Sword and Spear Part 2: Motifs in Samuel

Sword and Spear Part 2: Motifs in Samuel

sword and spear
The motif of the spear is mostly negative, suggesting a trust in weapons and human strength.

In my previous post I introduced the sword and spear motif in Samuel (see here for Part 1). There I noted that this motif “…ranges from a proclamation of trust in God’s power to deliver, to a rejection of that trust.” In 2 places where the words “sword and spear” appear together, the motif is a neutral one, speaking of powerlessness (1 Sam. 13:19, 22). It is the stories that follow which define whether these verses are interpreted positively or negatively (see below). In two other occurrences the motif is positive suggesting trust in the Lord (1 Sam. 17:45, 47). In the fifth occurrence, the motif is negative, suggesting David’s lack of faith (1 Sam. 21:8). In Part 1 we noticed that when the word “sword” appears by itself, the motif has a mixture of positive and negative associations. As we examine the usages of the spear motif, we will see a similar mixture, but the negative aspects are more prevalent. Including the 5 passages that mention both sword and spear, the spear motif occurs a total of 29 times in the books of Samuel (20 in 1 Samuel and 9 in 2 Samuel). Perhaps the best, and most insightful way to examine the spear motif is to notice who it is associated with. The breakdown is as follows:

  1. Goliath (5 occurrences–1 Sam. 17:7 [2x], 45, 47; 2 Sam. 21:19)
  2. Saul (16 occurrences–1 Sam. 13:19, 22; 18:10, 11; 19:9, 10 [2x}; 20:33; 22:6; 26:7, 8, 11, 12, 16, 22; 2 Sam. 1:6)
  3. David (1 occurrence–1 Sam. 21:8–this passage was considered in Part 1 and so will not be covered here)
  4. Abner (2 occurrences, both in 2 Sam. 2:23)
  5. David’s mighty men (4 occurrences)
    • Abishai (2 Sam. 23:18)
    • Benaiah (2 Sam. 23:21 [3x])
  6. Unrighteous ruler(s) (1 occurrence–2 Sam. 23:7)

This breakdown demonstrates that the overwhelming number of occurrences of the spear motif (16 out of 29) are related to Saul. Below we will examine the significance of this, as well as its occurrence with other individuals.

Goliath’s Spear

sword and spear
Goliath’s trust is in his sword and spear. David’s is in the Lord.

One of the intimidating features of Goliath’s description in 1 Samuel 17:4-7 is his spear. The writer spends time describing its shaft (like a weaver’s beam), and the weight of its head (600 shekels = 15 lbs. or 6.8 kg.). As noted in the previous post, one of the points of the story is Goliath’s trust in his weaponry, while David’s trust is in the Lord. This point is driven home when Goliath’s spear is mentioned two more times in the account (1 Sam. 17:45, 47). Goliath’s spear is mentioned one final time in the perplexing passage which speaks of Elhanan killing him (2 Sam. 21:19). Its size, noted again in this passage, was clearly one of its distinguishing and well-remembered features. Yet it did Goliath no good, proving the truth of Hannah’s words in 1 Samuel 2:9 when she stated, “not by might shall a man prevail.”

Saul’s Spear

sword and spear
Saul’s spear is always at hand!

As noted above, the overwhelming number of occurrences of the spear motif in Samuel are associated with Saul. This association is sometimes seen as a symbol of his kingship (David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, NICOT, p. 479). If this means to communicate that Saul is a king like the nations (1 Sam. 8:5), then this observation is correct. The point is that Saul, like any worldly king, trusts in his spear more than he does in the Lord. This is emphasized in at least two ways. First, in the narrative immediately following the Goliath story, Saul hurls his spear twice at David (1 Sam. 18:10-11). Not only has the previous story declared that “the Lord does not save with sword and spear” (1 Sam. 17:47), but it is Saul’s jealousy concerning David’s victory over Goliath that prompts him to use it! Therefore, Saul shows himself to be cut out of the same cloth as Goliath. A second way in which this is demonstrated is that following the story of Goliath, Saul is never seen without his spear in hand or nearby. In fact, the next 5 verses that mention the spear involve Saul throwing it either at David (1 Sam. 18:10-11, 19:9-10) or his own son Jonathan (1 Sam. 20:33)!

sword and spear
David spares Saul’s life a second time.

