Understanding the Last Four Chapters of 2 Samuel

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You've been teaching the book of 2 Samuel to your kids. In the first half, you taught them about David's rise as king: bringing national government and worship to Jerusalem, receiving the promise of the Davidic Covenant, and defeating foreign nations. In the second half, you taught them about David's sin as king: committing adultery and plotting murder, receiving discipline from God, and suffering at the hands of a rebellious son as a consequence. The whole book practically teaches itself—you're simply following the theology as it chronologically unravels.

But then you get to the end, chapters 21-24, and realize they don't continue the storyline. Chapter 21 simply begins with, "Now there was a famine in the days of David," which is an intentional way of being unintentional about the time that this passage occurred.[1] What in the world is going on? Did the author simply "tack on" these chapters because he didn't have a better place for them (as some liberal theories would have us believe)? Are these chapters nothing more than an unwelcome intrusion into the narrative transitioning from King David to King Solomon? Not at all. On the contrary, they represent a perfect summary to the preceding twenty chapters.

Commenting on this portion of 2 Samuel, scholar Dale Ralph Davis writes,

What if the writer placed chapters 21-24 here because they constituted the climax of his argument instead of an inconvenience to someone's theory? Why can't someone consider that the writer wants to provide us with a final perspective on the kingdom of God as it is currently extant in the kingdom of David? I hold that these chapters are not an appendix or intrusion but the intended wrap-up for all 1-2 Samuel; in them the writer wants to show us how we are to regard God's kingdom as it is ordered under David.[2]

Davis' comments provide an excellent explanation of these final chapters. Rather than an unwelcome intrusion, these chapters represents a perfect conclusion. Instead of leaving us to try to describe David's kingdom, this ending does the work for us. The author of 2 Samuel placed these four chapters here in order to summarize the kingship of David. And not only did the author place these chapters in a particular order in relation to the rest of the book, he placed them in a particular order in relation to each other.

A Multi-Chapter Chiasm

These four chapters can be broken down into six sections according to a literary technique called a "chiasm." A chiasm is an author's purposeful ordering of text by presenting a sequence of ideas, and then repeating those same ideas but in reverse order.[3] This mirror effect is reminiscent of the Greek letter Χ (chi), which is where this writing technique gets its name.

For example, Matthew 6:24 is a small chiasm (the letters next to each line show how they correspond):

(A) No one can serve two masters;

(B) for either he will hate the one

(C) and love the other,

(C') or he will be devoted to one

(B') and despise the other.

(A') You cannot serve God and wealth.

Notice that the verse begins with particular ideas in the first three lines, and then ends with those same ideas reversed in the final three lines. According to the letters next to each line, this sequence would be: A-B-C-C-B-A. The lines labeled A and A' speak of trying to serve two masters, lines labeled B and B' speak of animosity toward one master, and lines labeled C and C' speak of love toward the other master. Thus, like scaling a pyramid, this passage ascends in a certain order and then descends in reverse order. By doing this, the author can restate his intended themes by describing them in more than one way.

This same chiastic structure (A-B-C-C-B-A) is present, albeit in a much larger scale, across the final four chapters of 2 Samuel. The themes present in 2 Samuel 21-24 can be described as follows:

(A) Disobedience and Discipline (2 Samuel 21:1-14)

(B) Danger and Deliverance (2 Samuel 21:15-22)

(C) Dependence and Devotion (2 Samuel 22:1-51)

(C') Dependence and Devotion (2 Samuel 23:1-7)

(B') Danger and Deliverance (2 Samuel 23:8-39)

(A') Disobedience and Discipline (2 Samuel 24:1-25)

A Fitting Conclusion

And so it is that as you look back on David's kingship, teaching through these passages, your kids remember these themes present throughout the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, exactly as the author intends. They remember God's discipline as a gracious response to the disobedience of Israel. They remember God's deliverance in response to the numerous dangers faced by David from citizens inside the kingdom and enemies outside the kingdom. And they remember the God-exalting devotion of David as he depended on God not only throughout his life, but even at the very end of his life in anticipation of a better king to come (cf. 2 Sam. 23:3-5). This is how David's kingship is to be regarded. A fitting conclusion to the book of 2 Samuel, indeed.


References:

[1] Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity (Genies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, Ltd, 2016), 263.

[2] Ibid, 262.

[3] "What is a chiasm / chiastic structure in the Bible?," Got Questions?, accessed December 13, 2017, https://www.gotquestions.org/chiasm-chiastic.html.