King David is the second most mentioned individual in the Bible; Jesus is the first. Much of the text dedicated to David details his military exploits. He was not only a king but a fierce warrior. He would exert the necessary violence to expand and maintain his empire, and yet had a deep sense of fairness, honor, and compassion, uncharacteristic of his time. Of course, his reign would be marred by his betrayal of one of The Thirty, Uriah, and other personal failings, but his reputation as a warrior king has inspired awe from both faithful Christians and military historians.
David, Not Quite the Little Shepherd Boy
David’s military experience began years before he was officially crowned king. What might surprise some readers is that he gained that experience even before he faced Goliath. The traditional image we have of him as a humble shepherd boy facing a giant is not necessarily accurate. Per I Samuel 17, he did face Goliath, but in I Samuel 16:14-23 we learn that David was first employed as Saul’s armorbearer (and harpist).
When Saul was looking to employ a harpist, a servant recommended David.
“One of the young men answered, ‘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 (vs 18)’.”
David had built a reputation for himself as a musician but also as a warrior.
Initially, Saul was just seeking a man to play the harp, but David’s reputation as a good fighter landed him the position as armorbearer as well. Armorbearing for a king was not taken lightly. In ancient times, armorbearers had to be able, capable fighters. So when David faced Goliath, he was already a skilled warrior and proficient with a sling, a common weapon in ancient armies (not a toy of a young boy.)
This is not to diminish David’s accomplishment. David was talented but did not have the level of experience of battle-hardened fighters. This lack of experience (and not necessarily talent) is what prompted Saul to tell David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth (I Samuel 17:33).” It would have been the equivalent of a Marine private volunteering to fight against a giant while Navy Seals were too scared to do so.
David’s confidence against Goliath, which his brothers interpreted as bravado, was rooted in his complete trust in his God. He would carry this courage into his reign and throughout his life. And it is that courage and subsequent defeat of Goliath that propelled his military career forward, leaving the shepherding behind for good.
A Commander in Saul’s Army
With the defeat of Goliath, David proved himself to be a lethal fighter (I Samuel 18:5), so Saul rewarded him with a command in his army. The text is unclear as to how David progressed within the ranks, but we do know that at some point he commanded units of at least 1000 men 1, the equivalent of a modern-day battalion (vs 13).
David led many successful military campaigns and this ingratiated him to the people and to Saul’s servants, which included other military leaders. But not everyone grew to love David. This successful, charismatic figure incited the ire of Saul. Yet, despite the clear animosity that Saul had towards David, David managed to maintain his integrity and his professionalism. Twice, in I Samuel 18, the Biblical text says that “David behaved wisely.” David was more than just a skillful commander capable of defeating his enemy. He understood the intricacies of his position and his behavior was honorable, but it would not be enough to restrain King Saul.
David Flees From Saul
Saul made several unsuccessful attempts to kill David, both overtly and covertly. In what appears to be a fit of rage, Saul tried to pin David to a wall with a spear a few times (I Samuel 18:10-11, I Samuel 19:10). He also devised a plan to have David killed in a battle (vs 18:25), unsuccessfully of course. Finally, Saul just commanded his men to kill David, but with the help of both his wife Michal (Saul’s daughter) and Jonathan (Saul’s son), David manages to escape.
David would spend years on the run, but his time in the wilderness would prove useful in building a strong military following, skills, and experience.
David’s Experience in The Wilderness
David’s time on the run was difficult but greatly beneficial to the future king in three ways. 1. He developed a band of loyal men that would support him throughout his reign. 2. He gained first-hand knowledge of the terrain, learning how to use it to his advantage in military operations. 3. He became intimately aware of guerrilla warfare tactics – how to use them and defend against them.
Building a Strong Foundation for a Loyal Military
Initially, David fled to the cave of Adullam (I Samuel 22:1). It was there that his family and 400 disgruntled men joined him (a number that would later grow to 600). His three nephews Joab, Abishai, and Asahel also likely joined him at this time. The former two would be central figures in David’s military for most of his reign.
David’s popularity while serving in Saul’s army was likely the pull factor that led these men to align themselves with David. The push factor was clearly their difficult circumstance (debt, distress, etc). But what would cause these men to remain with David in the harshness of the Judean Wilderness and share in his troubles for so many years?
Times were indeed difficult and David gives us a glimpse of the conditions they endured in Psalm 63.
