the Syrians, which is described in detail in 2 Samuel 10 and 11 because it is connected with David's great sin. As might be expected, the first war was with the Philistines, whom David subdued, taking "out of the hand of the Philistines the bridle of the mother"*   - that is, as we learn from 1Chronicles 18:1, the command of Gath, "the mother," or principal city of the Philistine confederacy - which henceforth became tributary to Israel.

* The expression "taking the bridle," means taking the command or supremacy (comp. Job 30:11). The term "mother" is applied to the principal city in a district, the other towns being designated "daughters."

The next victory was over the Moabites, who must have, in some way, severely offended against Israel, since the old friendship between them was not only broken (1 Samuel 22:3, 4), but terrible punishment meted out to them - the whole army being made to lie down, when two-thirds, measured by line, were cut down, and only one third left alive. It was, no doubt, in this war that Benaiah, one of David's heroes, "slew two lion-like men of Moab" (1 Chronicles 11:22).

The next contest, mentioned in 2 Samuel 8:3-6, evidently formed only an incident in the course of the great war against Ammon and its confederates, which is detailed at length in the tenth and eleventh chapters of 2 Samuel. From the number of auxiliaries whom the Ammonites engaged against Israel, this was by far the greatest danger which threatened the kingdom of David. As such it is brought before the Lord in Psalm 44 and 60, while the deliverance Divinely granted, with all that it typically implied concerning the future victory of God's kingdom, is gratefully celebrated in Psalm 68. In fact, Ammon had succeeded in girdling the whole Eastern frontier of the land with steel. Up in the far north-east rose Hadad-Ezer (Hadad, the sun-god, is help), and arrayed against Israel his kingdom of Zobah, which probably lay to the north-east of Damascus. Nor was he alone. With him were the forces of the Syrian (probably) vassal-territory, south of Hamath, between the Orontes and the Euphrates, of which Rehob (Numbers 13:21; Judges 18:28), or Beth-Rehob, was the capital. Descending still further south, along the northeastern frontier of Palestine, was the kingdom of Maacah (Deuteronomy 3:14), which joined in the war against Israel, as well as the men of Tob, who inhabited the territory between Syria and Ammon, where Jephthah had erewhile found refuge (Judges 11:5). Next we reach the territory of Ammon, from which the war originally proceeded. In the far south Moab had been only just subdued, while the Edomites made a diversion by overrunning the valley south of the Dead Sea - and a stubborn enemy they proved. Thus, as already stated, the whole eastern, northeastern, and south-eastern frontier was threatened by the enemy.

The occasion of this war was truly Oriental. Nahash, the king of the Ammonites, seems on some occasion, not otherwise known, to have shown kindness to David (2 Samuel 10:2). On his death, David, who never lost grateful remembrance, sent an embassy of sympathy to Hanun, the son and successor of Nahash. This the Ammonite princes chose to represent as only a device, preparatory to an attack on their capital, similar in character to that which so lately had laid Moab waste (8:2). There was something cowardly and deliberately provocative in the insult which Hanun put upon David's ambassadors, such as Orientals would specially feel, by shaving off the beard on one side of their face, and cutting off their long flowing dress from below up to the middle. It was an insult which, as they well knew, David could not brook; and Ammon accordingly prepared for war by raising, as we have described, all the border tribes as auxiliaries against Israel. A sum of not less than a thousand talents, or about 375,000 pounds, was spent on these auxiliaries (1 Chronicles 19:6), who amounted altogether to thirty-two thousand men - consisting of chariots, horsemen, and footmen*  - besides the one thousand men whom the king of Maacah furnished (2 Samuel 10:6; 1 Chronicles 19:6, 7).

* By combining the accounts in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, it will be seen that the army consisted, as might be expected, of these three kinds of forces, although only chariots and horsemen are mentioned in Chronicles, and foot-men in Samuel. In general these two narratives supplement each other, and also not infrequently enable us to detect and correct from the one text clerical errors that have crept into the other.

