From “Playing Both Ends Against the Middle” to “Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place” (1 Samuel 29:1--30:6)
I have a number of younger friends whom I enjoy a great deal. One of my friends was visiting recently as I was in my study finishing the previous Sunday’s sermon in print. My nine-year-old friend, Luke, strolled into the study to see how I was doing. “What’s that on your screen?” he asked. “That’s my sermon from last week,” I responded. “Kind of long, isn’t it?”, he asked. “Well, I guess maybe it is,” I responded. As I continued to work on the message and scrolled down to page 10, Luke chatted and looked on with casual interest. “Hold it, Uncle Bob!,” he said, “I thought I saw something. Could you scroll back just a bit -- just a little more?” Walking over to my monitor, Luke pointed to a sentence in my sermon where I had written, “Saul commander of a thousand, hoping David would be killed.” “Is this what you really meant to say?” he asked. “No,” I admitted, a little embarrassed and quite amazed. I fixed the sentence to Luke’s satisfaction and mine by changing it to read, “Saul appointed David commander of a thousand, hoping David would be killed.” As Luke lost interest and sauntered out of my study, I said to myself, “How did he do that?”
Sometimes we receive help from unexpected places. That most certainly is the case with David in 1 Samuel 29. David manages to get himself into a real jam. After being delivered from the hand of Saul on numerous occasions, David becomes weary of living like a fugitive. In a moment of despair, he reasons that his only hope is to flee from Saul into the land of the Philistines. David is convinced that once Saul learns where he is, he will give up his pursuit. David and his 600 men, accompanied by their wives and children, found refuge in the land of the Philistines. David persuades Achish, the Philistine king, to allow them to leave Gath and settle instead in the more remote city of Ziklag. From this base of operations, David stages a number of raids against the enemies of Israel. In each case, David deceives Achish by telling him that he has just raided another one of the Israelite villages or cities nearby. To assure that no one will be able to inform Achish of what has really happened, David is careful to kill off every person, leaving no survivors. David seems to share some of the spoils of war with King Achish (see 27:9), while also taking a share (at least on one occasion) to his Israelite brethren (see 30:26-31), the very people Achish thinks David is killing off. In short, David is playing both ends against the middle.
David seems to be getting away with his deception. Suddenly things take an unexpected turn, and David now appears to be caught in the middle. King Achish informs David that the Philistine commanders are joining forces to stage a massive attack against Israel. He then tells David he and his 600 men are going to have the honor of fighting with and for him. David unnerves the reader of 1 Samuel 28 by assuring Achish that he will fight valiantly for the Philistines. He promises to show Achish his full capabilities as he goes to battle with him. Achish responds to David’s assurances by offering him what he believes to be a great reward for his faithful service – a lifetime job as his personal bodyguard. Who would have ever imagined that David, who once served as Saul’s armor bearer, would now be appointed the bodyguard of a Philistine king?
The author leaves us in shock at this turn of events, as he turns his attention to King Saul and the account of his visit to the medium of En-dor. In chapter 29, we come upon a terrified, panic-stricken King Saul. He can no longer get God’s attention or receive divine instructions to deliver him and his army from certain defeat at the hands of the Philistines. In sheer desperation, Saul seeks counsel through a medium living at En-dor. When he learns that God is not going to rescue him, but is going to give him and his soldiers over to the Philistines, Saul loses all his courage and strength. He is virtually paralyzed with fear. Finally, after being persuaded to eat, Saul gains enough strength to go out into the night and return to his men and to the battle. He now knows how that battle will end.
