2 Samuel 23:1-7
Two clues suggest that the final four chapters of 2 Samuel (chapters 21-24) constitute an appendix, added after the fact:
• Our text says, “Now these are the last words of David” (v. 1). However, 1 Kings 2:2-9 give us David’s real last words—David’s instructions from his deathbed to Solomon, who will succeed David as king. Those words are quite different from the lofty words of our text from 2 Samuel. In 1 Kings 2, David instructs Solomon to be faithful to God. Then he instructs Solomon to deal loyally with the sons of Barzillai, who had supported David in his hour of need. He instructs Solomon to deal harshly with Joab and Shimei.
• 2 Samuel 21-24 is structured as a chiasmus—a common literary form in Hebrew literature.
The following is technical, but worth reading. Keep in mind that chiasmi (the plural of chiasmus) occur frequently in the Old Testament and have a purpose. They draw the reader from the edges of the work toward the center—toward the most important part.
The chiasmus is a common literary form in the Old Testament. A chiasmus is composed of a series of parallel phrases in the following format:
A (parallels A’)
B (parallels B’)
C (parallels C’)
In a chiasmus, the movement proceeds in one direction until it reaches a center-point (C and C’ in the above example), and then reverses. The chiasmus focuses our attention on the center phrase or phrases (in this example, C and C’)—the most important part.
Think of the above structure as a series of concentric rings:
• The outer ring is composed of A and A’.
• The middle ring is composed of B and B’.
• The center ring is composed of C and C’.
Keep in mind that C and C’ constitute a “bulls-eye” ring that is heart of the chiasmus—the most important part of the larger piece of writing.
The following is the chiasmus for 2 Samuel 21-24:
A (21:1-14): The story of David redeeming Israel from famine.
B (21:15-22): A list of four giants who “fell by the hand of David.”
C (22:1-51): A poem/prayer of thanksgiving by David. Similar to Psalm 18.
C’ (23:1-7): A poem/last words of David.
B’ (23:8-39): A list of David’s mighty men.
A’ (24:1-25): A story of David redeeming Israel from pestilence.
Note the parallels:
• A and A’ (the outer ring) are both stories about David and Israel.
• B and B’ (the middle ring) are both lists concerning David and his soldiers.
• C and C’ (the center ring) are both poems having to do with David and Yahweh.
Also note how these move from a broad focus (Israel) to a less broad focus (David’s soldiers) to a close-up focus (Yahweh). It is as if a photographer were using a zoom lens to move from a broad view (the football field) to a less broad view (the home team) to a close-up view (the quarterback).
The two poems, C (22:1-51) and C’ (23:1-7), constitute the inner ring—the heart—of chapters 21-24. Our text for today is one of these—23:1-7 (David’s last words)—which is preceded by 22:1-51 (a prayer of thanksgiving).
2 SAMUEL 23:1. NOW THESE ARE THE LAST WORDS OF DAVID
1Now these are the last words of David.
David the son of Jesse says,
the man who was raised on high says,
the anointed of the God of Jacob,
the sweet psalmist of Israel:
“Now these are the last words of David“ (v. 1a). A person’s last words have special significance. A dying person has less reason than most to lie, so we find tend to trust last words more than ordinary words. We also assume that most dying people want to convey an important truth or affection in their last words.
By identifying these as David’s last words, the author is telling us that David considers them to be lofty wisdom. He wants those who follow him to benefit from his hard-earned lessons—to avoid his mistakes and to replicate his successes.
As noted above, David’s real last words are recorded in 1 Kings 2:2-9. The words of this poem in 2 Samuel are an idealized version —David’s wisdom in a nutshell.
“the last words of David“ (v. 1b). An oracle is a prophetic message given by God. This verse tells us that God is speaking through David.
“the son of Jesse” (v. 1c). Much earlier, while Saul was king, God sent Samuel to anoint David as Saul’s successor (1 Samuel 16). We remember how Jesse marched one tall, good looking son after another before Samuel, but God rejected each of them. After Jesse had marched seven sons before Samuel, Samuel had to ask if Jesse might have another son. Then Jesse remembered that he did, indeed, have one more son—David, his youngest son, who was tending sheep in the wilderness. Jesse hadn’t thought of David sooner, because Jesse had so many other sons who seemed better candidates than young David. But God chose David, the least of Jesse’s sons, to become the greatest of Israel’s kings. God often chooses the least likely candidates for the greatest tasks, because that makes it clear that the resultant successes are due to God’s power—not the person’s strength or wisdom.
