What we find as we read through the books of 1&2 Samuel is a mix of battle narratives and character studies. The action sequences are important because they show how the nation of Israel emerges as a force to be reckoned with, but often it’s in the character studies that we find the points of interest for us who live so far away from the circumstances of Saul and David’s time. What we find is that the characters that make up this history are a mixed bunch. Some are godly people, people of faithfulness and wisdom, while others are faithless, foolish, flawed. Yet overarching it all is the faithfulness of God and his intention to create for himself a nation that will reflect the realities of his kingdom even in this fallen world.
So what I thought we’d do today is to look at 4 or 5 different passages that paint pictures of the various characters who take part in this living drama. In fact we’ll look at 4 pairs of characters who interact as the story unfolds.
1. David and Saul I (24) and II (26)
The first pair is David and Saul. Now we’ve been looking at them for a few weeks now so we won’t spend an enormous amount of time on them, but we do need to quickly look at their interaction as the tension between them escalates.
David is in on the run, with Saul in hot pursuit. These are David’s wilderness years. This is the period when I imagine he would have penned the words to Psalm 121. "I lift up my eyes to the hills-- from where will my help come? 2My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth."
As the heat of the pursuit builds up Saul almost has David within his grip a number of times. Saul behaves like so many military leaders over the years. He’s ruthless when it comes to eliminating his enemies and their supporters. He kills the priest Ahimelech who’s given David and his men bread to sustain them. He gives David’s wife, Michal to someone else as his wife. He pursues David relentlessly through the desert. Until one day he has David cornered (24). Then he makes a mistake.
He doesn’t realise just how close to David he is. David and his men are hiding in a cave. And it just so happens that Saul picks that particular cave to use as his bush toilet. He’s squatting there, relieving himself and David creeps out, knife in hand, and silently cuts off a piece of his robe. But he doesn’t harm him, nor does he let any of his men harm him. And notice why not. (1 Sam 24:6 NRSV) ’He said to his men, "The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to raise my hand against him; for he is the Lord’s anointed."’ As I pointed out last week, David has a very high view of the Lord’s choice of king. Even if he is trying to take David’s life, he’s still the Lord’s anointed one.
But David doesn’t just leave it there. When Saul has come out of the cave and is about to leave, David calls out to Saul and shows him the piece of cloth he’s cut off Saul’s robe. He wants to demonstrate to Saul that he bears him no ill, nor does he pose any danger to him. And this earns him a reprieve for a short time. Saul is touched by David’s integrity and calls of the hunt.
But then a little later Saul is again in pursuit of David. The people of Ziph, near Hebron, report his whereabouts to Saul and Saul decides to go after him again. But this time, as they come near, David doesn’t wait for them to catch up. He goes and finds their campsite, and in the middle of the night, he creeps down to where Saul is sleeping and steals his spear and his water bottle.
Again, he could easily have killed Saul as he slept. In fact his companion offers to do it for him. But again, David points out that this is the Lord’s anointed one. No-one but the Lord can take his life. So they leave with Saul’s spear and water bottle to show Saul once more that he offers no threat to his kingship.
You have to admire David, don’t you? It would have been so easy for him to take the simple path. He didn’t even have to get his own hands dirty. But he’s an example to all of us of someone who has an implicit faith in God. He trusts God to do what he’s promised. He’s willing to wait for the time when God will give him the kingship. He’s willing to trust God to deal with Saul in his own time.
This is an area where I think we fail all too often. We don’t like the idea of having to wait. We like to know that things are under our control. And we’re often too quick to try to manipulate events or circumstances to bring about the desired results, rather than waiting for God to work his purposes out.
Now I know it’s sometimes hard to decide whether we should be waiting for God to act or whether he’s leaving us to get on with things, but I guess one thing we see here, is that David has understood something about the nature of God and the way he wants people to behave, that helps him make those decisions. There are other times when he acts on his own initiative as in the incident we’re about to look at, but mostly he first checks with God before he sets out on a particular course of action.
By contrast, Saul is a man who isn’t worried about what God thinks. He’s worried about the threat that David poses to his kingship. Even when David shows so clearly that he’s not his enemy, Saul still continues to fear him and to desire his death.
2. Abigail and Nabal 25
There’s another character study that we find in ch25. Here we’re introduced to Nabal. Nabal is a very rich man, but he’s a fool. He owns 1000 goats and 3000 sheep, an enormous holding for those days, but despite his good fortune he’s surly and mean.
Nabal has a wife, Abigail. She’s described as intelligent and beautiful, a woman as we’ll see, of wisdom. She’s a total contrast to her husband. Where he’s surly, she’s polite and respectful. Where he’s mean, she’s hospitable and generous.
David and his men have been living in the desert near where Nabal keeps his sheep and in the course of their patrols they’ve effectively served as a guard for Nabal’s shepherds and his sheep.
So when David hears that it’s shearing time, he sends some of his men down to ask Nabal for a few of his lambs for his men to eat. Well, Nabal is as mean as they come. His response is to ask who does this David think he is. He’s just a rebellious servant who’s run away from his master. He’s a nobody. Why should I give my good meat to someone like him?
Well, those are dangerous words when you’re dealing with David; when David has always treated you and your men with respect and care. He may have qualms about harming the anointed one of the Lord, but not about dealing with someone who has no appreciation of common decency or hospitality, let alone gratitude. David is grossly insulted by this response of a man he’s always dealt with, with integrity and honour. So David arms his men and 400 of them march off to deal with Nabal and his household. Nabal is doomed!
