Saul's Pursuit of David
1 Samuel 23.
We have left David in complete rejection by Saul, but thoroughly furnished, so far as was needed, for all practical communion and guidance. What more could one ask? He was the chosen of the Lord, and His anointed. He had already manifested that the Lord was present with him in both the victories gained and the deliverances from the hand of Saul. The tragic cutting off of the priests had been the occasion of the removal of this outward sign of communion with God from Saul to David, and the prophet was ready with the word in season as to his course. Thus he was thoroughly furnished unto every good work.
We find him now engaged in that work. It is remarkable to see how the proper activities of the king of Israel were now in his hands. What had been taken out of Saul's hands was committed to David. He had already been the captain of the people, and had led them on to victory; and yet he was, to the eye of sense, but a fugitive from his king, with a price upon his head, and liable at any moment to be cut off. How strange a combination, and yet how beautifully illustrative of the path of faith! For it, too, there is no outward display, no great array of wealth and power and position; but, on the other hand, the benefit of full priestly communion with God, through Christ, and all-sufficient guidance through His word and Spirit. True, the flesh is seeking ever to destroy this, but how futile it is, for it is fighting, not against man, but against God.
As we look about us today, we see the vast ecclesiastical systems of the world, from Rome on, with high pretension, with wealth and all carnal machinery for the carrying on of a great work. The mistake is often made — alas, often by the children of God — of thinking that where there is such an enormous amount of machinery, there must be power. It is this that causes men of faith sometimes to shrink from the lonely and lowly path of separation, lest they be deprived of their activity in the service of the Lord, both in ministering to His people and in the gospel to the world. It is often objected that if one gives up association with some system, it will deprive him of his usefulness. Let David speak to us here. His equipment and opportunities were ample. It was lie who was largely doing the work for Israel.
We must carefully distinguish, too, between the hostility embodied in the ecclesiastical system and the true people of God in it, together with the various endowments, or weapons, and men, which are largely at its disposal. Here too we can learn a lesson from David. He was never a reviler of the system which had cast him out. He would have been the first to deprecate a hostility on his part toward the people of God who still followed Saul. His weapons and his followers, such as they were, were at the disposal of the whole people of God to do whatever would be for their benefit. It requires devotion and absence of all self-seeking and self-righteousness to follow such a path. Indeed, no one but the One who had His Father's glory as His only object has ever exhibited, in its perfection, utter absence of all personal resentment and hostility against His relentless foes while patiently teaching them, so long as they would receive it, and ministering to the needy that were all about Him. It was the spirit which also actuated David in such good measure, and we are sure that it is that which moves the true servant of Christ, whoever and wherever he may be.
Let us cherish this spirit, and remember that, even if reviled or neglected, our great work is still to feed the flock of God, and that the words of our Master are still binding upon the love of hearts restored to Himself: "Feed My lambs;" "Shepherd My sheep."
A mere crusade against what is called "system"; a denunciation of those who follow not with us; a cultivation of a spirit of contempt for them, is farthest removed from what we are looking at here. How refreshing it is when the obstacles and persecutions of the way do not interfere with the activities of divine grace working in our hearts!
We have been led to this line of thought by our present chapter, in which we find that David comes to the rescue of the city of Keilah, a part of the inheritance of Israel. The Philistines were fighting against it, and robbing the threshing-floors. David does not hastily go up to make a display of himself, as though he would show his activity unimpaired, but reverently inquires of God whether it be His will for him to go. He meets a most gracious response, and is assured that the enemy will be given into his hands. His men have not his faith, and shrink from the dangers to which they would be exposed. It reminds us of the hesitation of the disciples to return to the land of Judah at the time of Lazarus' illness. "Master, the Jews of late sought to stone Thee, and goest Thou thither again?" So David's men urge. They were afraid even where they were, and how much more if they should expose themselves to the added danger of the Philistines!
Nature ever argues thus. "There is a lion in the way; I shall be slain in the streets," is the plea of the sluggard against doing anything. But is it not true that activity is the best safeguard? To sit idly with the hands folded, to tremble because of impending evil, instead of going forward in the plain path of duty in reliance upon God, is never the way of safety. Indeed, personal safety is the last care of faith. Our present and ultimate salvation has been eternally secured, and is kept for us by our almighty risen Lord. That leaves no room for further care as to self, but rather encourages us to throw ourselves into the breach and fight manfully the battles of the Lord. Those who do this are not only victors for the Lord and His people, but themselves come out unscathed. So they go down to Keilah.
