Man of War and Grace

The Greatest of Israel’s Kings

Godward Life Conference | Minneapolis

I count this a great honor and joy to speak to you about the man I was named after, even though I haven’t always loved it. David is a fairly common name in my generation; sometimes I wished for something more distinctive. But as I’ve aged, I’ve grown to appreciate that first David. He has his clear failures, and yet he is such a compelling and genuinely good king and man. And it’s his manhood we’ll focus on in this session — not humanity, but masculinity.

To encounter the life of David some three thousand years later can be a challenge for modern men. We might find in it a call to cultivate some reasonable Davidic strength of body and soul. Whether as king or father or husband or friend, our people don’t want men with limp wrists, but with strong arms. Yet not with strong arms alone, as we’ll see.

Expert at War?

Perhaps one reason I haven’t always thrilled at being named David is that I long misunderstood him. Maybe I didn’t realize that David and Goliath were not to scale on the felt boards and as pictured in children’s books. At least well into adulthood, I had a pretty one-dimensional and domesticated idea of David.

I thought of him as the shepherd who became king and “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1). And so he was. Of course, we all know David killed Goliath as a youth, but I assumed that came from one lucky shot, rather than any skill in battle or as any reflection of his manhood. I didn’t think of David as particularly masculine. (It may also betray my mistaken idea of shepherds, who I thought to be more like mothers than warriors. Only later did I realize those guys carried a rod and staff, both to protect the sheep and to strike wolves. Ancient shepherds had to be fighters, not just feeders.)

But a specific scene near the end of David’s reign began to pop that bubble for me and give me a glimpse into the masculinity of David, and see him as more than just the singer-songwriter.

In 2 Samuel 17, when David’s son Absalom has rebelled against his father, marched on Jerusalem, and sent David retreating, David’s loyal friend Hushai pretends to have swapped sides to Absalom in order to defeat the rebel counsel. As Hushai makes his case, which ends up carrying the day, he characterizes David in terms that all the wise men of the day agreed with. Hushai says to Absalom,

You know that your father and his men are mighty men, and that they are enraged, like a bear robbed of her cubs in the field. Besides, your father is expert in war. (2 Samuel 17:8)

Not just his men, but David himself is mighty — and David in particular is expert in war.

Man of Valor, Man of War

In fact, the first time Scripture speaks of David, even before the Goliath account, he is introduced by one of Saul’s servants not only as “skillful in playing” but as “a man of valor, a man of war” and “a man of good presence.”

Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the Lord is with him. (1 Samuel 16:18)

In the following chapter, we learn that David, though still a youth, has already killed lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34–36).1 And based on such preparation, and his faith in God’s help, David has the courage to step forward and face Goliath. Though he does not intend to fight Goliath hand to hand, he will engage him in personal battle as a projectile warrior, putting his own life at stake if he is unable to land the death blow.2 And once David has struck him, this youth is at least strong enough to draw Goliath’s massive sword from its sheath and cut through his giant neck to take off his head (1 Samuel 17:51).

Soon the imposing Saul, Israel’s lead warrior, who stood head and shoulders above the rest, hears women dancing in the streets, singing of the strength they see in David: “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7; 21:11; 29:5).

And this David does not stay a youth but grows up to be a fierce warrior. So, Saul sets David over the men of war. And to win Saul’s daughter as his bride, David brings the king two hundred Philistine foreskins. Later we hear of David leading thirty thousand warriors in battle (2 Samuel 6:1) and being victorious wherever he goes (2 Samuel 8:6). At the end of his life, the reason God gives for why David will not be the one to build the temple is that he is “a man of war” (1 Chronicles 28:3; also 22:8).3

What Made David Great?

Then comes Psalm 18, which appears in 2 Samuel 22 at the end of David’s life as a celebration of God’s deliverance from all his enemies. The psalm represents the physical strength and skill that God gave to David:

  • He “can run against a troop,” he says, and “leap over a wall” (verse 29).
  • He writes that God “equipped me with strength” (verse 32) and “made my feet like the feet of a deer” (verse 33).
  • God “[trained] my hands for war,” he adds, making his arms strong enough to “bend a bow of bronze” (verse 34).

David, it seems, is a physical specimen and all-around warrior: He runs with speed and agility. He can climb and leap. His arms are strong enough to wield weapons, and his hands have been trained, over long years, in the skills of battle.

