Gentleness Made Him Great

We felt safe with Seth. I was 16 years old, in tenth grade — right in the middle of those promising and perilous teenage years — when he came to our church as the new youth minister. I was surrounded by the pressures and confusion of adolescence, and yet Seth Buckley brought a clarifying, stabilizing presence. He embodied mature Christian manhood, with both strength and gentleness. None could question his physical strength. He had played linebacker at Alabama, and he could squat and bench far more than any of us high- school athletes. Yet he played the guitar and sang solos. And his tender heart for Jesus, and teenagers, came through, often with tears, in heartfelt rehearsals of the gospel every Wednesday night. The reason we felt safe with Seth wasn’t because he was weak. He emphatically was not. He was strong — both physically and emotionally. And he was gentle. That is, he knew how to use his strength to life- giving ends. To the gift of his strength, he had added the virtue of gentleness. Neither effeminate nor brutish, neither soft nor violent, Seth modeled for us teenaged men-in-training the kind of men we wanted to be deep down — the kind of men the gospel produces over time. In this way, knowing Seth helps me imagine what it may have been like to know King David. Expert in War We might remember David as “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1) and forget he was first a fearless, strong, and skilled man of war. But a striking scene at the end of his life gives a fuller picture of David than the simple singer-songwriter. When David’s son Absalom rebels against his father, marches on Jerusalem, and sends David momentarily retreating, David’s friend Hushai plays loyal to Absalom in order to defeat the rebel counsel. As he makes his case (which carries the day), he characterizes David, in terms that all agreed with: You know that your father and his men are mighty men, and that they are enraged, like a bear robbed of her cubs in the field. Besides, your father is expert in war. (2 Samuel 17:8) Not just his men, but David himself is mighty — and expert in war. And this wasn’t new. When we first meet David (even before Goliath), he is introduced as “a man of valor, a man of war”: Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the Lord is with him. (1 Samuel 16:18) In the following chapter, the Goliath account, we learn that David has already killed lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34–36). He has the courage to face the giant, and the skill to conquer him. And though still a youth, David is strong enough to take Goliath’s massive sword, draw it from its sheath, and take off the giant’s head (1 Samuel 17:51). Soon the imposing Saul, who stood head and shoulders above the rest, would hear his people singing of David’s strength: “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7). What Made Him Great? Psalm 18, which David wrote in praise of God’s lifelong deliverance, celebrates the physical strength and ability that God had given and honed in his anointed. David “can run against a troop” and “leap over a wall” (Psalm 18:29); he says that God “equipped me with strength” (Psalm 18:39) and “made my feet like the feet of a deer” (Psalm 18:33). God “trains my hands for war,” making his arms strong enough to “bend a bow of bronze” (Psalm 18:34). And yet, right here, in mention after mention of his human strength, David celebrates the surpassing quality of gentleness. Strength and skill may have made him a good warrior and king, but “Your gentleness,” he says to God, “made me great” (Psalm 18:35). “Both strong and gentle, David knows when to wield his strength and when to walk in gentleness.” Strength, valor, and experience made David “expert in war,” but it was God’s own gentleness (which David learned firsthand) that made David great. Not only had the omnipotent God been gentle with his Anointed, in his finitude and many failings, but God’s gentleness had come to characterize David’s own leadership. As Derek Kidner comments, “While it was the gentleness God exercised that allowed David his success, it was the gentleness God taught him that was his true greatness” (Psalms, 95). Where do we see this greatness? When did David add the surpassing virtue of gentleness to the valuable ability of his strength? Psalm 18 appears in 2 Samuel 22 at the culmination of the book, and two key mentions of David’s gentleness earlier in the story set up this climactic line and lesson. Gentle with an Enemy After the death of Saul, David’s commander, Joab, avenges the personal loss of his own brother. Saul’s commander, Abner, had struck down Joab’s brother, Asahel, after he had pursued Abner after battle. Abner had warned him to turn aside, and Asahel would not, and Abner struck him in the stomach. “A long war between the house of Saul and the house of David” followed, with David growing “stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker” (2 Samuel 3:1). In time, Abner sought peace with David and delivered the rest of the kingdom to David. They feasted together, and David sent Abner away in peace. But Joab then drew Abner aside (under the pretense of peace) “to speak with him privately, and there he struck him in the stomach, so that he died, for the blood of Asahel his brother” (2 Samuel 3:27). The contrast between David and Joab is stark and pronounced. Both can be fearsome in battle. Both are strong, brave, and experts of war. But Joab, while an asset in war, is a liability in peace. Joab’s unrighteous killing of Abner threatens the consolidation of the nation under David’s rule. So, David publicly mourns the death of Abner so that “all the people and all Israel understood that day that it had not been the king’s will to put to death Abner” (2 Samuel 3:37). David speaks to his servants to make clear his differences from Joab, the son of Zeruiah: Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel? And I was gentle today, though anointed king. These men, the sons of Zeruiah, are more severe than I. The Lord repay the evildoer according to his wickedness! (2 Samuel 3:38–39) Gentle with a Traitor Second, near the end of David’s reign, when Absalom has rebelled against him, David sends Joab and the army out against Absalom, but with specific instructions. In keeping with his pattern of exercising strength, and adding to it the virtue of gentleness, David orders Joab, in the presence of many witnesses, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” (2 Samuel 18:5). Some commentators see weakness and indiscretion in David at this point; others see the gentleness that made him great. Peter Leithart comments, These instructions were consistent with David’s treatment of all his enemies; he had treated Saul well, and just recently he had restrained Abishai from cutting down Shimei. He knew what Joab was capable of, and he wanted all his men to know that he treated enemies with kindness and compassion. David’s behavior again provided an Old Testament illustration of Jesus’s teaching about loving enemies. (A Son to Me, 278) Joab, of course, defies David’s will and kills Absalom, again accenting the difference between the two men. Both are strong, but only one is great — and that through his gentleness. Joab is the one-dimensional man of war — strong, tenacious, courageous in battle, a hero in combat. Yet his manhood is immature and incomplete. A liability at home and in peacetime, Joab is unable to cushion his strength and control his tenacity. David, on the other hand, in masculine maturity, has learned gentleness and can thrive in all contexts. His abilities are multidimensional. He can lead a nation, not only an army. Both strong and gentle, he knows when to wield his strength and when, with admirable restraint, to walk in gentleness. High and Exalted, Gentle and Lowly In showing teenaged boys the strength and gentleness of mature masculinity, Seth showed us far more than the greatness of King David. While Psalm 18 gives tribute to God’s work in and through David, there is much in the psalm, writes John Calvin, that “agrees better with Christ” than with David. “Gentleness is not the absence of strength but the addition of virtue.” When the apostle John, on the isle of Patmos, caught his glimpses of the glory of Christ, he witnessed the paragon of mature masculinity, complete in power and grace. In Jesus, he saw not only man but “the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8). “His voice was like the roar of many waters,” and his face “like the sun shining in full strength” (Revelation 1:15–16). Later John would see this Lion of a man, sitting on a white horse, as the one who “judges and makes war” (Revelation 19:11). From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. (Revelation 19:15) Yet when the apostle looked between the angels and the throne of heaven, he “saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). A lamb-like Lion, and lion-like Lamb, awe-inspiring in his majestic strength, and yet seen to be truly great as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of his people. Jesus’s gentleness cushions the application of his great power as he marshals it in the service of his weak people. Do not mistake his gentleness for weakness. Gentle is not code for weak. Gentleness is not the absence of strength but the addition of virtue to strength — in men like Seth, King David, and most admirably of all, the Son of God himself.