The names Warneford, Baveystock, Longmore and Chesworth probably don't mean very much to you. But any self-respecting former member of the RAF's 201 Squadron will know something of these men. In our old Squadron Headquarters, rooms were named after them; their pictures hung on the wall; logbooks and keepsakes on display in cabinets; tales of their exploits recounted and passed into legend. Warneford: the first pilot to be awarded a VC for aerial combat of any kind – for taking out a Zeppelin over Belgium in 1915. These memories on the walls of our Squadron building were our way of remembering and honouring those who had faithfully and extraordinarily served the Squadron and their country.
This evening's passage from 2 Samuel 23 is a bit like that. Verses 8-39 record two sets of men, known as 'The 3' and 'The 30' whose bravery, effectiveness and loyalty to the King made them worthy of special recognition. Earlier on we only heard read verses 8-23. Do turn back to that now. If you glance down a bit further, to verses 24-39 (which is also part of our text for tonight), you'll see I spared our reader the joy of reading a plethora of unpronounceable Hebrew names. It's one of those classic lists that God likes to throw into his Word from time to time! And I don't know, maybe at first listen and look you're thinking that while interesting, this ancient roll of honour has very little relevance to our lives today. And to be fair – initially I had some sympathy with that. But, actually, on closer examination I found five things that I want to draw our attention to tonight. Let's get straight to it. 2 Samuel 23.8 says:
"These are the names of the mighty men whom David had:"
And what we get first, is a list of 'The 3': Josheb-Basshebeth (v.8), Eleazer (v.9) and Shammah (v.11). These three seem to be the 'best of the best' when it comes to David's warriors and we're given a little insight as to why. Josheb-Basshebeth then was, according to verse 8, a: "Tahkemonite, was chief of the three" and "He wielded his spear against eight hundred whom he killed at one time". 800 men! At once. That would make you the chief, wouldn't it?! Next up is Eleazar, who stood his ground when the rest of the Israelites bottled it. Look at verse 10. We're told that on one occasion he "struck down the Philistines until his hand was weary, and his hand clung to the sword". Now whether it was through cramp or dogged determination, we don't know – but the inference clearly is that he wasn't letting go. Don't know about you but I have some kind of 'Lord of the Rings' battle imagery in my mind at this description: the rest of his army retreating all around, but here is Eleazar, his blood-splattered hand gripping his sword through gritty determination. This is leadership to inspire… from the front… by example. Even so, the rest of Israelite army don't follow. The cowards, we're told, returned "only to strip the slain". That's Eleazer. And then, verse 12, the third of the three, Shammah who "took his stand in the midst of the plot [of ground full of lentils] and defended it and struck down the Philistines". Another example of the Israelites fleeing – another courageous one-man stand!
And unless we think that Shammah was motivated by his love of lentils, what we need to understand here is the significance of the place. This place was important because it was God's land. It was the Promised Land. And Shammah takes a stand, not just for David – but for the promises of his God, by defending what the Lord had provided. So, three extraordinary men. Three exceptional men whose exploits are still being recalled in Newcastle in 2018! And there's a lot we could learn from them – especially in the realm of the courage it takes to stand alone against all the odds and against significant opposition. And that must be part of what we ponder/reflect as we read these verses. But to press on in that direction too quickly, would be to miss the most significant parts of these descriptions. And it's easily done. In my enthusiasm to recount their military heroics I have passed over the most important phrase. It's actually there twice, and it's a truth we can often forget. That's our first heading tonight:
1. A Truth We Often Forget: The Lord Brings About Victory
Look at the end of verse 10:
"The LORD brought about a great victory that day".
And look at the end of verse 12:
"the LORD worked a great victory".
Same phrase. In other words, despite these incredible heroics something else was going on. The significance of these three stories, and the rest that also follow, isn't Josheb-Basshebeth, Eleazar or Shammah at all, it is that the Lord was bringing about his victory through them. The source of their great acts was the Lord! He was, and still is, the one who leads, equips, empowers and encourages his people to victory.
But do you know what? I think this may be a truth we say we believe, but one that we actually forget quite a bit in practice. And it occurs to me that there is probably no better evidence of that, than in our prayer lives. If not personal, then certainly corporate. Yes, it's a bit of leap from this text where prayer isn't mentioned at all. But is not true that the frequency of our praying… is it not true that the nature of our praying and our fervency in it, shows exactly how much we really believe that God is control? Surely if we believed this truth whole-heartedly, we wouldn't stop pleading with the Lord to act. I for one, find myself so frustrated that I am not on my knees more pleading with the Lord every day to bring about great victories for the sake of his Kingdom. What about you? Is it a truth you need to remember more often?
But of course, remembering that it is ultimately the Lord's work does not negate the fact that we still have to get involved. These men still had to play their part in response and obedience to the Lord. And that's a reality that sometimes we can all too easily ignore. It's our second heading.
