“There Was War Again”
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“There Was War Again”

2 Samuel 21:15–22  (ID: 3548)

God promised that through King David, He would save Israel from the Philistines. Second Samuel 21 recounts four incidents when an older, battle-weary David relied on his mighty warriors to strike down the Philistine giants. Alistair Begg compares and contrasts David’s reign as described in these verses to Jesus’ ultimate, victorious, and eternal reign. Just as God granted victory to David’s men in battle, Christ’s followers can be assured of victory over the giants of Satan, sin, and death.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 and 2 Samuel, Volume 9

Epilogue 2 Samuel 21:1–24:25 Series ID: 109019

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to follow along as I read from 2 Samuel chapter 21 and beginning at the fifteenth verse. Two Samuel 21:15. And in this section, we read of the ongoing war that was taking place with the Philistines. The timing of it is not identified for us, but here we are introduced to the ongoing battle between the Lord’s people and the Philistines:

“There was war again between the Philistines and Israel, and David went down together with his servants, and they fought against the Philistines. And David grew weary. And Ishbi-benob, one of the descendants of the giants, whose spear weighed three hundred shekels of bronze, and who was armed with a new sword, thought to kill David. But Abishai the son of Zeruiah came to his aid and attacked the Philistine and killed him. Then David’s men swore to him, ‘You shall no longer go out with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel.’

“After this there was again war with the Philistines at Gob. Then Sibbecai the Hushathite struck down Saph, who was one of the descendants of the giants. And there was again war with the Philistines at Gob, and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. And there was again war at Gath, where there was a man of great stature, who had six fingers on each hand, and six toes on each foot, twenty-four in number, and he also was descended from the giants. And when he taunted Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimei, David’s brother, struck him down. These four were descended from the giants in Gath, and they fell by the hand of David and by the hand of his servants.”


Well, a brief prayer:

“Speak, O Lord, as we come to you to receive the food of your Holy Word. Take your truth,” and “plant it deep in us,”[1] we pray. For Christ’s sake. Amen.

Well, any of you who are visiting may wonder why it is that we would come to a passage like this on this particular day, and it is because we are working our way systematically and consecutively through 2 Samuel at the moment. And we got as far as verse 14 last Sunday, which means we must pick it up here at 15 this Sunday. I hope that we may have at least some sense that there is a point of contact between what we’re reading here and what we are celebrating as a nation on Memorial Day weekend, insofar as we remember those who gave their lives in the cause of the kingdom—our kingdom. And we have here the record of those who were the servants of David the king.

And what we have in this concluding section of chapter 21 is the first of two lists of David’s mighty men. We will come to the others in a week or two from now. And what we have are the names here of four warriors who played a significant part in the wars against the Philistines. And although there is not a great deal of detail in this, their role is worthy of mention. They were descendants, these four individuals, of the giants of Gath. Those giants, as verse 22 tells us, fell at the hand of David.

God, you will remember—those have you who have been studying with me for a while—you will remember that God had made a promise when David became king. And the promise was “By the hand of my servant David I will save my people … from the hand of the Philistines.”[2] David was to be entrusted with the responsibility of doing what Saul and his group had failed to do. And so it was that hope for victory rested in David.

But, as is apparent at least from this little section of 21, he was not operating singlehandedly. And so he is here, in these four incidents, either mentioned or, as it were, on the sidelines, unmentioned. And it would seem that what the writer has done here is akin to what we find at memorial celebrations and in cemeteries around the nation, and that is, he has, if you like, provided for us a roll of honor. A roll of honor. These people did this in their day in order that when people would read this material, they would then recount the faithfulness of God and his provision for them. And the story of what had happened would be handed down to posterity.

It’s very, very brief. One of the commentators referred to the writer’s approach here as a “telegraphic brevity.”[3] But it is the kind of brevity that is appropriate for a list, isn’t it? For an honors list. And three of these four incidents appear again in 1 Chronicles chapter 20. You can find them. The details differ there, but it is a parallel passage. And the refrain that runs through what we have just read is “There was war again.” You will see that in verse 15, then in 18, then in 19 and in 20.

