As 2 Samuel comes to a close, David provides the reader with a list of his mighty men, whose deeds were recorded for all eternity in the preceding chapters. As Alistair Begg explains, this record now serves as a reminder of God’s faithfulness and forgiveness. Further, the account of David’s imperfect kingship directs us to the one perfect King, who records the names of His followers in the Book of Life.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I mentioned this morning that we would come back to the passage of Scripture. And it is a difficult passage of Scripture, both to read and to deal with. And so I’ve decided that I’m going to read this Scripture right now, while I’m still relatively alert. And so I invite you to turn with me to 2 Samuel and to chapter 23.
And I was reminding myself that in the exhortations that Paul gave to Timothy when he wrote to him as a young pastor, one of the things that he said to him after he had said, “You know, don’t let anybody despise your youth, and be an example in your speech,” and so on—he then immediately says, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” “To the public reading of Scripture.”
One of the things that people tell me as I travel, and actually arrive here and tell me, is that there is a glaring lack of the public reading of the Bible by pastors in American churches. We’ve got screens. We’ve got phones. We’ve got all kinds of mechanisms. And it’s a bit like the saying that we say to one another: you know, one thing you’ll never hear your grandchildren say is “Let’s go up in the attic and read grandmother’s emails.” And in the same way, no one will ever be able to say, “I remember how my pastor read the Bible,” unless the pastor actually reads the Bible. And tonight is a classic illustration of an opportunity for somebody to say, “I don’t think we’ll read this section,” because it just seems to be such a long list, and the names are so jolly difficult.
And so, having set myself up in that way, let’s read from verse 8:
“These are the names of the mighty men whom David had: Josheb-basshebeth a Tahchemonite; he was chief of the three. He wielded his spear against eight hundred whom he killed at [once].
“And next to him among the three mighty men was Eleazar the son of Dodo, [the] son of Ahohi. He was with David when they defied the Philistines who were gathered there for battle, and the men of Israel withdrew. He rose and struck down the Philistines until his hand was weary, and his hand clung to the sword. And the Lord brought about a great victory that day, and the men returned after him only to strip the slain.
“And next to him was Shammah, the son of Agee the Hararite. The Philistines gathered together at Lehi, where there was a plot of ground full of lentils, and the men fled from the Philistines. But he took his stand in the midst of the plot and defended it and struck down the Philistines, and the Lord worked a great victory.
“And three of the thirty chief men went down and came about harvest time to David at the cave of Adullam, when a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim. David was then in the stronghold, and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem. And David said longingly, ‘Oh, that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!’ Then the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate and carried and brought it to David. But he would not drink of it. He poured it out to the Lord and said, ‘Far be it from me, O Lord, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?’ Therefore he would not drink it. These things the three mighty men did.
“Now Abishai, the brother of Joab, the son of Zeruiah, was chief of the thirty. And he wielded his spear against three hundred men and killed them and won a name beside the three. He was the most renowned of the thirty and became their commander, but he did not attain to the three.
“And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was a valiant man of Kabzeel, a doer of great deeds. He struck down two ariels of Moab. He also went down and struck down a lion in a pit on a day when snow had fallen. And he struck down an Egyptian, a handsome man. The Egyptian had a spear in his hand, but Benaiah went down to him with a staff and snatched the spear out of the Egyptian’s hand and killed him with his own spear. These things did Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and won a name beside the three mighty men. He was renowned among the thirty, but he did not attain to the three. And David set him over his bodyguard.
“Asahel the brother of Joab was one of the thirty; Elhanan the son of Dodo of Bethlehem, Shammah of Harod, Elika of Harod, Helez the Paltite, Ira the son of Ikkesh of Tekoa, Abiezer of Anathoth, Mebunnai the Hushathite, Zalmon the Ahohite, Maharai of Netophah, Heleb the son of Baanah of Netophah, Ittai the son of Ribai of Gibeah of the people of Benjamin, Benaiah of Pirathon”—obviously not the previous Benaiah we just saw—“Hiddai of the brooks of Gaash, Abi-albon the Arbathite, Azmaveth of Bahurim, Eliahba the Shaalbonite, the sons of Jashen, Jonathan, Shammah the Hararite, Ahiam the son of Sharar the Hararite, Eliphelet the son of Ahasbai of Maacah, Eliam the son of Ahithophel the Gilonite, Hezro of Carmel, Paarai the Arbite, Igal the son of Nathan of Zobah, Bani the Gadite, Zelek the Ammonite, Naharai of Beeroth, the armor-bearer of Joab the son of Zeruiah, Ira the Ithrite, Gareb the Ithrite, Uriah the Hittite: thirty-seven in all.”
