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Sword and Spear Part 1: Motifs in Samuel

Sword and Spear: Motifs in Samuel

sword and spear
Sword and spear is an important motif in 1&2 Samuel.

The sword and spear motif in Samuel emphasizes a key theological teaching of this book. The use of this motif in Samuel ranges from a proclamation of trust in God’s power to deliver, to a rejection of that trust. Since Samuel is about the establishment of the monarchy in Israel, this idea is at the heart of the book. Will people trust in God’s ability or in their own? What is the source of true power? Is it found in human strength and ingenuity, or in trusting in a power (i.e., God) greater than one’s own?

Occurrences of Sword or Spear in Samuel

The use of both words together, as in the expression, “sword and spear,” occurs only 5 times in Samuel (1 Sam. 13:19, 22; 17:45, 47; 21:8). However, by themselves, these words are prevalent throughout the book. Including the five passages where they occur together, the word “sword” occurs 38 times (24 in 1 Samuel and 14 in 2 Samuel), while the word “spear” occurs 29 times (20 in 1 Samuel and 9 in 2 Samuel). Because of the significance of this motif, and the number of occurrences, I will divide my treatment into two posts. In this post we will look at those passages in 1&2 Samuel that speak of the sword. In the next post, we will look at the motif of the spear.

Sword and Spear: David’s Confrontation with Goliath

sword and spear
Using Goliath’s own sword, David finishes the victory achieved by a sling and a stone.

The theological significance of these weapons is highlighted in David’s battle with Goliath. The story emphasizes how well Goliath is prepared for battle, at least humanly speaking, by giving an inventory of his armor and weaponry (1 Sam. 17:4-7–see my posts here and here). Saul attempts to clothe David similarly by giving him his armor and his “sword” (1 Sam. 17:38-39). David rejects these items and chooses instead a sling and 5 smooth stones. When Goliath sees David, he disdains him as an unworthy competitor. David’s response, which is now classic, highlights our motif. He replies to Goliath, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel whom you have defied” (1 Sam. 17:45). In this first statement, David highlights the weaponry of Goliath. As he concludes his speech, David again uses our key words: “…the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s and He will give you into our hand” (1 Sam. 17:47).

David’s victory demonstrates the truth of his words. The point is unmistakeable. No amount of human technology or strength can overcome one who allows the Lord to do his/her fighting for him/her. This same theology is announced in Psalm 20:7 when the psalmist (David) says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” This is an important theme in the warfare of the Old Testament. It is emphasized in such stories as the parting of the Reed (or Red) Sea and the tumbling down of the walls of Jericho. David’s statement in 1 Samuel 17:47 sets the standard by which every other occurrence of the words sword and spear should be measured in 1&2 Samuel.

Use of “Sword”: The Big Picture in Samuel

When surveying the overall usage of these words in Samuel, there are several ways in which they could be categorized (the same is true of other motifs in this series). I have broken the use of the sword into 6 categories below. The number of occurrences are in parentheses. There is, of necessity, some overlap of categories.

  1. People’s relationship to the sword–Samuel (1), Jonathan (2), Saul (4), Saul’s armor-bearer (2), Doeg (2), David (15), Joab (1), and Absalom (1).
  2. Israelites killing enemies–Philistines, and Amalekites (5 occurrences)
  3. Enemies killing Israelites–Philistines, Doeg, David/Ammonites, Absalom (5 occurrences–the last 3 would, also fit category 1 as well).
  4. Israelites killing Israelites–(8 occurrences–more overlap here).
  5. Being powerless, trusting in the Lord, or a lack of trusting in the Lord (5 occurrences).
  6. A reference to the military (1 occurrence–“men who draw the sword”).

I will take up each of these categories below. Group 1 involves the most lengthy treatment. I will then group together categories 2-4. Since there is only 1 occurrence of category 6 and since it has an obvious meaning, I will not discuss it. That leaves category 5 as the final category I will examine.

sword and spear
Ancient Near Eastern sword.

