In this passage, we have the last formal pronouncement that the great David gave. This message from David spoke of the blessing that comes from a godly ruler. Louis XIV was the Sun King of France, and his idea of it was absolute monarchy. David, by way of contrast, spoke of a sun king very differently.
“Now these be the last words of David. David the son of Jesse said, And the man who was raised up on high, The anointed of the God of Jacob, And the sweet psalmist of Israel, said, The Spirit of the Lord spake by me . . .” (2 Sam. 23:1–39).
Summary of the Text
These are the last words of David, referring to his last pronouncement (v. 1). He was the sweet singer of Israel (v. 1), and God spoke through him (v. 2). A ruler must be just (v. 3), and if he is, then he is a morning sun (v. 4), a cloudless morning (v. 4), and as new grass after rain (v. 4). Though David’s house does not deserve it, God has made an everlasting covenant (v. 5). Sons of Belial, sons of worthlessness, are rulers who must be hedged with weapons, and then burned (vv. 6-7).
We then come to David’s hall of fame roster. Adino was chief; he killed 800 at one time (v. 8). Then Eleazer, one of the Three, who fought until his hand stuck to his sword (vv. 9-10). Then there was Shammah, who fought at the lentil field (vv. 11-12). Then there were the three men who captured a cup of water from the well at Bethlehem (vv. 13-17). Abishai was one of them, and another time he killed 300 men (vv. 18-19). He was like the top Three, but not of them. Benaiah defeated two men of Moab, and also killed a lion in a pit on a snowy day (v. 20), as well as an Egyptian (vv. 21-23). And then a number of the Thirty are named. The chapter ends by saying there were 37 in all, but in this chapter only 36 are named. The missing man was no doubt Joab. Names to note would be Eliam, the father of Bathsheba (v. 35) and son of Ahithophel. And it is surely not a coincidence that the last man named is Uriah the Hittite (v. 39). Uriah’s name meant “YHWH is my light.”
Citations of Bravery
We can see from these descriptions that courage takes a stand in particular circumstances. Eleazar fought until his sword grew into his hand and arm, and that detail was remembered by Israel. Shammah took a stand at the lentil field, while all the other troops fled. He took a hopeless stand, and he prevailed. The Lord wrought a great victory there. The three who got water from the well were doing nothing of strategic value, but wars are fought with symbols as well as with weapons. This was something that David knew, and treated the water with the respect it deserved, and he poured it out before the Lord. Benaiah fought with a lion, in a pit, on a snowy day. Top that.
A True Sun King
Sin is destructive, and men can forfeit great blessings by it. David did lose some immediateblessings through his sin, but he did not lose the great blessing. Jesus, the Son of David, sits on the throne of the universe now. God promised his house an everlasting covenant, and this was all David’s salvation and all his desire. But he adds this comment in v. 5 to show that he knows that he was not the perfect exemplar of the kind of king he describes in vv. 3-4.
That said, the covenant head of every civic order is not a necessary evil. Something that is frequently evil is not necessarily evil. In addition, a godly ruler is not superfluous. It is not as though impersonal market forces do all the good stuff, with the civic head simply serving as kind of an animated logo for the nation. No, there is real authority there. “And the Lord magnified Solomon exceedingly in the sight of all Israel, and bestowed upon him such royal majesty as had not been on any king before him in Israel” (1 Chron. 29:25).
In order for this to happen, God must raise a man up (v. 1), and God must anoint him (v. 1). Seizing power, garnering votes, bribing the right people cannot achieve this. An anointing is a gift. A man who rules other men must be just, and this justice is defined as ruling in the fear of God. A ruler who does not fear God is in some way claiming to be God. If there is no God over the state, then the state is God.
But if a man rules in the fear of God, he brings something to a nation which cannot be obtained in other ways. He is the light of a cloudless morning—clearly not a figurehead. He is the rain on the fresh grass. In short, a godly ruler is not optional if a nation is to flourish as God intended.
Dealing with Bramble Men
What is the alternative? The phrase sons of Belial means sons of worthlessness, and they cannot be persuaded by argument. Neither can they be seized by hand—they are bramble men, covered with thorns.
These thorns must be raked together with weapons, which gives a political force to the metaphor, and then when they have been heaped together, the only thing for it is to burn the pile of them.
This image for worthless rulers, judges, and lawmakers had been used before—Gideon’s son Jotham told the men of Israel a very pointed parable (Judg.9:14-15). He gave them that parable from the top of mount Gerizim (Judg. 9:7)—the mount from which blessings were pronounced. Mount Ebal was the mount of cursing.
So judgment upon wicked rulers is a blessing for the people. “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: But when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn” (Prov. 29:2). When the cause of that mourning is removed, the people rejoice. To curse the wicked in their office is to bless the people.
One of the snares that comes from living in a democratic republic—along with the blessing of regular elections, without tanks in the streets—is that we come to think that everything must be addressed by endless discussion and debate. But when bramble men have gotten themselves established, as they have in our nation, there is no way to address it apart from judgment. That judgment must not be a vigilante judgment, but it must be an actual judgment.
And when it is declared, when it is pronounced, the word comes down as a blessing. It is a declaration from Gerizim.