All through the gut-wrenching experiences of Saul at En-dor, our minds have continually strayed back to David, who has gotten himself into a most precarious situation. He seems to be in an almost “catch 22” situation, with no way out for David and his men. If David truly fights for Achish, with the rest of the Philistines, he will be fighting against his own people (the Israelites), his king (Saul), and his beloved friend Jonathan. If David does not fight with the Philistines, he will almost certainly have to turn against them in battle. This also poses almost insurmountable problems. It is God’s intention to give the Israelites over to the Philistines and to take the lives of Saul and his sons in battle. If David fights against the Philistines, he will be fighting (as it were) against the purposes of God. What is David to do? Going over to the Philistines seemed like such a smart move to David in the early part of chapter 27. He managed to get safely out of Saul’s reach and succeed at ingratiating himself with both the Philistines and the Israelites. But now, in a brief moment in time, David finds himself caught in the middle with no apparent way out. It is at this point in time that help comes from a very unlikely source – four Philistine commanders.
Before trying to follow the events of the story which our author so skillfully tells, let us take note of several things that should help us better understand this text.
First, notice we are not told why David does what he does. Under divine inspiration, our author is fully able to inform us of David’s motives and intentions. For example, earlier in 1 Samuel we are told why Saul gives David promotions in leadership and offers David his daughters in marriage. The reason may not be immediately evident to those around Saul, but the author of 1 Samuel informs his readers of Saul’s motivation and intention: he is jealous and threatened by David and fully intends to kill him, thus being rid of him as a rival for the throne. In chapter 27, we are told why David flees to King Achish for sanctuary from Saul: David is afraid and does not believe there is any way to save himself other than by seeking asylum in Philistia. Now, at a time we would very much like to know what David plans to do and why, we are not told.
We know one thing for certain: the author purposely withheld this information from us. The author does not wish us to know what David intends to do or why for several reasons. (1) The author seems to want us to wonder what David is thinking, which enhances the element of mystery and suspense. A good writer holds our interest as much by what he withholds as by what he reveals. (2) The author is not trying to nominate David for sainthood, but portray him as a “man of like passions,” who has doubts and fears and makes mistakes, just as you and I do. (3) Had we been told what David intended to do and why, we would go more easily with David. We would tend to make excuses for him.
We live in a day when situational ethics are common. Situational ethics do not judge an action – say immorality, for instance – as wrong, but seeks to discern “rightness” or “wrongness” on the basis of motives. If a man commits adultery, but out of a “loving,” “caring” concern for the other party, then his actions are not wrong. While there is a certain element of truth here, some things are just plain wrong, and our motivation and attitude in so doing won’t make them right. The author does not seem to want us to “understand” why David acted as he did, but rather to agonize over why David acted this way.
Second, the author departs from a strictly chronological order in these chapters. In chapter 28, we find the Israelites encamped at Gilboa, while the Philistines are at Shunem (28:4). This is quite far to the north and the scene of the actual battle between these two armies (see 31:1). But in chapter 29, the Philistines are gathered at Aphek, while the Israelites are at Jezreel. This is considerably south of the sight described in chapter 28, which means that the events of chapter 29 precede those of chapter 28. The author has purposefully departed from the chronological order of events to a more thematic order. He is more interested in making his point than providing us with a chronological time line. It would seem that the author’s intent is to alternate between Saul and David so as to continually contrast these two men.
Third, the author does not make a point of explaining much to us, or even of openly giving credit to God for what is taking place. This would spoil the intrigue of the story the author is telling and the purpose for which he is telling it in this way. There is very little “God talk” in this passage, and what “God talk” we find comes from pagan King Achish, rather than from David. I believe the author does not wish to insult his readers by telling them what they should be thinking at every point in the story. He expects us to read this story as sacred history, with the theological framework set out in the Law of Moses. He wants the reader to think for himself and reach biblical conclusions.
Fourth, while David is the dominant personality – the “star” – of this story, he is not the most prominent speaker. David speaks little in this text. Most of the speaking is done by Achish and the other Philistine commanders.