2. A Reality We Easily Ignore: The Lord Uses People to Establish Those Victories
That reality is that the Lord uses people to achieve his work and establish his victories - we see it throughout the passage: Josheb-Basshebeth, Eleazar and Shammah (later Abishai, Benaiah and 'The 30'). They all still had to step up and get involved; they all had to resolve to stand against the tide, to stand their ground and fight when all around them were running away; they had to choose what was true and right and eternal and of God, and then do all that they possibly could in their God-given human ability. And that is the reality of how God's Kingdom grows - at one and the same time it's both all the Lord's work and it is also us playing our part too, in faithful obedience. The two come together.
So, whether we're serving in the workplace, or looking after our families, or reaching out into our communities or doing whatever it is we do… its eternal value, its ultimate worth, is all down to God. Because he is in control, he knows what he's doing, and our human activity or achievement only has any lasting value in as much as it serves Almighty God and his Kingdom purposes. And really we have no excuse to ignore this reality, do we? We've been given our commission. Our Kingdom task. Jesus said "Go… make disciples… baptise… teach." And the Bible teaches consistently that our responsibility is to work wholeheartedly to this end, as the Lord has gifted and led us. We may not be called to the literal battlefield, like these men (indeed most of us aren't) but until Jesus comes back there are men and women to reach for the Kingdom, there is all sorts of work to be done for the Kingdom and there is all sorts of work to be done to promote and represent the Kingdom. That means we need to think about how we use everything we have responsibility for: our money, time, energy, talents, gifts, bodies, our minds – everything! How are we going to allow these things to be used by the Lord to bring about great victories for the Kingdom? If you're not sure where to start, then maybe consider how you'd answer these questions. What interests you? What great wrongs bother you? What great injustices keep you awake at night? What burning passion drives you?
Maybe the Lord has laid something or someone on your heart for a while now and you haven't acted on that… will you? Is now the time? Is there really a valid reason for any more delay? Maybe it's people who need a follow-up conversation or a practical demonstration of how much you care; maybe it's a social or environmental concern that you know you should do something about and you have the means to address; maybe it's an attitude or culture that you need to challenge – in your family, work, or the media; maybe it's something in your own life that is burning a hole in your conscience. Will you, with the Lord's help and in his power deal with it?
Friends, part of what we need to see from 2 Samuel is that our work for the Lord, if it is truly for Him and done in His power, will not fail to achieve what it needs to. And it also means that nothing (humanly speaking) is impossible – 800 men, don't forget (if we saw it on a movie we'd dismiss it as far-fetched!) But we need to step out with him and DO something! The question we have to answer is this: Are we willing to obediently and faithfully play our part? Let's move on. Our next observation on this passage is that there is…
3. A Devotion We Should Rightly Direct: The Lord is the Only One Worthy of Worship
"And three of the thirty chief men went down and came about harvest time to David at the cave of Adullam." (v.13)
So, we've had 'The 3' who seem to stand apart from 'The 30'. Now we have a story about three unnamed warriors who seem to be part of The 30. Who they are exactly is irrelevant. Far more important is what goes on. We're not exactly sure when this incident took place, but what is clear is that David and his men are at the cave of Adullam and the Philistines are everywhere. Verses 13-14 continue:
"…a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim, David was then in the stronghold, and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem."
Now I want you to imagine what it must have been like to have been one of David's men. You're hunkered down in the cave. It seems like you are on the back foot again. Will you even survive? The Philistines are all over the place. And then someone brings the King bad news. The Philistines have taken Bethlehem - his home town! He's distraught. And… perhaps wondering where supplies are going to come from, perhaps homesick or perhaps wishing that he could turn back the clock to those simple days of his youth (with no pressure of leadership, wars and relationships!), he begins to long for a drink of Bethlehem Spring. Verse 15:
"Oh, that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem that is by the gate!"
And you find yourself thinking – 'yeah that would be good, your Highness', but you don't take him seriously. After all Bethlehem is over 12 miles away and between here and there is the small matter of your enemy's army! Three of your mates though, do. And they set off to make their King's wish a reality. Don't miss how incredible this is! 12 miles. Into enemy territory. Just for some liquid refreshment. It would have been amazing enough had they chosen to go quietly, under cover of night maybe, circle round the enemy and get some water sneakily. Not these mighty chaps! Verse 16, they:
"broke through the camp of the Philistines and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate and carried and brought it to David."
Ah yes. You know these men. You're one of them. You would do anything for your King. David is one of those rare leaders who truly inspires. The sort of leader you trust completely. The sort of leader you would follow without question. The sort of leader you are so devoted to, you would do anything for. As an aside, I was in the RAF 16 years. In that time, I met one man who inspired me in that way. Of all my superiors, just one man who I would have unquestioningly followed into battle (I'm not sure I'd have done anything for him though!) It's rare.
Anyway, there you are in the cave. The cheering and shouts on the return of these three brave men were probably immense. Your King's face when he saw what his men had brought him was priceless! But if all that wasn't exciting enough, the next few minutes leave every single one of you speechless. Because your King refuses to drink it… after all these men have just done! He takes the water,
"But he would not drink of it. He poured it out to the Lord."
