2 Samuel 23: Surprised by Devotion

This morning I’m speaking to you as a gathering of fans. Most of my life I was expected to be a Phillies fan. I knew that “fan” was short for fanatic, and I knew how to spell it: “Phillies Phanatic.” Even the mildest fan who moves to another part of the country will have problems. I had them in Charlottesville, Virginia; in Escondido, California, and then in Houston, Texas. Some fans never change, as bumper stickers prove. A country and Western lyric begins, “Go lay your hand on a Steelers fan, then you’ll understand…”

Not all fans follow sports teams. Some have an idol who gyrates in pop music. Even political leaders may invest in fans. A true fan is more than loyal, however. A true fan carries loyalty to the pitch of devotion. Lance Corporal Grable in the jungles of Vietnam showed devotion. The young Marine saved his exposed buddies by charging a machine-gun nest single-handed. He silenced it. They found nine enemy dead around the gun and Lance Corporal Grable draped over it.1

Woven through the story of the Bible runs the thread of loyalty carried to the pitch of devotion. Psalm 136 celebrates it. “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For his mercy endures forever.” That refrain continues through the psalm. The Hebrew word translated “mercy” is chesed. Chesed gives the bond of loyalty the depth of love. It binds those who are joined in covenant. David and his friend Jonathan made a covenant when David had to flee from the jealous anger of Jonathan’s father, King Saul. David said to Jonathan, “Do chesed for [me] your servant, for into a covenant of Yahweh you have brought your servant” (1 Sam. 20:8).

Out text this morning is all about chesed, even though the word does not appear. The passage is found in 2 Samuel 23:13-17. It is found in a review of the heroes among David’s warriors. These were David’s all-stars, his knights of the round table. The three had come to him when he had become king of Israel as well as Judah. He was now back at the cave of Adullam, a strong point he had used in his outlaw days fleeing from Saul.

The Philistines had occupied Bethlehem, with their troops in the Valley of Rephaim, not far from Jerusalem. It was a good season for the Philistines to invade, raid the crops, and drive a wedge between Israel in the north and Judah. The Philistines were a coastal people from whom Palestine took its name.

These three warriors had left their own fields in the harvest season to serve David again, now as their king.

Then three of the thirty chief men went down at harvest time and came to David at the cave of Adullam. And the Philistines encamped in the Valley of Rephaim. David was then in the stronghold, and the garrison of the Philistines was then in Bethlehem. And David said with longing, “Oh that someone would give me a drink of the water from the well of Bethlehem, which is by the gate!”

So the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines, drew water from the well of Bethlehem that was by the gate, and took it and brought it to David. Nevertheless, he would not drink it, but poured it out to the LORD. And he said, “Far be it from me, O LORD, that I should do this! Is this not the blood of the men that went in jeopardy of their lives? Therefore he would not drink it. (See 2 Sam. 5:18.)

I. A surprise for the king

One hot afternoon in the wilderness, these three fighters reported to David. A bit later, they heard David saying, “Oh that someone would give me a drink of water from the well of Bethlehem, which is by the gate!”

David was only musing. Thirsty people do think about water. You may remember a spring set in a buried oak cask in the countryside of your past. I remember the water of my childhood in Philadelphia.  That tap-water comes to mind whenever I am in a swimming pool. It’s the nostalgic taste of chlorine. David remembered the cool wetness of the water in Bethlehem’s well. But surely David was not simply nostalgic for the town of his boyhood. He was the King of Israel, chosen by God and anointed. Yet he could not enter his hometown and drink from the well there. A leather canteen of that water would be a sign and pledge of the faithfulness of the Lord who would give to David the kingdom of God’s promise.

David’s comrades from the wilderness days heard what was saying. One spoke up: “Do you hear what the chief is saying? He wants water, he does, from the well of Bethlehem!” In a few moments they had on their swords, water from the spring in their leather canteens, and an empty canteen for water from Bethlehem. The well of Bethlehem was near the gate. That would be the command center for the Philistine troops occupying Bethlehem. To get that water they would have to fight for it. After hiking for miles, they at last went up the hill to the town, where they were surely challenged and recognized. Perhaps two fought off Philistines while the third drew the water. Still fighting, they exited from the city and made off across the wilderness.

Did they think about the water sloshing in that special canteen on the thirsty trip back to the cave of Adullam?

Mission accomplished. They found David. “Chief, you wanted a drink of water  from the well in Bethlehem. Here it is!”