A Fly on the Wall of a Philistine Tent
1 Now the Philistines gathered together all their armies to Aphek, while the Israelites were camping by the spring which is in Jezreel. 2 And the lords of the Philistines were proceeding on by hundreds and by thousands, and David and his men were proceeding on in the rear with Achish. 3 Then the commanders of the Philistines said, “What are these Hebrews doing here?” And Achish said to the commanders of the Philistines, “ Is this not David, the servant of Saul the king of Israel, who has been with me these days, or rather these years, and I have found no fault in him from the day he deserted to me to this day? “ 4 But the commanders of the Philistines were angry with him, and the commanders of the Philistines said to him, “Make the man go back, that he may return to his place where you have assigned him, and do not let him go down to battle with us, lest in the battle he become an adversary to us. For with what could this man make himself acceptable to his lord? Would it not be with the heads of these men? 5 “Is this not David, of whom they sing in the dances, saying, “Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands'?”
The Philistines have chosen Aphek as a staging point for the consolidation of their armies in preparation for their attack on Israel. Here, each of the five Philistine lords (see chapters 5 and 6) come with the men under their command. (It appears each of these commanders is also the king of one of the five principal Philistine cities. Achish is the king of Gath, and thus the commander of the troops from that area.) The troops are passing by (their commanders) in review, by hundreds and thousands. Four of the five Philistine commanders are shocked and angered by what they see.
Sometimes a person will say, “I wish I could have been a ‘fly on the wall’ to hear what went on when . . . .” They mean that they would very much like to have been present to hear or see what happened at a certain place and time. By divine inspiration, we are allowed to become a virtual ‘fly on the wall’ of a Philistine tent – the tent in which the five Philistine commanders hold a heated discussion.
The “rear guard” of the entire Philistine army is none other than David and his men. It has taken a while (and a bit of prompting) for me to grasp the significance of this, since I have no military experience. You recall that Achish “honored” David by making him his lifetime bodyguard. I take it that of the five divisions of soldiers who pass by that day, the fifth division is that led by Achish. David is at the back of the entire army.151 This is a most crucial position, for if at all possible, the opposing army will try to flank their enemy and then attack them from behind, as well as from in front. Those stationed at the back are some of the finest, bravest, and most highly skilled warriors. David and his men are given this honor.
What Achish regards as an “honor” is perceived as a “horror” to the other Philistine commanders. While we are not told what David is thinking or planning to do here, we are allowed to overhear the exchange between Achish and his four commander colleagues as this top level military summit takes place. The other four commanders are livid. They cannot imagine how Achish could be so nave as to take David into battle with them, and to do so by placing him in a very strategic position. They are not at all happy with the situation and waste no time calling Achish to account for his folly. What in the world are David and his 600 warriors (these Hebrews) doing in the Philistine army?
Achish has a ready explanation. Is this not David, Saul’s servant, Saul the King of Israel? Achish sees things exactly opposite from the other four commanders. He looks upon David as an asset, precisely because of who he is. David is a turncoat, a man who is faithful to him rather than to Saul. Who cannot see the value in having one of Saul’s most trusted men as an ally, after it becomes apparent that David has indeed changed sides? David is now one of them. He cannot possibly go back to Israel. There is absolutely nothing to worry about, he assures his colleagues. In all the time since David has deserted Saul, Achish has found no fault in him. “Trust me, fellows, David is one of us, and he can do us a lot of good.”
The four fellow-commanders are not impressed in the least by the confidence of Achish or by his assurances. If anything, the answer Achish gives them makes them even more angry with him. How can this man be so taken in by David? How can he be so stupid? How can he fail to see what David is really up to? David is a Hebrew. He is a Hebrew in exile. He will do anything he can to win the favor of King Saul. How better to accomplish this than to feign loyalty to the Philistines, and then turn against them in the heat of the battle?152 Has Achish forgotten David’s military genius and might, and his popularity among his own people? Let him hear the poem one more time: “Saul has killed his thousands; David his ten thousands.”
The four commanders do not give Achish any choice. They instruct Achish to send David home – back to Ziklag. He is not going to battle with them, or perhaps more accurately, they are not going into battle with David. If Achish wants to continue to offer David asylum in Ziklag, good enough. That is a place remote enough that David can do little harm there. Let David be sent back to Ziklag, but he will not be going to war with the Philistine army. That is final!
