David Takes Command

  By Alexander J. Knights, 13 October 2007; Revised
Contents »

  Printable Version (Coming Soon)        Reviews and Comments (Coming Soon)

"So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came upon David in Power "
-- 1 Samuel 16:13
Background and Early Years

David was the second King of Israel. His predecessor, Saul, had died in battle with his son, Jonathan, a dear friend of David’s. However, it is before and during his reign that David is most celebrated. He exemplified a good king; divine, visionary and a sound administrator, but also possessed basic flaws such as jealousy and revenge. While children worldwide can recall him slaying Goliath the Philistine, there is much more to the embellished life of David. This article will look at his military antics, both prior to and during his reign as King of Israel.

In his teenage years, David was a young shepherd boy. He lived with his brothers and father, Jesse. His years spent in the wilderness and guarding sheep against danger created a strong sense of protection, accompanied by a warrior’s fighting ability. It is even recorded that David killed a bear and lions with his hands to protect his flock[1].

Samuel, a prophet of the Lord, was responsible for anointing God’s chosen one for the position of King. Hence, Saul was anointed as Israel’s first King. However, Saul did not keep to the Lord’s commandments and he swerved off into idolatry and rebellion. As a result, Samuel rebuked him, saying “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He has rejected you as King”. The Lord told Samuel to seek out and anoint the next King, so he went to Jesse. Jesse’s sons were tall and handsome – perfect for a King in the eyes of the world. However, the Lord did not have eyes for them and he instructed Samuel to anoint the shepherd boy – David.

David’s first taste of the military was after Saul requested him to come into his service. Jesse sent David to the King, where he was accepted as an armour-bearer. David would
play his harp in Saul’s court, bringing peace and serenity to an otherwise hostile environment.

David and Goliath

David slays Goliath
David slays Goliath
The Philistines and Israelites had been at war for many years, and the mighty Philistine army was on the brink of Israel, pressing for battle. They sent forth a man named Goliath to challenge any Israelite soldier in single combat. Goliath was a giant of a man, even for modern times.

"He was nine feet tall. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armour of bronze weighing five thousand shekels (125 pounds/57 kilograms). On his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels (15 pounds/6 kilograms) "
-- 1 Samuel 17:4-7
Goliath let out a terrifying roar demanding that someone meet him in combat. For, if he should win, the Philistines would become servants to all of Israel, and, vice versa, if Goliath should slay his opponent. The Israelites were terrified and cowered in fear. Each man refused the challenge, but one. David had trust in the Lord and went to Saul to ask for permission to fight Goliath. Saul knew David was a small boy and inexperienced too, and disallowed him from engaging. But as the Philistine army grew impatient, Saul changed his mind and allowed David to take on Goliath. His armour did not fit David, so David went armed with only a sling and stick.

"Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine "
-- 1 Samuel 17:40
Goliath confronted the boy with an attitude of humour, as if David had come as a joke. The confidence possessed by David allowed him to stand his ground. Though seemingly harmless, David could hurl a shot at over 100 miles an hour from his sling. Goliath advanced on David, who promptly removed a pebble and flung it at the giant. The shot hit him smack bang in the forehead, sinking in deep and killing Goliath instantly. David approached the fallen Goliath and decapitated him with his own sword.

A roar erupted throughout the Israelite camp and they surged forward. The Philistines fled in mass panic, but were cut down on the road back to Gath. Their camp was plundered and all booty and weapons were brought back to Israel. David was very popular among the people for his success and Saul made him a high officer.

Nonetheless, Saul grew jealous of David.

The Battle of Keilah

Shortly after the Goliath incident, the Philistines reverted back to attacking Israel and her neighbours and allies. David inquired of the Lord regarding their actions and was instructed to save the sacked city of Keilah.  David was not confident in himself, but found strength in the Lord. Though vastly outmanned, David and his men marched on the Philistine army at Keilah and inflicted heavy losses. He returned with livestock belonging to the vanquished. However, Saul had grown jealous of David and marched on Keilah to besiege him. David learnt of this and fled with 600 of his men.


