Psalm 144 – The True Fountain of Strength & Warfare in the Ancient World

A Psalm of David.

The Parthenon is a temple on the Athenian Acropolis, Greece, dedicated to the goddess Athena, whom the people of Athens considered their patron.

Its construction began in 447 B.C. when the Athenian Empire was at the height of its power.

It was completed in 438 B.C., although decoration of the building continued until 432 B.C.

1 Blessed be the LORD my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight:

2 My goodness, and my fortress; my high tower, and my deliverer; my shield, and he in whom I trust; who subdueth my people under me.

3 LORD, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him! or the son of man, that thou makest account of him!

4 Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away.

5 Bow thy heavens, O LORD, and come down: touch the mountains, and they shall smoke.

6 Cast forth lightning, and scatter them: shoot out thine arrows, and destroy them.

7 Send thine hand from above; rid me, and deliver me out of great waters, from the hand of strange children;

Athens is one of the oldest named cities in the world, having been continuously inhabited for at least 7000 years.

Situated in southern Europe, Athens became the leading city of Ancient Greece in the first millennium B.C. and its cultural achievements during the 5th century B.C. laid the foundations of western civilization.

During the early Middle Ages, the city experienced a decline, then recovered under the later Byzantine Empire and was relatively prosperous during the period of the Crusades (12th and 13th centuries), benefiting from Italian trade.

Following a period of sharp decline under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Athens re-emerged in the 19th century as the capital of the independent Greek state.

8 Whose mouth speaketh vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood.

9 I will sing a new song unto thee, O God: upon a psaltery and an instrument of ten strings will I sing praises unto thee.

10 It is he that giveth salvation unto kings: who delivereth David his servant from the hurtful sword.

11 Rid me, and deliver me from the hand of strange children, whose mouth speaketh vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood:

12 That our sons may be as plants grown up in their youth; that our daughters may be as corner stones, polished after the similitude of a palace:

13 That our garners may be full, affording all manner of store: that our sheep may bring forth thousands and ten thousands in our streets:

History of the Peloponnesian War
Written four hundred years before the birth of Christ, this detailed contemporary account of the struggle between Athens and Sparta stands an excellent chance of fulfilling the author’s ambitious claim that the work “was done to last forever.”

The conflicts between the two empires over shipping, trade, and colonial expansion came to a head in 431 b.c. in Northern Greece, and the entire Greek world was plunged into 27 years of war.

Thucydides applied a passion for accuracy and a contempt for myth and romance in compiling this exhaustively factual record of the disastrous conflict that eventually ended the Athenian empire.

14 That our oxen may be strong to labor; that there be no breaking in, nor going out; that there be no complaining in our streets.

15 Happy is that people, that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people, whose God is the LORD.

A Psalm of praise to the infinite majesty of God.  Fighting the good fight of faith for the sake of being in the state of a happy church life.

Warfare in the Ancient World 

Modern readers may be shocked at the opening verse of Ps 144, but warfare is a prominent theme in Psalms.

The first intact chariot was discovered in 1829 in a tomb whose owner remains unknown and is now on display at the Museo Archeologico in Florence, Italy.
The Florence Chariot has wheels of four spokes and is considered to be of earlier construction and design than other chariots found, which have six spokes.

The earliest wars were conducted with crude weapons of wood and stone.  Horses were of limited value during heavy combat because the stirrup had not yet been invented and a rider could easily fall. 

Chariots were not used extensively until the Bronze Age.  An Egyptian chariot conveyed two men, a driver and an archer (chariots from the Levant [Syria] also accommodated a shield-bearer).  Massed chariots used shock value and speed to demoralize and scatter an enemy.  Chariots were prominent in New Kingdom Egypt.

A revolution in military technology occurred at the beginning of the Iron Age.  Massed armies of heavy infantry with the discipline to hold their ranks appeared on the scene.  They could withstand and rout a chariot charge, making the chariot obsolete except as a prestigious vehicle for commanders.

Battles were often short, lasting only as long as one side or the other had the stamina to maintain face-to-face combat.  Frequently one side would break ranks and flee.  Panic was common, exacerbated by the commanders’ poor control, having to rely as they did on shouted voice commands or signals.

The State Chariot of King Tutankhamun
The discovery of six chariots in the Tomb of King Tutankhamun was a significant find, as only two others have been found, as well as fragments of chariots discovered in the various tombs of the Valley of the Kings.

The State Chariot is made of wood, which was then gessoed and gilded to give it its fine golden finish.

The engravings were then impressed on top to complete the decor of the chariot.

In keeping with the hilly terrain they inhabited, the Israelites relied primarily on infantry.  Light infantry soldiers wore little or no armor and typically used projectile weapons, like stones and arrows.  They moved in loose formations, relying on speed (see Jud 20:15-16; 2 Cho 14:8).

Heavy infantrymen wore full armor and often carried heavy swords and long spears.  They moved in large, close formation, with spears lowered to form a wall of pikes, in effect creating an ancient version of a The Greek hoplite (heavily armored infantry soldier) marching in his phalanx was a classic example of heavy infantry in action.

Normally a heavy infantry unit would rout a light infantry corps, but out in the open a single heavy infantryman could be at a disadvantage when pitted against a light infantryman, due to the latter’s mobility and ability to strike at a distance.

The greatest armies combined heavy and light infantry with cavalry.  Alexander the Great and Hannibal were masters at using their heavy infantry as a solid center for their armies, employing cavalry to flank an opponent.

The Roman legions rejected the long pike in favor of a short sword.  These legions had the weight and impact of heavy infantry but were much more mobile.

Ancient Egyptian Battle of Axes
The mace was the common weapon used for primary close combat with the opponent.

However, ancient Egypt battle axes was a practical weapon that replaced the mace as Egyptian’s military close combat weapon. Ancient Egypt cutting axes is a blade that was fastened to a sizable handle.

In addition to fighting pitched battles in the open field, armies sometimes laid siege to walled cities that were often situated atop hills.  How long a city could hold out depended on how much food it had in storage and upon whether it had direct access to underground springs.

Plague could strike a besieged city, as happened to Athens during the Peloponnesian War in 430 B.C.  Often the besieging army would seek to bring down a city by building a siege ramp and attacking the walls with siege towers.

Reproduction of Spartan Armour.
Reproduction of an ancient Greek Spartan Heavy Infantry Armour from 490 B.C.

Includes Crested Helmet, Long Spear, Shield and Cuirass.

Ancient armies were often made up of citizen soldiers called up in times of emergency.  These citizens could fight with dedication but were poorly trained and armed and often needed to return home on short order to tend their crops.  Citizen-soldier armies served Israel during the judges period.

Ancient societies tried to give their armies a core of professional soldiers with long-term enlistments.  Kings would also hire mercenaries.

The Spartans had a novel solution to the recruitment problem: Every man served in the army full-time and lived in the barracks through most of his adult life (farming was handled by slaves called helots).

Ancient city-states often fought each other in “wars” that lasted a single day.  Casualties could be light, and frequently nothing more was at stake than setting a property claim. 

Other wars could be catastrophic.  The Peloponnesian War lasted 27 years, destroyed the Athenian Empire and devastated the Greek world.  Victorious armies might slaughter cities and take survivors as slaves, effectively destroying peoples and cultures with deliberate genocide.

Armed conflict was indeed a fact of life for the peoples of ancient times.  Against this reality David had ample reason to thank God, who trained his hands for war.