Saul’s use of such weaponry also contrasts him with his son Jonathan. Recalling 1 Samuel 13:19, and 22 which introduces this motif, we are told there that only Jonathan and Saul had sword and spear. In our previous post, however, we have noted that Jonathan uses his sword in the context of trust in the Lord (1 Sam. 14:6-14). Furthermore, following the Goliath episode, Jonathan presents his sword to David as a gift (1 Sam. 18:4), whereas Saul presents his spear to David in a less supportive and friendly way (1 Sam. 18:10-11)! When Saul complains to his men that they are more loyal to David than to him, he does it with his spear in his hand (1 Sam. 22:6). This incident leads to the slaughter of Ahimelech and the priests of Nob. On one of the occasions when David has the opportunity to kill Saul, he chooses instead to take his water jug and spear (1 Sam. 26). With a sort of poetic justice, Abishai insists on using it to “pin” Saul to the ground (1 Sam. 26:8), the way Saul had attempted earlier to “pin” David to the wall (1 Sam. 18:11; 19:10). David refuses and insists only on taking it as evidence that they had been in the midst of the Saul’s camp. Saul’s spear is a major motif in this chapter, occurring six times (1 Sam. 26:7, 8, 11, 12, 16, 22). It reminds us that, given the chance, he would have used it against David, although David refuses to use it against him. It also demonstrates that, in spite of its presence by his head, it brings no protection for Saul, for the Lord is with David (1 Sam. 26:12). Once again we are reminded that “the Lord does not save with sword or spear.”

Given the prevalence of this motif in Saul’s story, one would almost expect Saul to die by the spear. If this were merely an imaginary story, this is surely what would have happened. But this is not what happened historically and so the inspired author records how he fell on his own sword (1 Sam. 31:4). This does not mean, however, that Saul’s spear is absent from the account of his death. In the retelling of Saul’s death by the Amalekite in 2 Samuel 1, he states that when he came upon Saul, Saul was “leaning on his spear” (2 Sam. 1:6). It can be demonstrated that the Amalekite’s account of Saul’s death is fabricated as it conflicts with the author’s version recorded in 1 Samuel 31:1-5. Nevertheless, the mention of both sword and spear in the accounts of Saul’s death are an ironic reminder to the reader that the man who trusted in his weapons, ultimately died by one of them. When we consider the negative connotations of Saul’s spear in the narrative, it is no wonder that in David’s eulogy of Saul and Jonathan, it is Saul’s sword which is mentioned in a favorable light (2 Sam. 1:22). After all, how could David praise the spear of Saul that had been lifted against him on so many occasions?!

The Motif’s Mixed Reviews in 2 Samuel

sword and spear
Abner kills Asahel

Having already commented on 2 Samuel 1:6 and 2 Samuel 21:19, we will consider the other 7 references to the spear in 2 Samuel. Two of these references occur in the story of Asahel’s pursuit of Abner. In fact, they are both found in the same verse (2 Sam. 2:23). During the battle between Judah and Israel, Asahel pursues Abner in an attempt to kill him (2 Sam. 2:18-23). Although the spear motif has been largely negative up to this point, and Abner himself is an unsavory character, the motif is more tragic than evil here. It is clear from the story that Abner does not wish to kill Asahel. He warns him several times. However, as the hot breath of Asahel breathes down Abner’s neck, he is forced to defend himself. But rather than use the tip of his spear, as would be customary, with a backward thrust, using the butt end of his spear, Abner brings Asahel’s pursuit to a deadly halt. Abner’s persistent warnings, and the use of the backend of his spear, protest his desire to use it against Asahel. Nonetheless, whether back end or front end, the spear proves just as deadly. Unfortunately for Abner, his reluctant use of the spear results in his death by the sword at the hands of Asahel’s brothers, Joab and Abishai (2 Sam. 3:27, 30). For more on this incident see my post, “Asahel Running Into Trouble” (see also my book Family Portraits for this story and an evaluation of Abner’s character–see link below).