And here in verse 15, we’re told that as the war continues with the Philistines, David, along with his servants, did what we have grown accustomed to seeing David do—namely, he “went down” to them, “went down” into the battle. And we’re told that in the fighting that ensued—with just three words in English—“David grew weary.” He “grew weary.” At this point, if you picture him there, he’s no longer the ruddy-faced youth, handsome in his appearance, with striking gaze,[4] who was prepared to go toe-to-toe with the giant Goliath. By this point, life has etched lines on his face, life has stiffened his limbs, life has extended his recovery time, and everyone looking on recognizes that he is something of a shadow of the man he once was. And he is, as the text tells us, battle-weary. He’s “weary.”

Now, what then follows are four incidents, and I want just to look at them briefly, and then to consider what the implications of these incidents are—or, if you like, to consider the “What?” (What is described for us here?), then to consider the “So what?” (“What difference does it make to the price of gasoline this morning?” kind of thing), and then the “Now what?”—but only briefly in the end.

Four Incidents

So, first of all, then, these four incidents.

Incident number one you will see there, then, in verse 16. If you’re looking for a boy’s name, here’s a suggestion: Ishbi-benob. It’s just as well that somebody who has a name like that was a giant. You will notice that he was one of the descendants of the giants, the Rephaim. We read about them earlier, and we’re not going to go back and rehearse that. A good Bible dictionary will help you on your way.

He had a spear that was a heavy spear, similar to Goliath, but only half the weight of Goliath’s spear. If you remember, that was fifteen pounds, and this is seven and a half pounds. He also, we’re told in the text, has been armed with a new sword, and it would seem that he decided he would try and capitalize on the fact that David now was weary from the battle and see if he might kill him. He “thought to kill David.” He thought to kill the king. But verse 17 tells us that “Abishai the son of Zeruiah came to his aid.”

Now, we know Abishai from the past, and we know his brother—the sons of Zeruiah. They were pretty brutal. And David on one occasion back in 2 Samuel 3, you will perhaps recall, he says of these two brothers, “I was gentle on this day, but they were more severe than I.”[5] And in many ways, they were troublesome. But here it is that Abishai proves his worth in defense of David by stepping forward, attacking the Philistine, and killing him. And as a result, his name is now going to appear in the dispatches. It will now be recorded for posterity that Abishai stepped in to save the king, he killed the giant, and he was responsible for this victory.

The record here of these victories under David provides an anticipation of the ultimate victories under Jesus the King.

What we then discover is that this close call led to David’s men essentially taking away his car keys. That is a very loose paraphrase: “Then David’s men swore to him, ‘You’re not going to be driving anymore, David.’” No, “You shall no longer go out with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel.” What is this about?

Well, if you remember way back, you remember that at the very start of it all, the lamp was burning in the sanctuary when the word of Eli comes to Samuel.[6] And there it burned as a symbol, as it were, of the abiding faithfulness of God and of his purpose for his people and how God, in fulfilling his purposes, is raising up his servants—and, supremely, this servant. And the people look on this scene. They realize how quickly and how easily David could have been snuffed out. And they realize that if the king were to be snuffed out, then it would mean the collapse of the community, for the life of the king was the key to the life of the community. And we’ve seen this all the way through: what happens to the king impacts the kingdom.

Now, for those of you who are now familiar with the way in which we’re approaching this, I am assuming that already as you sit there, you are sensing how the record here of these victories under David provides an anticipation of the ultimate victories under Jesus the King. I’m assuming that you’re there. If you’re not, then that’s okay, because you will be there by the end, because I’ll make it explicitly clear.

That’s incident number one. Incident number two in verse 18, short, to the point: “After this there was again war with the Philistines at Gob.” We don’t know where Gob was. It might have been a suburb of a place called Gezer, which is mentioned in the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 20.[7] Sibbecai the Hushathite—interesting that he’s got his whole name. But again, that’s appropriate. You don’t usually go and see memorials to the heroes of warfare in the past, and it just says “Bob,” you know, or “Tom.” No, it would say the full name so that people would be able to distinguish between one and another. And here into the annals of the military record goes the name of Sibbecai the Hushathite, who “struck down Saph.”

Now, again, you see, if the writer had decided to flesh all of this out, to expand it, there would be a whole backstory to all of this, clearly. But it isn’t there. The wider context is not provided, nor is any indication given in that eighteenth verse, in the second incident, of David’s part, of David’s participation, if there was any participation at all on the part of David.