Of the spiritual significance of the place and the character of the Philistines' oppression there we cannot say much. The meaning of Keilah is given as "refuge," and the ecclesiastical system of Rome would ever seek to rob us of our true refuge. Under the plea of casting her mantle of protection over all her children, Rome actually robs them of the only true refuge, which is Christ. The Philistines were robbing the threshing-floors. As Israel gathered the golden grain, and beat it out there, these enemies would come down upon them and take away all their food.
How truly too does Rome, while professing to be a tender nursing mother, rob the people of God of their true food! The grain which is beaten out in the threshing-floor answers to the person of Christ, risen and glorified, who is apprehended by His people through the diligent study of His word and the exercise of faith. The threshing-floor would suggest the needed care and labor incident to a right apprehension of the person of our Lord. The grain must be gathered and then winnowed, in order that it may be separated from the mere empty form of the chaff, and in all its perfection offer itself for our food. The Philistines thus, in robbing Keilah, would answer to the effect of ritualism upon the people of God. It robs them of their refuge and of their food, and it is only the true David, the Lord Himself, rejected by ritualism but the chosen of God, who can rescue His people; and He does this through those instruments whom in His grace He has chosen, and who are walking in that path of faith which our Lord has marked out for us.
Thus David conquers the Philistines and takes away their cattle and rescues the men of Keilah. The victory is not merely a repulse of the enemy, but an actual gaining of fresh stores. Faith, no doubt, always gathers fresh riches from every conflict. The spoil of the enemy does not rightly belong to them, but to those who overcome them. This spoil, again, may well remind us of those fresh views of Christ which we gain from the very conflict in which we have engaged for Him.
But where is Saul in all this good work? He has not had the courage to take the initiative against the enemy. So far as he was concerned, the men of Keilah would have been at the mercy of the Philistines. Is it, however, possible that, as in the case of Jonathan, while lacking in initiative, Saul will follow in the wake made by the victorious leader? Will he not follow up the good work which David has done? Alas, he has already manifested his true character, and shown the one object which dominates him. He does fight against the Philistines throughout his reign, and yet there is one name to him more hated than the Philistines themselves, and this is none other than David, "the anointed of the Lord." What a dreadful thought! Here is a man with the full knowledge that God had chosen David, with the full knowledge also that he himself had been rejected from being king, who yet will deliberately and persistently plot his ruin. Verily this is not fighting against man, but against God.
Saul hears, doubtless through the ready tattling of the servants that were about him, that David had come to Keilah. The self-deluded king declares that God has delivered his enemy into his hand because he had shut himself up in a city, and therefore could be surrounded and besieged at leisure. The incurable character of the enmity of the flesh is seen here. Saul would not go to Keilah to deliver it from the Philistines. He will go at once to lay hold of David. What shall we say of that spirit which is timid or slothful in the work of the gospel, or in seeking to rescue the people of God from error, but which is quick to take up weapons in carnal strife with the servants of the Lord? We need not wonder that the work of God languishes in any company where the spirit of envy and strife is present.
But David has the priest with him, who will make known to him the mind of God as to his further course. It is pathetic to see that so far from the men of Keilah being stirred to gratitude by the deliverance which he had effected for them, David finds that they will deliver him into the hands of Saul, and he must therefore flee from them. So little does the average Israelite appreciate what has been done for him! And what shall we say of ourselves? Have we rightly estimated the value of that wondrous emancipation which faith has wrought for us? Do we appreciate those instruments whom the Lord has used to bring to us priceless truth which has triumphed over the Philistines, or are we ready to sacrifice to the rigid ecclesiasticism of self-will the very power which has set us free? Let us remember that a carnal ecclesiastical system would answer to Saul, and that to recognize its authority would amount to a surrender of our delivering truth into its hands.
The Lord makes known this humbling truth to David, who is thus enabled to escape from those whom he had so lately befriended. Truly the path of faith is often a lonely one, and those whom we serve we may have to leave, lest their hostility should be arrayed against us. But God is over all. His beloved servant is kept in safety to continue the work for which he had been anointed.
But though he has escaped from the hand of Saul at Keilah, his enemy still pursues him. His abode must be in the fastnesses of the wilderness, where he was well at home, and where the more cumbrous machinery of the king's army could not follow him with the same activity. It is in the wilderness of Ziph that Jonathan goes to meet David, and to strengthen his hands. It is beautiful to see this loyalty of heart on the part of Jonathan, which contrasts so completely with the enmity of his father. Jonathan reassures David he need fear nothing. The hand of Saul shall not find him. God has given him the kingdom, and he will reign over Israel. Jonathan tells David that his father knows this well — a sorrowful fact which proves his awful apostasy.
Jonathan, however, while thus encouraging David, allows his fancy to carry him further than the revelation of God. He was to have a place next to David in the kingdom. This might, indeed, seem. natural. The fact that it was natural would suggest that it was not to be. In the carnal condition of the nation, it would scarcely be possible that the descendant of their former king could occupy a place next to the Lord's anointed without furnishing occasion to those who sought it to awaken discontent, and possibly rebellion. It could not be. Jonathan, under the government of God, cannot be associated with David. The natural successor of his father's throne cannot transfer his interests to a subordinate place in connection with the throne of another.
This is part of that holy government of God which we see exercised so constantly. This world cannot be the place of final adjustment, and there must of necessity be a certain measure of reaping the consequences of one's associations where personal loyalty may be unquestioned.
We have already sought to characterize the attitude of Jonathan, and have nothing further to add here, except to remark how his soul sets to David as the needle to the pole, and to covet for ourselves that love and devotion of heart here expressed, together with the outward confession which should go with it, so far as we are concerned. Notice too, Jonathan does not return to the army of Saul to engage even in the outward pursuit of David, but to his own house. There he will remain, refusing even to seem to participate in the persecuting activities of his father.
In glaring contrast with the love of Jonathan, we have the treachery of the Ziphites. Doubtless the presence of David among them was a safeguard, but their thought is simply to "stand in" well with king Saul, and they, as the men of Keilah, show their willingness to surrender David into his enemy's hands. Saul still retains the forms of pious expression, although using them in such dreadful connection. He would call God's blessing upon these traitors because they had compassion upon him — a compassion which consisted simply in gratifying his implacable enmity; but what compassion was it for the lonely one, the chosen of God, against whom they thus arrayed themselves?
Saul urges them to find out more definitely where David is, and to bring him word. He would continue to search for him among all the thousands of Judah, and never rest until he had hunted him out of his God-given inheritance. This gives us a fresh illustration of the incurable enmity of the flesh against the spirit. There cannot be room for both to act unhinderedly in the same place. This is equally true of the individual and of a company. If the flesh is master in a man's heart, it will never rest until it has eradicated the last vestige of true faith. The same will apply to the corporate relations of God's people. If carnal wisdom and self-interest are allowed to dictate, they will root out all those blessed activities of faith which alone make life worth the living.
Saul says, "It is told me that he dealeth very subtly." Subtlety was a stranger to the character of David, save that in all the skill of practiced warfare he was an adept. This skill, however, had been shown against God's enemies, but it was a gross insult for Saul to intimate that David would use anything approaching treachery in connection with himself.
"It is told me," — indeed! when no one knew the character or ability, and the devotion, of David better than himself! He speaks as though it were some enemy of whom he had only heard, instead of his own son-in-law who had time and again risked his life for his advantage. Can we fail to see the steady setting of the whole current of Saul's life into that ebb of all that was even naturally noble in his character, until it consummates in its awful ending?
The meaning of Ziph has been given as, "refining," suggesting that separation of the dross from the pure metal which is necessary for its full display. Here, in this crucible, Saul is but the dross, and we may be sure that the exercise of faith, dependence and patience by David would bring out the fine gold of that character which was the fruit of grace alone.
When all seems to be closing in upon David, and his capture a matter of only a few hours, the interposing hand of God is seen. Word is brought to Saul that the Philistines had invaded the land, and he has to give up his pursuit of David to go against them. This turning-point was at Sela-hammahlekoth, "the rock of divisions," a separating line indeed, which showed the presence of the true Rock who was David's hiding-place. He who had put a separation, literally "redemption," between Israel and the Egyptians, here divides between David and his enemy by His almighty presence. Thus the faith of this beloved servant of God would be encouraged by the sympathy and cheer of Jonathan, by the ineffectual efforts of Saul to reach him, and by the manifest putting forth of God's hand to protect him.
In the midst of all the experiences through which we may be called to pass, shall we not find a similar encouragement in the manifest deliverances of our gracious God? The enemy is not allowed completely to overwhelm us. We escape as a bird out of the snare of the fowler we are cheered by the sympathy and fellowship of some loving Jonathan; and when all seems at its worst, God interposes and the enemy turns away. We need not go into details, for here is the secret history of the soul, known only to God and himself but the persecuted saints of God furnish many an illustration in the pages of church history of the same character. Almost literally, as David was delivered at this time from the hands of Saul, have the Lord's suffering saints been rescued from their persecutors. The history of the covenanters in Scotland and of the people of God in Piedmont naturally occurs to us.