And it came to pass after this, that the king of the children of Ammon died, and Hanun his son reigned in his stead.
Verse 1. - The king of the children of Ammon died. This war is very briefly referred to in 2 Samuel 8:12; but we have now entered upon a narrative, the interest of which is altogether unlike all that has gone before. There we saw David crowned with earthly glory, and made the monarch of a vast empire; he is also a prophet, and, as such, not only restores, but enriches and enlarges, the worship of the sanctuary; and, as prophet and king, he becomes not only the type, but the ancestor of the Messiah. In this narrative he is a sinner, punished with terrible, though merited, severity, and must henceforth walk humbly and sorrowfully as a penitent before God. From 1 Chronicles 19:1 we learn that the king's name was Nahash; but whether he was the same as the Nahash mentioned in 1 Samuel 11:1 is uncertain. There was an interval of more than forty years between, but Nahash was probably a young man, just seated on the throne, when he attacked Jabesh-Gilead; and Saul, who repelled him, might have been still alive but for the battle of Gilbea. The name means a "serpent," and is used in Job 26:18 of the constellation Draco. It may thus have been a name assumed by several Ammonite kings, the dragon representing majesty and power, and being the symbol on their seal, just as it is the Chinese imperial emblem now. The phrase, "It came to pass after this," has no chronological significance either here or in 2 Samuel 8:1. It is simply a form of transition from one subject to another.
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. And David's servants came into the land of the children of Ammon.
Verse 2. - His father showed kindness unto me. This makes it probable that it was the same Nahash as Saul's enemy. The smart of the defeat caused by Saul's energy would make him regard with friendship any one who was a thorn in the side of the man who had so unexpectedly stopped him in his career, and hence his kindness to David.
And the princes of the children of Ammon said unto Hanun their lord, Thinkest thou that David doth honour thy father, that he hath sent comforters unto thee? hath not David rather sent his servants unto thee, to search the city, and to spy it out, and to overthrow it?
Verse 3. - Thinkest thou that David doth honour thy father! This insinuation arose probably from ill will, stirred up by David's success in war; and, with that distrust with which neighbouring nations too often regard one another, they see in his embassy only a purpose of spying into their defences with view to future attack. Rabbah, their city, was a place strong beth naturally and by reason of its fortifications.
Wherefore Hanun took David's servants, and shaved off the one half of their beards, and cut off their garments in the middle, even to their buttocks, and sent them away.
Verse 4. - Hanun... shaved off the one half of their beards. To an Oriental the beard was the mark of his being a free man, and to cut it off on one side was not merely an insult to David's ambassadors, but the treating them like slaves. Moreover, as only the priests wore underclothing, and as the ordinary dress of men consisted of a tunic and a loose flowing robe thrown over it, the cutting of this robe short up to the hip was a vile and abominable affront. Of course, Hanun intended this as a challenge to war, whereas David had meant peace and friendship.
When they told it unto David, he sent to meet them, because the men were greatly ashamed: and the king said, Tarry at Jericho until your beards be grown, and then return.
And when the children of Ammon saw that they stank before David, the children of Ammon sent and hired the Syrians of Bethrehob, and the Syrians of Zoba, twenty thousand footmen, and of king Maacah a thousand men, and of Ishtob twelve thousand men.
Verse 6. - That they stank (see notes on 1 Samuel 13:4; 27:12). As the Hebrew literally means, had made themselves stink, the Revised Version rightly translates "had made themselves odious." The children of Ammon sent and hired the Syrians. From 1 Chronicles 19:6 we learn that his mercenaries from Aram cost Hanun a thousand talents of silver, or nearly five hundred thousand pounds - a vast sum, especially considering the great relative value of silver in those days. The mercenaries, moreover, were gathered out of numerous districts of Aram - from Rehob, Zoba, Beth-Maacah, and Tob; the margin being right in rendering "the men of Tob," instead of "Ish-tob." So, too, the Revised Version, "The men of Tob twelve thousand men." It was to this land that Jephthah fled (Judges 11:3). The whole number of the allies was thirty-three thousand, with which total the parallel place agrees, as they are described there as "thirty-two thousand, and the King of Maacah and his people," who are here said to have been a thousand strong. The text, however, there must be corrupt, as it describes them all as horsemen (Authorized Version, "chariots;" 1 Chronicles 19:7); here footmen only are mentioned, with which the narrative agrees (see note on ver. 18).
