Haddon Robinson's Not-So-Blatant Big Idea
Sometimes it's better to hold your big idea until the end.
The High Pitch of Devotion
The story of David, the king of Israel, has ended. The ancient historian concludes it with one of David’s psalms. It is fitting that he would do so. But David was not only a soldier and a statesman and a man who had brilliant strategy, but he was also a singer of great songs. And so it was fitting that David’s psalm would be used to conclude David’s life; and then following the psalm there are David’s words.
But before the historian puts down his pen, before he completes the saga of David’s rule, this reign in which David came to the kingdom and found it sand and left the kingdom marble, the historian wants us to know that David did not fight his battles alone. He wants us to know that there were Knights of the Roundtable, 37 men who fought by his side.
They came to him from every part of the kingdom; in fact, from beyond its borders. They were the ones who fought with him. They were the ones who established the kingdom. They were the ones who extended it to its greatness. And they were the ones who protected David from danger.
Of the 37 men who made up David’s guard, there were three that were David’s chief men. They were like his Three Musketeers. They were the mightiest of the mighty. The strongest of the strong.
The historian tells us that one of them was Abishai. He was evidently David’s minister of war. But this man did not win his stars sitting in a boardroom, planning battles on a map. He won his stars out on the battlefield. Once, we are told, he killed 800 men with a spear. That must be the Olympic record for spearfighting.
The second man that formed that trio was a man by the name of Eleazar, the son of Dodai. Eleazar too was a hard and brilliant fighter. Once, we are told, at Pass Daman, when David and Eleazar were together, they taunted the Philistines. Kind of a stupid thing to do. The Philistines, as you might expect, got angry and when they attacked the Israeli forces, the soldiers of David, many of them just farm boys, disappeared, went back to the farm. Eleazar and David stood alone and fought off the Philistines. They fought through the morning and the afternoon, until Eleazar’s hand became so cramped it was frozen to his sword. But through his bravery they won a great victory.
The third man that formed that trio was a man by the name of Shammah. He too had won his spurs in battle. Once, we are told, the Philistines attacked a barley field in order to scavenge Israel’s food supply. And once again, as was their custom, the Israeli soldiers disappeared from the fight. And Shammah was left alone in the middle of that field. And he did not give an inch. He fought throughout the day. And the Philistines paid for their battle with blood. And through him, God gained a great victory.
These were three of David’s mighty men. That tells you something about the kind of men who surrounded David. It tells you something about David. In fact, that you might really understand that these were hard-bitten soldiers, these were men who knew what it was to fight in the field and had great courage. One of the tests of a leader is to ask if anybody’s following him. And another test of a leader is to look at his staff and see the quality of the people who are loyal to him. David was a commander, not of a group of youngsters at the YMCA, but of hard-bitten, seasoned soldiers who were deeply loyal to him.
People are often loyal to Christian leaders
In fact, the historian wants us to know the extent of their loyalty. And he tells us about an incident that took place early in David’s life. David had been anointed king, but he was king over nothing. He was pursued by Saul. The Philistines controlled the territory. He was holed up at the cave of Odellum, about seven miles southwest of the town of Bethlehem. He was more a fugitive than a king.
Men came to him from every part of the kingdom. They were drawn by his cause, attracted by his personality. But David was really in a posture of defeat. I suppose that they had a water supply, but perhaps it was warm and brackish.
And one day, David, in a sigh, said, “It would be wonderful if I could get a drink from the well near the gate at the town of Bethlehem.” It was really wishful nostalgia, a memory of a boyhood day, of better times.
I guess if you grew up in New York, as I did, or Chicago or Detroit or Denver, it would never occur to you to want to drink from the tap unless you liked the taste of chlorine. On the other hand, if you grew up in a mountain town in Colorado and tasted that water melted from the snow, fresh and pure, tumbling to the towns below, you might understand what David felt.
For me, the best I could do was to think of Shefnickel’s Candy Store. I grew up in the heart of New York, and Mr. Shefnickel made fifteen-cent ice cream sodas. Most of the sodas in the neighborhood were a dime, but Shefnickel had a magic touch.
It seems to me, that in the years that have followed, even though I have paid ten times that price for a soda, I have never had one quite as big, quite as refreshing, quite as cool, quite as substantive, as one of the Shefnickel sodas. There have been times when I’ve been out on a hike and my tongue is thick and my throat is sandpaper, that I’ve had a wish that I could for a moment at least be a boy again and have an ice cream soda at Shefnickel’s Candy Store.
It was part of it. It was nostalgia for the days of his growing up, for the times as a boy he drank water from that well. But it was also a desire for promise. You see, God had promised that the people of Israel would be given the land and that David would be their king. And so if he could have drawn water from that well, it would have meant that he would have controlled Bethlehem and at least this promise that now seemed so distant would have begun to have been fulfilled.
It was a wishful nostalgia, a desire for promise. But these three men heard that sigh, that spoken wish. And one of them said to the others, “You know what the chief would like? Chief would like a drink of water from the well inside the gate at Bethlehem.”
The other one said, “Well, we’re not doing much today. Why don’t we go get it for him?” And off they went.
