Today, we are covering a fair amount of text. We won’t be reading all of it, but I do want to consider it. But because we are going through so much so quickly, we can’t really examine it closely at all. So, as we sometimes do, our consideration of the text today falls squarely in the realm of reflection.
So having said that, the text we are looking at includes chapters 21 and 22 of 1 Samuel. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve looked at David’s fall from grace in Saul’s eyes. That is, after David’s victory over Goliath, he was highly favoured by both Saul and Israel. However, this does not last long. In fact, as far as the text is concerned, Saul goes from honouring David to immediately wanting to kill him (or otherwise get rid of him). In the past couple of weeks (chapters), we looked at Jonathan’s response to this – specifically, his loyalty to and love for David.
And this is set in the context of the growing antipathy of Saul towards David. So when we begin chapter 21, David has run away from Saul’s presence – from Saul’s court – because of Saul’s determination to kill David.
Now chapters 21-22 cover three relatively quick episodes that tell of David’s escape (so to speak) – what happens to David after he runs away. And then we get one longer episode that tells us about what Saul is doing.
So the first episode, 22:1-9, David runs to the priest Ahimelek at Nob. Now one would think that the anointed of God could fine shelter with the priest of God, but it is evident that this isn’t a safe place for David (though the text doesn’t make it clear exactly why). David is able to get some bread, and even the sword of Goliath, but he ultimately has to leave this place.
The second episode, 22:10-15, is perhaps most notable because David flees to Gath, which is the hometown of Goliath. Again, the text doesn’t tell us why David goes there, but it seems that he hopes he won’t be recognized. However, he is in fact immediately recognized. David pretends to be insane in order to escape notice. Again, the text doesn’t explain this strategy – perhaps the idea is that an insane man is no political or military threat to the king. Nevertheless, David again escapes and leaves Gath.
Chapter 22 (vv. 1-5) begins with David first going to a cave in Adullam. There, his brothers join him, and we find out that others who are “distressed or in debt or discontented” join him also. This is the beginning of David’s army. And then David goes to Moab and asks for safety for his mother and father.
Now there are a couple of things to note from these short verses. Firstly, David isn’t the only one at risk from the wrath of Saul. His brothers evidently are also on the run and his parents are also in great danger. To me, this very much suggests that Saul’s vendetta isn’t a purely personal one. That is, Saul isn’t concerned with David as an individual – rather, as we’ve said before, Saul’s concern is for his kingdom, his throne. Saul doesn’t want to just eliminate David – he wants to eliminate David’s entire lineage.
The second thing to note is that even though David is on the run, fearing for his life, God is still at work. Specifically, even though David is running from place to place, living in caves, and etc. his army – and by extension his kingdom – is being built up around him. And even though God isn’t specifically mentioned as the agent in these happenings, it is hard to ignore that God is at work, and it should be impossible to forget that God is at work in the life of God’s anointed. But having said that (and without getting too far ahead of ourselves), I want to turn to the rest of chapter 22.
I’m going to go ahead and read the rest of chapter 22:6-23. We should note that, again, the subject of the narrative switches from David to Saul. Whereas in the past three vignettes, we saw how David responded to the situation, here we see how Saul is acting.
6 Now Saul heard that David and his men had been discovered. And Saul was seated, spear in hand, under the tamarisk tree on the hill at Gibeah, with all his officials standing at his side. 7 He said to them, “Listen, men of Benjamin! Will the son of Jesse give all of you fields and vineyards? Will he make all of you commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds? 8 Is that why you have all conspired against me? No one tells me when my son makes a covenant with the son of Jesse. None of you is concerned about me or tells me that my son has incited my servant to lie in wait for me, as he does today.”
9 But Doeg the Edomite, who was standing with Saul’s officials, said, “I saw the son of Jesse come to Ahimelek son of Ahitub at Nob. 10 Ahimelek inquired of the Lord for him; he also gave him provisions and the sword of Goliath the Philistine.”
11 Then the king sent for the priest Ahimelek son of Ahitub and all the men of his family, who were the priests at Nob, and they all came to the king. 12 Saul said, “Listen now, son of Ahitub.”