Incident three in verse 19: “And there was again war with the Philistines”—you see the refrain?—“at Gob”—same place—“and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.” So, once again, we have the record of another victory in David’s name—but, once again, with no mention of David himself.

Now, it will become immediately apparent to you that this verse contradicts what we have learned—apparently contradicts what we have learned—of the death of Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. Because we recall that at the very threshold of David’s engagement as the champion of the kingdom, he took down Goliath. And as a result of this apparent contradiction, the commentators just go up in a blaze and seek to provide all kinds of interpretations as to what is going on. The passage that I’ve just mentioned in 1 Chronicles 20 actually says that the person who was killed was Lahmi, the brother of Goliath.[8] So it gets worse. Because that means that this verse 19 not only contradicts, apparently, 1 Samuel 17 but also apparently contradicts the Chronicles passage as well. Because it said it wasn’t Goliath that was killed; it was his brother.

And so, we’re not going to delay on this. I’m just going to give you a summary statement in a moment. But if your brain works this way, have a great life, and simply Google it, and you will have all… Let me give you one place you might look: R. K. Harrison’s Introduction to the Old Testament, and you will find much there that will be helpful to you. One possibility, of course, is that there is another Goliath, and so on and so forth.

It seems most probable—it seems most probable—and least problematic that the Chronicles passage actually preserves the original text and that scribal, accidental errors in transmission have given us the statement here in 2 Samuel. Now, don’t fall off your horse in the hearing of that, because remember that our doctrine of Scripture is that it is absolutely infallible as originally given. And in the same way that we’ve seen in going through this, when we’ve come to some of those numbers that seem vastly disproportionate, we’ve had to reckon with the fact that in the scribal work that is provided for us translation after translation, that would not be an impossibility. Anyway, suffice it to say that when it was written in this way, it was never intended that we would get off our trolley and spend a long time trying to deal with this apparent contradiction.

Incident number four is then in verse 20: “And there was again war at Gath, where there was a man of great stature,” or it might be “a man of great strife.” It would appear that he was both a man of strife and a man of stature. And if the previous incident is overshadowed by a textual difficulty, this present incident stands the risk of being overshadowed by this physical abnormality. And the way in which this man is identified, fascinatingly, is not by his name but by the structure of his hands and his feet.

And I wonder just why it is that it says he “had six fingers on each hand, and six toes on each foot,” and then it says “twenty-four in number.” It’s like, the writer thinks we can’t count? Or what is this? I think it’s simply to make the point: this was very, very significant. I’ve gone online to check and discovered that this actually is a genetic feature throughout the world in different places and at different times; therefore, it is not unique. And in fact, in the literature, this particular verse in 2 Samuel 21 is given as evidence of this genetic abnormality which appears from time to time.

But what got this man in trouble was not his fingers and his toes but his mouth. And it wasn’t his anatomy; it was his attitude. He “taunted Israel.” In other words, he was identified right along with Goliath himself, who, when he had stood out on the battlefield before this boy fellow that was there to challenge him, he said quite proudly, “I defy the armies of Israel. I defy the living God of Israel.”[9] And, of course, we know what happened to him.

And here, what we discover is the exact same thing: “And when he taunted Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimei…” Or you’ll find the name—it’s the same name—Shammah. You’ll find it a number of ways, two or three ways. “The son of Shimei, David’s brother, struck him down.” That’s just a passing reminder to us, isn’t it, of how on that day when Samuel came to the house of Jesse and he was looking for somebody that would be set apart as king, he had the brothers come out. And in fact, Shimei is mentioned, or Shammah is mentioned, in that: that he came out, and Samuel said, “No, it’s not him. It’s not him.”[10] And here, quite remarkably, interestingly, although he was not the one chosen to be king, his son, Jonathan, is the one who strikes down this giant—makes a substantial contribution to the wars against the Philistines. And verse 22 gives us the summary: “These four were descended from the giants in Gath, and they fell by the hand of David and by the hand of his servants.”

The Implications

So, those are the incidents. What, then, of the implications? What are we to make of these? What lessons are to be learned from these military annals—a list? That, of course, is the question that you’re waiting for an answer for, and I have been struggling for an answer throughout the days of this week.