Yet right here, in Psalm 18, as he celebrates God’s good provision of physical, manly prowess, David makes a striking claim in verse 35. This takes David’s manhood to a new level, and surpasses the glory of slaying a giant in his youth. He says to God in 2 Samuel 22:36 (and Psalm 18:35), “Your gentleness made me great.”

Physical strength and skill, with proven valor and combat experience, may have made David “expert at war,” but that’s not what made him great. These are good things: strong arms, quick feet, skilled hands, military triumph. But those physical manifestations of manliness are not what made him great, he says. It was God’s gentleness that made David great.

What does it mean that God’s gentleness made him great? We might understand this in two ways. One, God had been gentle with David. David had flaws, many failures and sins. God could have rejected him and cut him off from the throne at any point. Yet God was gentle with him; he was gracious with him. David did not deserve it, and God was not exacting with his anointed, but gentle with him.

While that’s true, I think David is saying even more here. Not only had the omnipotent God been gentle with David, but God’s own gentleness with David had changed David. God’s own gentleness had come to take root in David’s heart and characterize his own life and leadership. As he came to the throne and wielded the powers of kingship, he did so with gentleness. David has been gentle with others.4

But this is such a quick and passing statement in Psalm 18 and 2 Samuel 22. How might we increase our confidence that we’re reading David correctly? How might we confirm that his own self-understanding of what made him great was not his manly physique and martial abilities but his godly gentleness?

Several key episodes in the life of David accent his gentleness, tenderness, or grace as greatness, not tragic flaw.

Saul and Nabal

First, at the end of 1 Samuel, David exercises a form of Godlike gentleness even before becoming king.

The second half of 1 Samuel chronicles his journey into the wilderness to elude Saul’s desire to kill him. In chapter 24 and then again in chapter 26, David happens upon a vulnerable Saul and could have ended Saul’s life violently. Yet David (himself God’s anointed, 1 Samuel 16:12–13) chooses not to reach out his hand against God’s anointed to seize the kingdom (1 Samuel 24:6, 10; 26:9, 11, 23; 2 Samuel 1:14, 16). Rather, he waits for years on end for the kingship to fall to him. Trusting in God and his timing, in manly humility and the godly gentleness that flows from it, David lets Saul go.

Right in the middle of those two accounts, in chapter 25, David almost avenges himself. A fool named Nabal insults him. The warrior-prince reacts in a very natural way: he tells his men to strap on their swords. But then a wise woman, Nabal’s own wife, Abigail, intervenes, and pleads for David to be gentle — and be the bigger man. Rather than stretch out his own hand to avenge himself, David deals gently with the fool, whom God strikes down just ten days later.

“Gentleness is not the absence of strength but the addition of Christlike grace to cushion power to life-giving ends.”

Later, after Saul’s death, David takes initiative to show kindness to the house of Saul (2 Samuel 9:1, 9), which (similar to gentleness) he calls “the kindness of God” (verse 3). In time, he will show such kindness and gentleness to Amnon and to Shimei, and even to his ruthless and severe cousins Joab and Abishai. It’s a striking pattern in David’s life once you see it. David, for his flaws, is serious about his own sin, and he, wielding the power of the kingship, is gentle with others in their sin and failures.

So, we have some reason to see his godly gentleness as what made him great. But we haven’t yet mentioned the two clearest and most important places, both in David’s own words in 2 Samuel and both set in opposition to his cousin and commander of the army, Joab, who serves as a masculine foil for seeing the greatness of David.

Gentle with an Enemy

First, in chapter 3, after the death of Saul, Joab avenges in peacetime the death of his brother Asahel in wartime.

Saul’s commander Abner had struck down Asahel as he pursued Abner in battle. Abner warned him to turn aside, but Asahel would not, so Abner struck him through in the stomach. In time, Abner sought peace with David and delivered the rest of the kingdom to him. David and Abner feasted together, and David sent him away in peace.

However, Joab heard of it and drew Abner aside, under the pretense of peace, “to speak with him privately, and there he struck him in the stomach [revenge], so that he died, for the blood of Asahel his brother” (2 Samuel 3:27).

Here a contrast begins to emerge between David and Joab. Both can be fearsome in battle. Both are strong, brave, experts at war, mighty men. But Joab, while an asset in war, is a liability in peace. It is great to have Joab on your side in the wilderness, and it could be terrible to have him nearby in the city.

