The Art of War by the ancient Chinese warrior, Sun Tzu is one of those books you’re told you have to read if you’re in the military, in business or in any endeavour where you face tough competition. After watching a documentary on how modern battles have been won or lost in accordance with the book’s advice, I sat down with my Bible and had a look at how David fit in with Sun Tzu’s recommendations.
It’s worth acknowledging that this book is only one point of view on how to engage in warfare. I was very surprised that it does not contain any spiritual content, which is the real source of David’s success and which I have included below. What it does contain, is a lot of common sense: the kind that we all should know, but often have to be reminded of when the heat is on and fear levels rise.
The book is public domain and available free from a number of places. It’s a short read which also contains a lot of commentary and interpretation. You can get it from iBooks or Project Gutenberg. There are also many commercially available copies with commentaries.
He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
David adds a critical and effective dimension of spiritual wisdom and obedience to this.
a) 1 Samuel 23 David Protects the Town of Keilah
“One day news came to David that the Philistines were at Keilah stealing grain from the threshing floors. David asked the LORD, “Should I go and attack them?” “Yes, go and save Keilah,” the LORD told him.
But David’s men said, “We’re afraid even here in Judah. We certainly don’t want to go to Keilah to fight the whole Philistine army!”
So David asked the LORD again, and again the LORD replied, “Go down to Keilah, for I will help you conquer the Philistines.”
So David and his men went to Keilah. They slaughtered the Philistines and took all their livestock and rescued the people of Keilah.”
b) 1 Samuel 30:1-20, esp 7-9 “Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, “Please bring me the ephod.” So Abiathar brought the ephod to David. David inquired of the LORD, saying, “Shall I pursue this band? Shall I overtake them?” And He said to him, “Pursue, for you will surely overtake them, and you will surely rescue all.” So David went, he and the six hundred men who were with him, and came to the brook Besor, where those left behind remained.”
Then 18-20 “So David recovered all that the Amalekites had taken, and rescued his two wives. But nothing of theirs was missing, whether small or great, sons or daughters, spoil or anything that they had taken for themselves; David brought it all back. So David had captured all the sheep and the cattle which the people drove ahead of the other livestock, and they said, “This is David’s spoil.”
c) 2 Samuel 5:
“When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king of Israel, they mobilized all their forces to capture him. But David was told they were coming, so he went into the stronghold. The Philistines arrived and spread out across the valley of Rephaim. So David asked the LORD, “Should I go out to fight the Philistines? Will you hand them over to me?”
The LORD replied to David, “Yes, go ahead. I will certainly hand them over to you.”
So David went to Baal-perazim and defeated the Philistines there. “The LORD did it!” David exclaimed. “He burst through my enemies like a raging flood!” So he named that place Baal-perazim (which means “the Lord who bursts through”).”
He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout it’s ranks.
David cultivated the moral law by obedience to the Torah and acting in accordance with it’s commands. Isra’el was in a covenant relationship with the Lord.
2 Samuel 10: “When Joab saw that he would have to fight on both the front and the rear, he chose some of Israel’s elite troops and placed them under his personal command to fight the Arameans in the fields. He left the rest of the army under the command of his brother Abishai, who was to attack the Ammonites. “If the Arameans are too strong for me, then come over and help me,” Joab told his brother. “And if the Ammonites are too strong for you, I will come and help you. Be courageous! Let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. May the LORD’s will be done.”
If you wish to read further, Leviticus 26:1-12 speaks of the blessings for obedience for those in a covenant relationship with God, which includes victory over enemies.
Never besiege a walled city.
Sun Tzu believes that it’s a bad strategy as the General may become impatient and make mistakes. David seemed successful in doing this. In an earlier chapter, Joab has gone before him and set up the siege.
2 Samuel 12: “Meanwhile, Joab was fighting against Rabbah, the capital of Ammon, and he captured the royal fortifications. Joab sent messengers to tell David, “I have fought against Rabbah and captured its water supply. Now bring the rest of the army and capture the city. Otherwise, I will capture it and get credit for the victory.”
