1 Samuel 31: Saul…died…that day.
He came to a pitiful end. Saul, as a young man, was chosen by God, himself, to lead Israel. His very stature dominates a room. Even strong warriors were willing to follow his leadership. This capable man could bring order, peace, and safety to those under his command. But he’s also a deeply flawed man who could hear the direction of God and then ignore it to do what seems best to him at the time. Also, he’s an empty man. When he rejects God’s authority in his life God rejects him. From that day onward, life drains out of Saul, leaving him just a shell of what he could have been. Now, pursued by his enemies and fleeing in defeat, he meets his end on Mount Gilboa, wounded and then falling on his own sword. Saul’s story is one of unfulfilled possibilities. He had every reason to go down in history as Israel’s first and greatest king. Instead, he dies without God and without hope. He arrives here because of his own decisions. His epitaph simply reads, “A disappointment.”
Take Away: It all starts with our simply obeying the voice of the Lord in our lives.
Back from the brink
1 Samuel 30: A gift from the plunder of God’s enemies!
The story of David’s rescue of the women and children of Ziklag is a companion to the events of the previous chapter in which David isn’t allowed to join the battle against Saul and the army of Israel. It takes him and his men three days to return to their base camp of Ziklag. When they arrive there all that’s left is smoldering ruins. Amalekite raiders have taken advantage of the fact that all warriors throughout the territory are massed at Aphek in preparation for a major battle. Ziklag and other area towns have been attacked and ransacked. The women and children have been carried away to be used as slaves or worse. David pursues them, driving his men to exhaustion. By the time he catches up to the Amalekites his forces are severely depleted with only 200 of the original 600 warriors still at his side. With God’s help, his band of 200 routs the much larger Amalekite force. They recover all the captives and a large bounty of goods taken, not only from Ziklag, but from the other towns as well. David insists that the spoils be equally shared with all, including those who were unable to fight. He also sends portions of the plunder to the towns of Judah, “A gift from the plunder of God’s enemies.” The coupled events of David being turned back from the battle at Aphek and his success against the Amalekites rescue David from the brink of personal destruction. In one case, he is stopped from becoming an enemy of Israel. In the other, he turns his trust back to God, and then acts in an honorable way in handling the plunder. Here we see God putting David back on track to lead Israel. Oh, the mighty hand of God, working through our stubbornness and human weakness. God works through a million and one circumstances to bring about his good purpose. It’s that way with David and it’s that way for us too.
Take Away: We don’t always recognize it, but quite often the Lord works through the circumstances of our lives to bring about good.
Hopefully, David wasn’t trustworthy
1 Samuel 29: He’s not going into battle with us.
How about that, wisdom from the Philistines! Fleeing from Saul (maybe said better: “getting away from Saul so he won’t have to kill him”) David’s living in Philistine territory, the town of Ziklag. Now the Philistines are uniting to take on Saul and the army of Israel in a major, decisive battle. Amazingly, David’s with the Philistines! King Achish, who mistakenly thinks that David has already been attacking his fellow countrymen in Judah, is confident that David has completely betrayed Israel. However, the other warlords of the Philistines aren’t convinced. They don’t know David, but they know his reputation. They think that in the heat of the battle he’ll turn on them. Achish reluctantly sends David and his men home. Are the other warlords right? I hope so. David has no business living in the land of the Philistines in the first place much less fighting on their side. I think this event is crucial to David’s future as king of Israel. In the story of Abraham and Lot, it’s Lot who mistakenly decides to live in the wicked city of Sodom. That decision changes his life. Had he not made this crucial mistake he might have gone down in history as a great man who walked in faith with his uncle, Abraham. Instead, his story is a mere footnote in the history of God’s people. In this incident, David’s at a similar crossroads. If he joins the Philistines in this battle he’ll never lead Israel. Instead, he’ll only be a minor player in the story of redemption. I hope these warlords are right and that David would have turned on them. If not that, I wish that it had been David, himself who decided to leave the battlefield. Instead, it’s the enemies of God and his people who wisely send him away. Is it possible that we can see the hand of God in this decision of the Philistine warlords?
Take Away: The Lord is sovereign and can use whoever he wants to accomplish his will.