But one of Nabal’s servants speaks to Abigail and tells her what’s happened. He explains how David has always been a friend to them and how Nabal has treated David with dishonour. So Abigail shows her wisdom and her hospitality. She packs up her donkeys with food and sets out to intercept David before he reaches their home. When she meets him she shows him the respect he deserves. She apologises for the behaviour of her husband and begs him not to spill any blood for the sake of such a fool. She offers him the food as a token of their repentance and prays that God would bless him.
Well, the wisdom and graciousness of this woman is such that David thanks her for stopping him from exacting the vengeance he’d planned and then he returns on his way.
When Abigail returns to her home, Nabal is feasting in celebration of his own success so she waits until morning to tell him what she’s done. But when he hears what’s happens he suffers a stroke and dies about ten days later. Again, there’s been no need for David to exact judgement on his enemy. God has done it for him. And the story ends with David hearing of his death and coming to ask Abigail to be his wife.
3. David and Achish
Meanwhile, Samuel has died. Saul is still pursuing David, so David goes to Gath and takes up residence with the Philistines. He asks Achish, the king of Gath, to let him live in the town of Ziklag. Now you’d have to say that David and Achish are unusual allies. Achish is a Philistine. David is an Israelite. But the fact that he’s also an enemy of Saul makes all the difference. Mind you David doesn’t stop being an enemy of the Philistines, even if he is living in their territory. He just makes very sure that Achish doesn’t find out.
What we discover as we read through these chapters is that David is the consummate guerilla warfare expert. He’s actually a man without a country for the time being. Saul has driven him from his own land and forced him to live among his enemies. Yet all the time he’s fighting the Lord’s battles. He’s fighting to free his land from the Philistines and the other surrounding pagan peoples.
So David uses Ziklag as a base for his raids against the people to the south, the Amalekites and others who lived in the Negev. And he makes sure that no-one is left alive to tell Achish that he’s been raiding their allies rather than the Israelites.
Achish, you see, thinks that David is one of those allies. In fact when the Philistines go up to attack Saul, Achish takes David and his men along as his personal bodyguard. He appears to be a bit naive I guess. Certainly that’s what his Philistine mates think. They’ll have nothing to do with David being on their side of the battle line. They’ve heard enough of his exploits to know they’d rather not have him and his men at their backs in the heat of battle. And so Achish is overruled. David is sent back to Ziklag.
4. Saul and Samuel 28
In the meantime Saul hears that the Philistines are on their way and he’s terrified. But at least Saul has learnt one of his lessons well. He’s learnt to ask God for guidance. But when he doesn’t get it, he tries something that he himself has banned because it’s abhorrent to God. He consults with a medium, the witch of Endor. She’s what people today call a channeller, a medium. You still hear of people who claim to be able to contact the dead. I guess the most famous of late is Jonathan Edwards. This sort of thing is attractive to some people because it appears to offer a supernatural experience and supernatural knowledge without the inconveniences associated with personal relationships and commitment; without in fact having to deal with God. Someone has described it as ’a spiritualist technology that offers supernatural thrills to desperate or bored people’.
Well, Saul isn’t bored, but he is desperate. He can’t find a prophet who can tell him what God wants him to do. So he resorts to a medium to try to contact Samuel for one last piece of advice. It’s ironic isn’t it, that when Samuel was alive, Saul took little notice of what he told him, but now that Samuel is dead Saul is willing to risk the anger of the Lord in order to seek his advice.
Now in case you thought that witchcraft and channelling weren’t real, we discover that indeed this woman is able to conjure up Samuel from the dead. In fact when Samuel appears he brings with him a knowledge of the truth about Saul. Up until now Saul has been in disguise, but as soon as Samuel appears she recognises the truth about Saul. He reassures her that it’s safe to continue so she continues to act as a medium for Saul.
Sadly though, Samuel doesn’t have anything helpful to tell Saul. In fact the opposite. The time has come for God’s judgement on Saul to be carried out. By this time tomorrow Saul and his sons will be dead and David will become king over Israel. And so Samuel’s role as prophet of the Lord is finally over. Saul is left more terrified than he began and Israel is about to suffer one of its greatest defeats.
Now just think for a moment why all this has come about. Saul was the anointed one of God. Yet here he is, about to die on the battlefield with his whole army wiped out. What’s gone wrong?
Well, 2 things I think. The first is that the leaders of Israel wanted to rule themselves rather than following the rule of God. Mind you that by itself wasn’t an irredeemable mistake. It was wrong, because it went against God’s intention to make a nation for himself that would model what the kingdom of God is meant to be like, with God as the ruler of his people. But God was prepared to give his people a king who would rule as his regent on earth.
But the 2nd thing that went wrong was that the king God appointed failed to follow God’s leading. He wasn’t prepared to be God’s regent. In fact he ignored God at the most important moments. He disobeyed God when God gave him very clear instructions. He appropriated for himself the role of Priest that belonged only to the tribe of Levi. And as a result the whole kingdom suffered. Had Saul shown the godliness of David or his own son Jonathan, had he shown the wisdom and graciousness of Abigail, had he listened to the wise counsel of Samuel while he was still alive, things might have been different. But instead he chose to take his own path, to do what seemed best to him. And the fact is that whenever we choose to go our own way rather than following God’s way we tend to stray.
But the good news for Israel and the good news for us, is that God never abandons his people. He has a king prepared who’s a man after his own heart, who’ll restore the fortunes of Israel: David, the shepherd boy, who’s become a great warrior through his faith in God. And beyond him, God has a king who will do even more than David, who will truly establish God’s kingdom on earth; who will take on himself the sins not just of Saul, but of the whole world; and who’ll come to earth to die on our behalf. Of whom Isaiah would say "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."
For more sermons from this source go to www.sttheos.org.au