Joab’s unrighteous slaughter of Abner, Saul’s former commander, now threatens the consolidation of the nation under David’s rule. So David takes public action in mourning the death of Abner, so that “all the people and all Israel understood that day that it had not been the king’s will to put to death Abner” (2 Samuel 3:37). David then speaks to his servants to make clear the difference between himself and Joab, the son of Zeruiah:

Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel? And I was gentle today, though anointed king. These men, the sons of Zeruiah, are more severe than I. The Lord repay the evildoer according to his wickedness! (2 Samuel 3:38–39)5

“Sons of Zeruiah” refers to Joab and his other brother, Abishai. They are manifestly manly men; they are men of war, oozing with testosterone. Second Samuel 10:11–12 shows us Joab and Abishai at their best. The Syrians and Ammonites have surrounded them in the front and the rear. So, Joab says to Abishai,

If the Syrians are too strong for me, then you shall help me, but if the Ammonites are too strong for you, then I will come and help you. Be of good courage, and let us be courageous for our people, and for the cities of our God, and may the Lord do what seems good to him.

Glorious. What great assets in battle. But then, as we’ll continue to see, what great liabilities at home.

You Sons of Zeruiah

For instance, when David is retreating from Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 16, a man named Shimei, from the extended family of Saul, comes out and curses David and throws stones at him and his mighty men as they walk. Abishai speaks up: “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and take off his head” (verse 9). To this David replies, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? . . . Behold, my own son seeks my life; how much more now may this Benjaminite! Leave him alone, and let him curse” (verses 10–11).

Once Absalom is dead, and David returns to the city, Shimei comes cowering on his knees, begging,

Let not my lord hold me guilty or remember how your servant did wrong on the day my lord the king left Jerusalem. Do not let the king take it to heart. For your servant knows that I have sinned. Therefore, behold, I have come this day, the first of all the house of Joseph to come down to meet my lord the king. (2 Samuel 19:19–20)

Abishai speaks up again: “Shall not Shimei be put to death for this, because he cursed the Lord’s anointed?” Again, David will be the bigger man. This is becoming a refrain: “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should this day be as an adversary to me? Shall anyone be put to death in Israel this day?” (verses 21–22).

The refrain “you sons of Zeruiah” reflects David becoming exasperated with Joab’s and Abishai’s unbending severity and violence and inability to restrain their strength and aggression. They are great to have on your side in war, and they do not know how to control their strength.

Which leads to David’s other mention of gentleness, leading up to chapter 22.

Gentle with a Traitor

In chapter 18, Absalom has rebelled against him, Hushai has bought him time, and now David sends Joab and the army into battle. In keeping with his pattern of exercising strength and adding to it the virtue of gentleness, David orders Joab, in the presence of witnesses, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” (2 Samuel 18:5).

Some commentators see weakness and indiscretion in David at this point. However, others see the gentleness that made him great.6 Remember, David is sending out his army. Peter Leithart defends David’s directions to Joab:

These instructions were consistent with David’s treatment of all his enemies; he had treated Saul well, and just recently he had restrained Abishai from cutting down Shimei. He knew what Joab was capable of, and he wanted all his men to know that he treated enemies with kindness and compassion. David’s behavior again provided an Old Testament illustration of Jesus’s teaching about loving enemies.7

Joab, of course, defies David’s will and himself thrusts three javelins through the heart of Absalom, again accenting the difference between David and Joab. Both are strong, but only one is great. Both are warriors, but only one knows the moment when, and has the ability, to exercise gentleness.

Joab Versus David

Joab is the one-dimensional man of war — strong, tenacious, courageous in battle, willing to risk it all. Yet he is a caricature of mature masculinity, not the full expression. He can fight, but he is unable to curb his aggression when it is no longer called for. He is tough, but he is unable to cushion his strength or control his tenacity when wisdom calls for gentleness.

And a growing number in the manosphere today eagerly offer their counsel on how to be more like Joab. In many circles (some clearly unbelieving but others under the banner of Christ), voices advocate, in essence, for men to rebel against feminizing in our world, and the church, by being more like Joab: “Society has made you soft; now it’s time to man up” — and the vision ends up being little more than a caricature of manly strength and backbone. They seem to see the pendulum swing to Joab as the necessary reaction.

But brothers, Joab and effeminacy aren’t the only options. David, man of war and giant slayer that he is, offers us the more mature vision of manhood. And note well, David is not a mean between the two extremes, but one who is every bit as manly as Joab — and then, with added abilities, even more so.