“Yes, my lord,” he answered.
13 Saul said to him, “Why have you conspired against me, you and the son of Jesse, giving him bread and a sword and inquiring of God for him, so that he has rebelled against me and lies in wait for me, as he does today?”
14 Ahimelek answered the king, “Who of all your servants is as loyal as David, the king’s son-in-law, captain of your bodyguard and highly respected in your household? 15 Was that day the first time I inquired of God for him? Of course not! Let not the king accuse your servant or any of his father’s family, for your servant knows nothing at all about this whole affair.”
16 But the king said, “You will surely die, Ahimelek, you and your whole family.”
17 Then the king ordered the guards at his side: “Turn and kill the priests of the Lord, because they too have sided with David. They knew he was fleeing, yet they did not tell me.”
But the king’s officials were unwilling to raise a hand to strike the priests of the Lord.
18 The king then ordered Doeg, “You turn and strike down the priests.” So Doeg the Edomite turned and struck them down. That day he killed eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod. 19 He also put to the sword Nob, the town of the priests, with its men and women, its children and infants, and its cattle, donkeys and sheep.
20 But one son of Ahimelek son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled to join David. 21 He told David that Saul had killed the priests of the Lord. 22 Then David said to Abiathar, “That day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, I knew he would be sure to tell Saul. I am responsible for the death of your whole family. 23 Stay with me; don’t be afraid. The man who wants to kill you is trying to kill me too. You will be safe with me.”1 Samuel 22: 6-23
Now there are a few things that I want to call your attention to as we read this passage.
The first is the lengths to which Saul is willing to go in order to get to David – that is, the lengths to which he is willing to go to hold onto his kingdom. Saul is willing to put to death all of the priests of the Lord. The meaning of this should be pretty evident. Though Saul was chosen as king of Israel – king of the people of God, we’ve already seen that his devotion to God was limited (to put it mildly). Here, we see that he has abandoned that completely. Inasmuch as he sets himself against God’s anointed, he has now (or by now) turned against God Himself. There can be no doubt that perhaps he believed himself to still be God’s anointed and David merely a pretender. He has firmly and irrevocably chosen his own kingdom, his own desires and ambitions, and rejected God altogether.
Secondly, let’s take a closer look at what Saul actually says. We read in vv. 7-8:
7 He said to them, “Listen, men of Benjamin! Will the son of Jesse give all of you fields and vineyards? Will he make all of you commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds? 8 Is that why you have all conspired against me? No one tells me when my son makes a covenant with the son of Jesse. None of you is concerned about me or tells me that my son has incited my servant to lie in wait for me, as he does today.”1 Samuel 22: 7-8
In the first instance, Saul suggests that his men should follow him because of what he can give them: fields and vineyards, command over thousands and hundreds. He suggests that the men should follow him and reject David because of the potential reward.
In the second instance, he complains that “None of you is concerned about me…” And this complaint is repeated against the priests:
13 Saul said to him, “Why have you conspired against me, you and the son of Jesse, giving him bread and a sword and inquiring of God for him, so that he has rebelled against me and lies in wait for me, as he does today?”1 Samuel 22:13
And without going on about it, this underscores the previous point that we made that Saul’s concern is for his kingdom – for himself. Saul has never understood the anointing to which he was called. Saul never understood that it was God’s kingdom to which he was called; that it was God’s kingdom that he was to serve. And so, when he is faced with God’s rejection, and a new king being anointed in his place, he responds in the only way that makes sense to him.
Incidentally, it’s worth remembering that Saul is chosen by the people of Israel on the basis of being a king like all the other kings in the world. And on that basis, Saul’s actions may seem perfectly reasonable. But this should only remind us of the point that God’s kingdom is precisely not like all the other kingdoms of the world. And so God’s king should not be either.
