Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Chapters 10-12 give a detailed account of David’s war with the Ammonites and their allies the Syrians, and of David’s great sin, for which this war gave the occasion. The same war has already been briefly mentioned in 2Samuel 8:3-8; 2Samuel 8:13-14, in the general summary of David’s reign, but is here given with more detail in connection with his sin. The same account may be found in 1Chronicles 19:1 to 1Chronicles 20:3, but with no mention of the sin in regard to Bath-sheba and Uriah. Up to this point the reign has been one of exemplary piety and great prosperity; henceforward it is overclouded by sin and its consequent punishment. This turning point may be nearly fixed as about the middle of David’s reign. It could not have been much later, since Solomon was born about two years after David’s adultery, and had a son a year old when he came to the throne (1Kings 11:43, with 1Kings 14:21); nor could it have been much earlier, since the whole narrative represents David’s chief wars and conquests as already accomplished.
This war was altogether the greatest and most critical of David’s reign, and it is not surprising that it should have been marked in song by the royal Psalmist. Psalms 60 is definitely assigned to this time by its title, which is fully confirmed by internal evidence. Psalms 44 is also supposed by some writers to have been written during this period, but 2Samuel 10:9-16 speak of great calamities, of which we have no record at this time. Psalms 68 is also assigned by many to this period.
And it came to pass after this, that the king of the children of Ammon died, and Hanun his son reigned in his stead.(1) The king.—His name is given in the next verse and in 1Chronicles 19:1, as Nahash. He was probably a son or grandson of the Nahash whom Saul conquered (1 Samuel 11), as more than fifty years must have passed away since that event. The kindness he had shown to David is not recorded, but may have been some friendly help during his wanderings, or merely a congratulatory embassy on his accession.
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?(3) To search the city.—The capital, and almost the only city of the Ammonites was Rabbah; it was strongly fortified, and a knowledge of its interior would be important to an enemy. The suspicions of the Ammonites may have been roused by David’s growing power, and especially by his conquest of the neighbouring Moabites.
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.(4) Shaved off the one half of their beards.—According to Oriental ideas, the extremest insult which could have been inflicted. “Cutting off a person’s beard is regarded by the Arabs as an indignity quite equal to flogging and branding among ourselves. Many would rather die than have their beard shaved off (Arvieux, quoted by Keil). It is remarkable that in none of David’s wars does he appear as the aggressor.
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.(5) Tarry at Jericho.—In consideration for his mortified ambassadors, David directs them to remain at Jericho, which lay directly on their road. Jericho had been destroyed on the first entrance of the Israelites into Canaan, and a solemn curse pronounced upon whoever “riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho.” This curse fell upon Hiel, more than a century after the time of David (1Kings 16:34). But “buildeth” is here, as often, to be understood of “fortifying”; and Jericho, under the name of “the city of palm trees” (Judges 1:16; Judges 3:13), appears to have been all along an inhabited place.
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.(6) Saw that they stank.—The Hebrew, translated literally, shows that they were conscious that this was by their own fault—“that they had made themselves stink,” and is so rendered in 1Chronicles 19:6.
Hired.—Chronicles gives the amount of the subsidy, 1,000 talents of silver, a sum variously estimated at from £125,000 to twice that amount. It shows at once the wealth of Ammon, the importance of the auxiliaries, and the grave character of the war.
Syrians of Beth-rehob.—Called simply Rehob in 2Samuel 10:8. This has been understood of several different places. It can hardly have been the Rehob (or Beth-rehob) of Numbers 13:21; Judges 18:28, since that was near Laish, and within the territory of the Israelites. Some identify it with “Ruhaibeh,” twenty-five miles N.E. of Damascus; but it is more likely to have been “Rehoboth by the river” (i.e., near the Euphrates) of Genesis 36:37, as this corresponds with “out of Mesopotamia’ in the parallel passage 1Chronicles 19:6, the situation of which is not more definitely known.
Zoba.—See Note on 2Samuel 8:3.
Ish-tob.—Translated, men of Tob, the first syllable not being a part of the proper name. Jephthah here found refuge when exiled by his countrymen (Judges 11:3; Judges 11:5). It was probably just east of Gilead, between Syria and the land of Ammon; it is not mentioned in Chronicles.