What we might be inclined to forget is that Jesse was as unlikely a candidate to become the father of Israel’s great king as David was to be that king. Jesse was just an ordinary man—common—undistinguished. God didn’t choose Jesse because he was great, but because he was not great. When our text says that David was “the son of Jesse,” it reminds us that David came from undistinguished stock. Not that Jesse and David would remain undistinguished! Not at all! But Jesse and David became great because God chose them—not because they were inherently great.
“the man who was raised on high says, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the sweet psalmist of Israel” (v. 1d). God exalted David, anointed him, and made him his favorite. As a result, David enjoyed great success as Israel’s king. Now David shows that he realizes that his success was God’s gift. It was God who chose him. It was God who gave him the victory over Goliath. It was God who gave him victory over his enemies. It was God who gave the city of Jerusalem into his hands.
2 SAMUEL 23:2-4. THE SPIRIT OF YAHWEH SPOKE BY ME
2“The Spirit of Yahweh spoke by me.
His word was on my tongue.
3The God of Israel said,
the Rock of Israel spoke to me,
‘One who rules over men righteously,
who rules in the fear of God,
4shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun rises,
a morning without clouds,
when the tender grass springs out of the earth,
through clear shining after rain.'”
“The Spirit of Yahweh spoke by me. His word was on my tongue” (v. 2).
This verse reaffirms what the word “oracle” suggested in verse 1. The words that David speaks are not his own, but are words that God gave him.
The SPIRIT of the Lord speaks through David. The spirit of the Lord has been a mighty force from the beginning, when the ruah (wind or spirit) of God “was hovering over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). The spirit of the Lord has empowered particular people for particular tasks (Judges 3:10; 1 Samuel 10:6; 16:13).
The WORD of God has been a creative force from the beginning. It was at God’s word that light came into being (Genesis 1:3)—and all other creation, including humankind.
The two parts of this verse are an example of parallelism—characteristic of Hebrew verse. We think of poetry as using imagery, rhyme, and meter. Hebrew poetry uses imagery, but substitutes other literary forms such as parallelism and chiasmi for rhyme and meter.
“The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spoke to me” (v. 3a).
These parallel phrases introduce God’s words (as spoken by David), which follow in verses 3b-4.
The God of Israel is the Rock of Israel. The Promised Land has more than its share of rock, so rock became a metaphor for strength and stability. The God of Israel is strong (called “the Rock of Israel” in v. 1). He is Israel’s rock and salvation (2 Samuel 22:2, 47; Psalm 18:2; 19:14; 31:2; 62:2; 71:3; 94:22; 95:1; Psalm 144:1; Isaiah 17:10).
“One who rules over men righteously, who rules in the fear of God, shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun rises, a morning without clouds, when the tender grass springs out of the earth, through clear shining after rain” (v. 3b-4).
Thus begin the words that the Lord put in David’s mouth. The just ruler, who rules in the fear of God, is beautiful, like the morning light.
Morning light is delightful in several ways. For one thing, it breaks the grip of darkness and introduces us to a fresh new day. For another thing, early morning light is filled with reddish hues that beautify everything it touches. Photographers know that they should take photos of landscapes in the early morning or late afternoon to take advantage of those reddish hues. They also know how quickly those hues disappear as the sun begins to rise in the sky. A scene that is lovely with color in early morning light will look washed out an hour later.
The Godly ruler is also “as the light of the morning, when the sun rises, a morning without clouds.” We might take this to mean that the Godly ruler leads us into days without blemish—days unsullied by gray clouds.
The Godly ruler is also like the sun “when the tender grass springs out of the earth, through clear shining after rain.” In the early morning, when the bright sun strikes rain or dew on the leaves of plants, those drops of water take on a jewel-like character—glistening—decorating the fields as if they were a jeweler’s display window.
