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by Al Maxey

Issue #842 -- March 24, 2022
A man of courage never endures an insult;
an honorable man never offers one.

Publius Syrus [85-43 B.C.]

Half-Shaved and Half-Naked
Assaulting King David's Ambassadors

Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) was a member of British nobility (an earl), a diplomat, a cabinet minister during the reigns of George I and II, and an accomplished writer. In one of his many letters written to his son, he observed, "There is nothing that people bear more impatiently, or forgive less, than contempt; and an injury is much sooner forgotten than an insult." The Polish born German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who was also a leading figure in the study of psychology, once observed, "Hatred comes from the heart; contempt from the head; and neither feeling is quite within our control" [Psychological Observations: Studies in Pessimism]. Each of us in our lives have almost assuredly been viewed with contempt by others for one reason or another, just as each of us have most likely held another in contempt on occasion. Such feelings quite easily lend themselves to attitudes and actions designed to both insult and injure those whom we regard contemptuously.

Our human nature, fallen as it is from the divine ideal, far too frequently suspects the worst of others, and far too often belittles them as a result. We find a powerful illustration of this in the strange story recorded in 2 Samuel 10:1-5. To fully grasp the meaning of this story, we need to first establish the context of it. King David knew firsthand how it felt to be held in contempt by others. King Saul more than once displayed such feelings toward him. David also knew what it felt like to have someone stand up for him during such stressful times. Apparently there was a time when David was experiencing harm at the hands of another (perhaps Saul), and Nahash, the king of the Ammonites, "showed kindness to me" (2 Samuel 10:2). "It may be that during the feud between Saul and David, he (king Nahash), through enmity to the former, was kind and hospitable to David" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 442]. There is no indication in Scripture as to the nature of this act of kindness, for "no record of it exists save in the memory of David" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 4, p. 254]. Indeed, "had not this verse 2 been written, we might never have known that the pagan Nahash had shown any kindness at all to the Lord's anointed. ... Many kindly deeds are done of which history takes no note, and which in the hurry and strife of life are lost to sight and mind. There is more good in the world than is tabulated" [ibid].

King David was feeling generous at this point in his reign, and he sought to extend kindness to certain individuals. In 2 Samuel 9:1, David asks, "Is there yet anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan's sake?" As it turned out, there was such a person left. "There is still a son of Jonathan who is crippled in both feet" (vs. 3). His name was Mephibosheth, and the remainder of chapter 9 shows the acts of kindness David extended to him, one of which was, "he ate at the king's table regularly" (vs. 13). But David's opportunities to show kindness were not yet over. "Now it happened afterwards that the king of the Ammonites died, and Hanun his son became king in his place" (2 Samuel 10:1). The deceased king was Nahash. "Then David said, 'I will show kindness to Hanun the son of Nahash, just as his father showed kindness to me.' So, David sent some of his servants to console him concerning his father" (vs. 2). This was an act that displayed the compassionate and caring side of David's spirit. "The means chosen by David to show kindness to his deceased ally's son is sending a delegation to 'express his sympathy'" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 922]. This is a common practice among the leaders of differing nations even to this day when a head of state dies.

Sadly, "it is sometimes the misfortune of the best conduct to be misjudged. David's conduct was pure in motive, correct in form, and beneficial in tendency; yet it was regarded with suspicion, and repaid by the most malicious insult" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 4, p. 255]. Matthew Henry (1662-1714) notes, "There is nothing so well-meant but what it may be ill-interpreted. Men of the greatest honor and virtue must not think it strange if they be thus misrepresented" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. When David's delegation "came to the land of the Ammonites, the princes of the Ammonites said to Hanun their lord, 'Do you think that David is honoring your father because he has sent consolers to you? Has David not sent his servants to you in order to search the city, to spy it out and overthrow it?" (2 Samuel 10:2b-3). Tragically, the son of Nahash listened to his advisers. "The son had inherited his father's throne but not his spirit. He was misled by foolish advisers to offer a gross insult, not only to the ambassadors, but to the king and nation whom they represented" [Dr. F. B. Meyer, A Devotional Commentary on the Entire Bible, e-Sword]. "When men allow an ill-informed mind to be swayed by a malicious spirit, there is no telling to what lengths they may go in sin" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 4, p. 255]. "Accepting the assessment of his men, Hanun decides to refuse David's cordial overtures and to humiliate David's messengers" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 922].