The total number of auxiliaries mentioned in 1Chronicles 19:7, thirty-two thousand, is the same as given here, Maacah being omitted from the number; but the composition of the force is different. Here only infantry are mentioned, there only chariots and cavalry. It is plain from the result of the battle (2Samuel 10:18 in both places) that all three arms of the service were employed; either, therefore, some words have dropped out from both texts, or else the writer in each case did not care to go into details. Chronicles mentions that the allies mustered in Medeba, a place on a hill in the Belka plain, about four miles south-east of Heshbon, and well fitted strategically to repel an attack upon Rabbah. It had been originally assigned to the tribe of Reuben (Joshua 13:9).
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.(8) At the entering in of the gate.—The Ammonites and their allies formed separate armies, the former taking their stand immediately before the city, the latter “by themselves” at some distance, where the ground was more favourable for the manœuvres of their chariots.
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:(9) When Joab saw.—The keen eye of this experienced general at once took in both the advantages and the danger of this disposition of the enemy. He threw his whole force between their two divisions, organising his own army in two parts, one facing the Ammonites and the other the Syrians, but each capable of supporting the other in case of need. The enemy was thus cut in two, while the Israelites formed one compact body. He himself took command of the wing facing the Syrians with the choice troops of Israel, as having the stronger enemy to meet, while he gave the rest of the forces opposing the Ammonites into the hand of his brother Abishai.
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.(12) Be of good courage, and let us play the men.—Literally, Be strong and let us strengthen ourselves. The same phrase is translated in Chronicles, “Be of good courage and let us behave ourselves valiantly.” (Compare 1Samuel 4:9.) Joab felt that the battle was a critical one, and on it depended the welfare and even the safety of “our people” and “the cities of our God.” The latter expression is in recognition of the fact that the whole land belonged to God, who allowed the use of it to His people.
The Lord do.—Rather, The Lord will do. Joab’s courage rose here to that highest point which is marked by the full trust that whatever may be the result, it will be that which seems best to Infinite wisdom and love.
And Joab drew nigh, and the people that were with him, unto the battle against the Syrians: and they fled before him.(13) Against the Syrians.—The attack was begun, not against both parts of the foe at once, but Joab threw the weight of his forces against the stronger division of the enemy while Abishai watched and held in check the Ammonites. His tactics were completely successful. The Syrians fled, and the Ammonites, seeing that the whole army of Israel could now be thrown upon them, retired precipitately into the city.
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.(14) Came to Jerusalem.—Why the victory was not at once followed up it is not said. Perhaps the army of Israel was too much exhausted by their victory; perhaps they were unprovided with the necessaries for a siege; and perhaps the season was already too far advanced. Whatever may have been the cause, the delay gave the allies opportunity to rally.
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.(16) Hadarezer.—On the form of the name see Note on 2Samuel 8:3. He felt the importance of the defeat he had sustained, and now evidently made an effort to rally all his forces, even calling together vassal tribes from beyond the Euphrates.
They came to Helam.—The Hebrew word here is not necessarily a proper name, and might be translated their host; but as the name unquestionably occurs in 2Samuel 10:17, it is better taken as a proper name here also. It is entirely omitted in Chronicles. Its exact situation is unknown, but from 2Samuel 8:3; 1Chronicles 18:3, it is plain that it was in the general direction of the Euphrates and not very far from Hamath.
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.(17) He gathered . . . and passed.—David, hearing of the great Syrian rally, now took the field in person. Joab may have been with him, but more probably was employed at the south in holding the Ammonites in check and preventing their forming a junction with their confederates.
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.(18) Seven hundred chariots.—In this campaign David delivered a crushing blow upon his foes, from which they did not recover during the rest of his reign or that of his son. For the seven hundred here 1Chronicles 19:18 has seven thousand, which is almost an incredible number of chariots, and the number here is evidently the more correct; but the same place has forty thousand footmen, while here it is forty thousand horsemen. Probably both statements are meant to include both infantry and cavalry, though only one of them is especially mentioned in each case. Comp. Note on 2Samuel 10:6.
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.(19) Servants to Hadarezer.—The vassal kings, who had been tributary to Hadarezer, now transferred their allegiance to David; but it is not said that Hadarezer himself became a tributary, though it is plain from 2Samuel 8:3-7, that he was greatly weakened and suffered the loss of large booty. From 1Kings 11:23-24, it is plain that an escaped dependent of Hadarezer maintained himself in the territory of Damascus as an enemy of Israel; it is also stated in 1Kings 4:21, that Solomon “reigned over all kingdoms” from the Euphrates to the border of Egypt. It is therefore probable that Hadarezer also acknowledged the suzerainty of David and Solomon.