I posted on the my website yesterday a chart of David’s mighty men, based on 2 Samuel 23 and 1 Chronicles 11. David was Israel’s greatest and paradigmatic king, and a man of many talents. He won worldwide fame for his great victories on the battlefield, which expanded Israel’s borders all the way from Egypt to the Euphrates River.
From the beginning of his reign, David kept a cadre of thirty elite warriors who were known as “The Thirty” or “The Mighty Men.” In modern terms, the Thirty would have been something like the U. S. Navy’s SEAL Team 6. These were the go-to soldiers that David could count on to turn the tide of the fiercest battles. Although both 2 Samuel 23 and 1 Chronicles 11 refer to the Thirty as a unit, 2 Samuel 23:39 states that the total number of mighty men was thirty-seven. This is because there were seven super-elite warriors who outranked the Thirty. One of these seven super-elites was King David, who was a great warrior in his own right but also Commander-in-Chief. Then there were two tiers of three elites, each of which was ranked from greatest to least. One of these two groups of three consisted of what were evidently the three most capable Israelite warriors—Jashobeam, Eleazar, and Shammah. This group of Three was virtually unbeatable on the battlefield. The other group of Three—Joab, Abishai, and Benaiah—consisted of three men who were greater warriors than the Thirty, though not than the other unit of Three. The second tier of Three, however, had exceptional leadership capabilities, and so were given command over the army. The other great warriors were also given leadership positions, since in the days of hand-to-hand combat officers had to be capable of physically leading their men on the battlefield.
Second Samuel 23 lists thirty-one men in the group of Thirty, but with one duplicated from the list of the Three (Shammah the Hararite). First Chronicles 11 also lists more than thirty names, although the first thirty names in both lists are only slightly different. There are many slight differences in the forms of the names, which are easily explained by common copying mistakes; in some cases, men may have taken more than one name or may have been called by slight variations of the same name. The extra sixteen names in the list in 1 Chronicles 11 probably occur because there were different men in the group of Thirty at different times, due to age, death, injury, and so forth.
In addition to the Thirty, David also had two units of personal bodyguards, “the Cherethites” and “the Pelethites,” and by the end of David’s reign there were two new elite warriors, Shimei and Rei (1 Kgs 1:8). The famous group of Thirty itself does not seem to have outlasted David’s own fighting days.
There are a number of interesting names in the list of mighty men. One is Eliam the son of Ahithophel the Gilonite (2 Sam 23:34). Ahithophel, once David’s closest advisor, betrayed him when David’s son Absalom rebelled (2 Sam 15:12; 16:15–17:23). One wonders whether Eliam followed David when his father sided with Absalom. On the one hand, 2 Samuel 16:6 states that the mighty men went with David out of Jerusalem. On the other hand, it would be difficult for Eliam not to side with his father, and it is unlikely that Ahithophel would have proposed leading an army against David’s retinue were his own son in it. Since 1 Chronicles 11:36 names a different man in Eliam’s place, it is probable that Eliam sided with Absalom and was replaced after the rebellion was put down.
It is remarkable that there were a number of Gentiles among David’s mighty men—Zelek the Ammonite, Uriah the Hittite, Igal of Zobah, Ittai the Gittite, and perhaps others. It is evident that David’s deeds on the battlefield had made his God famous, and that David actively sought to convert foreigners to faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel. Missionary activity did exist in the OT period, and this is one example of it.
The description of David’s mighty men and their heroic deeds in 2 Samuel 23 and 1 Chronicles 11 certainly makes for interesting reading. But, more than that, the greatness of these men and their deeds reflect the greatness of the glory of David’s kingdom, which reflects the greatness of the glory of God. The men who fought for David were warriors for God, and their heroic feats were a demonstration of God’s power in exalting His people and the king whom He anointed.