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God’s Word for You

1 Chronicles 11:20-21 War and killing

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, November 24, 2023

20 Abishai the brother of Joab was chief of the Three. He brandished his spear against three hundred men, whom he pierced, and so he became as famous as the Three.  21 He was doubly honored above the Three and became their commander, even though he was not included among them.

There is a question about the text here, but we won’t solve it by having opinions. Was Abishai the chief of the Three, or of the Thirty? Some commentators find it easier to say that he was over the Thirty, but the Hebrew text says he was over the Three. Since he wasn’t numbered with the Three, it doesn’t seem to me to be a problem that he was their boss. When an Admiral is aboard a ship, even his own flagship, he is not the captain; the captain of the ship (even if he is not by rank a full captain, but a commander, a lieutenant commander, or a lieutenant) is in command of the ship.

The exploit for Abishai was that he killed three hundred men in battle. This was probably not all at once, like the amazing incident when Jeshobeam killed three hundred men “in a single encounter” (11:11). Still, Abishai’s consistent record of victories and his leadership gave him a place above the rest. It is a curious detail that “he was not included” among the Three, but if he were, then the Three would not be the Three. They would be four, and for some reason David had a special group of Three, just as he generally had thirty men in his group known as the Thirty.

We will see other distinctions in David’s army, such as his bodyguard (verse 25). In general we have this organization of David’s officers:

  • Joab, the commander of the army (1 Chronicles 11:6)
  • Abishai, Chief of (over) the Three (1 Chronicles 11:20)
  • The Three: Jashobeam and Eleazar (1 Chronicles 11:11-12) and Shammah (2 Samuel 23:11-12)
  • Benaiah, Captain of the Bodyguard (1 Chronicles 11:25)
  • A group of three, perhaps not “the Three” (1 Chronicles 11:15-19)
  • The Thirty (1 Chronicles 11:26-47, more than 30 names)

In 2 Samuel 23:37, the total of the Thirty is given clearly and literally with the words, “There were thirty-seven in all.” This does not include the officers listed here, but the names we shall read as the chapter continues to unfold.

What about war? Does God condemn those who fight to the death in a war? This is a good question, and it is partly answered by this very text. These soldiers did not declare war, but carried out the commands of their king. War is therefore covered by the Fourth Commandment, but we need to address it under the Fifth. Our current catechism textbook explains: “God alone has the right to end a person’s life, but he delegates that right also to his representatives in government. A person serving under the authority of the government as God’s representative—a government official, a soldier, or a police officer—may carry out capital punishment, take life in a war, or take life in order to protect the lives of others” (p. 76).

When we are confused about how to apply the Commandments, it is best to run first to the feet of Jesus as he teaches in his preaching. About hatred, killing, and murder, we have his clear words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22). Offense, annoyance, hatred, bloodthirst, and murder, are all beads on the same necklace. Your neighbor may be a pig, but he is not your pig to punish. If your son is the swine, then correct him while he is under your roof and while his feet are under your table. After that, the world may need to correct him.

What about questions of self-defense? Is it a crime according to the nation’s laws to dislike someone, or to be dislikeable? No. Our laws may allow a man to defend himself when he is threatened by someone with a weapon, but we are seeing more and more people killing just because they don’t like other people, or because they are scared, or for all manner of reasons. None of these are justified by the law, and none of these can be justified before God. A killer like that will stand in the judgment before God Almighty and be given a murderer’s punishment in hell for all eternity. “For,” Luther explains, “if the First and Second Table (of the law, the Ten Commandments) come into conflict, the simple and correct method is that by which the Second is ordered to yield to the First, for God is the Creator, the Head, and the Lord of father and mother, the state, and the home. All these must be subject to the Creator. And the when the question is asked…, the First Table (that is, the first three commandments) takes precedence, and when it has been obeyed, then also the Second Table has its place; then you should obey your parents and bear and suffer wrongs from them, ‘but for Me,’ says God, ‘not against Me or the against the First Table’” (Luther, lecturing on Genesis 31:19).

Therefore, if you are a soldier, do the work of the soldier. Learn to pray Psalm 144, for the Lord “trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle” (Psalm 144:1). If you are an ambassador, strive to make and negotiate peace. If you are the commander-in-chief, then learn to tremble, and to dread war unless it is thrust upon you. But when it is, place it in God’s hands and give your generals and admirals the orders, guidance, support, raw materials, and all the other things that they need. But do not order or even joke about the death of any man without a just and worthy cause, for his blood will be on your conscience forever. The Lord Almighty says: “Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another” (Zechariah 7:9), and Jesus said, “The more important matters of the law are justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Where there is repentance, there is forgiveness. But loving one another is not only a command for mothers and children, but for soldiers, generals, kings, and presidents, too.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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