A Psalm of David, when he was in the wilderness of Judah. O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.Psalm 63:1 (ESV)
The Judean wilderness was inhospitable and David and his men often suffered from thirst and hunger. His men’s willingness to stay and suffer with David was influenced by the care and loyalty David showed them. Three instances give us a glimpse of his character as a leader of men.
— David almost killed the wealthy man Nabal and his entire household when he refused to give provisions to David and his band of outlaws. David’s ire, whether right or wrong, was no doubt rooted in his deep desire to provide for his men. (I Samuel 25:2-42)
–A thirsty David poured out the water as an act of sacrifice because he felt unworthy of the risk his men took in obtaining that water. (II Samuel 23:13-17)
–In I Samuel 30:21-25, he made certain that the men in the rear would receive as much provision as those on the front lines.
From this band of loyal men, The Thirty was formed. David’s Mighty Men (as they are also known) would be key figures in his military that would help maintain loyalty among the ranks for the duration of David’s life.
David Develops Unconventional Tactics (Guerrilla Warfare)
David’s struggle in the wilderness would allow him and his men to gain useful and unconventional experience in military warfare. Prior to the wilderness, David’s military knowledge was limited to his role in an organized, national army. However, the wilderness would push him to develop different tactics. With limited resources and limited men, his operations would be more akin to guerrilla warfare.
For example, intimate knowledge of the terrain is essential in guerrilla warfare. David’s experience navigating caves, and identifying sources of water, would later prove useful in the capture of the future capital of Israel. I make the case in “How Jerusalem Became the City of David,” that David’s experience in En Gedi was beneficial in capturing Jerusalem. En Gedi has many karst hydrological systems (tunnels of water), the same kind of system found in Jerusalem. It was probably their acquaintance with these kinds of tunnels that allowed David and his men to use that knowledge to their advantage in Jerusalem and catch that highly fortified city quite off guard.
That was not the only guerrilla-like experience he gained. While in the wilderness, David and his men operated like nomadic tribes. They moved from location to location, became knowledgeable of the land and its resources, and conducted raids (lightning strikes) when necessary. This experience living as a nomad would prove useful not only in his encounters with raiding nomads while on the run but in developing adequate defenses against future threats from desert raiders in his established kingdom. This is an experience he would put to good use even before Judah crowned him king.
David Lives Among the Enemy (I Samuel 27: 1-12)
David, weary from the wilderness and the cat and mouse game with Saul, fled to Gath, a Philistine city, under the protection of its King Achish. Although not explicitly stated in the text, one can surmise that David offered his services and those of his men in exchange for protection. Theologians may question David’s move from a moral standpoint, but from a military and strategic one, it was brilliant.
David at Ziklag
David wisely perceived that it would be disadvantageous to remain at Gath. From the viewpoint of the Philistines who served Achish, David was a capable leader of dangerous men who came from enemy territory. It would only be natural for his presence to incite distrust among Achish’s court (a perception proven true in I Samuel 29). He did kill the Philistine Goliath after all. David, therefore, requested permission to live in the outskirts, outside the city walls. Achish agreed and offered David the town of Ziklag, on the southern border of Philistine territory. Although generous on the surface, his true intention was to use David’s military prowess and his small army to defend the Philistine southern flank.
Achish’s trust in David was rooted in the mistaken impression that the enemy of his enemy was his friend. David would play on that belief using deception to win the trust and support of Achish. While at Ziklag, David and his men were able to use Ziklag as a base of operations to attack nomadic tribes in the Negev. At the end of each raid, David would return to Achish, presumably with the spoils of his campaigns. However, he led Achish to believe that he was raiding areas within Judah.
And Achish trusted David, thinking, “He has made himself an utter stench to his people Israel; therefore he shall always be my servant.”I Samuel 27:12
Clearly, Achish thought David was a trustworthy ally. It was a mistake he would eventually regret.
At Ziklag, David used genius political and military maneuvering to pave the way for his rule in Judah and the eventual expansion of his empire. Here are four examples:
- By winning Achish’s trust, David would be able to take over the crown in Judah with little opposition from the Philistine King. Once on the throne, Achish considered David a vassal king and had little reason to object to the move.
- By raiding and destroying key nomadic tribes of the Negev, David greatly weakened the southern threat to Judah.
- David shared the spoils of the Amelikite raid with key towns and elders in Judah.
- By gaining the trust of the Philistines, David would be able to study the strengths and weaknesses of his future enemy.
The Establishment of King David’s Kingdom
After David left the Philistines, David’s first step in consolidating power started by establishing his reign over the southern tribes where he had natural alliances. He then would establish a new capital on neutral territory before turning his attention to surrounding kingdoms.
David Crowned King of Judah
While David engaged Amalekite raiders who had attacked Ziklag, the Philistines defeated the Israeli army, killing King Saul and his sons, including Jonathan (I Samuel 31:1-13). In the resulting power vacuum, David was able to take advantage of his friendly relations with the people of Judah. He was from the tribe of Judah after all, but he also strategically strengthened those relations in two ways we have already mentioned above.
- David weakened a threat to Judah’s southern flank by destroying nomad raiders from the Negev.
- David sent the elders of Judah the fruit of some of his spoils.
The result of his efforts proved fruitful. Shortly after Saul’s death, the people of Judah anointed David King when David arrived at Hebron. The remainder of the tribes of Israel were not so keen on accepting David. The commander of King Saul’s army, Abner, quickly placed Saul’s son Ishbosheth on the throne (II Samuel 2:1-11). The northern tribes and Judah would remain at war while David ruled Judah from Hebron.
Judah Grows Strong Under King David While Israel Falters
……And David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker.II Samuel 3:1b
King David would rule over Judah from Hebron for seven and a half years. He was drawn into a protracted war with the northern tribes, but during that time David consolidated his rule while Ishbosheth grew weaker. Ishbosheth was no doubt a puppet of Abner and lacked the charisma and leadership of David.
David was able to maintain the loyalty of his military, even during times of disagreement, a loyalty hard-won during his time in the wilderness. Ishbosheth’s kingdom, on the other hand, was fracturing. A false, insulting accusation by Ishbosheth alienated Abner and provoked him to ally himself with David (II Samuel 3:6-21). Shortly after, Joab murdered Abner and without Abner’s protection, Ishbosheth was left vulnerable. Two of his own military officers assassinated him (II Samuel 4:1-8).
King David Unites Israel
After Ishbosheth’s death, King David was able to win the acceptance of the northern tribes through his honorable treatment of both Abner and Ishbosheth.
Joab murdered Abner behind David’s back. This betrayal could have had major political repercussions for David. Instead, David’s response to the murder of both men helped to build bridges between himself and the northern tribes.
At a time when it was common to humiliate one’s defeated opponent through gruesome acts (displaying decapitated foes on posts, for example)– David chose a more honorable path. He arranged a state funeral for Abner in Hebron and executed Ishbosheth’s assassins. A deep sense of honor, grief, and justice vice political expediency drove King David’s actions. Nonetheless, the effect resulted in large political gains for King David. These two acts were instrumental in persuading the elders of the northern tribes to join forces with David and accept him as King.
Shortly after, David established a new capital, Jerusalem, in neutral territory. He made it the base of his operations and brought the ark of the covenant there. This move sent the message that he intended to rule all of Israel without tribal allegiances.
King David’s Wars of Expansion
Wars and strategic political moves would be key elements in the expansion of David’s kingdom. However, these wars were not always initiated by David. His first encounter with the Philistines under a unified Kingdom and the war against the Ammonites are good examples. However, David was quick to capitalize on opportunities presented to him by his enemies. As a result, he was able to build an impressive and prosperous empire.
Through his wars of expansion, King David gained control of all three major transportation routes in the land-bridge that is Israel: the Via Maris, The Road of the Patriarchs (Ridge Route), and The King’s Highway. Access to these transportation routes not only contributed to the economic success of his kingdom but allowed for easy deployment of his military when necessary.
Here is a summary of David’s wars of expansion:
Subduing the Negev Tribes
As we have seen, David subdued the tribes of the Negev while he lived under Philistine protection. However, the result of these campaigns was instrumental in his ascension to king of Judah.
The Conquest of Jerusalem
This was his first military engagement after being crowned King under a unified kingdom. The establishment of a capital in neutral territory was a political necessity to maintain the support of the various tribes. For a complete military analysis of the conquest, read How Jerusalem Became the City of David.
The Defeat of the Philistines
The Philistines were not particularly happy that their “vassal” David was now ruling all of Israel. They deployed their forces twice to the Valley of Rephaim intending to confront David. David was successful in both engagements and would later take the Philistine capital, Gath. David would face off with the Philistines on several occasions throughout his reign as he never completely subdued them. (II Samuel 5:17-25, I Chronicles 14:8-17, II Samuel 8:1)
The War Against Moab
David defeated the Moabites and was particularly severe in their treatment (although lenient in the context of ancient warfare). He ordered the execution of two-thirds of the Moabites (II Samuel 8:2, I Chronicles 18:2) Why would David take such measures after they had provided shelter to his mother and father (I Samuel 22:3)? The answer is left to conjecture, however, Jewish tradition claims the Moabites had killed David’s parents in an act of betrayal.
