November 11, 2018

Rock Star—The David Saga, X: David the Warrior

Passage: II Samuel 2:12–32

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When they gathered all the people together, there were missing among David’s soldiers that day,
nineteen men, and Asahel. —II Samuel 2:30


The theme of this sermon is borrowed from the Reverend Dr. Bruce Thielemann, Senior Minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when he preached this sermon.

 The story before us is about a battle which occurred in an Israelite Civil War about a thousand years before the birth of Christ. King Saul, the anointed monarch of the 12 tribes of Israel, has just died in battle against the Philistines, the external enemies of the nation of Israel, and the accession to the throne is not exactly proceeding very smoothly.

The southern tribes of Judah have crowned David as their king, but the northern tribes remain loyal to King Saul’s dynasty and crown Ishbaal king. Ishbaal is Saul’s youngest son. Saul’s three older sons died with him defending the kingdom against the Philistines, but Ishbaal survives because he was too young to go to war.

And so now there are two crowns in Israel, and the competition between the two crowns sets the stage for a great Civil War battle between two military geniuses: Abner, who is loyal to Saul's son, and Joab, loyal to King David.

The two great armies of Saul and David encamp on either side of the pool of Gibeon, and Generals Abner and Joab meet for a consultation before the troops engage. General Abner calls out across the pool to General Joab, "Let the young men arise and play before us," and General Joab calls back, "Let them arise."

"Let them arise and play," say the Generals. What they are saying is, "Let 12 of your finest warriors and 12 of ours join hands in mortal combat, and we'll see who is left standing at the end. The side with the most survivors wins, and winner takes all.” Like the earlier battle between David and Goliath, this is Battle by Proxy, or Battle by Representative, or Battle by Gladiator.[1]

But something goes horribly wrong. These young GI’s are brothers, in some cases perhaps literally. They are all Hebrews. They all did their basic training in the same boot camp, where in hand-to-hand combat, they were trained to engage their opponent intimately, to grab him around the neck with the left hand, and to thrust a dagger under his ribs with the right. All of them do just that, and all of them die together. No clear-cut winner. And then the larger melee they so hoped to avoid must go on anyway.

And then the Hebrew Historian does the most remarkable thing. Instead of pulling his camera back and high to survey the whole battlefield swarming with hundreds of soldiers, he cuts in close and intimate to follow just two solitary combatants.

This is one of the greatest storytellers in the history of literature. This Historian does exactly what Stephen Ambrose and Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg do with that HBO series Band of Brothers, or what Mr. Spielberg will do later with Saving Private Ryan—he chronicles the exploits of just a small group of GI’s and lets that micro-narrative tell the tale of the larger conflict.

And so there they are: General Abner, Saul's loyal general and the seasoned veteran of a hundred military skirmishes, and David’s nephew Asahel, the young, fit, swift, but green recruit.

With the impetuous vigor of youth, Asahel decides he wants to bring home the most prized trophy from this deadly battle—the head of Saul's legendary general. He wants the glory. He wants the Medal of Honor.  Asahel was a track star in college. The Bible says that he was as swift as a gazelle.

He zeroes in on the older Abner, who in his 40's is near the end of his fighting days. The young Asahel relentlessly pursues Abner, whose breath is not what it used to be; his aerobic endurance is on the wane; he can no longer run with the younger men in their 20's.

The deadly pursuit ranges across the entire battlefield, Asahel still strong, and Abner more and more winded. They know each other, Abner and Asahel. For a time they fought side by side against the Philistines; now they are mortal enemies.

Abner calls back over his shoulder, "Is it you, Asahel?" Asahel responds, "It is I." Abner says, "Asahel, turn aside. Pick on somebody your own size. Your skills do not match mine. This encounter will not go well with you." Abner, you see, wants to avoid this contest not because he is afraid of dying, but because he is afraid of killing. He does not want to be responsible for the death of this vital young man.

But Asahel will not be deterred. He continues his pursuit, and, left with no other choice, Abner pulls out the oldest trick in the battlefield books.

Just when Asahel is a single step behind him, breathing down his very neck with sword raised high to slice Abner's head off, Abner stops dead in his tracks, plants the tip of his spear in the earth, slips the butt-end underneath his arm, and lets Asahel run onto it. Asahel is running so fast the spear goes clean through to the other side; the wound is mortal.

And now notice what the Bible says about the death of Asahel on that battlefield 3,000 years ago. In a poignant narrative aside, the biblical historian tells us that "all who came to the place where Asahel had fallen stood still."

Picture in your minds this remarkable moment from the chaotic confusion of a battle between two great armies. The warriors pause from their individual skirmishes to mark the fall of a rash young man and they are silent.

And then, and then, at the end of the story, the Scriptures pause again for what Bruce Thielemann calls a "memorial moment."[2] The historian tells us that "there were lost that day to the forces of David, nineteen men and Asahel."

From all the nameless dead who ended their lives that day in that dirty little civil war, the Bible pauses to single out the one valorous name of an impetuous young warrior—nineteen men and Asahel. The Bible places a name on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

God's eye is on the sparrow, and on the warrior fallen in Flanders' Fields or Okinawa's beaches. Dr. Thielemann says that the message of the text is the marvelous specificity of the love of God.