David looked at them with grateful astonishment. He had given no command to them for such a mission. Water from Bethlehem was no part of their duty. Neither had David appealed to their loyalty by asking for volunteers for the mission. Their devotion was spontaneous. David’s wish was their command. They had set their hearts on surprising David. They brought him water from Bethlehem!

Children, do you remember when you surprised your mother? She remembers!

How about you, young man? Perhaps you failed to surprise your father on Father’s Day. He has a rack of ties. I know that you wives have tried to surprise your husbands. Does he still bring a surprise to you?

People sometimes think that pastors, elders, church leaders have to be good arm-twisters to get the good work done. No, that is not true. Service in the church is surprising, a mark of willing devotion.

You see how the Lord used the devotion of the three warriors. He gave them a surprising victory. The blessing of God endued their devotion.

II. A surprise from the king

Carefully David took the leather skin of water from the leader of the three. He unfastened the top and poured it out on the ground. Quickly it formed a puddle, then almost as quickly it sank into the dry ground. A few Bible commentators and not a few Sunday School teachers have a problem with what David did. David poured out the water that had cost his brave men so much.

David did exactly the right thing. He poured out the water to the Lord. To David, the water from Bethlehem was the very blood of the men who got it at the risk of their lives. He could not drink it. He must give it in worship to the Lord.

David cherished the devotion of his men. He received their service in humility. He was not worthy of such devotion. How different was David from the many cult leaders who have demanded worship from their followers. There was Jim Jones who led his followers from California to Guiana. You may remember the scene on the television camera Jones had in place. There he sat on a wooden platform, looking down on his followers. Rescuers were going to come. At the command of Jones they drank poison, and most died. We cannot forget the fiery end of David Koresh and his followers who believed him to be divine. In California the suicides of the Heaven’s Gate cult were found. In Canada and France, Luc Jouret of the Order of the Solar Temple demanded the suicide of those whom he had deceived.

How different the leadership of David! He offered to the Lord the devotion his men brought to him. He received that devotion as a gift from the Lord to be treasured. Here is the key to Christian leadership. A Christian leader knows that his followers are following the Lord. He gratefully receives their devotion for what it is: devotion to him for the Lord’s sake. The motivation for service comes from the Lord, and it is offered to the Lord. By offering the water from Bethlehem to the Lord, David makes it a fragrant offering, pleasing to the Lord (Phil. 4:18. Through worship, David heightens the devotion of his men. Perhaps they acted mainly out of devotion to him. He had led them through so much. But David sets their service apart to the Lord.

The water from Bethlehem became a pledge of God’s faithfulness to David. Yes, the Philistines are a threat to David the King of Israel, but three of his warriors could bring him water from Bethlehem. Bethlehem would again be the city of David.

III. The surprise of the royal Messiah

A. The King of our devotion

In the last verses of this chapter we read the end to the list of the 37 mighty warriors of David: Ira the Ithrite, Gareb the Ithrite, Uriah the Hittite, thirty-seven in all. In the account in Chronicles, the name of Uriah is in the midst of this list. Here it stands alone at the end. The name comes as a thunderbolt in the list of the heroes of David’s troops.

Most of you know the shocking story, or at least know of it. David, established as king in Jerusalem rules over the dominion he has conquered. It is the spring season when kings go out to battle. David’s troops are fighting the Ammonites, besieging the city of Rabbah. David, however, no longer feels he must lead his troops. His general Joab is a seasoned commander, well able to reduce the city. David relaxes on the roof of his palace one evening, and sees a beautiful woman bathing in an adjacent garden.

David has Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, one of his champions, brought to him. She becomes pregnant. David mounts a cover-up. Uriah is called home from service, in the hope that paternity will be thought to be his. But this devoted soldier won’t go home to his wife next door, because he is on duty. He supposes that David must have a reason for summoning him and will probably send new orders to Joab. Battles are won through faithful messengers who may be trusted for instant missions with secret orders. David provides royal dinners for Uriah; he still will not go home. David therefore sends Uriah back to Joab with his secret message. It is Uriah’s death warrant. Joab, never above intrigue, arranges to have Uriah and some others slaughtered. Joab orders them to pursue right up to the city gate. When David hears from Joab that Uriah is dead, Bathsheba mourns, then David marries her. Nathan the prophet confronts David with his sin. Psalms 32 and 51 express David’s repentance.