2 SAMUEL 23:5. YET HE HAS MADE WITH ME AN EVERLASTING COVENANT
5Most certainly my house is not so with God,
yet he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
ordered in all things, and sure,
for it is all my salvation, and all my desire,
although he doesn’t make it grow.
Verses 3b-4 are God’s words, and verses 6-7 are God’s words. In verse 5, David inserts his own remarks. In verses 3b-4, David spelled out the ways that a Godly ruler is beautiful. Now he claims this beauty as his own.
God has made an everlasting covenant with David. A covenant is an agreement between two parties, specifying the obligations and benefits of both parties. This is not the first mention of an everlasting covenant in Hebrew Scripture (Genesis 9:19; 17:7, 13, 19) but it is the first mention of an everlasting covenant between God and David (but see 2 Samuel 7:12-17, where the word covenant is not used, but God promises to establish David’s throne forever. See also 2 Chronicles 13:5; 21:7; Psalms 89; 132:11-12; Isaiah 55:3).
Because of this everlasting covenant with God, God has prospered David’s kingdom.
However, this is an idealized version of David’s rule. It is a good description of David’s rule prior to his adultery with Bathsheba. While God continued his relationship with David after that sin, neither David nor his kingdom would ever be quite the same. David’s sin introduced him to the thorns of verses 6-7.
However, if David failed to realize fully the status of Godly ruler, verses 3b-4 point to the one from David’s house and lineage who does embody these lovely qualities. Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 8:12). “His face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). “The city has no need for the sun, neither of the moon, to shine, for the very glory of God illuminated it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23).
2 SAMUEL 23:6-7. BUT THE UNGODLY ARE LIKE THORNS
6But all of the ungodly (Hebrew: beliy·ya·al—wicked people) are all like thorns that are thrown away;
for they cannot be picked up with the hand;
7But the man who touches them must be armed with iron and the staff of a spear.
They shall be utterly burned with fire in their place.”
“But all of the ungodly (beliy·ya·al) are all like thorns that are thrown away” (v. 6a).
Verses 6-7 resume God’s words as spoken through David. These verses show the other side of the picture. If a Godly ruler is like the morning light and a beautiful sunrise and the jewel-like dew on the grass, the godless (beliy·ya·al) are like thorns.
The word beliy·ya·al is used frequently in 1-2 Samuel to speak of people who are worthless or sinful or evildoers (1 Samuel 2:12; 10:27; 25:17, 25; 30:22; 2 Samuel 16:7; 20:1). These beliy·ya·al people are like thorns—worthless—worse than worthless. Thorns are not only worthless on their own merits, but they also render the land that they occupy worthless.
“for they cannot be picked up with the hand; But the man who touches them must be armed with iron and the staff of a spear“ (vv. 6b-7a).
David says that one cannot pick up thorns with the hands. Thorns inflict painful injuries. To handle thorns, we need an iron bar or the shaft of a spear or a pitchfork. This is similar to our expression, “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole.”
We have seen the truth of these words in our own experience. The person who gets too close to a beliy·ya·al person ends up hurt. As we say, “You can’t run with dogs without getting fleas!” The person who consorts with the beliy·ya·al does so at his/her own risk.
“They shall be utterly burned with fire in their place” (v. 7b).
We are reminded of John the Baptist, who says, “…whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor, and will gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17)—and Jesus’ words about collecting weeds and burning them (Matthew 13:30, 40; see also Malachi 4:1-3; Matthew 5:22; 7:19; 18:8-9; 25:41).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Baldwin, Joyce G., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: 1 & 2 Samuel, Vol. 8 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988)
Bergin, Robert D., The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Samuel, Vol. 7 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996)
Birch, Bruce C., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Numbers- Samuel, Vol. II (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: I and II Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1973)
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Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Evans, Mary J., New International Biblical Commentary: 1 and 2 Samuel (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000)
Gehrke, Ralph David, Concordia Commentary: 1 and 2 Samuel (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968)
Newsome, James D., Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Peterson, Eugene H., Westminster Bible Companion: First and Second Samuel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999)
Saleska, Timothy E., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan