Barzillai: The Man Who Grew Old Gracefully.

Lesson Focus: Learners will grow old gracefully if they cultivate the virtues expressed in the elderly Barzillai’s life.

Help God’s People When You Can: 2 Samuel 17:27-29

[27]  When David came to Mahanaim, Shobi the son of Nahash from Rabbah of the Ammonites, and Machir the son of Ammiel from Lo-debar, and Barzillai the Gileadite from Rogelim,  [28]  brought beds, basins, and earthen vessels, wheat, barley, flour, parched grain, beans and lentils,  [29]  honey and curds and sheep and cheese from the herd, for David and the people with him to eat, for they said, "The people are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness."   [ESV]

Information about the actual military operations of this civil war between David and his son, Absalom, is sparse. Stories of particular people and what might be seen as minor events in the run-up to and aftermath of the campaign are told in great detail but the picture of the fighting is painted only with very broad brushstrokes. The writer is more interested in how this war affected people than in what actually happened. We are introduced briefly to Absalom’s general, Amasa [17:25], probably so that we recognize him when he appears in the narrative at a later stage. As Joab had remained with David, it was necessary for Absalom to appoint a credible replacement and his choice was his cousin who was also Joab’s cousin, the son of their aunt Abigail. The point of this detail is to show that like the nation and individual communities, even families are divided by this civil war. By the time Absalom gathered his troops and crossed over to Gilead on the east side of the river Jordan, David was already well settled in Mahanaim. This had been Ish-Bosheth’s old capital and was well chosen as both easily defensible and a good base for attack. David’s positive foreign policies now bear positive consequences as allies from Ammon, Lo Debar and Gilead bring him supplies. The mention of Shobi brings an interesting glimpse between the lines. He had apparently replaced his brother Hanun as leader of the Ammonites after Hanun’s unfortunate encounter with David’s men, but we have no information whatsoever as to how David managed to build bridges so that Shobi saw him as an ally. Makir from Lo Debar had been Mephibosheth’s sponsor and it may be David’s earlier kind treatment of Mephibosheth that brought his support. This is the first mention of Barzillai the Gileadite but we hear more of him later on when David seeks to repay his kindness.

Realistically Evaluate Your Capacities: 2 Samuel 19:31-37a.

[31]  Now Barzillai the Gileadite had come down from Rogelim, and he went on with the king to the Jordan, to escort him over the Jordan.  [32]  Barzillai was a very aged man, eighty years old. He had provided the king with food while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very wealthy man.  [33]  And the king said to Barzillai, "Come over with me, and I will provide for you with me in Jerusalem."  [34]  But Barzillai said to the king, "How many years have I still to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem?  [35]  I am this day eighty years old. Can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks? Can I still listen to the voice of singing men and singing women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king?  [36]  Your servant will go a little way over the Jordan with the king. Why should the king repay me with such a reward?  [37a]  Please let your servant return, that I may die in my own city near the grave of my father and my mother.  [ESV]

The last person David dealt with before leaving his land of exile was Barzillai the Gileadite. The wealthy and aged patriarch was significant because he had provided critical material support for the king during his stay in Mahanaim. Barzillai had now come from Rogelim, a site perhaps fifty miles northeast of the ford, to welcome David back to the throne. David was impressed with Barzillai’s generosity and his considerable efforts to witness the king’s return to power. In an attempt to repay him and create a sort of symmetry in their relationship, the king invited Barzillai to Jerusalem so that he might care for the old man the rest of his life. Barzillai, while not unappreciative of the king’s offer, found it unappealing. After all, he was eighty years old and had nothing significant to gain by moving to Jerusalem. Due to deteriorating health Barzillai could no longer experience the pleasures attendant with life in the royal court. Besides, he would no longer be the most important person in his city; instead, by living in Jerusalem Barzillai would just become an added burden to the king, the royal slaves, and the nation’s taxpayers. In addition, he would be isolated from the persons and sights that had meant so much to him throughout his life. At his advanced stage in life, Barzillai was far more interested in a dignified death than a dynamic life. Instead of desiring to live in the most important urban center in Israel next to the royal palace, he desired to live in a rural village near the tomb of his father and mother.

Be a Champion for the Next Generation: 2 Samuel 19:37b-39.

[37b]  But here is your servant Chimham. Let him go over with my lord the king, and do for him whatever seems good to you."  [38]  And the king answered, "Chimham shall go over with me, and I will do for him whatever seems good to you, and all that you desire of me I will do for you."  [39]  Then all the people went over the Jordan, and the king went over. And the king kissed Barzillai and blessed him, and he returned to his own home.  [ESV]

If King David wished to bestow a favor in Barzillai’s behalf, then it should rest on Chimham, apparently one of Barzillai’s relatives. Accordingly, David decreed that Chimham will cross over with him and that he would receive all the benefits that would have been accorded Barzillai. Evidence in a later text [Jer. 41:17] indicates that David fulfilled his word. The existence of a site near Bethlehem named Geruth Chimham (= "the hospitality of/accorded to Chimham") suggests that an estate in Judah was given to Barzillai’s designated recipient. But Barzillai himself would not be forgotten by the king: all that you desire of me I will do for you. This last major issue having been settled, the crossing of the Jordan finally took place. The group made their way four miles eastward to Gilgal. At that traditional Israelite encampment site, David took one last opportunity to express his gratitude to Barzillai. Using the traditional Semitic expression of respect and acceptance, David kissed Barzillai and blessed him. Then Barzillai returned to his home, while Chimham remained to begin a new life at the royal court.

Leave a Good Memory: 1 Kings 2:1,7.

[1]  When David’s time to die drew near, he commanded Solomon his son, saying,  [7]  But deal loyally with the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite, and let them be among those who eat at your table, for with such loyalty they met me when I fled from Absalom your brother.  [ESV]

[1]  David’s charge to Solomon consists of two parts. The first deals with Solomon’s commitments to the Lord [2:1-4], while the second covers ways the younger man can secure his kingdom. The order should be understood as significant, since the second without the first would be useless. Farewell speeches appear elsewhere in the Old Testament, such as when Jacob addresses his sons in Genesis 47:29-49:33, and in Joshua 23:1-16, where Joshua speaks to Israel’s leaders. David’s directives to Solomon are similar to those given Joshua by the Lord [Joshua 1:1-9]. All texts of this type move the story to new characters and events yet do so by providing continuity between the new situation and the old. [2-4]  According to David, Solomon will only be strong and a man if he keeps the Mosaic covenant. He must take great pains to observe what God demands. This observing of God’s standards should grow into a lifestyle, a walking in the ways of the Lord. How does one achieve this lifestyle? By adhering to the various elements of the Law of Moses. David states that two vital benefits will result from Solomon’s obedience. First, the new king will prosper in everything he attempts. This blessing is, of course, of great interest to Solomon, who would naturally want a successful reign. Second, obedience will ensure God’s ongoing pleasure with David’s family. This blessing is of particular interest to David, since it immortalizes his faith in God. [7]  A note of kindness appears between two vengeful passages. David tells Solomon to reward old friends, which is also wise political counsel. Barzillai provided food and bedding when David ran from Absalom, and his family deserves to reap the benefits of loyalty and kindness offered in a stressful, uncertain time.

Lessons to be learned from the behavior of Barzillai. First, let us observe his pity for the fallen. It is a beautiful picture to see this old chieftain, when he hears of David’s sudden humiliation, hastening to the place of exile, to offer him his generous sympathy, along with substantial gifts for his exhausted followers. Barzillai seems to have been a wealthy proprietor or chief in Gilead, a prince among the mountaineers of Palestine, who had a generous sympathy and commiseration for the fallen. How noble is the example of Barzillai, and such as he, who love to come with words and deeds of kindness in the hour of bitter reverse and altered fortune. We should imitate the spirit of this Gilead chief, and never be guilty of trampling on a humbled foe; to visit them with coldness and unkindness at the very moment when they most need their aching wounds bound up. How does our blessed Lord rebuke in us this cold, hardened, heartless behavior to the fallen.

Second, mark his unselfish loyalty. With how many is the regulating, governing principle of their lives, not what is right but what is profitable. They make a careful calculation of consequences; and are not very scrupulous as to principle. How did right and might, principle and expediency, stand to one another at this juncture of Hebrew history? Absalom had stolen the hearts of Israel. He had undermined his father’s throne, sown disaffection among the people. In short, with everything to favor him, in youth, attractiveness, pomp, and display, he had seized the Hebrew crown. According to human calculations, his aged father’s case might be deemed desperate. He had crossed Jordan, in all probability, to his grave. And the risk old Barzillai incurred in fraternizing with the outlawed king was a serious one. What if Absalom and his army, in the flush of triumph, cross Jordan, and cut to pieces David’s panic-stricken force? Woe to the aged clansman of Gilead who has dared to show him kindness. And Barzillai must have weighed all these consequences. By becoming a confederate with David, he made himself a marked man. His fertile fields at Rogelim could be swept by the army of Absalom. But note how Barzillai acts. He will do what is right and leave the results in a Higher hand. Though with fearful odds against him, he will cling to what is good and right. Though it should cost him his lands, he will cast his lot with his dishonored and deeply injured friend, rather than with a successful but unprincipled traitor. Had Barzillai made it a question of expediency, he would either have preserved his neutrality, not mixing himself up with the quarrel at all, but remaining in quiet possession of his flocks and inheritance in the south. Or else he might have lent the weight of his influence to the popular side and joined Absalom. Had he been a mercenary adventurer, by becoming confederate with the victorious army, and cutting off the supplies from the camp of David, he would have decided the fortunes of the day. How differently does he act. He never hesitates. Whatever might be the result, he knows who has the right and hastens to the expatriated king with acceptable supplies of the best he has. And then, see the sequel of the history. When all was over, when a Greater than any earthly might had scattered the alien armies and laid low the usurper, and the venerable monarch was on his triumphal march back to his throne, the old Gileadite chief came down once more from his secure place with a body of servants, to do homage to the King and give him his patriot welcome and blessing. Nor was David forgetful of the unselfish loyalty so lately manifested. In a spirit of equally noble generosity and gratitude, he urged Barzillai to join the triumphal cavalcade, to come and have a home in his palace in Jerusalem, and a place and seat at his royal table. But he will take no reward or recompense, although what millions are spending a lifetime to achieve was within his grasp. Here was offered the hand of friendship by the greatest king of the age, and a dwelling in the palace of Zion. Thousands would have coveted the honor. His name would have been on every tongue as a favored old man, the envy of all his brother chieftains. He had not given his faithful attachment to the cause of David in order to better his position or receive a reward. Rather he had come to David’s side because it was the right thing to do.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What do we learn about the importance of friendship and loyalty from the relationship between David and Barzillai?

2.         What lessons can we learn from the behavior of Barzillai?

3.         What were the two parts of David’s charge to Solomon? Why was the order of the two parts significant? How can you apply this emphasis on choosing the best lifestyle to the way you live your life?


1,2 Samuel, Robert Bergen, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Samuel, Mary Evans, Inter Varsity Press.

1,2 Kings, Paul House, NAC, Broadman.


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