Last Words and Long Lists: Glimpses of the Kingdom to Come
Passage: 2 Samuel 23:1–23:39
Last Words and Long Lists: Glimpses of the Kingdom to Come
2 Samuel 23 is one chapter with two very distinct parts. The chapter opens with a poem. Vv1-7 recount for us David’s last words, his final official declaration as king of Israel. But the chapter then closes with what is basically a list. Vv8-39 are a roll call of David’s mighty men, those warriors who distinguished themselves by their loyalty to David and their bravery in battle. It’s a very abrupt transition, isn’t it? One minute, we’re listening to this beautiful song that David sings even as death looms on the horizon, but the next minute, we’re struggling through names that we can barely pronounce. What are we to make of this one chapter that contains two very distinct parts?
It helps to look for the theme that ties the chapter together. It’s true that 2 Samuel 23 is made up of two distinct literary units, but there is also a common theme running through these 39 verses. And unsurprisingly, it’s the theme of kingdom. Notice the language of ruling in v3 – David’s poem speaks of a just ruler who reigns in the fear of God. And then notice, simply, the repetition of battles and enemies in the list of David’s men. Why are they fighting? In order to protect David’s realm. You see, there is some unity to the distinct sections of this chapter. Kingdom is the subject of David’s final words, and kingdom is the cause for which David’s men risked their lives. A single chapter with two distinct units, but one clear theme – the theme of kingdom.
The Foundation of the Kingdom
With that theme as our guide, our outline this morning will be very simple. I would like us to notice three kingdom-oriented truths from 2 Samuel 23. First, we should note the Foundation of the Kingdom in vv1-3. As you see there in v1, these verses are described as David’s last words, and, in one sense, that’s exactly what we have. Think of it like a final decree issued from David’s royal office. This is what the king wants people to hear and, therefore, remember about his kingdom.
But at the same time, David’s last words are more than a simple farewell. In fact, as you read these opening lines, it’s striking to see that David puts the emphasis not so much on himself, but on the Lord God. These are David’s last words, but it’s the Lord who stands out.
Notice, first of all, David’s emphasis on divine grace. Look at the self-description in v1. Who is David? He is the son of Jesse, and he is the man who was raised on high. That description virtually screams God’s grace. As the son of Jesse, David came from very humble beginnings. Do you remember when we first met David in our story, back in 1 Samuel 16? The prophet Samuel had come to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be king over Israel, and yet, where was David when Samuel arrived? Out in the field, keeping sheep. You see, David’s own father didn’t think his son was important enough to be invited to the meeting. The boy was too young, too insignificant to be a candidate for kingship.
And yet, what did the Lord do? He raised David on high, just as David recalls here in v1. The Lord took David from the smelly sheep pen, and God exalted him to Israel’s throne. That’s grace.. David did not deserve this position, and David could never earn this position. And now, decades later, as old King David prepares to cross death’s divide, how does he view himself? Exactly as he should – as a man whose life owes entirely to grace.
Notice also, David’s emphasis on divine purpose. Again, we look at David’s self-description in v1, and we ask, “Who is David?” This time, we see he is the anointed of the God of Jacob. What does that mean? It means David is God’s chosen deliverer, or we could even say savior, of his people. And we’ve seen this time and again throughout David’s life, haven’t we? When the people cowered before Goliath, David fought on their behalf and defeated the enemy who was too powerful for them. When the nation was hard-pressed on every side, David stood in the gap and brought security and peace to the people. You see, in an earthly sense, God used David to bring salvation to his people. David is the anointed one, and his life reveals a divine purpose.
Finally, notice David’s emphasis on divine revelation. V1 tells us these are David’s last words, but David himself calls his words an oracle. Do you see that twice in v1 – the oracle of David? Now, in the OT, an oracle is usually something that God declares, but when connected with human beings, an oracle communicates a prophetic declaration. And that’s what makes David’s last words unique. This is more than a farewell. This is prophetic. This is divine revelation.
And this becomes very clear in v2. David leaves no room for doubt.. He claims to speak at the initiative of God. Notice what he says, v2 and into v3 – “The Spirit of the LORD speaks by me; his word is on my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me.” Four times, David declares that these are God’s words. These are not David’s hopes and dreams. This isn’t merely what David wishes will happen. No, the king speaks here with divine inspiration; his song is divine revelation.