And every one of them known to God. Every name known to God. Every one of them that was born was conceived by the power of God. It’s quite a thought, isn’t it? Lists are not just lists.
If you want a heading, it is “Lessons from the List.” “Lessons from the List.” And clearly, it is a list of names. It’s not immediately inspiring, is it? It’s a reminder to us that while, as we’ve said on many occasions, the Bible is equally inspired, totally inspired, not every passage of the Bible is as inspiring as another passage. And in some ways, you might regard the first seven verses, the poem or the song that precedes this, as a little more inspiring. But nevertheless, all of the Scripture is provided by God, it’s inspired by God, and it’s given to us so that we might be the students of it and learn from it.
As I read through this list—and not just this evening but as I read through it in preparation for today—an incident came back to my mind, as a boy going, I’m pretty sure it was, to Edinburgh Castle. If it wasn’t Edinburgh Castle, it was somewhere like that. And they had these gigantic books. They were on pieces of furniture, a bit like this. And they had lists and lists and lists of names. They were war records. And I knew that my grandfather had been in the First World War. I knew that, because he was still alive, and he had told me. But I wanted to go in those books to see if I could find his name on the list. I knew he was there, but I wanted to find out if other people knew he was there and if they had recorded the fact that he was there. And yes, I found his name: William Millikin, in the cavalry. And I said to myself, “It’s just one name of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of names. And yet it bears significance, as each of them does.”
And so, in coming to this list tonight and in looking at it, I thought along the similar lines. And we can’t unpack the totality of it. If we were to do that, it would become a series within itself. But let me just try and guide our way through it by first of all pointing out that in verses 8–12 you have the special mention—the special mention—of these particular names. First of all, this fellow; I call him J. B. now, as opposed to Josheb-basshebeth. Yeah. So he’s just J. B. to me. We’re on… We’re close. And he was the “chief of the three.” So he wasn’t just part of the three, but he was the head of the three. And the reason he’s on the list is because “he wielded his spear against eight hundred whom he killed at one time.” So, you wouldn’t want him as an enemy.
Eleazar is next, in verse 9. He’s “the son of Dodo” (That’s an interesting name, isn’t it?), “son of Ahohi.” And “he was with David,” we’re told, “when they defied the Philistines who were gathered there for battle,” and at that point, a number of the men, they decided to withdraw. But the reason he made it into this list is because, verse 10 says, “he rose,” he “struck down the Philistines until his hand was weary,” and the thing that marked him out, as it were, that people would have talked about afterwards was, you know, that his hand was actually fused to his sword because he had been holding it for so long and wielding it so effectively. I don’t really know much about that. I’ve sometimes, I think, been using something—maybe a screwdriver—and not doing it very well, and then all of a sudden realizing that when I go to take it out of my hand, it’s very painful, because your hand is sort of locked in that position. Well, that’s what he had done, and they spoke about him in those terms.
And then, thirdly, Shammah. “Next to him … Shammah, the son of Agee,” or “Ah-jee,” “the Hararite.” And we’re told there that he had also extended himself “where there was a plot of ground full of lentils.” When you read this, you realize that this is the kind of thing; this is why somebody would remember it—that they would say to one another, “Do you remember, it was where all those lentils were? That was where Shammah was involved.” And the men had all made a run for it, but he actually “took his stand,” stood there “in the midst of the plot,” “defended it,” “struck down the Philistines,” and that was it.
That’s really it: the special mention of these three names—that need to be understood in light of two things.
Number one: in light of the Lord’s promise. What promise? The promise that God had given, “By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” “We are going to make sure,” says God, “that David and those under his jurisdiction will be involved in making sure that the Philistines do not prevail.” So, what has been happening here is actually in fulfillment of the Lord’s word, or his promise, and it is according to the Lord’s power. You see there that verse 10 bears testimony to this, doesn’t it? “And the Lord brought about a great victory that day.” The Lord brought about the great victory. Down in verse 12, once again: “And the Lord worked a great victory.” So, you have these amazing feats of bravery which are only to be understood ultimately in terms of the saving acts of God.