And when David heard of it, he sent Joab, and all the host of the mighty men.
Verse 7. - And all the host of the mighty men. The Hebrew is, and all the host, mighty men. By this is meant, not "the mighties," but that the Israelites had now become practised in war, and veterans.
And the children of Ammon came out, and put the battle in array at the entering in of the gate: and the Syrians of Zoba, and of Rehob, and Ishtob, and Maacah, were by themselves in the field.
Verse 8. - The Syrians... were by themselves in the field. We learn from 1 Chronicles 19:7 that the rendezvous of the Arameans was at Medeba, a small town situated upon a hill in the Mishor, or treeless prairie land, called "the plain" in Joshua 13:16. As it was four miles southeast of Heshbon, and more than twenty miles distant from Rabbah, it is plain that they were marching northward, and that Joab was only just in time to prevent a junction of the two armies. The Ammonites, who were expecting their allies, and knew of their approach, had come outside of Rabbah, but had only posted themselves in fighting order "at the entering in of the gate."
When Joab saw that the front of the battle was against him before and behind, he chose of all the choice men of Israel, and put them in array against the Syrians:
Verse 9. - The front of the battle. The object of Joab was to prevent at all hazards the junction of the Syrians with the Ammonites, and he was only just in time to throw himself between them. This was resolute but dangerous policy, as, in case of defeat, he would have a powerful enemy in his rear. Apparently, however, he was aware that his real work lay with the Syrian mercenaries, who were dangerous enough by themselves, and would become more than a match for him if they were reinforced by the men of Rabbah. He therefore leaves Abishai with such troops as he could spare to watch the Ammonites, feeling sure that they would not hazard an attack unless they saw matters going ill with him; and, taking with him all his bravest men, "the choice man of Israel," he prepares with them to give battle to the Syrians.
And the rest of the people he delivered into the hand of Abishai his brother, that he might put them in array against the children of Ammon.
And he said, If the Syrians be too strong for me, then thou shalt help me: but if the children of Ammon be too strong for thee, then I will come and help thee.
Verse 11. - And he said, etc. Thenius remarks, "We have here the briefest of warlike exhortations, but one most full of point and meaning." Joab recognized the full danger of their situation; for should he meet with any check in his attack on this vast host of mercenaries, he was well aware that the Ammonites, watching the battle with eager interest, would, on the first news of victory, rush upon Abishai with exulting fury; and the men with him, being only ordinary troops, would be disheartened by Joab's failure, so that without extraordinary bravery on their leader's part, they would give way, and all would be lost.
Be of good courage, and let us play the men for our people, and for the cities of our God: and the LORD do that which seemeth him good.
Verse 12. - Be of good courage, and let us play the men. The Hebrew employs two conjugations of the same verb, literally, be strong, and let us show ourselves strong. And need there was for bravery; for the welfare, as he went on to show, of all Israel, and the honour of Israel's God, were in jeopardy. Finally he adds, The Lord do that which seemeth him good. They are the words not so much of confidence as of determined resolution. Come good or ill, he and Abishai would do their utmost.
And Joab drew nigh, and the people that were with him, unto the battle against the Syrians: and they fled before him.
And when the children of Ammon saw that the Syrians were fled, then fled they also before Abishai, and entered into the city. So Joab returned from the children of Ammon, and came to Jerusalem.