And therefore, what David prophecies about the kingdom comes not only with God’s authority but also with God’s guarantee. Not only are these things true, but they are unchanging as well. Again, we have to keep the prophetic element of David’s words in view here. There is both an already and a not-yet element to David’s oracle. He’s speaking not only of his kingdom in the present, but also of the kingdom that is to come. And as David looks to the future of that kingdom, his divinely inspired words are saying to us, “Take courage, people of God. Be hopeful, citizens of God’s kingdom. The promises of this kingdom are not founded upon human wisdom or human initiative. No, the promises of the kingdom are founded upon the gracious, purposeful revelation of God.”
That is the testimony of David’s life. He stands on God’s grace, he accomplishes God’s purpose, and he rests in God’s revelation. From beginning to end, the kingdom is founded upon the work of the Lord. And that makes the promises of the kingdom both true and unchanging.
The Future of the Kingdom
This leads us right into our second truth – the Future of the Kingdom in vv3-7. We’ve seen already that David speaks with divine revelation, and now, in vv3-4, we hear the content of that revelation. This is the heart of what David saw in his oracle. This is the message the Spirit of the Lord inspired him to proclaim. David speaks in these verses of an ideal king. He looks forward to a coming Ruler whose reign will be nothing less than remarkable. Notice again how the Lord, through David, speaks about this ideal king, the end of v3 – “When one rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God, he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning, like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.” Now, there are two features to note in this vision of an ideal king.
The first feature is that this King is righteous. He rules with justice rooted in the fear of the Lord. What does that mean? It means the king administers God’s word without partiality. In every situation, the king upholds and enforces the truth. In fact, if you look at vv6-7, you see an example of this king’s rule. David describes wicked men as thorns. If you’ve ever worked in a garden, then you know that thorns are really good for nothing. They take up good soil and choke out the other plants. In order for life to grow in the garden, the thorns have to be destroyed. The same holds true for life under this Righteous King. He will uproot the thorny wicked of this world, and he will subject them to the judgment of God. That might sound harsh to modern ears, but remember, that’s what justice and righteousness require. It’s not only the celebration of good, it’s also the removal of wickedness. You see, that’s the kind of king envisioned here in vv3-4 – a King who is righteous in all his ways.
The second feature is that this King is a blessing to his people. The language of v4 is meant to communicate flourishing and refreshment. Imagine a bare, parched stretch of earth, where vegetation has dried up and the ground has split open from the heat. Does anything grow in such a place? No, it’s lifeless. But what happens when the rains come again, and the sun combines with the moisture to replenish the ground? Things grow, don’t they? Life sprouts anew, and the earth flourishes under such good conditions. That’s what it’s like to live under such a Righteous King. It’s fruitful. That’s the point of v4. When a Righteous King reigns, his rule leads to flourishing. His justice is like rain that refreshes the ground, and his authority is like the sun that warms the earth. Through the Spirit of the Lord, this is what David sees. This is what God has revealed to him. It’s the revelation of an ideal King, a Righteous Ruler who brings unspeakable blessing to his people. It’s truly a remarkable vision.
But as we come to v5, we find something equally as remarkable. David connects this ideal king with his own family line. Look again at v5, and note how David connects king and covenant – “For does not my house stand so with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. For will he not cause to prosper all my help and my desire?” Now, David’s statement in v5 begins and ends with rhetorical questions, and David clearly expects the answer to both questions to be Yes. Does not David’s house stand so with God? Yes, it does. And will not God cause to prosper all of David’s plans and desires? Yes, he will. The beginning and end of v5 emphasize the importance, we could even say the centrality, of the Davidic king.
But, here’s the key. Notice what stands in the middle of v5, between David’s questions. It’s an affirmation of covenant. “For God has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.” This is David’s confidence. David is sure that his house will stand because the Lord is faithful to keep covenant. God cannot turn back on his Word, and that means the Davidic kingship rests solidly on the faithfulness of God.