He quotes St. Augustine, who says that "God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love." He says that "Jesus doesn't talk about juvenile delinquency, but about a younger son who ran away from home and lost his money and his soul. Jesus doesn't talk about evangelism; he talks about a shepherd who had a hundred sheep and one of them became lost. So it shouldn't surprise us that the Holy Spirit of God would inspire the writer here in II Samuel to notice at the end of the day, there were lost to David's forces, 19 men, and, oh yes, Asahel."[3]

The point is this: This was not God's war; this was a needless, heartless dirty little civil war in which brother fought against brother.  This was not a war of God's choosing nor a war of God's doing, but it was also not a war of God's ignoring. The shepherd is there, yea, though we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. In the heart of God, the unknown soldier has a name. Whether they fight for a lost cause or for a victorious one, whether they fight in a good war or in a bad one, whether they fall on the beaches of Iwo Jima or in the tropical forests of Vietnam, God knows, and weeps. "And there were lost to the forces of David that day, nineteen men, and, oh yes, Asahel."

Eight million soldiers died during World War I. Seven million permanently disabled. Six million civilians died. In the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, at least 50 million died around the world.

In the Battle of the Argonne Forest which led to the surrender of the Central Powers, 26,277 Americans died, the bloodiest battle in American history, more than Normandy, more than the Battle of the Bulge.

Somewhere in my reading this week I encountered the most heartbreaking line: “The years of trench warfare on the western front achieved no major exchange of territory.”

Three years the Allied and Central Powers sat staring at each other from their trenches across No Man’s Land, hurling costly assaults of vulnerable young men on enemy positions to gain a few yards of real estate. When it was all over, both sides were in essentially the same position they were in when they started. So much wasted blood.

The Allies won the war. But it’s not enough to win the war. Next you have to win the peace.

So many prominent features of the global map that we have known for the last 100 years were created at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day in the eleventh month, 100 years ago today. And so many of the traumas of the twentieth- and the twenty-first centuries trace their origins to that day.

World War I gave birth to the modern state of Iraq, which still unsettles the Middle East to this day.

Palestine was set aside for an eventual Jewish homeland; a hundred years later Arabs and Jews are still killing each other.

The Russian Empire collapsed and gave way to the Soviet Union, where Stalin killed maybe 20 million. Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia were born from World War I; 75 years later in the 1990's ethnic hatred was so virulent in the Balkans that thousands died.

In 1923, a corporal in the German army found the Treaty of Versailles so humiliating for Germany that he tried to overthrow the government with an impotent, fumbling, doomed coup called The Beer Hall Putsch. He went to prison for his rebellion but ten years later in 1933 got himself elected Chancellor of Germany and ten years after that, in 1943, had launched the Final Solution which would be responsible for six million Jewish deaths.

The Armistice of the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month 100 years ago today was signed in a railroad car in a forest north of Paris. Adolph Hitler used the same railroad car when he forced the French into unconditional surrender in 1940.

First you win the war. Then you win the peace. Perhaps the Allied Powers learned their lesson from the Treaty of Versailles, because the peace of 1945 was so different from the peace of 1919.

The peace of 1945 didn’t erase our challenges and conflicts: The Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, 9/11, Afghanistan, and Iraq were just over the horizon.

But the Marshall Plan turned our Axis enemies into two of the most powerful economic engines of the last 75 years. It was brilliant: turn your fiercest enemies into your finest friends, not to mention your most lucrative trading partners.

For the most part, with the occasional glaring exceptions like Stalin’s Gulags, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkans, the convictions and values of 1945 have given Europe 75 years of unbroken peace and prosperity.

But now the values of liberal democracy seem vulnerable once again—free, but not unchecked, market capitalism; free trade; free speech; a free press; the chief federal executive checked and balanced by the legislature and the judiciary; respect and understanding toward the other and the different and the alien; the absolute, uncompromised equality of every human being as a child of God, no exceptions. This is not the time to retreat into sanctuaries of sameness defended by unchecked henchmen.

The Bible says that all who came to the place where Asahel fell stood still and were silent. And at the end of the day, when they tallied up the cost, they found that there were lost to the forces of David that day, nineteen men, and, oh yes, Asahel.

Just one name among all those who died in that bloody civil war. A memorial moment. A name is engraved on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Kenilworth Union Church paused for a memorial moment in just the same way:  116,708 Americans died in World War I. But we needed to name our own. Three of our Sunday School students died in that war:  Franklin Bellows, Purcell Macklin, and Manierre Ware. Those windows in the transept: we all stand still and fall silent.

And there were lost to the forces of David that day, 19 men, and oh yes, Asahel.

There were lost to our forces that day, 116,708 Americans, and, oh yes, Franklin, Purcell, and Manierre.

The awesome specificity of the love of God.

[1]P. Kyle McCarter, The Anchor Bible Commentary on II Samuel (New York: Doubleday, 1984), p. 95.

[2]Dr. Bruce Thielemann, Nineteen Men and Asahel, an unpublished sermon.