Let’s remember that as we seek to do this, that we set always the narrative, the story that we’re dealing with, in the great panoramic narrative of the Bible itself. Let’s remember that when Paul, for example, writes to Timothy as a young man to encourage him to continue in his pastoral ministry, in the course of exhortation he says to them, “I want you to remember the things that you have become convinced of, knowing the people that you learned it from and how from infancy you have known the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”[11] He’s referring to the Old Testament. He’s referring to the fact that when Timothy took up his Bible, the Old Testament, and allowed the pages of Scripture, the unrolling scroll of Scripture, to fasten in his mind and to stir his heart, then it was in order that he might see beyond King David to the King who was to come, “great David’s greater Son.”[12]

King David had his mighty men, and Jesus enlists his mighty men and women.

And so, with that in mind, then let me give you simple observations or implications. And I don’t think there is any doubt but that you could add to each of these. I remember exams at school—I’m sure you had the same thing—where you had one of those essay questions: “Compare and contrast.” I remember… So, for example, “Compare and contrast the reign of Queen Victoria with the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.” And if you didn’t know anything about either one, you were completely at sea. Sometimes you could think of a number of contrasts; you couldn’t think of any comparisons at all. Well, these are somewhat random. We are comparing and contrasting the reign of King David with the reign of King Jesus.

Number one: David had a team. He had a team. He wasn’t a one-man band. The four that are mentioned here—Abishai, Sibbecai, Elhanan, and Jonathan—were representative of the fact that when it says that “they fell by the hand of David,” they were operating underneath his kingly rule. They were side by side with him in the battle. And, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ put together his team—his team of disciples. And as he nears the end of his earthly pilgrimage, he says to them in Luke chapter 22, “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials.”[13] “You are,” if you like, “my mighty men.” Well, they didn’t seem very mighty, did they? No. But they were. And many of these characters seemed less than capable for the task. But King David had his mighty men, and Jesus enlists his mighty men and women.

Who is on the Lord’s side?
Who will serve the King?
Who will be his [helper],
Other lives to bring?

Who will leave the world’s side?
Who will face the foe?
Who is on the Lord’s side?
Who for him will go?[14]

That’s the question. That’s the question for our children in vacation Bible camp. That’s the question for our teenagers as we seek to nurture them. That’s the question, Mr. Businessman: Are you on the Lord’s side? Would your name appear in the military annals of King Jesus: “Here he is,” full name, “on the Lord’s side”? The purpose of our study is in order that those who are not may enlist and that those who are enlisted may take it seriously.

By thy call of mercy,
By thy grace divine,
We [then] are on the Lord’s side—
Savior, we are thine![15]

Second implication: if David’s lamp is snuffed out, the community collapses. If David’s lamp is snuffed out, the community collapses, because he is the lamp of Israel. He knows that God is his lamp, God is his light. His is a reflective glory, if you like. And in the same way, if Jesus Christ’s life was snuffed out, then the community has collapsed. That’s what Paul says: “If Christ be not raised, then your faith is futile, and you’re still in your sins.”[16] So the idea that somehow or another, you know, our interest in these things or our concern about Jesus has to do with, you know, how it makes me feel or whatever that might be just dies before the instruction of the Bible. Because the Bible says, “Consider the history of this. These are records of what took place.” And the whole of the Gospels are providing us the records of what took place with King Jesus. If he were to be gone, there is no reason to be present.

Thirdly: David had his car keys removed. He was sidelined from the battle. Jesus is never sidelined from the battle. David on occasions was absent from the fray. Jesus is never absent from the fray.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art; …
Thou my soul’s shelter, thou my high tow’r,
Raise thou me heav’nward, O Pow’r of my pow’r.[17]

“I fear no foe, with [you] at hand to [guide].”[18]

Fourthly: Abishai had to intervene with his sword to save David. David was weary, the giant thought he could take him out, and Abishai stepped in. Contrast: “Put away your sword, Peter. No one takes my life from me. I have the power to lay it down. I have the power to take it up again. I could have called angels who would have come and dealt with this instantaneously.”[19] David, the earthly king, was in need of his servant to intervene on his behalf. Jesus, the heavenly King, needs no such intervention.

Jesus is never sidelined from the battle.