Achish Apologizes to David and Sends Him Home
6 Then Achish called David and said to him, “As the LORD lives, you have been upright, and your going out and your coming in with me in the army are pleasing in my sight; for I have not found evil in you from the day of your coming to me to this day. Nevertheless, you are not pleasing in the sight of the lords. 7 “Now therefore return, and go in peace, that you may not displease the lords of the Philistines.” 8 And David said to Achish, “But what have I done? And what have you found in your servant from the day when I came before you to this day, that I may not go and fight against the enemies of my lord the king?” 9 But Achish answered and said to David, “I know that you are pleasing in my sight, like an angel of God; nevertheless the commanders of the Philistines have said, 'He must not go up with us to the battle.' 10 “Now then arise early in the morning with the servants of your lord who have come with you, and as soon as you have arisen early in the morning and have light, depart.” 11 So David arose early, he and his men, to depart in the morning, to return to the land of the Philistines. And the Philistines went up to Jezreel.
Achish now has the unpleasant task of “disappointing” David, and telling him he must go home. He does so, using language unbefitting a true pagan: “As the LORD lives, . . .” (29:6). This is not the pagan term for “gods,” but the Hebrew term Yahweh, for the one true God, the God of Israel. Later on in verse 9, this Philistine king tells David he is “like an angel of God.” These are strange words indeed. It is not David who is talking “God talk,” but Achish. It may be that he is carefully choosing words to accommodate David’s faith. It may be that David’s faith is having an effect on Achish.
It is almost amusing to read the nice things Achish says about David. They are so flattering to David, and so false. Achish tells David he has been pleasing in his eyes, that from the day he first arrived to stay with him, he has done no wrong against him. Would Achish feel the same way and say the same things if he knew what David had really been doing, whom he had been raiding and killing, and that his reports to Achish were false? I think not! But Achish has more good things to say of David. He tells him that he is “like an angel of God” in his sight (verse 9). Achish is completely taken in by David, and the immensity of David’s deception is evident in the words of praise of this pagan king. Achish not only flatters David, he apologizes to him. He explains to David that while he wants David to accompany him in the coming battle with Israel, his four colleagues will have no part of such a plan. David and his men will return to Ziklag in the morning.
David never ceases to amaze me. If I were in David’s sandals, I would be dancing in the streets after hearing what Achish has just said. Here he is, in a seemingly hopeless situation, caught between a rock and a hard place. The four Philistine commanders refuse to allow David to go into battle with them, and Achish sheepishly gives David the “bad news.” Bad news? This is fantastic! David does not need to fight with the Israelites, with Saul, or with Jonathan. Neither does David have to fight with Achish or any of the Philistines. All he needs do is go home to his own place in Ziklag. Rather than humbly submit to these orders from Achish and the Philistine commanders, David protests, as though he would talk them out of their decision, as though he is bound and determined to go to war. Given a “way of escape,” it seems that David turns it down.
Dale Ralph Davis does not miss the humor in this interchange between Achish and David, writing:
“There is more than a little humor in this scene (vv. 6-8). Achish stands there, apologetically emphasizing how he thinks David should go with him in this campaign and extolling David’s faithfulness, which he has no reason to extol. On the other hand, David with disbelief on his face and exasperation in his voice protests the rejection he has no reason to protest. The deceived defends his deceiver, and the relieved disputes his relief!”153
If David’s words of protest are an act, David is a magnificent actor. Gratefully, the minds of these four Philistine commanders cannot be changed. David will return to Ziklag in the morning.
Early the next morning, both David and the Philistine warriors arise to get on their way. The Philistines set out for Jezreel, where the Israelites are encamped, and David heads back for Ziklag. David has been saved, and this by the angry reaction of four Philistine commanders who overrule the plans of Achish.