In terms of strength, speed, skill with a weapon, and ability to strategize and conquer in battle, we should not assume that Joab has much, if anything, on David, the giant slayer. David is every bit the man of war Joab is, but David surpasses Joab as a man not by being more severe, but by adding to his manly strength the virtue of manly gentleness. David is the bigger man and better model. David had learned gentleness from God himself, and so David can thrive in all contexts, not just in battle. He does not have less strength than Joab, but more.

David’s abilities are multidimensional. Both strong and gentle, he can wield his strength when the moment calls for it, or with admirable restraint he can walk in gentleness. David can lead a nation, not just an army.

And David, not Joab, is the Lord’s anointed, and the man who is the type of the Anointed One to come.

High and Exalted, Gentle and Lowly

While Psalm 18 serves as a great tribute to God’s work in and through David, there is much in the psalm, writes John Calvin in his commentary, that “agrees better with Christ” than with David.

And when the apostle John, on the isle of Patmos, caught his glimpses of the glory of Christ, he too saw the exemplar of mature masculinity, strong and gentle, capable and compassionate. In Jesus he saw not only man but “the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8). He turned to hear a voice “like the roar of many waters,” and “from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (Revelation 1:15–16). Later John would see this Lion of a man, sitting on a white horse, as the one who “judges and makes war” (Revelation 19:11).

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. (Revelation 19:15)

This is the one who is introduced in heaven with regal dignity and sovereign power: “Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (Revelation 5:5).

Yet when the apostle looked between the angels and the throne of heaven, he “saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). A lamb-like Lion, and lion-like Lamb, awe-inspiring in his majestic strength, and seen to be truly great as the gentle and lowly, self-sacrificial, atoning Lamb of God.

To be clear, the risen Christ is not puny. He sits in power on the very throne of the universe, and all authority in heaven and on earth is his. He is not weak in the least. And in masculine glory, his gentleness cushions the application of his great power as he marshals it in the service of his weak people. Brothers and sisters, do not mistake his gentleness for weakness. Gentleness is not the absence of strength but the addition of Christlike grace to cushion power to life-giving ends.

The greatness of David is not that he slew the giant in his youth. The greatness of David is that as a man he slew the giants in his own warrior’s heart: arrogance and pride, selfishness, unrighteous anger, petty disputes, personal offenses, private comforts and preferences and luxuries.

David was the great king, and the type of the Anointed One to come, as a man who was not weak, but strong, brave, and more — he was kind, patient, and gentle. He did not reach out his hand to seize power, but he waited on his appointment and traveled the long path of self-humbling on the way to being exalted. Nor, once in power, did he always leverage his full force, but learning from God’s own gentleness with him, he learned how and when to be gentle with others.

  1. The order of these chapters is significant: David is anointed first, and then he rises to take on Goliath, presumably as an act of faith because he believes Samuel’s anointing to be from God. 

  2. He selected five smooth stones. Perhaps three clean shots would be the best-case scenario, and he grabbed a couple extras just in case? That he took five stones shows he was not certain that the first would land. 

  3. Some may wonder about Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath. Gladwell emphasizes that David, though young, is a skilled warrior in his own right, but a different kind of warrior than Goliath. I think this emphasis is right. What’s not helpful in Gladwell’s reading is that he casts David’s victory over Goliath as David exploiting his advantage. David indeed trains for many years and launches his stone with skill, but projectiles are far from certain in such circumstances. We are right to honor God’s hand in landing the first one in Goliath’s forehead. Projectiles from a distance do not land with the same surety as sword thrusts. 

  4. As Derek Kidner comments, “While it was the gentleness God exercised that allowed David his success, it was the gentleness God taught him that was his true greatness.” See Kidner, Psalms 1–72 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1973), 95. 

  5. Robert Alter observes the theme of David’s tenderness, compassion, and gentleness versus the hardness, severity, and violence of the sons of Zeruiah. He comments on 3:39, “David’s plight as a self-proclaimed ‘gentle’ or ‘tender’ man vis-à-vis the ‘hard’ sons of Zeruiah will continue to play a crucial role in the story.” See Alter, The David Story (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999), 322. 

  6. Matthew Henry on 2 Samuel 18:5: “How does David render good for evil! Absalom would have David only smitten. David would have Absalom only spared. What foils are these to each other!” For this as indiscretion in David, see Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2013). 

  7. Peter Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel (2003), 278.