Now, that alone is an incredible thought, at least it would be for David. But when we press this further, we see that this is an incredible thought for us as well. Here’s why. The vision in vv3-4 is not merely of an Ideal King. The vision is of an Actual King who embodies the ideal. V5 connects the ideal with reality. V5 is telling us that this King will come, and that his coming is guaranteed by God’s covenant with David.
At this point, I could take you to passages in the prophets that confirm this interpretation. We could look at Isaiah 9 that speaks of light breaking into Galilee, a son whose shoulders would be broad enough to uphold the government of this world in righteousness and peace. We could look at Isaiah 11 that speaks of a Branch coming from the stump of Jesse, a Ruler whose reign will spread the knowledge of the Lord across the globe. We could look at Micah 5 and the Ruler born in Bethlehem, or Zechariah 12 and the Savior who is pierced for God’s people, or Ezekiel 34 and the Shepherd who stands in David’s line. All of those prophetic passages pick up on what David is saying here, in 2 Samuel 23. There is a Righteous King coming, and he will be a Son of David.
But instead of looking at those prophecies about this Coming King, I want us to marvel, just for a moment, at the person of this Coming King, at his character. The description in vv3-4 is almost beyond our comprehension – a King who perfectly upholds righteousness and justice. He does not favor the strong over the weak. He does not seek his own gain at the expense of others. He does not take bribes. He doesn’t twist the standard when convenient. He doesn’t believe that the ends justify the means. He doesn’t crave power. He tells the truth. He upholds the moral law of God. He does what is right and good, even when it is costly.
Can you even imagine such a Ruler? Regardless of your politics, I’m sure we can all agree that we desperately need more righteousness from our leaders. We need more integrity and justice, don’t we? In fact, our world seems so thoroughly broken that it is easy to become cynical or despairing or apathetic.
And yet, for Christians, there is reason to be hopeful. There is a future that will outshine this present darkness. The Righteous Ruler we need will come. Indeed, he has come, he is coming again, and when he returns, he will make all the sad things of this world come untrue. That’s the hope of 2 Samuel 23. The future David sees for his kingdom is our future as well, through the Lord Jesus Christ. David’s hope is our hope. It’s a hope we possess in the gospel, and it’s a hope we urgently need to proclaim and display to the world around us.
Brothers and sisters, our neighbors need hope. They don’t need our cynicism or our apathy. And they don’t need our preferences or our policy positions. No, our neighbors need to hear and see the hope of lives anchored in Jesus Christ the Righteous One. The world is broken, but we of all people should be proclaiming boldly and joyfully, “There is a better world coming! There is a better King coming!” Our neighbors need hope, and we’ve been commissioned by God to proclaim that hope.
But in order to proclaim that hope, we’ve got to know it, cherish it, and be defined by it. Perhaps that’s why this section of 2 Samuel 23 is so important and timely even. David faces death, and yet he is hopeful because of God’s faithfulness. That’s the kind of confidence we need, in order to be salt and light in this world. The future of the kingdom is our future, so let’s be hopeful, and then let’s tell the world why we are.
The Followers of the King
So far, we’ve seen the Foundation of the Kingdom and the Future of the Kingdom. Beginning in v8 and running until the end, we see the final truth of the chapter – the Followers of the King. As we mentioned at the outset, these verses are a roll call of David’s mighty men. There are two groups that comprise the mighty men. The first group is known as the Three, and they are described in vv8-12. These men were apparently the elite of the elite. Next to the Three was the second group, known as the Thirty. They are described in vv18-39, with Abishai and Benaiah singled out as leaders among the Thirty. Membership in the group appears to have been fluid, as more than Thirty men are listed. Perhaps new members were added when men were killed in battle. Whatever the case, the Three and the Thirty combined to form an elite force in David’s army. They were brave, loyal, and fiercely effective in battle.
What can we take-away from the lives of these mighty men? What do they teach us about following the Lord’s king? There are a few reminders we should notice here, reminders that transcend culture and apply to Christ’s followers today. First of all, these mighty men remind us of the power of God. Look again at Eleazar, the second of the Three, in v9. Eleazar stood with the King against the Philistines, even when everyone else had fled. And Eleazar fought so fiercely that his hand was welded, so to speak, to his sword. That’s an astounding display of courage, but notice who gets the emphasis at the end of it all, v10 – “And the Lord brought about a great victory that day.” You see, this is what happens when God’s people faithfully follow God’s King. The Lord supplies what they need for the task they face, and in doing so, God gets the glory. Eleazar was a mighty man, but that’s because he served a mighty God.