It was a seven-mile hike under the blazing Syrian sun. It was a hike through enemy territory. What is more, the Philistines controlled the town of Bethlehem and two strategic places in the town were the town gate and the town well. When the captain set up his headquarters, he did so at the gate. You guarded the gate against the enemy. And of course you guarded the town’s water supply.
So these men made the hike, and they had to break through the Philistine lines and then, I gather, like the Three Musketeers, had to fight their way into the city—I can imagine two of them holding off the Philistines while a third one got the water up and filled the water skin. And then when they got the water, they escaped again. And it was another seven-mile trek back under that unrelenting Palestinian sun. It was loyalty to David. It was loyalty taken to the high pitch of devotion.
You often see that kind of loyalty among the people of God. In fact I don’t know what we’d do without men and women who are loyal to God, with that high pitch of devotion.
What amazes me, though, is as a leader, that often in their loyalty to God, people become loyal to us. They do things for us, things we don’t deserve. Sometimes to express a wish is to almost become their command. And they go out of their way to serve you as a Christian leader. Their devotion to God is shown to you.
There’s a word for that in the Hebrew. It’s the Hebrew word hessed. It is a word so rich, so full that it takes 19 different English words in order to translate it. It’s basically loyalty taken to the high pitch of devotion. It is the kind of loyalty that a man would have to his family, to his clan. It is usually loyalty to someone who does not deserve it. Loyalty taken to the high pitch of devotion.
You want an example of hessed, you could find it out in Denver. Out there, the people not only root for the Denver Broncos; they live and die with them. They’re not just a team; they’re a cause. If the Broncos win on Sunday, even though it is sleeting and raining on Monday, the city is bright and alive. If the Broncos lose, even though Monday may be filled with sun, there is a gloom cast over the city. I mean the people are loyal.
They will their season tickets to their children. When they have divorces, they fight over who gets the seats in the stadium. For twelve years every Sunday, the Broncos have played, the stadium is packed; it is sold out. And the Broncos don’t deserve it. I mean once they got to the Superbowl, only to be wiped out by the Dallas Cowboys. But they don’t win the division. In fact they usually don’t even get in the playoffs. But the fans are loyal, loyal to the high pitch of devotion.
Hessed is the word that is used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s love for us. It is loyalty to the pitch of high devotion. In Psalm 136, thirty-six different times we are told that God’s loving kindness extends to us through all generations. That’s hessed. That’s God’s loyal love.
Leaders should be loyal to their followers
At any rate, these soldiers, these three men come back with their gift, and I suppose like children who have invested everything they have to get a gift for their parents on Christmas day, they come, wondering how David will respond. They give him the water skin. They tell him the story. They explain the exploit.
And David, instead of drinking the water, finds his face flushed, and he takes that water and he pours it out on the ground until there is a puddle at their feet. And then the thirsty soil drinks that water and in a few moments it’s gone.
Hey, what about that trek under that hot sun? What about the danger? What about the risking of their lives?
And David says, “I’m not worthy of that. You men got that water by risking your lives at the cost of blood. I can’t drink water like that. I’m not worthy of it.”
And he pours it out. The Hebrew text says, as a libation, as a drink offering to God. He took the loyalty of his men, their love taken to the high pitch of devotion, and he turned it over to God. That’s why they responded to him as a leader. He was indeed their commander, but he was also the servant of the Most High. And he took the devotion that was given to him, and he gave it to God. That’s integrity in a Christian leader.
And all too often, we come to assume that the loyalty that is given to us, as a leader of God’s people, belongs to us because of our hard work or our charismatic endeavors. At times, as leaders, you almost suspect that if people brought us water from the well at Bethlehem, we’d want to know where the ice cubes were.
Some time ago, on Sixty Minutes, they had a story about alcoholism and sexual escapades in Washington. The question they raised is why is it that the alcoholism and the sexual adventures of congressmen and senators and presidents don’t get reported until some scandal breaks open on the front pages of the paper.
One of the reporters interviewed said if they reported sex and alcohol in Washington, they wouldn’t have room to report anything else. But then he said, “You see, when a man comes to Washington these days, he comes to his office thinking of it as a prize he has won.”
He has spent his strength. He has spent his money, getting that office. So when he comes to the Capitol, he does not see it as a position in which to serve the people. Instead he surrounds himself with those who pat him on the back and women who rub his back. And now that he is there, he wants to enjoy the spoils of battle.
It’s easy for Christian leaders to get that attitude, to somehow think they deserve the loyalty of the people that is given to them, sometimes to the high pitch of devotion. And integrity, they ought to give that to God.
Paul did that. Remember the Philippians? They were folks loyal to Paul, to the high pitch of devotion. Again and again in his ministry, when the coppers got low, they came through with a welcome check. And now the Philippian letter is a thank you letter to them for what they have done.
Paul says in Philippians 4:18, “This gift of yours was a fragrant offering to God. It was an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to Him.” He took the devotion given to him, and he gave it to God. That’s the kind of man David was. That’s the kind of leader he was. He was loyal to his men, and they were loyal to him. And David was loyal to God.