Finding God in unexpected places
1 Samuel 28: There’s a witch at Endor.
Life is terribly dark for Saul. Years ago when he failed God at Gilgal Samuel told him that God was finished with him. However for decades it has looked as though Saul can handle things on his own. He builds a strong army and successfully leads the people of Israel. However, through those years things are always going downhill for Saul. As we near the end of his story, he’s a fear-filled, pitiful man. Thus we come to this strange incident at Endor. Saul’s afraid of his enemies and with good reason. His past successes against the Philistines are forgotten as a coalition of forces is massing for the biggest battle yet. Saul’s only connection with God has been through Samuel, but now Samuel is dead. Prayer is an unknown thing for Saul, but in fear, he prays. There’s no answer. Then, with the same denial of God’s authority that was evident many years earlier when he decided to offer his own sacrifices rather than wait for Samuel at Gilgal, he again takes matters into his own hands. If God won’t answer, he’ll turn to witchcraft for answers. He knows God strictly forbids this, in fact, as king he’s enforced the abolition of witchcraft in Israel. Now, he goes looking for someone who can contact the dead for him, specifically Samuel. I know some view this as confirmation that witchcraft, mediums, séances, and the like can be genuine. However, I’m not ready to go there based on this passage. The “witch at Endor” is probably an old faker who’s told fortunes for years. Now, when she starts her act and Samuel appears she’s more surprised than anyone else: “When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out….” In other words, she dropped out of her mystic trance when something actually happened. My take on this is that Saul’s trying to bypass God by moving as far from God’s “territory” as possible. However, he runs headlong into God even there. Here’s the spiritual fact of life: even when a person tries to move out of the light of God into areas where no one is to go they find that God is God even there. This passage is a confirmation of His absolute sovereignty.
Take Away: There’s no way to bypass the Lord.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
1 Samuel 27: The best thing I can do is escape to Philistine country.
One thing about the narrative of the Bible is that we’re told the whole story, both good and bad. I think that David’s time in Philistine country is, for him personally, what the book of Judges is for the Israelite people as a whole. David does it and we’re told about it, but none of it’s to his credit. Right off, David says that he thinks sooner or later that Saul’s going to capture him, so he needs to escape the country. Where’s his faith in God who’s proven faithful to him across the years? Has he forgotten the incidents at the cave in En Gedi and at Hakilah Hill? Then we see him go to the enemies of Israel and of God, the Philistines, for refuge. King Achish foolishly thinks to himself that, “An enemy of Saul is a friend of mine.” That’s a major mistake on his part but David’s decision stinks to high heaven. It’s unworthy of one anointed of God. Once he settles in Ziklag, David starts raiding small towns. When Achish asks him where he’s been he lies and says he’s been raiding his own people, Judah. Instead, he raids Philistine towns and hides it by killing everyone living in them. When I read of mass killing during the occupation of Canaan I’m uncomfortable, but at least that they felt they were doing God’s will. In David’s case, he’s just making a living off of raiding villages and killing people. The writer of the Scripture just tells us what happened, but I come away from this passage thinking that this isn’t of David’s proudest moment. Later on, when David wants to build the Temple he’s told he has too much blood on his hands. I think this incident is an example of that. I understand that David was living in different times and that beyond that I’m not David’s judge. I also remember here that even biblical heroes (not to mention me) stand in great need of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
Take Away: Even heroes of the Bible need God’s mercy.
God’s people need to go easy on one another
1 Samuel 26: God forbid that I should lay a finger on God’s anointed.
Saul can’t seem to help himself. David has already spared his life once, at the cave in En Gedi, but when he receives word that David is at Hakilah Hill he gathers 3000 of his best soldiers and goes out to get him. David’s sentries spot this large unit as they enter the area and he and his men track their every movement. Saul sets up camp as night falls. Once more David decides on dramatic action to prove to Saul that he’s not a threat to his kingdom. Accompanied by brave Abishai, David slips into the camp and takes the spear from beside where Saul is sleeping. Abishai sees this as the opportunity to pin Saul to the ground with his own spear, but David refuses, saying he won’t lay a finger on God’s anointed. David believes that God put Saul in office and, even though Saul is a shadow of the man he was then, God will deal with removing him from office. So what do I learn from this? As a pastor, I’m tempted to talk about pastor/congregation relationships. However, I think it goes beyond that. To a great extent all of God’s people are his “anointed.” God has chosen each of us to be his very own. I’d better be careful that my words don’t wound one of God’s people. He considers each of us to be his own and anoints us with his presence. I don’t have to always like what you say or do, but I’d better treat you with the respect due to God’s servants. Otherwise, I risk following Abishai’s route rather than David’s.
Take Away: The Lord is quite interested in how his people treat one another.
The danger of little insults
1 Samuel 25: Blessed be your good sense!
The encounter between David and Saul at En Gedi results in a sort of peace between the two. David isn’t ready to return home, but Saul isn’t pursuing him for the time being. Under the cease-fire David is thinking about more pressing needs, like food! In the vicinity there’s a successful farmer who’s shearing his sheep. This is more than just a farm chore. It’s a big feast, a celebration of the success of the farm. David sends a few men to humbly ask the farmer to make a donation to his troops. The result is insult and denial. This infuriates David. There have been many times when he could have just taken some of Nabal’s sheep. Instead, his men have treated his shepherds with respect and kept their hands off of Nabal’s property. In his anger, David is on his way to raid Nabal’s farm and take revenge by taking his life. Meanwhile, Nabal’s wife, Abigail, hears what’s happened. She leaps to action by gathering a huge load of supplies and hurries out to meet David and his men. She humbly greets David and then presents a three-part argument as to why David shouldn’t do what he intends to do. First, she’s giving him a gift of many supplies. Second, her husband is a fool who’s not worth his effort. (By the way, what kind of a parent names his son, “Fool” anyway? No doubt, Nabal is in great need of counseling!) Third and most importantly, she tells David that taking revenge is beneath him as a man of God. Isn’t it interesting that David wouldn’t kill Saul who was seeking his life, but now, because he’s insulted he’s about to kill the fool, Nabal. Which is worse, having a powerful person try to put a spear through you or having a stupid person say a stupid thing to you? The trouble is that we’re often like David here. The things that get us off track aren’t when we deal with some major, obvious issue. When that happens we turn to God for his help, trusting in him. However, when it’s a small thing, just an insult or a thoughtless driver who cuts us off in traffic — well, we’ll just handle that ourselves; maybe teach them a lesson or two. We need people like Abigail around who can remind us to show some good sense in those “little things” that are such a danger to us.