Now something strange happens - far from getting angry, the hairs on the back of your neck begin to stand on end! Instinctively, you know that you are experiencing an overwhelmingly solemn and holy moment. And you hear you King's voice praying (v.17)…
"Far be it from me, O Lord, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?"
Do you see what is going on here? David recognised that the act that had just been committed was far too precious and important just to be directed at him. The men had risked their own blood – how could he acknowledge that by using their precious gift just to quench his thirst? No, he pours it all out to the Lord because he knows that the Lord is the only one worthy of such worship. This kind of act, this kind of sacrifice, this kind of love, worship, devotion only belongs to the Lord. And David turns the spotlight from himself on to the only one who deserves it.
You know I think I've seen a similar thing on stage. Martin Smith, who used to be the lead singer of the Christian band 'Delirious?' would often, when the crowd were cheering, bow his head and point his finger to the heavens. It was his way of saying don't praise me, praise God. Or what about those footballers who after they have scored lift up their shirts to reveal a message that actually they belong to Jesus? Some may think these examples trivial in relation to what David did, but in their own way these men are trying to ensure that devotion is righty directed to the only one worthy of it! Like David they recognise they're not. So what about us? Surely part of what this passage of Scripture is teaching us is that unless we ensure that our devotion is directed towards the Lord we risk turning people, things, possessions, ambitions, achievements into idols. The Lord is the only one worthy of our worship.
Between verses 18-23 there are two more stories of David's mighty men: Joab's brother Abishai whose slaughtering of 300 gave him a special place of honour, and Benaiah, who took out a lion, two ariels (which sounds pretty impressive although no one really knows what they were!) and a giant Egyptian. Two more impressive and violent stories to add to those we've already heard. But all of this though, leaves us with a problem. It's a problem we can't avoid. This is our fourth heading.
4. A Problem We Can't Avoid: Sin
Despite all these achievements, the Lord's promise via Nathan to David and recorded in 2 Samuel 7.10-11 remained unfulfilled. What was that promise? God said…
"I will appoint a place for my people Israel… so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more… And I will give you rest from all your enemies."
Is that what's happening in 2 Samuel 23? It's not, is it? The picture we have in 2 Samuel 23 is far from this reality. As one commentator notes, David and his mighty men are celebrated because they overcome violence with violence. It's a far cry from the Kingdom of peace that Nathan was talking about. And so it begs a couple of questions, doesn't it? Why is it like that? And, If not then, then when? When will the promise be fulfilled? I think we get a hint of an answer to the first question in the final verses of this chapter. We didn't read them earlier, so just cast your eyes over them now. From verse 24 we've got:
"Asahel the brother of Joab… Elhanan… Shammah… Elika… Helez… Ira…"
Not exactly names we're familiar with are they? Keep tracking them down. Because then, right at the end, as if out of nowhere pops up a name we know very well (v.39):
"Uriah the Hittite"
And this has got to make us think. All of these men are recorded for their devotion, their service, their achievements, for their loyalty. They are David's mighty men, and he has one of them murdered in a bid to cover up his sin. If you don't remember, Uriah was Bathsheba's husband. Bathsheba was the woman David lusted after, slept with, and got pregnant. Her husband was one of David's best and David had him murdered in an attempt to cover up the whole sordid affair. It is a shocking reminder at the end of the chapter of the problem none of us, in our own strength, can avoid… our sin - our rebellion against the Lord; our desire to do what we want to do, when we want to do it, how we want to do it. That is why the Kingdom hadn't come at that point as Nathan had said. And it may seem like a hard, sombre and negative place to leave the chapter. But it needn't be.
The whole point of this is to make us look forward and signpost us to the time when the promise would be fulfilled - when the consequences of David's sin, my sin, your sin – would be dealt with conclusively by one of his descendants. It is of course supposed to signpost us to Jesus – to his life, sacrificial death and resurrection and the establishment of a joyous kingdom that will never end. Which, finally, reminds us that there is…
5. A Choice We All Face: The Lord's Grace or Condemnation
And that choice is between accepting the Lord's grace or facing his just condemnation for our rebellion against him. The murder of Uriah the Hittite isn't the end of the story for David. Yes, the consequences of his sin reverberated for centuries, but we also know that David responded the right way when Nathan confronted him about it. That's why he was able to pen those fantastic words in Psalm 51. Words that show a heartfelt repentance and sincere faith that the Lord would grant mercy, forgiveness and a new start.
Maybe you're here tonight longing for the chance to start over. Maybe like David, you've been unwilling to acknowledge things that are seriously wrong in your life. Or maybe it's just a case of keeping short accounts with the Lord. If any of that is you, then like David, choose grace. I urge you, humble yourself before the Lord, lest you risk his just and right condemnation for your disobedience. Let's pray:
Have mercy on us, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out our transgressions.
Wash away all our iniquity and cleanse us from our sin.
Create in us pure hearts, O God, and renew steadfast spirits within us.
Restore unto us the joy of our salvation and grant us your willing spirit, to sustain us.