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What Mattered Most

The LORD's blessings can be in obscure details.

2 Samuel 18:1–8

And David numbered the people who were with him, and set captains of thousands and captains of hundreds over them. Then David sent out one third of the people under the hand of Joab, one third under the hand of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and one third under the hand of Ittai the Gittite. And the king said to the people, “I also will surely go out with you myself.”

But the people answered, “You shall not go out! For if we flee away, they will not care about us; nor if half of us die, will they care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us now. For you are now more help to us in the city.”

Then the king said to them, “Whatever seems best to you I will do.” So the king stood beside the gate, and all the people went out by hundreds and by thousands. Now the king had commanded Joab, Abishai, and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave all the captains orders concerning Absalom.

So the people went out into the field of battle against Israel. And the battle was in the woods of Ephraim. The people of Israel were overthrown there before the servants of David, and a great slaughter of twenty thousand took place there that day. For the battle there was scattered over the face of the whole countryside, and the woods devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.

This is a pretty normal—good guys win, bad guys lose—account of a battle, except for the last sentence. What does, “the woods devoured more people that day than the sword devoured,” mean?

The Hebrew word that’s translated as, “devoured” (אכל, a-khal) is the normal word for “eat.” That is, it doesn’t mean killed, it means consumed.

Thus, this isn’t about animated trees like in The Lord of the Rings, nor about people tripping over logs while running and doing fatal face plants. It could refer to people who got lost in the woods never to be seen again, but that can’t explain over ten thousand lost.

More likely, it’s a euphemism for what mattered most in the battle. Absalom had a much larger army. In an open field, they would surely win, but trees change the battlespace. Skill becomes critical. The larger army can’t bring overwhelming numbers to bear in a single location, and no one can see very far.

The army that gets there first can hide and wait. That’s huge.

While the text doesn’t say that David’s army got there first, that had to be the case. They were first across the Jordan, and then they were not the pursuers; they were being pursued. The pursuers have to go where the pursued are.

David’s army got to choose the battleground. They picked the woods and got ready.

He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious. — Sun Tzu

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These weekday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay. Saturdays' by Matt Richardson. Subscribe here:

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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Mike Slay

As a mathematician, inventor, and ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, Mike Slay brings an analytical, conversational, and even whimsical approach to the daily study of God's Word.

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