So David gathered the rest of the army and went to Rabbah, and he fought against it and captured it. David removed the crown from the king’s head, and it was placed on his own head. The crown was made of gold and set with gems, and it weighed seventy-five pounds. David took a vast amount of plunder from the city. He also made slaves of the people of Rabbah and forced them to labor with saws, iron picks, and iron axes, and to work in the brick kilns. That is how he dealt with the people of all the Ammonite towns. Then David and all the army returned to Jerusalem.”
The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.
2 Samuel 8 “After this, David defeated and subdued the Philistines by conquering Gath, their largest town.” He had no further issues with the Philistines until years later in 2 Samuel 21. This appears to be a twenty year gap.
An army shouldn’t be led by the sovereign / shouldn’t be hampered by a central authority.
According to Sun Tzu, kings should govern with humility and justice; but armies should be governed by opportunism and flexibility and they need to use lies and deception. “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” Like Napoleon, David was both liberator and ruler and despite Sun Tzu’s reservations, he has no trouble showing kindness and justice at home and being efficient in battle. “So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered justice and righteousness for all his people.” 2 Samuel 8:15 and 2 Samuel 3:36: “This pleased the people very much. In fact, everything the king did pleased them!” There are also many incidences where David’s kindness was evident in how he treated people who were of lessor status than he was.
– Abiathar, 1 Samuel 22:20-23
– Barzillai 2 Samuel 19:-
– Rizpah 2 Samuel 21:10-14
– Ittai 2 Samuel 15:16-23
– Mephibosheth 2 Samuel 9:1-12 and 2 Samuel 19:24-39
– Mercy to Shimei 2 Samuel 19:19-21
There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.
Psalm 4:6 “Many people say, “Who will show us better times?” Let your face smile on us, LORD.” Raids and wars depressed Isra’el’s economy as crops, cattle and other valuable possessions were regularly stolen or destroyed, and going to war every year meant that the country couldn’t stabilise. Trade would have also been affected. There are also problems like these, which stem from oppression by near enemies: “Not a blacksmith could be found in the whole land of Israel, because the Philistines had said, “Otherwise the Hebrews will make swords or spears!” 1 Samuel 13:19
Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.
David certainly inspired deep devotion. 1 Samuel 23: “Once during the harvest, when David was at the cave of Adullam, the Philistine army was camped in the valley of Rephaim. The Three (who were among the Thirty—an elite group among David’s fighting men) went down to meet him there. David was staying in the stronghold at the time, and a Philistine detachment had occupied the town of Bethlehem.
David remarked longingly to his men, “Oh, how I would love some of that good water from the well by the gate in Bethlehem.” So the Three broke through the Philistine lines, drew some water from the well by the gate in Bethlehem, and brought it back to David. But he refused to drink it. Instead, he poured it out as an offering to the LORD. “The LORD forbid that I should drink this!” he exclaimed. “This water is as precious as the blood of these men who risked their lives to bring it to me.” So David did not drink it. These are examples of the exploits of the Three.”
A leader leads by example, not by force.
In both 1 Samuel 24 and 26 David sets a strong example to his men in how he treats Saul.
“At the place where the road passes some sheepfolds, Saul went into a cave to relieve himself. But as it happened, David and his men were hiding farther back in that very cave!
“Now’s your opportunity!” David’s men whispered to him. “Today the LORD is telling you, ‘I will certainly put your enemy into your power, to do with as you wish.’” So David crept forward and cut off a piece of the hem of Saul’s robe.
But then David’s conscience began bothering him because he had cut Saul’s robe. “The LORD knows I shouldn’t have done that to my lord the king,” he said to his men. “The LORD forbid that I should do this to my lord the king and attack the LORD’s anointed one, for the LORD himself has chosen him.” So David restrained his men and did not let them kill Saul.” 1 Samuel 24:3-7
Sun Tzu agrees with David that plunder should be equally divided among all men.