Against this formidable confederacy David sent Joab, at the head of "all the host - the mighty men," that is, the choicest of his troops (2 Samuel 10:7). Joab found the enemy in double battle-array. The Ammonite army stood a short distance outside their capital, Rabbah, while the Syrian auxiliaries were posted on the wide unwooded plateau of Medeba (1 Chronicles 19:7), about fifteen miles south-west of Rabbah. Thus Joab found himself shut in between two armies. But his was not the heart to sink in face of such danger. Dividing his men into two corps, he placed the best soldiers under his brother Abishai, to meet a possible attack of the Ammonites, encouraging him with brave and pious words, while he himself, with the rest of the army, fell upon the Syrians. From the first the victory was his. When the Ammonites saw the flight of their auxiliaries, they retired within the walls of Rabbah without striking a blow. But the war did not close with this almost bloodless victory, although Joab returned to Jerusalem. It rather commenced with it. Possibly this may explain why only the second act in this bloody drama is recorded in the summary account given in 2 Samuel 8:3, etc., and in 1 Chronicles 18:4, etc. Combining these narratives with the fuller details in 2 Samuel 10 and 1 Chronicles 19, we gather that, on his defeat, or rather after his precipitate flight, Hadad-Ezer "went to turn again his hand at the river [Euphrates]," that is, to recruit his forces there (2 Samuel 8:3, in 1 Chronicles 18:3: "to establish his hand"*  ) - a statement which is further explained in 2 Samuel 10:16 and 1 Chronicles 19:16 by the notice, that the Syrian auxiliaries thence derived were placed under the command of Shobach, the captain of the host of Hadad-Ezer.

* This is the correct rendering, and not as in our Authorised Version.

The decisive battle was fought at Helam (2 Samuel 10:17), near Hamath (1 Chronicles 18:3), and resulted in the total destruction of the Syrian host. No less than 1000 chariots, 7000*  horsemen, and 20,000 footmen, were taken; while those who fell in the battle amounted to 700, or rather (according to 1 Chronicles 19:18) 7000 charioteers and horsemen, and 40,000 footmen (in 2 Samuel, "horsemen"). Shobach himself was wounded, and died on the field of battle.** 

* In 2 Samuel 8:4 by a clerical error the number is given as 700. In general, as already stated, the details of the two accounts must be compared, so as to correct copyists' omissions and mistakes in either of them. It need scarcely be pointed out how readily such might occur in numerals, and where the details were so numerous and intricate.

** If the reader will attentively compare the brief notices in 2 Samuel 8:3, 4 and 1 Chronicles 18:3, 4 with those in 2 Samuel 10:15-18 and 1 Chronicles 19:16-18, no doubt will be left on his mind that they refer to one and the same event, viz., not to the beginning of the war with Hadad-Ezer, but to its second stage after his precipitate flight from the battle of Medeba. For detailed proof we must refer to the Commentaries.

David next turned against the Syrians of Damascus, who had come to the succor of Hadad-Ezer, slew 22,000 of them, put garrisons throughout the country, and made it tributary. But all the spoil taken in that war - notably the "golden shields," and the brass from which afterwards "the brazen sea, and the pillars and the vessels of brass," were made for the Temple (1 Chronicles 18:8) - was carried to Jerusalem. The immediate results of these victories was not only peace along the borders of Palestine, but that all those turbulent tribes became tributary to David. One of the kings or chieftains, Toi, the king of Hamath, had always been at war with Hadad- Ezer. On his complete defeat, Toi sent his son Hadoram*  to David to seek his alliance. The gifts which he brought, as indeed all the spoil of the war, were dedicated to the Lord, and deposited in the treasury of the sanctuary for future use.

* So in 1 Chronicles 18:10. The writing Joram, in 2 Samuel 8:10, is either a clerical error or the translation of the heathen into the Jewish form of the name - by changing "Hadad," or sun-god, into "Jehovah."

But still the formidable combination against Israel was not wholly broken up. On the return of David's army from their victory over the Syrians, they had to encounter the Edomites*  (2 Samuel 8:13, 14), who had advanced as far as the "valley of salt," south of the Dead Sea.

* In 2 Samuel 8:13 the words "he smote Edom," have evidently fallen out after "when he returned from smiting of the Syrians."