He fled into Philistine territory, where he was fostered by the King of Gath, Achish. Saul gave up when he heard news David had been accepted in Gath. Achish even gave David and his family and men, their own town – Ziklag. David remained in Philistine territory for 16 months. David and his men raided the nearby Geshurites, Girzites and Amalekites, but did not inform King Achish of who exactly he was raiding. This ensured Achish’s trust. Consequently, David was made Achish’s bodyguard for life.

The prophet Samuel died soon after, giving Saul the opportunity to advance upon the Philistines. The Philistines made camp at Shunem and the Israelites at Gilboa. Between them was the Valley of Jezreel, the only part of Israel where you could traverse from east to west without crossing mountains. The Philistines were aiming to split Israel in half, making full use of the flat terrain for their chariots.  The Philisti
nes lined up for battle at Aphek, opposite the Spring of Jezreel, where the fear-ridden Israelites were. It was prophesied to Saul that he and Israel would be beaten by the Philistines, and the army’s morale was reaching defection or desertion level. While the front lines approached, King Achish and the rear guard (accompanied by David and the bodyguard) were confronted by other Philistine rulers. They demanded that David and his men be returned to Ziklag. Achish pleaded, saying he had found no fault in David from the day they met. But, this was to no avail and, due to a fear of David turning against them, they sent him back to Ziklag.

Though a part of the Philistines for 16 months, David had not once touched his countrymen in Israel. At all costs he had avoided raiding them and bluffed his way through having to do so. It is unknown whether David would have turned to fight for Israel, or whether he would have remained loyal to Achish.

Pursuit of the Amalekites

The Amalekites had raided the towns of Negev and Ziklag while David and the Philistines were on campaign. Upon David’s return, he found Ziklag burnt to the ground, and all the women and children inhabitants had been taken away by the Amalekites. David’s men were angry with him, but he finds strength in the Lord. He is instructed to pursue them and arrives with his 600 men at the Besor Ravine. Here, 200 are too exhausted to continue and 400 traversed the ravine in hot pursuit.  They came across an Egyptian man in the fields. He was a slave to the Amalekites, and he promises to show David to their camp, in exchange for his life. So, the sickly Egyptian led David’s army to the Amalekite camp. They were celebrating their victories, reveling in their plunder. David fell upon them and fought from dusk to dusk – 24 hours. All but 400 Amalekites were slaughtered, the 400 escaping on camels. Subsequently, he recovered lost livestock and plunder, as well as his and his men’s wives and families.

David returned via the ravine to collect the 200 men and marched back to Ziklag. Plunder from the Amalekites was sent as gifts to all of Israel’s elders. Immediately following this, the Philistine army and the Israelites engaged on the plain of Jezreel near Mount Gilboa. Saul and many of his officers, including Jonathan, his son, were slain in the battle as prophesied.

Civil War

David takes on Goliath
David takes on Goliath

Meanwhile, a power struggle erupted between the House of David, and that of Saul. Saul’s son, Ish-Bosheth, teamed up with Abnar against David. David sought the help of three brothers, fiercely loyal to him - Joab, Abishai and Asahel. Joab was the foremost of these and he accompanied David out to Gibeon to meet the House of Saul. Before the battle commenced at a place that became known as Helkath Hazzurim (Field of Daggers), each side selected twelve men. These men faced each other and, on command, drew their daggers and slew their opposite. The battle that supervened was bloody, but David and Joab were victorious of Abnar and Ish-Bosheth in that engagement.

David’s troops pursued the routing Israelites, in particular Asahel who was intent on killing Abnar. He relentlessly harassed him until Abnar thrust his spear into Asahel, killing him. Abnar and the remnants of his army took up a fortified position on the hill of Ammah. Nearing evening, Joab was coerced from finishing off Abnar and his men. Abnar fled and Joab returned to the main camp of David. David’s army had suffered 20 losses, one of which was Asahel. David’s army had annihilated the opposing force, taking 360 lives. The civil war lasted for awhile longer, with several engagements resulting in the overall weakening of the House of Saul. Raids and skirmishes followed in a bitter guerilla campaign. Abnar and David could not reach an agreement, so Joab and Abishai decided to take things into their own hands.