Verse 14. - So Joab returned. It seems strange to us that Joab should have made no attempt to follow up his victory. But as the Ammonites were posted close to the gate of their city, they would withdraw into it without less as soon as they learned that their allies were defeated. There was thus the certainty of a long siege before Rabbah could be taken. We gather from 2 Samuel 11:1 that it was late in the year when Joab won this victory, and it was part of the weakness of ancient warfare that a long campaign was beyond the power of either side.
And when the Syrians saw that they were smitten before Israel, they gathered themselves together.
And Hadarezer sent, and brought out the Syrians that were beyond the river: and they came to Helam; and Shobach the captain of the host of Hadarezer went before them.
Verse 16. - Hadarezer (see note on 2 Samuel 8:3). Hadarezer probably had been well content to let his subjects receive the pay of the Ammonites, and extend his empire at their cost. But as paramount king in Aram, the defeat of the mercenaries obliged him to make the war a national affair, and undertake the management of it himself. He therefore summons troops from all the Aramean states on both sides of the Euphrates, and places his own general, Shobach, in command, and makes Helam the place of gathering. Helam. No such place is known, and the word might mean "their army," in which case the translation would be, "and they came in full force." The Vulgate takes it in this way, but makes the verb the causative singular, and translates, "and he brought their army." On the other hand, the LXX., the Syriac, and the Chaldee make it a proper name here, as even the Vulgate necessarily does in ver. 17, where there can be no doubt. In the parallel place (1 Chronicles 19:16, 17) it is omitted in the first place, and in the second we find in its stead, "upon them." Either, therefore, the chronicler did not know of such a place, or the text is corrupt. Ewald and others suppose that Helam may be identified with Alamata; but we learn from 1 Chronicles 18:3 that the battle was fought near Hamath, and Alamata is on the Euphrates, too far away for David to have made his attack there.
And when it was told David, he gathered all Israel together, and passed over Jordan, and came to Helam. And the Syrians set themselves in array against David, and fought with him.
Verse 17. - David... gathered all Israel together. Some commentators see in this an indication of dissatisfaction with Joab. Really it was a matter of course that in so great a war the king should place himself at the head of his levies. For not only was he possessed of great military genius, but his personal presence would make the men of Israel, a race of sturdy free men, assemble in greater numbers, and would give them confidence. If David himself went there would be no shirking the war and finding excuses to stay at home, and in the camp there would be prompt alacrity and zeal.
And the Syrians fled before Israel; and David slew the men of seven hundred chariots of the Syrians, and forty thousand horsemen, and smote Shobach the captain of their host, who died there.
Verse 18. - David slew, etc. (see note on 2 Samuel 8:4). We have seen there that the word translated "chariots" means any vehicle or animal for riding. The numbers here are seven hundred chariots with their charioteers, and forty thousand horsemen; in 2 Samuel 8:4 we have seventeen hundred horsemen and twenty thousand footmen; finally, in 1 Chronicles 19:18 we find seven thousand chariots and charioteers, and forty thousand footmen. It is impossible to reconcile these conflicting numbers, but as David had no cavalry, the numbers in 2 Samuel 8:4 are the more probable, namely, seventeen hundred cavalry and chariots, and twenty thousand infantry. The Syriac Version gives us here very reasonable numbers, namely, "seven hundred chariots, four thousand cavalry, and much people."
And when all the kings that were servants to Hadarezer saw that they were smitten before Israel, they made peace with Israel, and served them. So the Syrians feared to help the children of Ammon any more.
Verse 19. - The kings... served them. It is evident from this that the petty kings of Rehob, Tob, and Maacah had been subject to Hadarezer; they now acknowledged the supremacy of David, and paid to him the tribute which they had previously paid to Zobah, and would be bound to supply him with a contingent of men in case of a war in their neighbourhood. The wars with Damascus and Edom, mentioned in 2 Samuel 8:5, 13, probably followed immediately upon Hadarezer's defeat, but are not referred to here, as the interest now centres in David's personal conduct.