And just in case we miss it with Eleazar, the author repeats this same reminder with Shammah in v11. Shammah stood alone against the Philistines, but again, who gets the emphasis at the end, v12 – “and the LORD worked a great victory.” Shammah acted in faith, and God responded in power.
I don’t mean to suggest here that God will give you superhuman strength. But I do want to remind us that as God’s people follow him in faith, the Lord supplies what we need for the task at hand. Is this not what the apostle Peter tells us in 2 Peter 1, “His divine power had granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness”? Whatever the task we face, God supplies what we need, so that he receives the glory. That’s the first reminder from David’s mighty men – they remind us of God’s power.
The mighty men also remind us of the power of love. Vv13-17 recount a striking display of bravery. This took place at some earlier point in David’s life, maybe during the time he was running from Saul. But the timing is not important; the feat described is the key. David is hiding in a cave, and he expresses a desire to drink from the water of his hometown. But there is one problem – the Philistines control Bethlehem at this point, so getting a taste of home would be quite risky. Now, understand, David is not commanding anyone to do anything. This is just one of those moments when weariness gets the best of you, and you say out loud a desire that you know is improbable.
But that doesn’t stop three of David’s men. Notice v16 – they fight through the Philistine lines, get some Bethlehem water, and then fight their way back to David, a twenty-five mile round trip. That’s incredible. But notice what David does when they return – he pours it out before the Lord.
Now, you might be thinking, “Wait a second, isn’t that wasteful? Isn’t that rude even?” The answer is, no. This is actually the best way for David to honor his men. You see, David understands that his men risked their own blood to bring him a drink. They were willing to spend their lives to serve their king. And that’s why David pours the water out before the Lord – because only God is worthy of that kind of devotion. It’s as if David says, “This water is so valuable, so precious that only the Lord deserves to receive it.” David honors his men as he should – by giving praise to God.
But here’s the question I found myself asking this week. What drove these men to risk their lives for David’s sake? It wasn’t duty, because David never commanded that they go. And it wasn’t mere loyalty, for they could have remained in the cave and been just as loyal. No, these men went to Bethlehem because they loved David. It was their love for the king that compelled them to act.
What would the Lord Jesus say centuries later, as he was teaching his followers? “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Love is the great fuel of Christian devotion. Love is the engine that drives courageous service to the Lord. And perhaps that will encourage you this week, to continue cultivating love for Christ. Knowing God’s Word, communing with Christ in prayer, serving his church, cherishing his gospel – those are the means through which God raises up mighty followers of Christ, men and women who risk everything because they love the King. David’s mighty men remind us of the power of love.
Finally, the mighty men remind us of the value of faithfulness. There are a lot of names in this list, aren’t there? And most of them have no description of what they did. Their names are simply recorded here in the history of David’s kingdom. What did they do? We don’t know specifically, but we know enough to say they were faithful. They served the king in the place where God put them at the time God appointed for them. They were faithful, and in response, God recorded their names in the Scriptures. That’s amazingly encouraging to me. For many of these men, their deeds have been forgotten by history, but their names have been remembered by God. He sees the faithful service of his followers, and God remembers.
Never underestimate, brothers and sisters, the eternal value of doing what God has given you to do in the time God has given you to do it. Yes, some of these mighty men did things that were remarkable, but most of them are known only because they were faithful. Faithfulness – that’s what makes them memorable. Be encouraged, that God’s kingdom values not the mighty per se, but the servants who faithfully follow the king until the end.
2 Samuel 23 – one chapter with two very distinct parts, but those parts are held together by the theme of kingdom. The foundation of the kingdom is the word of God himself. The future of the kingdom is an unspeakably glorious King who will make all things new. And therefore, the followers of the king are free to be faithful, trusting that through their faithfulness, God receives the glory.
I’ve enjoyed many of the chapters in 1-2 Samuel, but this one surprised me with so much encouragement. I hope it encouraged you too, brothers and sisters, to the praise of his glory. Amen.
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