Can this be David, the king so sensitive to the devotion of his men? Could he order the murder of a soldier devoted to him to cover up his own adultery? Water from Bethlehem has no place in David’s thinking – only lust and murder, laced with horrifying hypocrisy! We may protest that David’s crimes are unforgivable. Certainly David cannot be our example, far less our deliverer. Yet in mercy toward us, in chesed beyond understanding, the Lord has provided a worthy king of our devotion. It is the Lord himself who comes as a our Savior King.

Yes, he comes and he seeks our devotion. When Jesus healed 10 lepers on his way along the border of Galilee and Samaria, he sent them to show themselves to the priests in Jerusalem that they might be pronounced clean and restored to society. They went off in faith, still lepers. But as they went they were healed. One, who was a Samaritan came back to fall at the feet of Jesus in thanksgiving. Jesus said, “Were there not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?” Jesus sought devotion. That account in Luke’s Gospel follows a passage where Jesus describes the work of a servant. He labors in the field for his master, then comes in from that day of labor. What then? He is not off duty. He must now prepared his master’s supper. The bottom line? “When you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.”

Do you see the connection? “Where are the nine?” Jesus had not commanded the lepers to come back and thank him for healing them. Yet he expected them to come. Jesus does not ask for the reluctant obedience of doing your duty. Of course, you cannot do it in any case. What Jesus looks for is spontaneous devotion. We need to surprise God by bringing him water from Bethlehem.

“Surprise God?” you say. “Aren’t you a Calvinist? You can’t surprise God!”

You can try!

Our Lord Jesus receives our devotion, that something “extra” for him – our water from Bethlehem. He pours it out before his Father in heaven! Jesus is the King of our devotion.

B. The devotion of our King

We see in Jesus the chesed of the Servant of the Lord. His is the faithful bond of his love for the Father. The great surprise of the gospel is how he binds us to him in the commitment of abiding love. He is the anointed Warrior who breaks through the hosts of darkness to bring us water from Behtlehem. But for Jesus, it is not water at the price of blood. It is the cup of the New Covenant in his blood, blood from Calvary, shed for many for the remission of sins.

What a surprise it is to find that chesed is used in the Old Testament not to describe our devotion to God – the Hasidim in Judaism are the men of chesed, faithful love to God. No. It describes God’s devotion to us! His chesed is forever!

In Psalm 51, David cries, “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your chesed; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” In verse 14, David shows the force of God’s chesed even more powerfully: “Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.” The last word may and should be translated, “justice.” Deliver me from the guilt of murder, and I will sing of your justice?  How can that be? The answer is the Lord’s devotion to us. He has bound himself to be our Savior, and his saving work displays the justice of his covenant-keeping devotion! He keeps his own commitment made when he set his love upon us before the world was made.

C. S. Lewis titled his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy!” David closed the 23rd Psalm “Surely goodness and chesed will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Jesus brings to you the surprise of water from Bethlehem. Anoint God’s anointed, and rejoice in the surprise of new life, glorious joy with him!








1 Dan Deaton in “Daniel’s Den,” New Life Lines, New Life Presbyterian Church in America, Escondido, CA., June, 1999.


Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Charlottesville, VA


  • ~ William Edgar Remembers Dr. Clowney

    "Ed’s teaching was mind-boggling. No one had ever explained so many issues using what I now know to be biblical theology, the progressive unfolding of redemptive history, culminating is Jesus Christ, the “yea and amen of the promises of God.” A whole group of us from Harvard did come to Westminster, and we never regretted it for a minute. There we discovered that exegesis was controlled by biblical theology, which in turn yielded the good fruits of systematics. We sat under the likes of Paul Woolley, John Murray, E. J. Young. But Edmund Clowney remained a central inspiration. It was he, more than any of the others, who opened the Bible to us. Ironically, in those days, many of the courses on the Pentateuch or the Psalms or Galatians were little more than painstaking refutations of the German critics. We were no doubt still in the era of Westminster’s origins in controversy, called to “demolish strongholds.” But many of us came from outside the Christian faith and did not worry particularly about these guys with funny names like Gunkel or Mowinckle. We needed basic Bible knowledge, and we got it from Ed Clowney’s courses in, of all things, Practical Theology. Whether homiletics, worship, missions, or the church, his sermon-like lectures took us through one era after another, climaxing in Jesus Christ. As he got more and more excited about the structure of revelation, Ed spoke contagiously about the impossibility of God’s extravagant promises. How would he do it? What about Abraham rising up in the morning to sacrifice the only son of the pledge? For a people in exile, how will the very bells on the horses have the Lord’s name inscribed on them, and the cooking pots in the Lord’s house be like the sacred bowls before the altar? The answer: “Remnant and renewal! Remnant and"

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