[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….) ]
I am glad to be back at the Psalms on Sunday Night. While I appreciate the break, I miss the regular work in the Hebrew Bible. Let me take a moment and review the point of the series. I am reading through the 14 Psalms which have a header relating to the life of David. Each Sunday evening I examine the context in 1-2 Samuel then reflect on how David responds to a historical situation in worship. When I introduced the series I admitted that these Psalms might very well have been written much later, but the assumption of the Psalm header is that they related to these episodes. I am choosing to “stay within the world of the story” as an exegetical strategy.
This Psalm is a bit different since it refers to events which are not particularly well described in the 2 Samuel 8. That chapter is an appendix listing the various conquests of David without much detail. Psalm 60 indicates that David did always defeat his enemies, in fact, the Edomites have routed David’s army, prompting the Psalmist to cry out to the Lord for deliverance. In this case the header informs the reader of a bit more than the text of 2 Sam 8.
Because Israel has been defeated, the Psalmist believes that God has rejected Israel and he is now fighting for the enemy (vs 1, 11). The verb זנח (zanach) appears in the quite a few times in the Psalms to describe the despair of a worshiper who feels cut off from God completely (Ps 43:2, 44:10, 24). It can be used for the utensils used by King Ahaz for idolatry (they were rejected as unusable for holy purposes, 1 Chron 29:19).
The reason for this rejection is that the Lord is angry. Taken along with the cup of wine in verse 3a, this anger is a just judgment on Israel. There have been several times in the history where Israel has broken a clear command of the Lord for the conduct of war and were judged with a defeat (Jericho and Ai, for example).
It is possible that Israel has lost the battle against Edom and her allies because David has not conducted the war in an appropriate manner. The only a hint of the reason for the judgment is the header: Joab slew 12000 Edomites in the Valley of Salt. There are no details given and the event is not described as a victory in war against the army of Edom, but simply the killing of Edomites in general.
Given Joab’s reputation for violent revenge, it is possible that this slaughter was not considered to be a fair practice of war, perhaps Joab conducted a war against non-participants, killing more than just soldiers, but also women and children. He went beyond the need of killing in war and as a result, Israel was judged. I realize this is speculation, but I think that it is supported by the Psalm header.
The verb נכה (nacah) is common and mean anything from tapping something to violent killing and slaughter. For example, “to rout violently; to cause a great bloodbath,” (Esther 9:5, see HALOT). Recall that Joab is the man who assassinated Abner, the commander of the army of Israel during the brief civil war and later drove his own troops into the walls of Ammon in order to kill Uriah. He will also assassinate his own replacement after David removes him as commander after Absalom’s revolt. It is possible that the “Valley of Salt” refers to the Arabah, the extreme southern border of Judah and a region often inhabited by Edomites. Joab may have attacked settlements indiscriminately, incurring the wrath of God on Israel for improper conduct of war.
If this is on the right track, then God is justly punishing Israel for their conduct of a war against an enemy. This Psalm would therefore be part of a “theology of war” in the Hebrew Bible which limits proper conduct of war in important ways – God does not justify the indiscriminate killing of civilians and he will punish those who conduct war improperly.