David's mighty men
David’s mighty men

There are other ambiguous uses of the spear in 2 Samuel. These concern David’s mighty men. In 2 Samuel 23:18, the aforementioned Abishai is praised for wielding his spear against three hundred men and killing them. Although the context is definitely positive, we should recall that this is the same Abishai who wanted to “pin” Saul to the ground with his own spear (1 Sam. 26:8). Furthermore, this is the same man who contributed to the death of Abner and was ready and willing to kill whenever he thought the occasion called for it (e.g., 2 Sam. 16:9). Therefore, although we have a positive reference to the spear, it is wielded by yet another unsavory character (see Abner above). Another one of David’s mighty men, Benaiah, fights an Egyptian with a spear (2 Sam. 23:21). In the Egyptian’s hand, the spear is clearly a negative motif, but Benaiah is able to wrest it from the Egyptian and kill him. This heroic deed turns a negative situation into a positive one.

We conclude our examination of this motif by looking at David’s last words recorded in 2 Samuel 23:1-7. This poem is a bit obscure and hard to translate in places. However, one thing that is clear is that David is contrasting the just ruler (himself), with an unjust ruler/rulers. In the concluding line (v. 7) he says of such a one that he “arms himself with iron and the shaft of a spear.” One can’t help but think that within the larger context of Samuel this contrast recalls Saul.

Concluding Summary

An examination of the spear motif leads to the conclusion that it is largely a negative commentary of the use and abuse of human power. This negative picture is largely associated with Goliath and Saul, who are the primary personages of this motif. While this negative picture is tempered somewhat in 2 Samuel, its association with unsavory characters still casts a shadow over it.

When we step back and sum up the overall motif of sword and spear in Samuel, we must conclude that the main function of the motif is to warn people about trusting in their own strength and the severe consequences that oftentimes follow. Trusting in weaponry and military might is a mistake made throughout the ages including down to the present time. There are many examples throughout history that show the undermanned and the under-equipped sometimes come out on top. This motif is not about the underdog coming out on top, however. It is a declaration that trust in God is superior to any human power or weapon. However, using sword and spear is the way that nations always have and always will conduct business. That is until the words of the prophet Isaiah are finally realized: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isa. 4:2).

Until that day, the question for God’s people is to ask what this motif in Samuel teaches us. How should we respond to our enemies based on the teaching of Scripture? Jesus’s answer was to “turn the other cheek,” and to “do good to those who persecute you.” Sadly, the first reaction of some Christians today is to physically arm themselves against their foes. We forget that the weapons of our warfare are spiritual (Eph. 6:10-18; 2 Cor. 10:4). We don’t give God the chance to defeat whatever Goliaths may come our way because we are too busy arming ourselves with “sword and spear.” This is a tough message to hear and the conclusion is not always a popular one even with believers. Shouldn’t the innocent be protected? We should certainly do everything in our power, short of violence, to protect the innocent. The fact remains that the New Testament nowhere sanctions a believer taking up the sword and spear for personal protection, and certainly never for revenge. The government is the one who bears the sword (Rom. 13:4). A Christian serving in the military, or serving in a local police force is a different matter, since they are serving the government whose job it is to protect its citizens and administer justice.  As individual believers, it is easy to overlook this teaching in the books of Samuel, not to mention the clear teaching of Jesus and the apostles. Jesus may well have been referencing this motif in Samuel when he rebuked Peter in the garden and said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Christians do their best fighting on their knees, by returning good for evil, and by remembering that the real enemy is not flesh and blood.