It brings to mind, doesn’t it, Psalm 127, which we often quote? “Except the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” I was interested, actually, because I remembered what I thought was the Latin of that opening phrase there, nisi dominus vanum—or, actually, frustra. There’s two different words, but they both essentially mean the same thing: “Without God, it’s all emptiness.” That’s it in a nutshell. Without God, you can forget it.
And I was fascinated to discover that that is actually the coat of arms for the city council of the city of Edinburgh in Scotland. Because when I googled the phrase in Latin, it came up, there with the picture and the framework and all the things that would be the crests. Would to God that the city council of Edinburgh actually believed it in this day! But presumably, on the day when they chose it as their motto, they believed it then. And these men believed it—hence their remarkable feats.
Then, in verses 13–17, you have this amazing account of devotion—of the devotion of these individuals to David himself, unnamed but yet at the same time unforgettable. The geographical context is significant, I think. It has to do with Adullam—remember, the cave of Adullam, twenty miles to the southwest of Jerusalem; actually, quite a long way, as well, from Gath, ten miles to the southeast of Gath. And it was fifteen miles or more from the cave of Adullam to Bethlehem.
That is of significance, isn’t it, when you realize what happened? Because David in this context—verse 15—suddenly gives expression, if you like, in a kind of wistful way, perhaps almost nostalgia, as he finds himself in this context. And he says, “Oh, I wish that someone would go and get me a drink of water from the well at Bethlehem that is by the gate. I remember how good that water was. I loved that well. I used to get that there. It would be fantastic if somebody would have done that.” They took him literally. They didn’t exactly go down the road to get it. No, no, no, they went some fifteen miles. And look at the text: “Then the three mighty men,” whose names we don’t know, “broke through the camp of the Philistines … drew water out of the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate.” (Notice the emphasis: he says, “It was the well by the gate.” It would be a shame if they went fifteen miles and brought it back from the wrong well, right? No, no: “Was it the well from the gate?” “Oh, yeah, it was—definitely, yeah.”) And they “carried” it, and they “brought it to David.” So far, so good.
But then he wouldn’t drink it! You go fifteen miles. You fight the Philistines. You break through to get the water for the fellow who says, “Oh, I could do with a drink of water from the well by the gate in Bethlehem.” And he doesn’t drink it! So you have this amazing picture of their devotion. If you don’t think that David could inspire devotion, then you don’t understand; I don’t understand. Who’s going to do this, unless they loved this king, unless they’re committed to the king?
And so that is absolutely clear. But it also explains to us the nature of and the extent of his gratitude. Because it is actually a strange thing to do, isn’t it, from our perspective? Somebody goes to that length, and they bring it back, and then you will notice what he does with it: “But he would[n’t] drink of it. He poured it out.” That’s not—there’s not a period after “out.” Look at your Bibles: “He poured it out to the Lord.” That’s the significance. That’s the significance: “He poured it out to the Lord.” In other words, he gave the fruits of their devotion to the one to whom their devotion belonged: to the Lord. It’s Psalm—what is it? Psalm 115: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, O Lord, be the honor, be the glory, but to you, O Lord.”
And what he’s actually saying is this: that the water that was obtained by them, by such an act of devotion, is now viewed by David as being far too precious to be used simply for his own refreshment. In a sense, their blood is represented in it—the willingness of them to give themselves, to avail themselves of this so that they could bring it back. “He poured it out to the Lord.” “Not to us, O Lord.” No, they would never forget that. And that’s why it’s written down. Look at that final sentence there in verse 17: “These things the three mighty men did.” So it’s just like, “Yeah, okay.” “These things the three mighty men did.”
Now, from 18 to 23 there are two mentioned—two renowned of the thirty but not in the three. Okay? So you’ve got three who are mentioned. You’ve got three who are unnamed. Now you’ve got two that are mentioned that are part of the thirty, but they’re not part of the three. And it’s important for us to know this. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be written down. I mean, it may not be dawning on you like a thunderbolt at the moment, but there it is.