"So Hanun took David's servants and shaved off half of their beards, and cut off their garments in the middle as far as their hips, and sent them away" (2 Samuel 10:4). The Living Bible reads, "So Hanun took David's men and shaved off half their beards and cut their robes off at the buttocks and sent them home half naked." Some translations say they cut the robes so that "their buttocks were exposed." "It is little to the honor of human nature that there are not only insults which men can hurl at one another in moments of passion and defiance, but there are studied insults which are elaborated in cold blood and inflicted with a sense of enjoyment by the cruel men who have fashioned new modes of social humiliation" [The Biblical Illustrator, e-Sword]. The humiliation of David's ambassadors consisted of two cruel acts: shaving off half the beard on their faces and cutting off half the garment that was covering their bodies. Neither act, presumably, was particularly painful, at least not physically; the "pain" was more emotional: they were shamed, embarrassed, humiliated. Such shaming was also intended, by extension, for King David and the nation of Israel. "In the eyes of all civilized nations, the persons of ambassadors were held sacred, and any affront or injury to them was counted an odious crime" [ibid]. Further, "it is always a serious thing to reject overtures of kindness. Kindness is too rare a gem to be trampled underfoot" [ibid]. This wicked, godless action against these men "was not a private and personal indignity put on these ambassadors, but an open and national insult offered to their king and people by King Hanun and his court" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 4, p. 258].

Cutting the Garment

The goal of these wicked men was to make these representatives of King David look ridiculous and contemptible in the eyes of the public. Cutting off their garment at the middle, thus exposing their buttocks, and then forcing them to enter the streets of the city in this condition was cruel to the extreme. John Wesley (1703-1791), in his remarks about this event, wrote, "the Israelites wore no breeches, and so their nakedness was hereby uncovered." "As the ancient Israelites wore no trousers, the lower half of the body was quite exposed" [Drs. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 2, pt. 2, p. 375]. "Forced exposure of the buttocks was a shameful practice inflicted on prisoners of war" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 923]. Compounding "the shame of their nakedness" was that this cutting off of their garment exposed to public view "their circumcision, so derided by the heathen" [Dr. David Guzik, Enduring Word Bible Commentary, e-Sword]. With this practice in mind, notice the later prophecy of Isaiah, and how this prophet was commanded to act it out. God told Isaiah to remove his sackcloth from his hips and the shoes from his feet, "and Isaiah did so, going naked and barefoot. And the Lord said, 'Even as My servant Isaiah has gone naked and barefoot three years as a sign and token against Egypt and Cush, so the king of Assyria will lead away the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Cush, young and old, naked and barefoot with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt'" (Isaiah 20:2-4). "King Hanun's humiliation of David's men was, in effect, a declaration of war. ... Since garments often reflected status, power, or identity, the insult of cutting the ambassadors' clothes at their hips was a further humiliation to David's men" [Archaeological Study Bible, p. 454].

Shaving the Beard

As personally humiliating as the cutting off of the garment of these men was, a cutting designed specifically to expose their nakedness to the public, thus shaming them, the Israelites of that time would have viewed the cutting of one's beard as being a far greater offence. A garment could be changed, and I'm sure these men did so as quickly as they were able to acquire one. Cutting one's beard, however, would take time to repair (it would need to grow back). It was for this reason that David, when he realized what had been done to his ambassadors, ordered them to "stay at Jericho until your beards grow, and then return" (2 Samuel 10:5). No mention was made by David of the cut garments (they undoubtedly had already changed out of them), for it was the damage to the beard that constituted the greater and more shameful act against these men. Such cutting of the beard was even forbidden by God in Leviticus 19:27, "You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads, nor harm the edges of your beard." The priests were commanded, "You shall not make any baldness on your heads, nor shave off the edges of your beards, nor make any cuts in your flesh" (Leviticus 21:5). The beard symbolized many things to the Israelites. "The beard was the mark of his being a free man, and to cut it off on one side was not merely an insult to David's ambassadors, but was to treat them as slaves" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 4 - II Samuel, p. 252]. To cut off or damage in any way the beard of another man was an act of extreme disrespect; it was to view him as a common slave: a piece of property to manhandle as one pleased. Further, to shave half of one's beard only added insult to injury. "It was the greatest insult that could have been offered to the ambassadors, and through them to David their king. It was an indignity quite equal to flogging and branding, and many men of that time and place would rather die than have their beard shaved off" [Drs. Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 2, pt. 2, p. 375].