For a more in depth study of the books of Samuel, purchase a copy of my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.

Family Portraits


8 thoughts on “Sword and Spear Part 2: Motifs in Samuel”

  1. Thank you for this insightful commentary on the sword and spear in Samuel. I thought it was interesting because it reminded me of a NakedBible podcast (205) with David Burnett called the sword and the servant. Mr. Burnett’s conclusion to what Luke (22:35-38) was leading his readers to understand was that when the apostles picked up the sword, they aligned themselves with Satan. Because they did not heed the warning from Jesus to stay awake and pray at the Mount of Olives, the apostles fell into temptation and took matters in their own hands. Mr. Burnett said that in Luke’s account the apostles were among the transgressors. Do you see some links between what you wrote and what Mr. Burnett talked about? I am so amazed that the more I study the Bible, the more I see it as (using the phrase of the Bible Project) a unified story that leads to Jesus. Thank you for all you do. I’ve learned so much from your podcast and website.

    1. Thank you for your kind response Christina. I am a big fan of Mike Heiser and all his websites and podcasts. I am not familiar with the particular NakedBible podcast you’re speaking of. I’ll have to check it out. Based on your summary, I would say that there are links between Burnett’s observations and mine. The teaching and example of Jesus and the apostles, as well as the message of sword and spear in Samuel certainly demonstrate that the believer is to put himself/herself in God’s hands. God is capable of delivering His people and if He chooses not to, He has His purposes. The statement “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” not only states that sometimes God’s purposes involve using His people’s witness sealed in their blood for the spread of the gospel, but the statement itself shows what the early church’s response toward violence was. Our sword is the sword of the Spirit and our armor is spiritual (Eph. 6:10-18). God bless!

      1. As I talked with my teen boys regarding spiritual weaponry, they said it’s one thing to sacrifice yourself but quite another not to protect someone you love. Do you feel there is a nuance to pick up a physical “sword” to protect someone else? Thank you for your insight. God bless you and your family.

        1. Hi Christina,
          Nice to hear from you again. Yes, this is a question I have struggled with as well. I will also say, although I might give an ideal answer, were I in the situation, it would be difficult to say how I might respond in the moment. I would say that if we have the chance to save a loved one without killing someone else, we should. In Acts 19:29-31 believers as well as some of the city officials save Paul from a dangerous situation. However, in the process they harm no one. We should bear in mind that in the example of Peter, when Jesus says “Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword,” Peter is actually trying to defend Jesus and Jesus doesn’t allow it. In fact, Jesus heals the person whom Peter harms. I have also run through the NT in my mind and cannot think of a single example where any believer ever harmed or was advised to harm someone who was threatening them or a loved one. On the contrary, we are called to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. As I said in the article, I know this is not a popular answer. This is especially true in America, even among believers. But the Bible often disagrees with our views. Our responsibility is to conform to the Word, not attempt to work our way around the Word and do what we want. Ultimate faith and trust in Jesus demands following Him even, and perhaps especially, in difficult circumstances. Thanks again for your questions. Hopefully this is a situation that we will not face. God only knows. May God bless you and your family.

          1. Thank you for walking with me through these difficult questions. During these chaotic and confusing times, more and more fellow believers are talking about arming themselves. It’s hard not to let fear settle in. It’s hard not to superimpose earth’s kingdom over God’s kingdom. I’m blessed by your encouragement and thankful that the Holy Spirit used you to point me back to His truth. May the Lord bless you and keep you! And may we bear His name well.

        2. I have just recently found Randy’s studies and they have been instructive and insightful, however I would have to be one of those who would choose to defend my family or innocents against violence if I was put in that situation. The incident with Peter and Malchus was different as Jesus did not need to be defended, thus his word I could ask my Father and he would send angels to protect me. I admit it is hard to know when to use force against someone who would harm you or an innocent. But nonetheless I think at times it is appropriate. Jesus told his disciples to pack a bag and knife to journey.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.