1 Samuel 30: “Then David returned to the brook Besor and met up with the 200 men who had been left behind because they were too exhausted to go with him. They went out to meet David and his men, and David greeted them joyfully. But some evil troublemakers among David’s men said, “They didn’t go with us, so they can’t have any of the plunder we recovered. Give them their wives and children, and tell them to be gone.”
But David said, “No, my brothers! Don’t be selfish with what the LORD has given us. He has kept us safe and helped us defeat the band of raiders that attacked us. Who will listen when you talk like this? We share and share alike—those who go to battle and those who guard the equipment.” From then on David made this a decree and regulation for Israel, and it is still followed today.”
If an enemy comes to you with compliments, they want a truce.
2 Samuel 3:6-21 “It came about while there was war between the house of Saul and the house of David that Abner was making himself strong in the house of Saul. Now Saul had a concubine whose name was Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah; and Ish-bosheth said to Abner, “Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine?” Then Abner was very angry over the words of Ish-bosheth and said, “Am I a dog’s head that belongs to Judah? Today I show kindness to the house of Saul your father, to his brothers and to his friends, and have not delivered you into the hands of David; and yet today you charge me with a guilt concerning the woman. “May God do so to Abner, and more also, if as the LORD has sworn to David, I do not accomplish this for him, to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and to establish the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan even to Beersheba.” And he could no longer answer Abner a word, because he was afraid of him.
Then Abner sent messengers to David in his place, saying, “Whose is the land? Make your covenant with me, and behold, my hand shall be with you to bring all Israel over to you.” He said, “Good! I will make a covenant with you, but I demand one thing of you, namely, you shall not see my face unless you first bring Michal, Saul’s daughter, when you come to see me.” So David sent messengers to Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, saying, “Give me my wife Michal, to whom I was betrothed for a hundred foreskins of the Philistines.” Ish-bosheth sent and took her from her husband, from Paltiel the son of Laish. But her husband went with her, weeping as he went, and followed her as far as Bahurim. Then Abner said to him, “Go, return.” So he returned.
Now Abner had consultation with the elders of Israel, saying, “In times past you were seeking for David to be king over you. “Now then, do it! For the LORD has spoken of David, saying, ‘By the hand of My servant David I will save My people Israel from the hand of the Philistines and from the hand of all their enemies.’” Abner also spoke in the hearing of Benjamin; and in addition Abner went to speak in the hearing of David in Hebron all that seemed good to Israel and to the whole house of Benjamin.
Then Abner and twenty men with him came to David at Hebron. And David made a feast for Abner and the men who were with him. Abner said to David, “Let me arise and go and gather all Israel to my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may be king over all that your soul desires.” So David sent Abner away, and he went in peace.”
Where to find David’s military history:
1 Samuel 17: Goliath
1 Samuel 23 David Protects the Town of Keilah
1 Samuel 30: Gath activity
2 Samuel 5: Philistine vengeance
2 Samuel 8: David’s Military Victories, including Gath
2 Samuel 10: David Defeats the Ammonites
2 Samuel 12: Rabbah
2 Samuel 21: Battles against Philistine Giants
2 Samuel 23: David’s Mightiest Warriors
1 Chronicles 11, 12: David captures Jerusalem, David’s Warriors
1 Chronicles 18: David’s Military Victories
1 Chronicles 19: David Defeats the Ammonites (Psalm 60)
1 Chronicles 20: David Captures Rabbah
1 Chronicles 27: Military Commanders and Divisions
Further reading: Deuteronomy 20 outlines the regulations on how the Israelites should act at war that God gave to Moses.
The King David Project by Cate Russell-Cole is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://cateartios.wixsite.com/kingdavidproject.
Please note that this does NOT apply to any of the images on this site except for the free Psalm images which are marked as free. Most photos are purchased stock photos. It is ILLEGAL for you to take and use them, whether for yourself, commercially or for a non-profit venture such as a church or Bible Study. If you have not bought these photos from the source, the stock photography company has every right to sue you.