The Defeat of the Arameans
The Bible mentions two different encounters between David’s forces and Hadadezer, the king of Zobah, an Aramean king. From the text, it is unclear if these are two different perspectives of the same campaign or two different campaigns altogether. In the first account (2 Samuel 8:3-8, I Chronicles 18:3-9), David spectacularly defeats Hadadezer and other Arameans (ancient Syrians) who came to Hadadezer’s aid. In the second account in (II Samuel 10:1-19, I Chronicles 19:10-19), Hadadazer (along with other Arameans) came to the aid of Ammon and David again defeats him. David would set up garrisons throughout the land area of Aram, controlling various city-states including Damascus.
The Defeat of the Ammonites
In II Samuel 10:1-19 and I Chronicles 19:1-9, King Hanun of Ammon (and his advisors) mistook an act of kindness from David and responded by shaming David’s envoys. David’s response was swift. He deployed his army and defeated the Ammonites despite the latter’s help from the Arameans (referenced above). II Samuel 12:26-31 and I Chronicles 20:1-3 give details on the siege of Rabbah, the capital of Ammon.
The War Against Edom
Little is written in the text about the wars against Edom other than the 18,000 David defeated at the Valley of Salt at the hand of Abishai and Joab. As a result, David placed several garrisons throughout the land of Edom. (II Samuel 8:13-14, I Chronicles 18:12-13, Psalm 60:1)
King David Betrayed By His Son Absalom
After David’s kingdom reached its peak, David endures a painful betrayal by his son Absalom forcing him to flee Jerusalem. Absalom’s move to steal the kingdom from David was no doubt rooted in familial discord. However, for Absalom to have been able to remove the King from its capital signals that David had lost much of that hard-won loyalty among the people first, but also among the military-aged males.
Absalom Wins the Heart of the People
Absalom began to sow seeds of distrust among the people through a disinformation campaign. He made people believe that the King was unwilling or unable to administer justice and that he Absalom would correct that wrong if given the chance (II Samuel 15:1 -6). This campaign took place over the course of four years after which he successfully staged a coup.
But a coup would only be possible if Absalom had the military might behind him to accomplish such a feat.
13 And a messenger came to David, saying, “The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.” 14 Then David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem, “Arise, and let us flee, or else there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Go quickly, lest he overtake us quickly and bring down ruin on us and strike the city with the edge of the sword.”II Samuel 15:13-14
The threat was real enough for an experienced military commander like David to assess that the only option was to willingly leave Jerusalem. The military force behind Absalom must have been formidable. Although the biblical text doesn’t provide details on who within the military might have betrayed King David, we know enough about the organization of David’s military to make an educated guess.
King David Loses the Support of the Militia
David’s army was organized into three main branches: the regular army, the militia, and the royal guard. The regular army was commanded by Joab and evolved out of the group that followed David in the wilderness. “The Thirty” seemed to form the nucleus of this group. Because of their history with David, it is likely that David maintained complete control of the regulars during the coup.
The royal guard was commanded by Benaiah. They were primarily a mercenary force and fiercely loyal.
The militia was a different story. As a reserve force, they would serve for only a month out of the year. Because most of their time was spent at home and amongst their tribe, the militia was more susceptible to tribal rivalries than the regular army. They were also more capable of falling for Absalom’s disinformation campaign. The bulk of Absalom’s military support therefore must have come from the militia, a force likely much larger than David’s.
For a full discussion on the organization of David’s forces see, “The Organization of David’s Military.“
King David Defeats Absalom’s Forces
While fleeing Jerusalem, King David plants a double agent, Hushai, within Absalom’s inner circle. Hushai was able to convince Absalom and some of his other advisors to not pursue David right away, but rather engage him at a later time. This gave David time to organize his forces, resupply his men, and draw Absalom’s forces to his geographic area of choice, a strategic blunder for Absalom.
Although David likely planned the operation against Absalom’s forces, he did not take part in it. While it was common for David to fight with his men, in this instance his men convinced him to stay safely within the walls of Mahanaim, located east of the Jordan River. His men’s concern was probably two-fold: David’s age and David’s emotional connection to Absalom.