Our loyalty to our people should be like God’s loyalty to us
So as you read this list of David’s mighty men, the chapter concludes by telling you who some of these men were. You can hardly pronounce them. They only appear once on the pages of Scripture. They were such notables as Ira the Ithrite and Gareb the Ithrite, and then the final name was Uriah the Hittite. Uriah the Hittite.
Why did he have to put that name last? The chronicler doesn’t have to do it. Why? Why does he have to spoil it by dredging up that memory when the story had come to such a beautiful conclusion? Remember what that meant.
At the height of David’s fame, when other kings went and fought war in April, he stayed home. He saw Bathsheba, coveted another man’s wife. He committed adultery with her and then to his dismay discovered that she was pregnant. And then David (always the man in control) saw to it that Bathsheba’s husband was sent back from battle because he knew that if he could just get her husband into bed with her and have intercourse with his pretty young wife, he could cover up what had taken place. Bathsheba’s husband was Uriah the Hittite.
He didn’t go along with David’s scheme. He said to David, “I can’t do that. I can’t go home. I can’t go to bed with my wife. My soldiers are still fighting in the field. They’re living in pup tents. They’re eating C-rations. And I can’t be disloyal to them. I can’t enjoy the benefits of home, not while they’re fighting out in the field.”
And so he stayed like a soldier on sentry duty at the palace. And he would not go home. He was loyal to his men, to the high pitch of devotion, loyal to David, loyal to the cause.
David spilled out that water of Uriah’s devotion like sewer water. He murdered him. Sent a note with Uriah back to Joab, and said, “Put Uriah in the forefront of the battle and then retreat and let him be killed.” And Uriah and several other valiant men were killed with David’s violent action.
It was murder. Planned, premeditated murder, as much murder as if he had taken a sword and driven it through Uriah’s heart.
Then Nathan came and told that story to David. The story of a man who had a little ewe lamb, that was a pet, the darling of the family. And across the way there was a man of wealth who had herds and flocks. And this wealthy man had a visitor from a distant country, and in order to have a barbecue, instead of taking one of his own flock, he went across the road and took that ewe lamb of his poor neighbor, and he killed that.
And David was furious. After all, David was a man of integrity. When it came to stealing lambs, David had high moral standards.
Not so sensitive when it came to stealing wives. David said, “The man who did that deserves to die. He’ll pay fourfold for what he has done.”
And Nathan said, “You’re the man.”
When Nathan leaves, David prays. You can read that prayer in Psalm 51. David had confessed, “I have sinned against the Lord.” According to Deuteronomy 22:22, he deserved to die because of adultery. Because of Numbers 35, he deserved capital punishment for his sin of murder. And there were no sacrifices to take care of sins like that. But in Psalm 51, David prays, “God have mercy upon me, according to your hessed, your loyalty taken to the high pitch of devotion.”
Why? Why should God forgive him? Because God was loyal to David according to his purposes and grace. God was loyal to his own mercy. God was loyal to his own love. And God was loyal to David. And in order that David might be forgiven, David’s greatest son Jesus came and fought the hosts of hell and went to Bethlehem. And at the cost of his life, drew water from the wells of salvation. Hessed.
In his loyal love, Jesus takes our acts of devotion, tarnished and polluted sometimes though they be, and he sanctifies them, and he brings them to the Father, his loyalty to us, to the high pitch of devotion. What is more, it is loyalty that never ceases. There is never in a list of those who are followers of Jesus Christ a Uriah the Hittite. He never betrays us. He never turns against us. It’s loyalty forever, the high pitch of devotion.
In fact the truth is that hessed, this quality of loyalty and faithfulness, is always used of God. It is only true of him. It is the loyalty to the high pitch of devotion to the Father, whereby he does the Father’s will, who comes to be our Savior. It is loyalty to the high pitch of devotion whereby he gives himself, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God. It is loyalty to us, to take our prayers and our gifts and our sacrifices, and offer them to the Father, as a sweet smelling offering, as a sacrifice, well pleasing to God. It is loyalty to us, to the high pitch of devotion, that will never fail because there are no Uriahs with God.
Somebody has said that men are like the gods they worship. Probably true because for most people the gods they worship are the gods they make. But we as leaders are to reflect our God. His hessed toward us is to be the hessed that we display to those who choose to be our followers.
Have you ever noticed the words of the writer of the Hebrews? In chapter 13, he says in verse 5, “God has said, ‘I will never leave you. I will never forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’”
Remember your leaders who spoke the Word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. As Jesus has bound himself to us by his word and by his deed of sacrifice, we bind ourselves to the people.
And how are they to know that Jesus Christ is unchanging yesterday, today, and tomorrow? Because they look at those who are his leaders in the church. And just as in David’s men you see loyalty taken to the high pitch of devotion, in Christ’s men and Christ’s women who are leaders, as they see that quality in us, we reflect a quality of our God. Loyalty. Hessed.
Taken to the high pitch of devotion. That is integrity in leadership. It made David’s cause, and through it, it will make the cause of Christ’s kingdom in the world.
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.