Take Away: In some ways little things are more dangerous to us than the big things.
Close encounters of the Third Kind
1 Samuel 24: There was a cave there and Saul went in to relieve himself.
I know this isn’t the most inspiring statement in this story, but it is attention getting. David and his men have retreated to En Gedi, an area with lots of good places in which to hide. Saul has received a tip concerning David’s location, so he and his army are working through the region, searching for David. Saul knows he’s closing in on David, but has no idea of how close he actually is. Then, as happens at inopportune times, nature calls. There are no rest stops in the area, so Saul picks a convenient cave for privacy, dismisses his aids, and enters by himself, never guessing that David and his men (likely a patrol and not the whole 600) are hidden farther back in the cave. Talk about catching a man with his pants down! At this point it will be very easy for David to strike Saul down. His men see this as a golden opportunity to kill Saul, but David sees it as a chance to show mercy and to prove his respect for the person God placed at the head of the nation of Israel. David cuts off a piece of Saul’s laid aside robe. Then, as Saul rejoins his troops, David appears at the mouth of the cave Saul has just departed. The fringe of the robe proves that David has spared Saul’s life and, temporarily at least, Saul’s heart melts. Centuries later one of David’s descendants will declare the principle that directed David’s action that day. He said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Before the Sermon on the Mount was ever preached David illustrated it at the cave in En Gedi.
Take Away: Doing the right thing sometimes means we let a golden opportunity to force the issue pass by.
Hide and seek
1 Samuel 23: Saul was on one side of the mountain, David and his men on the other.
Saul and David are playing a deadly game of hide and seek. In spite of David’s continuing to be a defender of Israel Saul has made him public enemy number one. David’s band is growing, now numbering over 600, but Saul’s army vastly outnumbers them. Beyond that, David doesn’t want to fight Saul or any of his countrymen. The nation of Israel is divided. Some are loyal to Saul and others to David. In fact, one group, the Ziphites, betrays David to Saul. They report David’s whereabouts to Saul and help set up an ambush. It’s nearly successful. At one point Saul almost has David and his men cornered. If not for word of an attack from a real enemy that forces Saul’s attention elsewhere, David’s story would end right here. Because of this, this area is called “Narrow Escape.” So, was the attack by the Philistines at such a critical moment just good fortune for David? I think not. God’s fingerprints are all over this. Still, it’s interesting that God used the enemies of Israel, the heathens of the land, to deliver David. The lesson for me is that this is a reminder that God is truly sovereign. Even when godless people act in ways intended to destroy, God can give a gentle push in some particular direction and use their sinful act to accomplish good rather than evil. Even when it seems evil has won the day, God is still God, and he’s working in surprising ways in and through it all.
Take Away: When all is said and done it’s the Lord who has said the last word.
1 Samuel 22: I’m to blame for the death of everyone in your father’s family.
When David flees for his life from Saul he stops at Nob, the place of worship. In his desperation David tells a lie to Ahitub, the priest there, telling him he’s on a mission for the king. He asks for provisions and a weapon. Since David is highly respected the priest gives him holy bread to eat and the prized sword of Goliath that is stored there. As David is leaving he sees one of Saul’s men, Doeg the Edomite, who’s also at Nob and has seen what’s happened. However, David’s so afraid for his own life that he hurries on, escaping from Saul. Now we see the consequences of David’s dishonesty and failure to consider the danger in which he placed Ahitub and all those in Nob. Saul’s man, Doeg, reports the incident and Saul takes revenge on all those at Nob: men, women, children, and even the livestock. All are killed except the son of the priest, Ahimelech, who escapes to join David. When he hears what’s happened David says, “I’m to blame.” This is more than a gracious admission; it’s the terrible truth. In his fear David thought only of himself and in doing so, brought destruction to many innocent people. Fear is an awful thing. It causes us to shrink our world to only ourselves. Fear loses sight of God and causes us to ignore the consequences of our words and deeds. David’s admission and his taking Ahimelech in and under his protection is commendable, but it doesn’t undo the damage that was done in his fear-generated failure.
Take Away: Trust is the remedy for fear.