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In the previous chapter, David showed covenant kindness (hesed) to a prince who had lost his father, which is what happens in this chapter also. In the previous chapter, it was received with loyalty and deep gratitude. In this chapter, it starts a war.
“And it came to pass after this, that the king of the children of Ammon died, and Hanun his son reigned in his stead. Then said David, I will shew kindness unto Hanun the son of Nahash, as his father shewed kindness unto me. And David sent to comfort him by the hand of his servants for his father . . .” (2 Sam. 10:1-19).
Summary of the Text
The king of Ammon died, and his son Hanun came to the throne (v. 1). David determined to show kindness (hesed) to Hanun, the son of Nahash, as a reciprocal kindness (v. 2). Incidentally, Hanun means gracious and Nahash means serpent, meaning that this is a role reversal story. David sent diplomats as envoys/comforters, and Hanun’s counselors tell him that they must be spies (vv. 2-3). So Hanun has half their beards cut off, and their special diplomatic garments cut off at the hip (v. 4). They were humiliated, so David told them to stay in Jericho until their beards grew out again (v. 5). So the Ammonites saw that they had successfully picked a fight, and so they hired some Syrian mercenaries (v. 6). David heard this, and sent Joab to fight (v. 7). The Ammonites came out and set up in front of their city, and the Syrians were deployed in the field (v. 8), which hemmed the Israelites in. Joab saw this, and picked an elite group to fight the Syrians (v. 9), and the main body under Abishai to fight the Ammonites (v. 10). The agreement was that if either Israelite body faltered, the other would help (v. 11). Joab, for all his faults, was a superb field commander, and gave them all a stirring word of faith (v. 12). So Joab routed the Syrians (v. 13), and the Ammonites fled from Abishai (v. 14). When the Syrian mercenaries were seen to have been defeated, all the Syrians gathered en masse (vv. 15-16). David hears, and he goes out to battle (v. 17). The battle was joined, and David won a decisive victory (v. 18). And when the Syrian vassals saw the situation, they transferred their allegiance to David (v. 19), and the Syrians were done helping Ammon.
Victory with Foreboding
In this section of the story, even though David is triumphant in these two battles, something is missing. This chapter is the set-up and crucial background for the Bathsheba story, which is coming in the next chapter. In David’s previous victories, the historian went out of his way to say how the Lord was “with” David. Nothing but mojo in every direction. But here that blessing is not pronounced, and there is a sense that David is on autopilot. For the first battle, he sends Joab out to the fight, and a little voice inside us should say uh oh. For the big, second battle, David rallies, but then the next chapter sees David hanging around in Jerusalem again, giving way this time to sleep and to lust.
Resting on Past Accomplishments
Cotton Mather said it well. Faithfulness begat prosperity, and the daughter devoured the mother. It is so easy to tell yourself that you have “earned” the respite. It is so easy to be seduced away from God’s kindness to us by being stupidly dazzled . . . by God’s kindness to us.
But our task is to swim upstream. And the moment we stop swimming upstream (by faith) is the instant that we are floating downstream. In this life, in this setting, in this circumstance, there is no “neutral.” We are not walking up a path, but rather swimming up a river. There is no way to stop in order to “consolidate your gains.”
A Pattern of Division
This chapter is remarkable for how things are cut in two. We begin with the beards, and then with the diplomats’ garments. After that, the Ammonite forces are divided in two, and Joab divides his forces in two. Joab prevails by means of this tactic, but it seems that what we might have here is a thematic introduction of fundamental division. The rest of 2 Samuel is all about division—particularly the division of the kingdom—and it begins here.
The cutting of the beards was an insult to their masculinity, and it was true humiliation. The cutting of the garments was treacherous, an assault on diplomatic immunity, and it was also a sexual indignity. Moreover, to hack their beards was an insult to their religious identity (Lev. 19:27), and the cutting of the robes was the same thing again (Num. 15:37-41). This was an insult to the Torah.
All this is a foreshadowing what David is about to do—he is going to corrupt his own masculinity while he insults Uriah’s. He was a treacherous king to a loyal soldier and convert. He assaulted the Torah. The one who would conquer the Ammonites was becoming an Ammonite.
How God Redeems Division
God is not stymied by our sins. He tells the story of our redemption, and He weaves our failures right into the tapestry. Our sins remain true sins, and there is no excuse to be found for them in the decrees. Jesus went to the cross just as God’s predetermined plan had settled that He would. When Jesus submitted to the will of the Father in the Garden, it was the will of the Father He was submitting to (Acts 4:27-28). At the same time, the hands that put Him to death were wicked hands (Acts 2:23).
Jesus had a beard, and it was plucked out for our sake (Is. 50:6). Jesus had a seamless garment, and it was stripped off Him (John 19:23-27). The soldiers gambled for it because they did not want to ruin it by tearing or cutting it. So Jesus was completely naked . . . again, for us. He was broken, and His body was broken for us.
When man divides, he simply creates a spiraling cycle of division. When God divides, He does it to make us whole again.