Here’s the background: The young King David had captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites and twice defeated the Philistines. Military engagements in other theaters had been successful too (2 Samuel 10).
Israel was at peace when David heard that King Nahash, of the Ammonites, had died. Remembering that King Nahash had shown him kindness in the past, David sent envoys to return the favor, delivering his condolences to Nahash’s son Hanan, who was now on the throne of Ammon.
But upon the envoys’ arrival the military commanders in Ammon were immediately suspicious of their mission, even though the envoys were peaceful and showed no signs that they had come to size up Ammon for later attack.
Nevertheless, the commanders “just had a feeling” that the envoys had sinister motives, and they shared those feelings with King Hanan.
Don’t you know, they said, that these men are really here to spy out the city and overthrow it? It was a groundless opinion but it registered like a firecracker with the king.
As a result, he had the envoys seized and each man’s beard shaved half off — a serious indignity in that culture. It would make them appear to their peers like clowns or worse.
The king also had their long robes cut off at the buttocks in order to produce further humiliation. In this half-shaved and scantily dressed condition they were sent on their way.
The word of their mistreatment got to David quickly, and he sent word to the envoys to wait at Jericho until their beards grew back.
At the same time, however, back in Ammon the commanders were having second thoughts. What if their actions had aroused David’s fury? Might he send his army to even the score? They began to make war plans just in case.
The Ammonites hired twenty thousand Syrian foot soldiers as well as the king of Maakah south of Ammon and a thousand of his men, and another thousand men from Tob to the north and east.
When David received this information he further escalated tensions by dispatching his general, Joab, with his army of battle-tested fighting men — perhaps as many as thirty thousand in number.
The battle was joined and became so extended that near the end of the ensuing war the Syrians even summoned troops from beyond the Euphrates River to come and engage.
Before it was over, David gathered all of Israel’s remaining manpower and he himself joined the battle.
He won, but the result was both tragic and gruesome. David’s forces had killed seven hundred of the Syrian charioteers and forty thousand foot soldiers.
How could such a bloody struggle develop out of an official gesture of sympathy and respect? The story is set in ancient times, with their gruesome military practices, to be sure, but we may draw a modern moral lesson.
To wit: It is words of suspicion and misunderstanding, not physical weapons, that initiate wars. Such words once uttered can take on a life of their own. A word spoken with haste can wound or seriously damage a relationship.
It all calls to mind the arresting words of Jesus: But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken (Matthew 12:36).
Photo credit: Zeev Barkan (via flickr.com)