Trouble at Home
1 Then it happened when David and his men came to Ziklag on the third day, that the Amalekites had made a raid on the Negev and on Ziklag, and had overthrown Ziklag and burned it with fire; 2 and they took captive the women and all who were in it, both small and great, without killing anyone, and carried them off and went their way. 3 And when David and his men came to the city, behold, it was burned with fire, and their wives and their sons and their daughters had been taken captive. 4 Then David and the people who were with him lifted their voices and wept until there was no strength in them to weep. 5 Now David's two wives had been taken captive, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess and Abigail the widow of Nabal the Carmelite. 6 Moreover David was greatly distressed because the people spoke of stoning him, for all the people were embittered, each one because of his sons and his daughters. But David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.
While David and his men are with Achish at Aphek, the Amalekites are plundering Ziklag. If we have learned anything, it is that failure to completely carry out God’s word has devastating consequences. Saul’s failure in regard to the Amalekites is bringing his reign as king to an end. It will cost him his own life and the lives of his sons. David’s raids, while based at Ziklag, are against the enemies of Israel, which include the Amalekites (see 27:8). Is this raid in retaliation? For whatever reason, the Amalekites take advantage of the military moves of the Philistines and attack virtually defenseless villages and cities. Among them is Ziklag. The city is destroyed, burned to the ground. Providentially, all of the people of Ziklag are spared, along with the cattle. David does not deal so kindly with the Amalekites.154
For David and his men, their trip from Aphek to Ziklag must have been light-hearted, something akin to the mood of a busload of college students on Spring break on their way to the mountains for a ski trip. I can imagine the relief David and his men must feel as they leave the ranks of the Philistines and turn back toward Ziklag. They have come through this awkward situation with honor, rather than with shame. Achish still thinks highly of David, and the four Philistine commanders still seem to fear him. They do not have to do battle with their fellow-Israelites, and neither do they have to turn against the Philistines. They have been rescued. No lives have been lost fighting. All they have to do is to return to Ziklag and enjoy spending a little time with their families.155 How do these men “spell relief,” as the television commercials say? They spell it “Z I K L A G.”
As they draw near Ziklag, they begin to see, and perhaps smell, smoke. A growing sense of dread falls upon this small army. One can imagine that puzzled looks become looks of alarm, and noisy chatter ceases, replaced by a chilling silence. The city is in shambles, burned to the ground. There is absolutely no sign of life. Neither are there any bodies lying about. Some may still be alive, but those who are alive may wish they were dead.
This may be the darkest day in David’s life to this point in time. At this moment, no one seems to be thinking of pursuing those who have done this, whoever they might be.156 David’s two wives have been taken, and so have all the families of his men. The men are grief-stricken. They could not have imagined anything worse. They all weep until they have no strength left to continue.
This is not a pretty sight, but it gets even uglier. As the apparent reality begins to set in, David’s men begin to think about what has happened. It is all David’s fault. David brought them to Gath and then to Ziklag. David had them bring their families along. David ordered raids on peoples like the Amalekites. David’s wheeling and dealing got them inducted into the Philistine army. Because of David’s relationship with Achish, they are all far away, in Aphek, while their own families are terrorized and kidnapped. They have had just about enough of David and his leadership. They are greatly distressed and ready to vent their anger. Talk begins to circulate among the men about stoning David.
It is now about as bad as David can possibly imagine. He had been rejected by Saul, and then by many of his fellow-Israelites. Some of David’s kinsmen were ready and willing to turn him over to Saul to be put to death. Rejected by Saul and the Israelites, David fled to Achish, who received him with open arms. But now David is rejected by the Philistines and sent home. And when he gets home, he finds his family and the families of his men gone, the cattle taken, and the city in ruins. To top it all off, David is now being rejected by many of his own men, who would like to see him dead as well. Everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong.
As we pause in our study at this dark moment in David’s life, let us reflect on what has happened and what we can learn from it.