Their fierce loyalty for David and anger at the loss of their brother at Gibeon drove them to seek revenge against Abnar. They took Abnar aside, while Joab stabbed him through the stomach. David was distressed by this and cursed Joab’s household. David’s men and women were in mourning for the ensuing days.

Recab and Banaah too wanted to please their master, David. To gain favour with him, they assassinated Ish-Bosheth in his own bed. They brought his head back to David, who ordered their hands and feet cut off, followed by hanging by the pool in Hebron.

David is crowned King

After the civil war, David was crowned King over Israel and Judah, which he reigned over for 33 years. The Lord said to David:

"You will shepherd my people, Israel, and you will become their ruler "
-- 2 Samuel 5:2
David’s first military maneuver was to take the city of Jerusalem. It was a Jebusite stronghold, famed for its fortifications. The Jebusites were so confident of warding off the siege, they exclaimed “You will not get in here; even the blind and lame could ward you off"[2]
. David added fortifications, and with the assistance of a generous donation[3] from King Hiram of Tyre, David had a palace built in his capital – Jerusalem.

 News rapidly reached the Philistines of David’s conquest, so they sent out a large force against him. David headed to the Valley of Rephaim, where he defeated the Philistines at Baal Perazim. David stated in triumph that “As waters break out, the Lord has broken out against my enemies before me”. Thus, Baal Perazim was named, meaning “the Lord who breaks out”.

The Philistines fled, but David was not instructed by the Lord to issue a frontal assault. Rather, David was to come around behind them, attacking them guerilla style. From Gibeon all the way to Gezar, the Philistine army was harassed, and annihilated.


Raphael's "Triumph of King David"
Raphael's "Triumph of King David"
David extinguished the Philistine threat in a number of victories, and then subdued them completely after taking the stronghold of Metheg Ammah. He also conquered the Moabites, exterminating two-thirds of their population. They subsequently became subjects of Israel, bound to regular tribute.
King Hadadezer of Zobah challenged David’s attempt to regain control over the Euphrates River region. A large scale battle resulted in a crushing victory for David. His army captured 1000 chariots, 7000 (or 1700 depending on sources) charioteers, as well as 20,000 infantry.

David decided against keeping the chariots. This may have been because he did not have the resources or time to train charioteers, nor would they be economic in the mountainous terrain of Israel.  The allies of King Hadadezer, the Arameans, from Damascus, came to his aid, but were too promptly defeated by David. Twenty two thousand men were slain in that battle and David remained undefeated in battle. He placed garrisons in Damascus and other settlements of the Arameans and they became subjects to Israel.

Tebah and Berothai were two towns belonging to Hadadezer, until they were besieged and taken by David. He sent the golden armour back to the Palace in the City of David – Jerusalem.
Tou, the King of Hamath, had been at war with Zobah. Upon hearing news of King Hadadezer’s subduing, Tou sent his son, Joram, with silver, gold and bronze articles as a gift for David. David dedicated them to the Lord, as with all other silver and gold he plundered or was given.

So David had subdued Edom, Moab, the Philistines and Amalek, along with the Arameans and Zobah. Most impressive was his victory over eighteen thousand Edomites at the Battle of the Valley of the Salt. This could be a reference to the Dead Sea Valley, but it is unlikely.

Subduing of the Ammonites

In the course of time, the King of the Ammonites died.  Nahash, and his son, Hanun, took over the throne. David sent out an envoy to sympathise with Hanun over his father’s death. But the nobles convinced Hanun that the envoy were undercover spies, so Hanun seized them, shaved half of their beards, and cut off their garments. The envoys were greatly humiliated, and David ordered them to remain at Jericho until their beards had regrown.  Sensing David’s inevitable hostility, the Ammonite King Hanun hired twenty thousand Aramean infantrymen from Beth Rehob and Zobah. In addition, the King of Maccah and one thousand men, and twelve thousand from Tob, were hired to bulk up the Ammonite forces. The mercenary army was stationed in the countryside, numbering thirty- three thousand men, while the Ammonite troops formed three battle lines outside their city.