People’s Relationship to the Sword


King David
David is associated with the sword more than any other person in Samuel.

By viewing the occurrences in this way, one thing which is immediately clear is that David is associated with the sword more than any other person in Samuel–a total of 15 times! Not all of these occurrences, however, are negative. For example, when David says, “the Lord doesn’t save by sword or spear,” or when the text says, “there was not a sword in David’s hand” (1 Sam. 17:50), these are obviously positive statements about David’s relationship to the sword. Of the 15 times David is associated with the sword, however, only 4 are in a positive context (all are in 1 Sam. 17–see vv. 45, 47, 50, 51). When David fled from Saul, he went to the high priest Ahimelech and asked, “Then have you not here a spear or a sword at hand?” (1 Sam. 21:8). Ironically he is given the sword of Goliath (1 Sam. 21:9)! This request for a “spear or sword,” along with the slaughter of the priests in the next chapter (1 Sam. 22), demonstrates that David has allowed his fear, rather than his faith to guide him. Later when David is insulted by the no-good Nabal, it is revenge that associates him with the sword. In fact, we find this association 3 times in one verse: “And David said to his men, ‘Every man strap on his sword!’ And every man of them strapped on his sword. David also strapped on his sword” (1 Sam. 25:13). Although the wise Abigail prevents him from shedding innocent blood on this occasion, the opposite is true in his murder of Uriah the Hittite. When the prophet Nathan unveils David’s sin, he states, “You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house” (2 Sam. 12:9-10). This is a sad ending for the man who declared, “The Lord saves not with sword and spear.”


Saul falls on sword
Saul’s own sword brings his life to an end.

Sometimes the sword has a positive association in spite of the fact that people are killed. For example, Saul is commanded to destroy the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:3). Therefore, when we are informed that he “devoted to destruction all of the people with the edge of the sword” (1 Sam. 15:8), this is in fulfillment to the Lord’s command. Of course, Saul wasn’t totally obedient, so in the same story we have Samuel hacking king Agag to pieces with the sword (1 Sam. 15:33). As chilling as this scene is to us, not only is it in fulfillment of God’s command (although perhaps excessive on Samuel’s part!), Samuel’s words demonstrate that Agag had been guilty of using his sword in a similar manner. David also eulogizes Saul and his sword when he sings, “From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty” (2 Sam. 1:22). This too is presented in the positive light of Saul killing the enemies of Israel. Unfortunately, Saul didn’t trust that the Lord could use him to defeat Goliath. His trust in weaponry rather than in God is made clear when he attempts to clothe David in his armor and give him his sword (1 Sam. 17:39).  The final appearance of Saul’s sword is ironically in his death scene.  With the Philistines following hard after him, Saul meets his ultimate demise at his own hand by falling on his sword (1 Sam. 31:4). This is fitting for one who trusted in sword and spear more than in the Lord. It is also a fitting end for one who used his servant Doeg the Edomite to slaughter the priests of the Lord with the sword (1 Sam. 22:19). In one sense, Saul’s sin is similar to David’s who used the sword of the Ammonites to kill Uriah. The difference–and it’s a major one–is that Saul slaughters a whole town of faithful followers who were holy to the Lord!

Joab and Absalom

Joab and Absalom
Joab and Absalom

It is surprising that the motif of sword and spear is not connected more frequently with Joab and Absalom, the worst villains in 2 Samuel (see my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel for an evaluation of their character. See links below.). Only in the murder of Amasa, is Joab’s sword mentioned (2 Sam. 20:8). It is clear that Joab uses the same method on the unsuspecting Abner (2 Sam. 3:27), but his sword is not mentioned. David’s reaction, however, involves a curse on the house of Joab that includes those who “fall by the sword” (2 Sam. 3:29). As for Absalom, the only mention of a sword is connected to David’s fear that if he stays in Jerusalem, Absalom will strike the city with the edge of the sword (2 Sam. 15:14). Perhaps the lack of connection between Absalom and the sword is because he is all show and no substance.