The first lesson we learn (or are reminded of) is that sin’s consequences are often delayed, but inevitable. What we read in our text is the result of a very bad decision on David’s part made over a year before. It was his decision to leave the land of Israel and flee to Achish in the land of the Philistines for safety and protection (27:1ff.). In the light of David’s words to Saul in chapter 26, one could hardly argue with his decision to take his men and their families to the land of the Philistines. At the very least, this decision was contrary to his own convictions, so clearly and passionately expressed to Saul. The immediate outcome seemed favorable. David and his men were able to be with their families. They were welcomed by Achish and lived comfortably while raiding and plundering their enemies. They even won the favor of many of their fellow-Israelites (30:26-31). They were playing both ends against the middle, and it was working well.
Then, as always, the consequences of sin begin to appear. David has become too popular with Achish. Instead of being a refugee, an exile, David becomes the bodyguard of a Philistine king and a leader of 600 in the Philistine army. David finds himself caught in the middle. The time for him to make good on all of his claims has come. Now he is obligated to wage war against the Lord’s anointed, and with his son Jonathan, David’s beloved friend. David’s flight to the Philistines, which was intended to “save” his men and their families and give them time together, has now brought about their captivity by an unknown raiding party. David’s men, for whose benefit he apparently acted in fleeing to Philistia, are now ready to stone him. The chickens (we say in a proverb) always “come home to roost.” They certainly have here.
God and Satan are vastly different here. God makes the consequences of sin very clear. Though there are many particulars, we can sum it all up by the statement: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Even when it comes to discipleship – to following Christ – our Lord wants people to know both the immediate price tag and the long-term benefits. God does not seek to “tempt” us to do good by putting the price tag in fine print. Satan does. He minimizes the cost of sin and often denies it all together (e.g., “You surely shall not die!” Genesis 3:4). But be assured that sin always has a very high price.
Years ago, while our family was at Six Flags Over Texas (an entertainment park) with another family I was reminded of the cost of sin. After paying a high price for admission and then waiting in line for our rides, we got to experience a highly promoted ride. After the ride, I turned to the father of the family and said: “This is a great illustration of sin. The price is high, and the ride is short!” So it is. For David, the ride is over. Now it is time to pay.
A wise man is cautious and turns away from evil, But a fool is arrogant and careless (Proverbs 14:16).
Second, we should see from our text that the adverse consequences of our own sins extend beyond ourselves, and often cause pain and suffering to those we love most. I am sure David must have thought he was acting in his family’s best interests by taking them to the land of the Philistines. But his doing so, which was wrong for him (chapter 26), was also wrong for his family. We know this incident eventually turns out right. But during those days that these family members are terrorized and traumatized, a high price was being paid – by them! When Abram instructed his wife, Sarai, to lie about being his wife, both he and she spent some agonizing nights apart, all the price tag for his sin.
Asaph, the psalmist of old, wrote a psalm about a very critical point in his life, Psalm 73. He begins the psalm by his affirmation of a biblical principle:
“Surely God is good to Israel, To those who are pure in heart” (Psalm 73:1).
He then goes on to tell us that as he looks around, this just doesn’t seem to be true. The righteous seem to be afflicted, and the wicked seem to prosper. All the while that the wicked prosper, they mock God. Asaph is just about ready to throw in the towel, but he realizes that if he sins, others will suffer:
If I had said, “I will speak thus,” Behold, I should have betrayed the generation of Thy children (Psalm 73:15).
That is the way sin works. Not only does it have painful consequences for the sinner, it also adversely impacts many others. Among these “others” are those we may love the most. When a husband or a wife chooses to forsake their marriage vows and commit adultery, they cause great suffering, not only for their mate, but for their family as well. Sin never pays, it is never worth the price. But those who “pay” greatly for our sin are often those we love. For God’s sake, for your own sake, and for the sake of those you love, see sin for what it is, and what it does. The wailing we find in our text is a part of the price of sin, David’s sin. I have said it in the past to those contemplating willful sin, and I now say it again to those of us who may be toying with committing a certain sin (or planning to persist in it). I have yet to see the man who chooses to sin look back upon his sin with a smile on his face, as though it was worth the price.