And “Abishai, the brother of Joab”—we know this fellow. We know Abishai. Joab and Asahel his brother, remember? Let me refresh your memory of who this character is. He’s the one who, when Saul was in a vulnerable position and David could have taken him out, it was Abishai who said, “Now let me please pin him to the earth with one stroke of my spear. Let me take him out.” That’s Abishai. It was Joab, along with Abishai his brother, who took out Abner in that ugly episode, remember, when he catches him in a corner and he sticks a knife in his belly. And that was because of the Asahel incident, where Asahel had been killed, remember, when he was following after Abner. And Abner had said to him, “Don’t keep running so close to me. If you keep running close to me, you’re going to run right into my spear, and you won’t like that.” And he ran right into his spear, and he didn’t like it. And his brothers didn’t like it either. And they decided, “We’ll take him out.” That’s your character right here. It is Abishai also who, when Shimei is doing his thing and picking up big clods of earth and throwing them across the border at David, it is Abishai who says to David, “Let me go and take off Shimei’s head. Let me… Why not just take his head off? Why would this dead dog be doing these things to you, the king?” No wonder he gets a mention. It’s no surprise that David then made him a commander of a third of his entire forces.
And actually, most recently, if you are up to date with things… Most recently, in—I hope it’s here, in 21. Yeah. You remember the war with the Philistines in Israel, and David went down with his servants, and he wasn’t making a job of it. And 21:17 it says, “But Abishai the son of Zeruiah came to his aid and attacked the Philistine and killed him.” And “then David’s men swore to him, ‘You shall no longer go out with us to battle lest you quench the lamp of Israel.’” So it is Abishai who steps up for him when he’s getting past the point. So he gets a special mention.
And then, in verse 20, this other character, Benaiah, who was “a doer,” you will notice, “of great deeds.” “A doer of great deeds.” And three of his deeds are mentioned here: “He struck down two ariels of Moab.” There will be a milkshake for somebody if they can tell me what “two ariels of Moab” actually are or were. And no cheating! But he did that. He also “struck down a lion in a pit on a day when [the] snow had fallen.” You see again how this is recorded? You’ve got a lentil field. They said, “It was in the lentils that it happened.” “No, no, it didn’t happen that day. It happened the day the snow had fallen.” The snow didn’t fall a lot. So the lion and the snow, and he was memorialized in relationship to this. And also, he struck down a big handsome Egyptian.
Now, there’s no commendation in this. It’s not like “Wow, that was really good! I mean, there’s nothing you like better than to strike down a big, handsome Egyptian.” No, no, no, no. This is a record of what these fellows did: “These things … Benaiah the son of Jehoiada [did], and won a name beside the three mighty men. He was renowned among the thirty, but he did not attain to the three. And David set him over his bodyguard.”
That only leaves us with verses 24–39, where we have the remaining names on the list, of the thirty—although verse 39 tells us that there’s actually thirty-seven in all, which you can fiddle about with for your homework later on. All I want to notice of this list is the first name and the last name, and we’re through.
The first name, we’ve already mentioned, is Asahel. And he had been killed in chapter 2. Yeah, chapter 2. Second Samuel chapter 2. That’s where he dies. Well, that’s a long time ago. So at least it tells us this: that the thirty that were David’s thirty—kind of his gang—clearly had been there from early on. This wasn’t something that had just emerged. And that it would seem that he almost had, if you like, a council of war—that he had these fellows that were his crack troops, so that whatever else was going on, he knew that he had them on his side. It’s a reminder in passing, incidentally, that all of us rely to one extent or another on those who are around us to make it possible for us to do the things that we do, which we couldn’t possibly do were it not for the fact that we are surrounded and helped in that way.
So, Asahel’s the first name. And, of course, you will notice the last name: “Uriah the Hittite.” Well, the mention of that name, of course, brings up all kinds of somber recollections; takes us all the way back to who Uriah’s wife was, Bathsheba; takes us back to the murderous activities generated by the king; makes it clear to us that in the list of those whose very mention is on account of the fact that they defended the king no matter what, it is the king who betrays his own man.
I sat and looked at this. I said, “David, why did you put this in the list? Why would you put this in the list? You’re writing the list, presumably.” I can only imagine that he did it because he recognized that the greatest weakness in David’s kingdom was David. He was the greatest weakness. It’s sobering, isn’t it? So to put that there was not only to remind him and all of that but also to remind him and all of the amazing grace and forgiveness of God—that it was God who had come by his prophet to say to him, “David, your sins are forgiven. I have established with you an everlasting covenant. You’re my man.” The best of men are men at best. And he’s a reminder of that.
Think, for example, of Saul of Tarsus. Think of Saul of Tarsus, now Paul the apostle, going through his days. Do you think there were many days in Paul’s life when something or someone mentioned something that took him back to the very same situation that had marked him in the persecuting of the church? That the classic moment where, as the stones are hurled against Stephen, he says, “Just put your jackets down here; I’ll look after them all”—do you think there were many days when that wasn’t part of his existence? I would be surprised. And, of course, he writes of it, doesn’t he, when he writes to the Corinthians? He says, “[Listen,] I[’m] the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Fact. But that’s not where it finishes: “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” That’s it, you see?