The raging battle between David’s forces and Absalom’s took place within the Woods of Ephraim, a location that would favor David’s men. David’s regular forces were commanded by men who gained their military prowess in the wilderness with David. If the regular army was significantly smaller than the militia, the Woods of Ephraim would have been to David’s advantage. This kind of location was not conducive to neat military formations (preferable for the militia) and required irregular tactics. This decision to use the Woods of Ephraim again shows the brilliance of David as a military strategist and tactician.
It is not surprising that David’s regular forces would defeat “the people of Israel,” Absalom’s militia. According to II Samuel 18:7, 20,000 men lost their lives that day. In an encounter with David’s men, Absalom got himself stuck in a tree by his hair. Joab took advantage of Absalom’s vulnerable position and executed him (against the King’s orders).
King David’s Mercy
Ancient warfare was brutal and “mercy” was frequently withheld, even from one’s own relatives. However, David extended mercy to his enemies and critics more often than not. If we read the exploits of David with a modern, western worldview, we might miss just how unusual his character as a warrior was for the time. His compassion won him loyalty, but it also put him at odds with his most brutal military commander, Joab.
Here are some examples of David extending mercy:
- David refuses to kill Saul on two occasions despite the latter’s attempts to kill him. (I Samuel 24:3-7, I Samuel 26:7-11)
- David allows himself to be corrected by a woman, Abigail, and restrains himself from killing Nabal (I Samuel 25:2-35).
- David strikes a deal with Abner, Saul’s military commander who helped pursue David and who also placed Ishbosheth on the throne in Israel. (II Samuel 3:21)
- An individual by the name of Shimei, from the house of Saul, cursed and threw stones at the king when David was running from Absalom. David’s warrior Abishai volunteered to take off his head, but David restrained him and forgave Shimei (II Samuel 16:5-14, 19:18-23)
- David grants Amasa command of his military (over Joab) even after Amasa had joined forces with Absalom (II Samuel 19:13).
- David is patient with Absalom’s rebellion and gives his instructions to his men to avoid harming him (I Samuel 18:5)
When David was fleeing from Absalom, he and his men were provided for by several individuals including Nahash from Rabbah. Rabbah was a city that had been sieged by Joab and conquered by David. To command that kind of loyalty from a conquered people was probably due to King’s David more compassionate demeanor compared to other warriors and kings. It made him distinctly unique for the time period and probably was a key factor in helping to keep control of his empire.
King David’s Military Exploits End With A Giant
David’s military career was propelled forward by the killing of the giant Goliath. It is ironic, then, that his military career would end at the hands of a giant as well.
Towards the latter end of David’s days, Israel was at war again with the Philistines. The biblical account states that “David grew faint.” During a battle against the Philistines, a giant by the name of Ishbi-Benob came barreling toward David with the intent to kill him. And it looks like he might have succeeded, but the warrior and commander Abishai came to his aid and killed the giant instead. (II Samuel 21:17). After this incident, his men objected to him ever returning to the battlefield.
We are given a hint of David’s decline during the engagement with Absalom. His men’s insistence then that David not be directly involved in the battle against Absalom, shows that his skills were beginning to wane. No doubt age was starting to take a toll. He was probably in his late 60s by this point.
David would obviously continue to be king and would endure another attempt by one of his sons, Adonijah, to usurp his throne towards the end of his life. However, this last incident with the giant is the last record pertaining to David’s military exploits.
Who Was the Real Strategic Genius?
In this survey of David’s life primarily from a military and political perspective, one primary lesson stands out. The wilderness was instrumental in David’s success. As difficult as that period of time was for David, it helped forge him into a brilliant warrior and King. There is no doubt that David was gifted, and charismatic, and his unusual compassion for the time all played a role, but in hindsight, the role of the wilderness is undeniable.
Through the wilderness, he was able to forge capable commanders who would for the most part remain loyal and would become the nuclei of his regular army.
Through the wilderness, he and his men gained valuable, unconventional expertise in knowing how to defeat much larger foes with smaller numbers. This was particularly handy in the battle against Absalom.
Clearly, the wilderness was thrust upon David. It was not a path that he freely chose, but it points to a divine plan that was much larger than David himself. Greatness is forged through adversity, and the Master Planner knew it was a necessary strategic move to mold David into the king he needed to be and to foreshadow a much greater King and warrior.
Other articles that might interest you:
- 1000 could refer to the unit itself and not the actual amount. Numbers in ancient militaries give an indication of relative size and not necessarily exact numbers. For example, a Roman centurion was not a captain of 100 men. The actual number was closer to 80