Third, while our text underscores the high price of sin, it also gives us hope – it reminds us that there is a way of escape. I have a friend who says something like this: “I don’t just have feet of clay; I’m clay all the way up to my arm pits!”157 David was “clay all the way to his armpits,” too. But let us note the contrast the author draws between David and Saul. Both Saul and David have gotten themselves into a serious situation, one that appears hopeless. Both Saul and David are deeply distressed, so much so that they have little strength. When Saul goes out, he does so “at night.” When David departs from the Philistines, it is “morning.” It is as though the writer wants us to see the differences between Saul and David, even in the midst of their similarities.
The last part of verse 6 is a significant clue, not only to the difference between David and Saul, but as to the source of this difference:
But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God (verse 6).
Saul goes off to consult a witch; David strengthens himself in the Lord his God. There is the difference. Saul never seems to repent, never seems to have a heart for God. David does have a heart for God and does repent. David, like most of us, finds that many of his turning points are during times of suffering and sorrow, in the dark times of his life. But in this dark day of David’s life, when he has no one else to turn to, he turns to God.
How does he do it? How does he strengthen himself in the Lord his God? We should note that the author gives us little detail here. He does not give us a formula, a series of fail-proof steps. We live in a day when people want a quick fix with a sure cure, and often by the performance of a set of neatly laid out steps – a formula. In the final analysis, I do not think the Christian life is lived by formulas, but by truths and principles. There are do’s and don’ts, but these are not formulas. Let us note here that David finds his spiritual strength in the Lord his God.
Having said there are no formulas given here, we do find hints that may be profitable to those who would strengthen themselves in the Lord. We may very well recall a previous incident when Jonathan helped to strengthen David in the Lord:
15 Now David became aware that Saul had come out to seek his life while David was in the wilderness of Ziph at Horesh. 16 And Jonathan, Saul's son, arose and went to David at Horesh, and encouraged him in God. 17 Thus he said to him, “Do not be afraid, because the hand of Saul my father shall not find you, and you will be king over Israel and I will be next to you; and Saul my father knows that also.” 18 So the two of them made a covenant before the LORD; and David stayed at Horesh while Jonathan went to his house (1 Samuel 23:15-18).
If David strengthened himself in the Lord, we can probably infer that just as Jonathan did earlier, David must have reminded himself anew of the character of God and the promises of God. If God is who He is, in terms of His character (His attributes), we can be assured that what He promises, He will do. Paul put it this way:
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day (2 Timothy 1:12; see also Jude 1:24-25).
Another factor related to David’s strengthening comes immediately after verse 6:
7 Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, “Please bring me the ephod.” So Abiathar brought the ephod to David. 8 And David inquired of the LORD, saying, “Shall I pursue this band? Shall I overtake them?” And He said to him, “Pursue, for you shall surely overtake them, and you shall surely rescue all.” 9 So David went, he and the six hundred men who were with him, and came to the brook Besor, where those left behind remained (1 Samuel 30:7-9).
David not only strengthens himself in the Lord, David inquires of the Lord. He seeks after God. He seeks to know the will of God in this situation, and then he does it. How different David is from Saul in this regard. David’s strength then seems to come from contemplating who God is, what He has promised, and what He wants us to do. David may have gotten himself and others into a lot of trouble, due to a foolish decision, but he also turns back to the God to whom he has entrusted himself.
Fourth, this passage has some very encouraging things to teach us about God. This text reminds us of the faithfulness of God, even when we lack faith.
If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13).
God anointed David as Israel’s next king. God was going to see to it that David was Israel’s next king. Neither Saul, nor unfaithful Israelites, nor Philistine kings, nor his own soldiers, not even David himself could keep David from becoming Israel’s king. God’s purposes and promises are sure.
God is not only faithful, as we see from our text, He is also merciful. David has simply gotten himself into a real mess. How easily we could say that David made this mess, let him clean it up. How good it feels to let him simmer in his own sauce. God does allow David to experience the painful consequences of his sins, but He does not take pleasure in doing so; He takes pleasure in showing mercy. This He does by rescuing David, David’s men, and all their families and possessions. This we shall see accomplished shortly.