David had Joab and Abishai sent out to claim victory over the Ammonites. They took all of Israel’s fighting forces with them. Behind them in three lines of battle were the mercenaries. Joab told his brother he would deploy a small portion of Israel’s forces, the elite, with himself to face the looming threat from behind. He ordered Abishai to march on the Ammonites with the rest of the Israelite force.  The battle plan was that if either were struggling, the other could fall back to provide assistance. So, Joab and the elite guard charged at the thirty-three thousand strong force of mercenaries, who routed. The Ammonites saw this, and fear and panic spread within the ranks. Abishai gave the call to charge and the Israelites routed the disoriented Ammonite army, who fled back behind their walls. Joab and Abishai returned to Jerusalem victorious over the Ammonites.
The Death of Absalom
The Death of Absalom

King Hadadezer of Zobah had restored vigour and confidence in beating David, and he rallied a force of Arameans from beyond the Euphrates. Shobach commanded the army, which made camp at Helam. King David heard of this and marched a force across the Jordan to face the army of Hadadezer. The Arameans formed their battle lines, but were humbled by a dominating Israelite force. The army of Hadadezer fled, leaving 700 charioteers dead along with forty thousand infantrymen. Their commander, Shobach, was also struck down and killed in the battle. All the vassals of Hadadezer made peace with Israel and the Arameans threw out their allegiances to the Ammonites. David was victorious wherever he went.

Absalom’s Rebellion

David’s son, Absalom, was never disciplined properly and he conspired against his father. By pretending to go on a pilgrimage to Hebron, Absalom rose to power in Hebron, increasing his following. David was caused to flee from Jerusalem in fear of his life. His household and officials accompanied him.  A small force, Kerethites and Pelethites, as well as Gittites had deserted Absalom for their true King, David. Ittai, the Gittite, spoke out against Absalom and was accepted into David’s elite. The pursuit through Israel that followed dwindled David’s resources. A ‘deserter’ of David went to Absalom’s camp convincing Absalom to hold back the pursuit for a short while, and Absalom took the bait. This gave David more time to consolidate his resource base. He then decided it was time to engage Absalom.

David split his army into three contingents, under Joab, Abishai and Ittai. David was eager to march into battle, but the three lieutenants saw it best fit that David remain unseen. David’s final order was that Absalom was not to be killed. The Forest of Ephraim played host to the battle and twenty thousand men lost their lives. Israel was defeated by David’s valiant forces.
Absalom was riding his mule when his head got caught in an oak tree. He was left helplessly hanging. A soldier notified Joab and Joab questioned him as to why he didn’t strike Absalom down. The soldier said he was obeying the King’s orders. Joab unexpectedly struck three javelins into Absalom, killing him.

David was deeply distressed and he let out a poignant cry over his dead son, Absalom. This drew morale to an all time low within the army, which Joab made a note of to David. The rebellion was quelled and David, in turn, regained power over all of Israel.

De Gelder's impression of King David
De Gelder's impression of King David
The Final Years

Four battles took place against the Philistines during the end of King David’s reign as King. The first nearly saw David’s death – he grew tired, and a man named Ishbi-Benob was bent on killing him. Abishai came to David’s rescue and slew Ishbi-Benob. Never again did David march into battle, but rather, commanded from outside the hostile zone. The next three battles took place at Gob and Gath. Both battles at Gob proved victorious for David, and, finally, at Gath, David managed to quell the re-emerging Philistine threat. These were his last military campaigns.


Though David faced tremendous odds throughout his military career, his trust and faith in the Lord brought him strength and he remained undefeated. Numerous exiles and amazing odds culminated, with enemies hard-pressing from all angles, to make an arduous militaristic reign. However, David overcame all these burdens and hurdles to forge a great empire. His son, Solomon, affirmed Israel’s greatness, forming a strong bond with Hiram of Tyre. The story of David is truly one which inspires awe.


1 and 2 Samuel., 1 Chronicles., "Student Bible - New International Version"., (Zondervan: Michigan, 2002).

References and Notes:
  1. ^ 1 Samuel 17:34-36
  2. ^ 2 Samuel 5:6
  3. ^ Hiram sent messengers to David, accompanied by stonemasons and carpenters, with the famous cedars of Lebanon