"The possession of a beard was a sign of maturity among all the Semitic peoples of the ancient Near East, and in the Jewish view the beard was the man's glory. To cut it off was to render him less than a man" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1, p. 495-496]. Anointing the head and beard were even regarded at times as a sacred religious act (Psalm 133:2). "The customary Hebrew word for beard (zaqan) was the term for 'elder' or 'old man'" [The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 442]. "The beard was cherished as the badge of manly dignity. Its neglect was an outward sign of mental aberration" [Davis Dictionary of the Bible, p. 79]. King Hanun of the Ammonites undoubtedly understood quite well the message being sent to David when he shaved off half the beards of David's ambassadors and cut their garments to the waist exposing their nakedness. To the Israelites, and to King David, this was an act of war! Their insult against Israel's king, and against the nation itself, required a powerful response. Hanun realized this, so he made an alliance with the Arameans, thus increasing the size of his army. David, in turn, gathered his own fighting forces, readying them for war. The remainder of 2 Samuel 10 describes the battles that occurred, in which the army of Israel defeated the armies of both these nations, killing tens of thousands of the enemy on the battlefield. Thus, the humiliation of David's ambassadors had been avenged.

All of this could have been easily avoided if King Hanun had simply not listened to his advisors, and had instead accepted David's kind and gracious message of sympathy to this neighboring king who had just lost his father. "David's message to Hanun was another emanation of a kindly heart. It is a happy thing for any country when its rulers and men of influence are ever on the watch for opportunities to strengthen the spirit of friendship. It is a happy thing in the Church when the leaders of different sections are more disposed to measures that conciliate and heal than to measures that alienate and divide. In family life, and wherever men of different views and different tempers meet, this peace-loving spirit is of great price. Men that like fighting, and that are ever disposed to taunt, to irritate, to divide, are the nuisances of society" [The Biblical Illustrator, e-Sword]. The narrative found in 2 Samuel 10 is a powerful testimony to what happens when acts of kindness are met with acts designed to humiliate, and when a person (or nation, or religious group) assigns wicked motives to the kind intentions of others. Let's be honest with ourselves: too much of the latter, and too little of the former, is daily evidenced in the world about us (and, sadly, within the church as well). This story is a challenge to each of us to rise above our human nature, and to seek out opportunities to be kind to one another, for failing to do so only leads to deadly conflict.


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Readers' Reflections
NOTE: Differing views and understandings are always welcome here,
yet they do not necessarily reflect my own views and understandings.
They're opportunities for readers to voice what is on their hearts, with
a view toward greater dialogue among disciples with a Berean spirit.

From a Ph.D. in Kentucky:

Dear Al, I know you have written extensively about the specificity vs. silence paradigm in your Reflections as it relates to acceptable music. I would, however, greatly appreciate your thoughts (even if just very briefly) on the argument that there are only three kinds of music: instrumental, vocal, and mixed; and the fact that God specified vocal (singing), thus excluding both instrumental and mixed as being acceptable. I thought it was a novel argument. I would love your thoughts. I have enormous respect for your knowledge and wisdom. Thanks for any help you can give.

From a Reader in Alaska:

Dear Al, I would appreciate a copy of the article titled "The Problem with Grace" which you mentioned in the Addendum of your latest Reflections article. Thank you for your continued scholarship. Your articles have proven beneficial so many times as I do research into various subjects.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Brother Al, I would like a copy of the recently referenced article "The Problem with Grace." Thank you very much for what you do. I truly enjoy and benefit greatly from your articles.