Saul’s Armor-Bearer and Jonathan

Sword and spear--Jonathan
Jonathan and his armor-bearer defeat the Philistines.

There are two more individuals connected with the sword. Both are in 1 Samuel and both are, for the most part, positive associations. I will mention the last first. Saul’s armor-bearer is commanded by Saul to draw his sword and kill him. To the armor-bearer’s credit, he is afraid to lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed. As a result, Saul falls on his own sword (1 Sam. 31:4). Once the amor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell on his own sword. We might view this action negatively, as a suicide, but I believe the intent of the text is to demonstrate the loyalty of Saul’s armor-bearer. He was afraid to lift his sword and kill his master, but he was not afraid of death itself. Finally, there are two passages that associate Jonathan with the sword. The first is 1 Samuel 13:22. After noting that none of the people of Israel had sword or spear (1 Sam. 13:19), the text tells us that both Saul and Jonathan did. In light of the later text in 1 Samuel 17:45, 47, this could be viewed as a negative statement. Indeed, regarding Saul’s sword, 1 Samuel 17:39, does imply that Saul trusts his weapon more than God. The same, however, is not true of Jonathan. After noting that Jonathan had both sword and spear, the story continues by showing that Jonathan demonstrated great faith in God by going against the enemy even though he was greatly outnumbered (1 Sam. 14:6-14). Therefore, although Jonathan possessed sword and spear, his faith was in the Lord. The other occurrence of the sword in connection with Jonathan is when he surrenders his sword as a gift to David (1 Sam. 18:4). Jonathan’s surrender of his sword, as well as other royal items, is a sign of his friendship and covenant with David. Within the larger context of Samuel, it is also a sign of Jonathan’s acknowledgement of David’s future kingship (see 1 Sam. 23:17).

Israel and Its Enemies

An obvious usage of the sword motif involves Israel and its enemies. There are 5 occurrences of Israel’s enemies being struck with the sword. Some of these instances involve individuals we have already looked at above. These include Samuel striking Agag (1 Sam. 15:33), and David eulogizing the sword of Saul which did not return empty against his enemies (2 Sam. 1:22). A third occurrence involves one of David’s mighty men, Eleazar, striking the Philistines. The text says he fought so long and so hard that his hand clung to the sword (2 Sam. 23:10)! When Saul is commanded to utterly destroy the Amalekites, we are told that he (and the people) utterly destroyed Amalek with the edge of the sword (1 Sam. 15:8). In an unusual twist (although this phenomenon is seen elsewhere in Scripture), the Philistines turn their swords upon themselves in the panic and confusion of battle (1 Sam. 14:20). Although other battles and wars against other enemies are recorded in Samuel (e.g., 2 Sam. 8), the sword, as a weapon that defeats Israel’s enemies, is only mentioned in battles against the Philistines and Amalekites.

sword and spear
Saul defeats Amalek

Of course the books of Samuel also mention enemies slaying Israelites with the sword. Twice we are told that Doeg the Edomite slaughtered the priests of the Lord and the town of Nob with the edge of the sword (1 Sam. 22:19). 2 Samuel 1:12 reports the mourning of David and his men because Saul, his sons, and Israel had fallen by the sword at the hands of the Philistines. A fourth occurrence is a bit obscure. This involves David’s curse on the house of Joab that there would be those who would fall by the sword (2 Sam. 3:29). Presumably David means by an enemy’s sword, although this is not specified. Finally, David’s killing of Uriah by the sword, can also be put into this category. Nathan points out that he did it with “the sword of the Ammonites” (2 Sam. 12:9).