Fifthly—and there are only eight—fifthly: David’s lamp was in danger of being quenched. Jesus’ lamp is unquenchable. That is actually why Justin helped us this morning by reading from the beginning of the prologue of John’s Gospel, so that we might be able to refer to it now: “All things were made through him, and without him was[n’t] any thing made that was made. In him was life, … the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”[20] It hasn’t overcome it—no matter what you want to say about the rise of political ideas and social constructs and philosophies. Jesus is the Light of the World, and the darkness has not put it out, and the darkness cannot put it out. We need to say this to ourselves again and again.

Sixthly: the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of David’s kingdom. You say, “Well, we know that one.” I know you know it, but it’s good to rehearse it: the kingdom of the Lord Jesus is the fulfillment of David’s kingdom. Of Her Majesty’s Jubilee—it’s a seventy-year celebration, like, next weekend. That’s a long time! She’s in her nineties. She has outreigned any other monarch in the history of the United Kingdom. But she will die, and someone else will take her place. Jesus shall reign forever and ever, and of his kingdom there is no end.[21]

Seventhly: the defeat of the giants foreshadows the ultimate defeat of all of our enemies. In the same way that we’re told that these individuals stepped up to the threat and dealt with it under David’s jurisdiction and at times alongside with the king himself, in looking at that, we are to realize that in the same way that that was dealt with, so King Jesus deals with our enemies.

Which is number eight: as servants of the King, we’re given victory over our gigantic enemies. As servants of the King, we’re given victory over our gigantic enemies. What are the gigantic enemies?

Number one: Satan. He’s a liar and the father of lies. We’re given victory over him. We do not listen to his lies. We do not subscribe to his views of marriage. We do not pay attention to his nonsense about gender. We do not listen to his claims. “The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him.”[22]

Satan, and sin. Thanks be to God, who sets us free from sin. We say to one another all the time: it remains—we deal with it—but in Jesus, it no longer reigns. It doesn’t have us under its control.

So, the victory over Satan, over sin, and over death. Yeah, over death. Who else has the answer to this? There’s nobody. Who has conquered death?

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “… Death, where is your victory? … Death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.[23]

That was the answer on the thing this morning, wasn’t it? Why does he have to be human? So that he might keep the law in all of its fullness. So that he might bear the punishment for lawbreakers, in all of its reality. Jesus!

What? Four incidents from the military annals. So what? A few observations. Now what? “Be steadfast, [un]movable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”[24]

Father, I pray for the work of the Holy Spirit in each of our hearts to clear out wrong thinking, to enable us to think the thoughts of the Bible after the Bible makes it clear to us, to be reminded that you keep your promises and that all of your promises are stamped with the “Yes” and the “Amen” of Jesus,[25] so that we’re able to affirm that in Jesus, our hope in life and in death is tied solely to him. And in his name we pray. Amen.

[1] Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, “Speak, O Lord” (2005).

[2] 2 Samuel 3:18 (ESV).

[3] Robert P. Gordon, I and II Samuel: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Regency, 1988), 302.

[4] See 1 Samuel 16:12.

[5] 2 Samuel 3:39 (paraphrased).

[6] See 1 Samuel 3:3.

[7] See 1 Chronicles 20:4.

[8] See 1 Chronicles 20:5.

[9] 1 Samuel 17:10 (paraphrased).

[10] 1 Samuel 16:9 (paraphrased).

[11] 2 Timothy 3:14–15 (paraphrased).

[12] James Montgomery, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” (1821).

[13] Luke 22:28 (ESV).

[14] Frances Ridley Havergal, “Who Is on the Lord’s Side?” (1877).

[15] Havergal.

[16] 1 Corinthians 15:17 (paraphrased).

[17] “Be Thou My Vision,” trans. Mary E. Byrne (1905), versified by Eleanor Hull (1912).

[18] Henry Francis Lyte, “Abide with Me” (1847).

[19] Matthew 26:52–53; John 10:18; 18:11 (paraphrased).

[20] John 1:3–5 (ESV).

[21] See Isaiah 9:7; Revelation 11:15.

[22] Martin Luther, trans. Frederick H. Hedge, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (1529, 1852).

[23] 1 Corinthians 15:51–57 (ESV).

[24] 1 Corinthians 15:58 (ESV).

[25] See 2 Corinthians 1:20.

Copyright © 2024, 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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.