Oh, it’s understandable that he, David, we, should be humbled by our failures—but not haunted by them. Humbled by them, but not haunted by them. Resist full force every endeavor of the Evil One to come and insinuate into your heart and your mind all of these things from the past that are buried in the sea of God’s forgetfulness: “Yes, that was there. Yes, I did that. But I am what I am by the grace of God.”
A final observation: all of this record of violence… Because it is violence. As I read this again tonight, I was thinking of one of our dear sisters here, who’s gone on to glory, who in the course of our studies—I’ve mentioned her before—said, “Oh, we’re not going to have more killings again, are we, Alistair?” I said, “Well, I’m sorry, but it’s… Yeah, it’s kind of here, you know? So there’s nothing I can do with it.” But all the record of the violence here is not to extol violence. In fact, all the record of this is a far cry from the promise of the place and the promise of the peace—a peace that was going to be undisturbed, in that great prophecy of Nathan, when he comes in chapter 7. You can look it up again yourself.
It’s actually a forceful reminder, then and now, that the reason all of this violence is going on and it’s not a kingdom of peace is because it is a limited kingdom. It’s a limited king. There is going to come one, a King, who would be greater than anything David ever conceived or knew. The prophets would pick it up after David died. Isaiah would get up in the morning and write, “Of the increase of his government … there will be no end.” And his wife says, “And who’s this?” And Isaiah says, “It’s the King who’s going to come. It’s the Prophet who’s going to come.” “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government [will] be upon his shoulder: and his name [will] be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, [he will be] The Prince of Peace.” David’s not the Prince of Peace. No. You see, it only points forward. When Jesus then is standing before Pilate, and Pilate says to him, “Apparently, you’re the King of the Jews,” he said, “Well, you say that I am.” He said, “[Listen,] if my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting.”
So why weren’t they fighting? Because his kingdom is not of this world. We’re not fighting. We’re not fighting a political battle. We’re not fighting. We’re not going in lentil fields and taking up arms. No. We serve the King, the Prince of Peace. What kind of king rides a donkey? What kind of king wears a thorn-filled crown? What kind of king has a cross for a throne? Only Jesus.
What an immense privilege to have got your name on this list! What an immense privilege to have our names included on the great list, in the book, the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Oh, it’s going to be so intriguing, isn’t it, to go—and we’ll go like I went to Edinburgh Castle, where you get those books, if they’re actually there, and say, “I want to know when my name got put in there. I wonder when he put it in. Was it on that Sunday when the Sunday school teacher told me all about Jesus? Was it when I was sixteen?” And somebody says, a smart aleck says, “It was put in there in eternity, before everything.” Thank you very much. I’m just looking for the date. I got it.
Everything always comes back to childhood for me, you know. I put my Bible down. I said, “You know, I’m too young to march with the infantry, ride with the cavalry, shoot with the artillery. I’m too young to zoom o’er the enemy. But I’m in the Lord’s army.” We won’t be a footnote in history, none of us. The only issue is, he’s included us in the list. And he invites us to meet him at his Table as a reminder to us that all our sins are forgiven and that we forget what is behind and we press forward to what lies ahead. I guess the list helps us there, maybe.
We thank you, gracious Father, for the lamplight of your Word. We thank you that it rewards our study. We thank you that there is always more, and we pray that as we transition from that list to gathering around the Table spread for us by Jesus himself, that you will just come and meet with us in particular ways, individually and corporately as a church family. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 1 Timothy 4:12 (paraphrased).
 1 Timothy 4:13 (ESV).
 2 Samuel 3:18 (ESV).
 Psalm 127:1 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 115:1 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 115:1 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 26:8 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Samuel 3:26–30.
 2 Samuel 2:22 (paraphrased).
 2 Samuel 16:9 (paraphrased).
 2 Samuel 12:13 (paraphrased).
 See Acts 7:58.
 1 Corinthians 15:9–10 (ESV).
 See 2 Samuel 7:10.
 Isaiah 9:7 (ESV).
 Isaiah 9:6 (KJV).
 Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3 (paraphrased). See also John 18:33–34.
 John 18:36 (ESV).
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.