The saddest use of this motif are those passages which speak of fellow Israelites killing one another by the sword. The most prevalent occurrences of this motif  (4 out of 8) are found in the stories of the two civil wars recorded in 2 Samuel. In 2 Samuel 2:16 we have the infamous contest in which 12 from Israel are pitted against 12 from Judah and all fall dead as each stabs the other with their sword. This precipitates a battle which leads to Abner’s pleas to Joab at the end of the day, “Shall the sword devour forever?” (2 Sam. 2:26). In the battle triggered by Absalom’s rebellion, the narrator tells us that “the forest devoured more people that day than the sword” (2 Sam. 18:8). It is also within the context of Absalom’s rebellion that David flees Jerusalem because he fears Absalom will strike it with the edge of the sword (2 Sam. 15:14–see comments above). A particular expression used in 3 instances where Israelites kill Israelites is “the sword devours.” We have already looked at 2 of these (2 Sam. 2:26; 18:8). The third instance is, perhaps, the most disturbing of all. After David is informed of Uriah’s death, he callously replies, “The sword devours one as well as another” (2 Sam. 11:25).

When we look back over this survey of the sword motif of Israel versus its enemies, it seems that Israel comes out the worst. There are only 5 passages which speak of Israelites striking their enemy with the sword, whereas there are 13 passages which speak of Israel’s enemies striking them (5 times), or fellow-Israelites striking each other with the sword (8 times). Israel actually uses the sword against itself more (8 times), than against its enemies (5 times). A sad commentary indeed!

Sword and Spear: Powerlessness and Trusting in the Lord

Sword and spear
David obtains the sword of Goliath from Ahimelech, the High Priest.

Our final category of the sword motif involves all of the passages that mention sword and spear. As noted above, there are 5 verses that use both words. These passages communicate one of two themes. 1) The theme of powerlessness; or 2) the theme of trusting/not trusting in the Lord. These two themes are not necessarily at odds with each other, although they can be.

The first occurrence of the sword and spear motif occurs in 1 Samuel 13:19, 22. The purpose in this passage is to emphasize the powerlessness of Israel. Humanly speaking, they are outmatched by their foes the Philistines who have a monopoly on blacksmiths and weapons. Only Saul and Jonathan are said to have sword and spear. The people have only farming implements, and they must even go to the Philistines to have them sharpened! Although the verses emphasize the powerlessness of Israel militarily (also emphasized by the fact that they are outnumbered and surrounded), the verses set us up for the Israelite victory that occurs in 1 Samuel 14. This victory is achieved by the Lord acting through the faith of Jonathan and his armor-bearer. The point of the story then, is to emphasize that Israel (and the reader) should not trust in physical weapons, or fear the technological and numerical advantages of the enemy. Rather, trust in the Lord can overcome any disadvantage. This is a common theme in Scripture and a very common theme in the battles recorded in the Old Testament (see comments above).

The next occurrence of the sword and spear motif is found in 1 Samuel 17:45, 47, in the story of David’s defeat of Goliath. We have already looked at these verses above. Here, I will simply note again that these verses establish the meaning of the motif. David’s words teach that the bottom line is trust in the Lord. This brings us to the final passage that uses both of these words. In 1 Samuel 21:8, David is fleeing from Saul. He comes to the High Priest, Ahimelech, at Nob, requesting food and weapons. I have already noted above that David’s request for a “spear or a sword,” and his taking of the sword of Goliath demonstrate a lack of faith in this context. The man who boldly faced Goliath without a sword or spear, now feels the need to take the sword of Goliath to protect himself in his flight from Saul. In one sense, no one can condemn David for his desire to have a sword for protection. If any of us were in a similar circumstance, we would probably want the same. The point, however, is that the inspired author is clearly making the point that David’s faith has wavered and he is headed in a precarious direction. This is further confirmed by his flight to Achish King of Gath, where David’s life is endangered (1 Sam. 21:10-15).

In our next post, we will continue our look at the sword and spear motif in Samuel by focusing on the use of the spear. Until then, try not to cross swords with anyone!

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