Now the third thing to note from this passage, I’ll only mention briefly. And that is, Saul’s actions lead directly to the growth of David’s army. We read in the final verses of this passage:
20 But one son of Ahimelek son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled to join David. 21 He told David that Saul had killed the priests of the Lord. 22 Then David said to Abiathar, “That day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, I knew he would be sure to tell Saul. I am responsible for the death of your whole family. 23 Stay with me; don’t be afraid. The man who wants to kill you is trying to kill me too. You will be safe with me.”1 Samuel 22: 20-23
Now I want to try to think about all of this in the context of the David story. And of course we want to try to remember how this is all part of the story of God’s redemptive work in human history. So in short, what I’m inclined to think about is the difference between Saul’s actions (and reactions) as we’ve just talked about, and David’s. More specifically, what we’ve seen – in today’s readings as well as in the previous chapters – is that Saul is desperately trying to hold onto his kingdom. Saul is desperately trying to hold onto his power, his position, his rights, and his rewards. Which of course makes sense from Saul’s perspective.
Which begs the question for me – why isn’t David doing the same thing? We know from the story that David is the anointed king of Israel. Saul has been rejected for his lack of faithfulness, and David has been anointed by Samuel in his place. We’ve seen David face the Philistines and defeat Goliath when no one in Israel (Saul included) would take a stand. And we’ve seen that all of Israel thought well of David – this is part of the reason for Saul’s anger and jealous, of course.
So why is David running at all? After so many victories over Israel’s enemies, why isn’t David now taking a stand in the face of the threat against his own life? Whereas Saul is busy rooting out traitors and murdering priests, David is hiding in a cave.
Now I hate to disappoint you, but we’re not going to answer the “why” question now. I simply want to point out the disparity between the perspectives – again, especially in light of what we might think David deserves.
Instead, what I do want to point out is that these chapters, beginning at chapter 21, is the beginning of what we usually term David’s wilderness years. These are the years that David is on the run from Saul’s armies; these are the years that David has no home, has no security, has no wealth, power, or position. And what I want to suggest is that these are important years. We have, in the past, talked about the importance of silence. How it is often in the in-between times that God is working deeply. Wilderness times are prominent in scripture in the wanderings of Israel after Egypt; and in the 40 days Jesus spent before beginning his ministry. And extended silence is notable in the centuries that Israel spent in Egypt after Joseph, but before Moses; as well as in the centuries between Malachi and the gospels.
So I suppose it’s worth noting that, at least in these few verses of David’s flight from Saul in chapters 21 and 22, God is not mentioned. At least, there’s no indication in the text that God told David to go where he went, or to do what he did. As far as the text tells us, David was running of his own accord. David was simply trying to survive.
And let’s make no mistake – David was running for his life. Sometimes when we think of times like this, there can be a temptation to romanticize the wilderness. We think (or at least, I do) of the Desert Fathers, or we think of the monastics, steeped in mysticism. We think of the wilderness as “getting away from…” so that we can focus entirely on prayer and contemplation. We think of the elimination of distractions and relying entirely on the word of God for our sustenance.
And of course, God gives us times like that. But what we’re talking about here is true peril. What David is experiencing is not solitude, but a legitimate threat to his life. David is running for his life with no real prospect of relief or rescue.
And it’s through that wilderness that God is working to establish his kingdom. It’s in this wilderness that God brings his brothers alongside him. It’s in this wilderness that God brings the weary and wandering alongside him. It’s here that Abiathar finds David and joins his cause. It’s in the wilderness that God is working in David to form him into the kind of king that he is called to be.
Sometimes (oftentimes?), I wish God would make a lot more sense. That is, sometimes I wish God would make a lot more sense to me. I wish that He would tell me what He was doing; I wish that He would tell me what He wanted me to be doing; I wish that He would make my path clear so I wouldn’t feel like I was wandering around place to place with nothing to show for it. I wish that in the hard times, I could know the plan God has for me, that everybody seems to talk about to make sense of the pain, the anguish, and the suffering.
And sometimes He does. But sometimes He doesn’t. But when He doesn’t, I pray for the faithfulness and trust to know that God’s working doesn’t depend on my knowing. I pray that when I find myself in the wilderness, I will find the strength to wait upon the Lord.