God’s sovereignty is so apparent in the rescue of David and his men from military service, service to the Philistines and against Israel. God uses David and even his sin to achieve His ultimate purposes. God does not cause David to sin, nor is this sin excused. But in the end, God’s sovereignty (absolute control) is so great that He can even employ the disobedience and sins of men to further His own purposes. He used the sinful betrayal of Joseph by his brothers to save the nation Israel. So God uses sinful men in our text. He used David, as we have seen. He uses the naivet of a king like Achish and the foresight and practical wisdom of the four Philistine commanders. He will even use the Amalekite attack for a good purpose. I love what Davis says about God’s use of His enemies:
“We see it again. What instruments does Yahweh use to rescue his servant from his dilemma? The commanding officers of the Philistine army. It was not the first time Yahweh had turned enemies into saviors (see 23:19-28). Philistines make such unwitting but effective servants! Who has ever been his counselor?! (Cf. Isa. 40:13-14).”158
“What our text does teach is that even in our folly and fainting fits, we are still no match for our God, who has thousands of unguessable ways by which he rescues his people – even by the mouths of Philistines. He can make the enemy serve us as a friend. He not only prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies but also has the knack of making the enemies prepare the table!”159
I think we sometimes unthinkingly assume God is a saving God only at the cross of Calvary. The fact is that God has been and still is a saving God. He has been saving men from the beginning of history. God is a rescuer. He rescued Noah and his family from the flood (Genesis 6-9). He rescued Abram from Egypt and from the hand of Abimelech in Gerar (Genesis 13, 20). He rescued Lot and his daughters from Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). He rescued Jacob and his family from extinction as a separate nation (Genesis 37ff.). He rescued the Israelites from Pharaoh, and from the evil hand of many other kings and nations. He constantly rescued the Israelites from their surrounding enemies during the days of the judges. If God needed practice in saving men (which He most certainly does not!), He would be very good at it by now.
But all of these earlier deliverances do not hold a candle to the great and final act of deliverance that He brought about for men in the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He died for our sins, bearing our punishment. He not only takes our sins upon Himself, He offers His righteousness to us so that we may have eternal life and dwell with Him for all eternity. And God accomplished this through the sinful betrayal of Judas, the jealousy and scheming of the Jewish religious leaders, the cooperation of Gentile Roman rulers (who sought to be politically correct), and the passivity (and even participation) of the people. This He did so that sinful men might be forgiven for their sins and receive the righteousness which God offers to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
Have you been rescued yet? Have you come to see the plight into which your sin has put you? God provided a “way of escape” in a way no one would ever have expected or asked – through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, on the cross of Calvary. All you need to do is to receive this forgiveness, as a gift of God’s mercy and grace. What a wonderful thing it is to be freed and forgiven, to be rescued by God. To God be the glory.
150 Davis entitles this chapter, “Accepting the Philistines as Your Personal Savior.” Dale Ralph Davis, Looking on the Heart: Expositions Of The Book Of 1 Samuel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), vol. 2, pp. 159-166.
151 Another variation, suggested to me by my friend Marvin Ball, is that the five Philistine commanders stayed at the back of the formation so that they might be removed from some of the dangers of the battle, and might have a kind of “command post’ there. If this were the case, David would be protecting not only Achish, but all five of the commanders. Put in contemporary terms, the “fox” would have been placed in charge of the “hen house.”
154 Hugh Blevins, a friend and fellow-elder, pointed out that this sparing of the people of Ziklag is not an act of humanitarianism; it is an economically based decision. Joseph’s brothers did not spare his life out of compassion; they sold him into slavery for the money they would obtain, and perhaps for the “pleasure” they would get from knowing their brother would suffer throughout his life as a slave. There is no profit in dead bodies. But there is profit in selling slaves.
156 We are told that it was the Amalekites who raided Ziklag in verse 1 of chapter 30. It does not appear that David knew who it was until later, when they came across a young man who was left behind, probably to die (30:11-15).