From a Reader in Wyoming:

Al, thank you for your last Reflections on forgiveness (Issue #841). Oh, do we need that understanding as we discern good and evil in our everyday walk. May God continue to bless your efforts. Also, please send me a copy of the article "The Problem with Grace." Thanks!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, I just read your new article "Justified Refusal of Forgiveness: Do Believers Have the Right to Forgive Evil and Unrepentant Evildoers?" (Reflections #841). I do not know how you are able to keep doing such great work with such complicated issues!! Well-done, brother!!

From a Reader in Wyoming:

Brother Al, may I boast in the Lord for you?!! "Seeking to Limit Forgiveness: Missing the Messiah's Meaning in the Moral Imperative of Matthew 18:22" (Reflections #840) was an Awesome, Moving, and Humbling study! A most needed message for the times!! Thank You!!

From a Reader in California:

Dear Bro. Al, you have once again taken a greatly misunderstood doctrine that is intended by God for our benefit, a doctrine that we have horribly misapplied so that it enslaves us, and you have clarified it for us!! Nowhere in the Bible is forgiveness applied to the transgression; rather, its application is only to the penitent transgressor. I believe the church's misguided tendencies to forgive both the transgression AND the transgressors has done great harm to the victims, to the point of forcing abused persons to keep themselves and their loved ones in dangerous situations, and then shunning these victims when they choose the path of safety and protection. Justification is for people, not actions. Until the Body of Christ gets this right, we are going to continue to restore the unrepentant, accept evil without consequences, and harm the victims that "true religion" requires us to protect.

From a Missionary to Peru:

Finally, I've heard somebody (you) who believes as I do! I remember watching a clip of the trial of the serial killer Dennis Rader. One of the victim's family members stood up and said, "I forgive you" -- words spoken to an unrepentant man who had committed unspeakable crimes. That comment by this person was unbiblical and personally offensive. What she says doesn't matter, for if he doesn't repent then he will face eternal destruction. Her forgiveness of him doesn't change his eternal fate. The horror of those crimes he committed, and the unspeakable suffering of adults and children at his hands, made my blood boil. Where is the righteous anger against such wickedness?! Even our Lord made a whip and drove the wicked out of the Temple. As I read your article, Al, it was refreshing to hear Truth on a much-abused subject, for too many far too often blame the victim more than the abuser, chaining up these victims with false guilt. Yes, one can have a spirit free of bitterness, but the only one who can grant forgiveness is God Himself. Also, I would be much obliged if you would send me the article by the brother titled "The Problem with Grace." Every blessing to you, Al.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I struggle with forgiveness on all fronts, for when I believe that I have forgiven others I find that as time passes, I still retain the memory of what they did (it is not forgotten, like what happens when God forgives me). After reading both of your most recent Reflections on this topic, I am currently at a point where the definition of forgiveness is changing in my mind; where actual "forgiveness" might be more of an intention of my heart not to treat others in a revengeful or hateful manner. Loving others and willing good for others, regardless of who they are or what they have done (whether that lies within our "right" to forgive or not), just might be the action of our hearts that leads to the limitless forgiveness from our Father. Praying for the ultimate salvation of someone, regardless of who they are now or what they do or stand for now, appears to be the forgiveness (freeing of our hearts) we can offer, and possibly should offer, under all circumstances. Love you, brother.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Al, it is interesting that your latest issue of Reflections ("Justified Refusal of Forgiveness: Do Believers Have the Right to Forgive Evil and Unrepentant Evildoers?") comes on the coattails of me completing Dr. N. T. Wright's latest book titled "Evil and the Justice of God." I'm looking for resources that explain issues related to some of the things you wrote about in your latest article; specifically, how to address the fact that the God of the OT killed off so many people, including children. My minister recommended a couple of books: "Is God a Moral Monster?" and "God Behaving Badly." I am ordering those today. He said that these are two good, healthy books on a level that can be understood without having to read scholarly work, but I am also looking for some scholarly resources, if anything jumps out at you. Don't ask me to sum up N. T. Wright's conclusions, because that's impossible. Although profoundly interesting, his book really didn't supply exactly what I'm looking for, as my faith is really struggling with this issue. As always, brother, your writings have assisted me beyond description! I have not missed an article since I started following you! I go way back with your writings. In fact, if I ever get out that way, expect a visit. Soldier on, brother! (PS - I would also like to have a copy of the article titled "The Problem with Grace").

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