The expedition was entrusted to Abishai, Joab's brother (1 Chronicles 18:12, 13), and resulted in the total rout of the enemy, and the garrisoning of the principal places in Edom by David's men; though, to judge by 1 Kings 11:5, 16, the operations took some time, and were attended with much bloodshed. The account just given of the wars of David appropriately closes with a notice of his principal officers of state, among whom we mark Joab as general-in-chief, Jehoshaphat as chancellor (magister memorioe), or recorder and adviser, Zadok as high-priest at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39), and Jonathan as assistant of his father Abiathar (1 Kings 1:7, 42; 2:22-27) at Jerusalem, Seraiah as secretary of state, and Benaiah as captain of the body-guard - the Cherethi and Pelethi, or "executioners and runners"*  - while the king's sons acted as intimate advisers.**

* This seems to us the most rational interpretation of the terms, though not a few have regarded them as names of nationalities, in which case they would represent a guard of foreign mercenaries.

** The term here used in the Hebrew is cohen, which is always translated "priest," but is here employed in its root-meaning: one who represents and pleads the case of a person.

The record of this period of David's reign - indeed, of his life - would have been incomplete if the memory of his friendship with Jonathan had passed without leaving a trace behind. But it was not so. When he had reached the climax of his power,*  he made inquiry for any descendant of Saul to whom he might show "the kindness of God" for Jonathan's sake.

* This is evident from the circumstance that, on the death of Saul, Mephibosheth was only five years old (2 Samuel 4:4), while in the account before us he is represented as having a young son (2 Samuel 9:12), so that a considerable period must have intervened.

There is something deeply touching alike in this loving remembrance of the past, and in the manner of it, while David was at the zenith of his power, which shows his true character, and proves that success had not yet injured his better nature. There was but one legitimate scion of the royal house left - Mephibosheth, who bore in his lamed body the memorial of that sad day on Mount Gilboa. It is another bright glimpse into the moral state of the people that all this time the poor neglected descendant of fallen royalty should have found a home and support in the house of the wealthy chieftain Machir, the son of Ammiel, at Lodebar,*  near Mahanaim, the scene of Ishbosheth's murder (2 Samuel 4).

* Much ingenious use has been made of the name "Lo Debar," as meaning "no pasture." It may help to control such fancies if we point out that the Masoretic writing "Lo-debar" in two words is manifestly incorrect, the place being probably the Lidbir of Joshua 13:26 (in our Authorised Version Debir). But even were it otherwise, Lo-Debar could only mean "no pasture," if the "Lo" were spelt with an aleph, which it is in 2 Samuel 17:27, but not in 9:4, 5, where it is spelt with a vav, and hence would mean the opposite of "no pasture." We have called attention to this as one of many instances of certain interpretations of Holy Scripture, wholly unwarranted by a proper study of the text, from which, however, too often, dogmatic inferences are drawn.

Yet another evidence was afterwards given of the worth and character of Machir. He had evidently known to appreciate David's conduct toward Mephibosheth, and in consequence become one of his warmest adherents, not only in the time of prosperity, but in that of direst adversity, when he dared openly to espouse David's cause, and to supply him in his flight with much needed help (2 Samuel 17:27-29).

But to return. The first care of the king was to send for Ziba, well known as a servant of Saul's - perhaps formerly the steward of his household. It is curious to note how, even after David assured him of his friendly intentions, Ziba on mentioning Mephibosheth, immediately told that he was "lame on his feet," as if to avert possible evil consequences. So strongly did the Oriental idea seem rooted in his mind, that a new king would certainly compass the death of all the descendants of his predecessor. Something of the same feeling appeared also in the bearing of Mephibosheth when introduced to David. But far other thoughts were in the king's heart. Mephibosheth was henceforth to be treated as one of the royal princes. His residence was to be at Jerusalem, and his place at the king's table while, at the same time, all the land formerly belonging to Saul was restored to him for his support. Ziba, whom David regarded as a faithful adherent of his old master's family, was directed, with his sons and servants, to attend to the ancestral property of Mephibosheth.

We love to dwell upon this incident in the history of David, which forms, so to speak, an appendix to the narrative of the first period of his reign, not merely for what it tells us of the king, but as the last bright spot on which the eye rests. Other thoughts, also, seem to crowd around us, as we repeat to ourselves such words as "the kindness of God" and "for Jonathan's sake." Thus much would a man do, and so earnestly would he inquire for the sake of an earthly friend whom he had loved. Is there not a higher sense in which the "for Jonathan's sake" can bring us comfort and give us direction in the service of love?