23 These are the numbers of the divisions of the armed troops who came to David in Hebron to turn the kingdom of Saul over to him, according to the word of the Lord . . . 32 Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command.
1 Chronicles 12:23, 32 (ESV)
A few wise men are more valuable than thousands of fools. Large numbers of people are helpful in the right context, but unless at least a few of those people are prudent, discerning, and able to lead, a powerful army may deteriorate into an angry mob.
David received the affirmation of the entire nation without exception (cf. 1 Chronicles 12:23-28). While thirteen of the tribal censuses recorded the specific number of fighting men, the account of the tribe of Issachar included “200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command.” Who were these “chiefs”? Some have suggested that they were astrologers, but this is surely false. Divination and the magical arts were not tolerated, let alone celebrated, among God’s people (cf. Leviticus 19:26). The men of Issachar were singled out as men who had an extraordinary grasp of the political context. They understood the times and knew what Israel ought to have done.
David undoubtedly appreciated the thousands who came to his side at Hebron. The 7,100 mighty men of war from Simeon, the 50,000 seasoned troops from Zebulun, and especially the 120,000 who came from across the river were all crucial additions to his army. But without the 200 men of Issachar to provide the strategic wisdom, the army would be merely a mindless militia.
As leaders in the churches, pastors should be “men of understanding” who are able to lead God’s people effectively and wisely. Pastors must be discerning men of courage, vision, and faithfulness to the Lord. They should understand their times so they can lead God’s people to engage the world around them.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the nineteenth-century “prince of preachers” in London, used to say that effective preachers held a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Clearly he did not mean that the newspaper became the preacher’s text. What he meant was that those who ministered the Word effectively had to know their culture in order aptly to apply Scripture to the needs of the hour.
Christian cultural engagement is less about large numbers and more about understanding the times.