Contrasts of Faith and Failure
1 Samuel 26. and 27.
Saul's persecution of David is resumed again after the death of Samuel. Did the removal of the faithful witness against him give occasion for the blazing out of the fires of hatred, or did his departure revive in Saul such a sense of his own dishonor and loss as stirred him up to retrieve his place, if possible, and by his own efforts set aside the irrevocable decree of God? Vain effort indeed! And yet those who are acquainted with the ways of man in the flesh know that it is one of his boasts never to accept defeat, and to struggle on in face of all odds to the end. This is what is applauded by the world, which would also justify Saul in his effort to keep the kingdom to his own family. The world also fails to see that Saul was under the judicial hand of God, and speaks of his closing years as darkened by a strange form of insanity.
Again we have the willing treachery of the Ziphites, who tell Saul of David's hiding himself in their vicinity. Both tempters and tempted are the same as in the previous case, when David escaped from Saul's hands. David seems loath to believe that Saul had again taken the field against him, but the spies whom he sends out leave no doubt about that.
Again occurs a scene very similar to the previous one. It is a beautiful illustration of the magnanimity of David, who here, however, exposes himself to far greater danger than he had done on the previous occasion.
Saul and his army are encamped for the night, and David resolves to venture down into the very midst of the camp. Abishai, the brother of Joab, one of his tried associates, volunteers to accompany David in answer to his call. They reach the camp, find all in security, and Saul behind the ramparts, surrounded by the people, all in a deep sleep. The javelin which he had repeatedly cast at David is stuck in the earth at his head, ready to be seized at a moment's notice. Again Abishai urges David to rid himself of his enemy, offering to use Saul's own weapon against himself, with the assurance that one blow would be sufficient, as doubtless it would be. Would it not be retributive justice in slaying him with the weapon which had been aimed at David, and would it not be a fulfilment of God's word that the pit which a man digs he falls into himself?
Again David absolutely refuses to stain his hands with the blood of "the Lord's anointed." Who could be guiltless, he says, who did this? This is a marked and beautiful trait of character in David — respect for divinely constituted authority, which looks not at the character of the holder of the office, but the position which he occupies. Meanwhile he reminds Abishai that God will one day remove him, either by a stroke or his end shall come in the ordinary way, or possibly he shall fall in battle. This is sufficient for him. He will not take his case out of God's hands. He does, however, again vindicate his own integrity by indisputable proof that when his enemy had the second time fallen into his hands he has allowed him to go free.
Abishai is commanded to take the spear at Saul's head, and the cruse of water; and thus they withdraw from the slumbering camp. God himself had interposed, in casting his enemies into a deep sleep; and thus he escapes with his life from a position in which any sudden alarm would have turned the camp into a scene of wild confusion, and have ensured his destruction.
The removal of the spear and the cruse of water is suggestive. The spear speaks of the weapons of warfare, and the cruse of water of what brings refreshment. In a spiritual sense the weapons of our warfare are those of righteousness, faith and truth; and that which gives refreshment and sufficiency for conflict is the water of the word of God. Saul is deprived of both. It was fitting that the man who had set out on such a course as his should be deprived of power as well as comfort from the word of God. In every assault of self-righteousness upon Christ, in every course of unbelief and disobedience, both weapon and refreshment are removed from the one who would misuse both.
The deep sleep falling upon them suggests, too, how God causes a lethargy often to fall upon His enemies, so that they are utterly powerless to prosecute their plans against the people of God. Thus, in the history of our Lord, after the determination had been formed by the Jews to do away with Him, and when they were seeking His life, He entered with all boldness into Judea, and continued His holy work. He would go up to the feast of tabernacles, for instance, and teach in the very courts of the temple; and when the Pharisees sent officers to take Him, He continued His ministry — no man laying hands upon Him. Thus, while ministering the water of life to any that thirsted, He was also removing from these self-righteous ones the weapon they sought to use against Himself — the Word in which they professed to trust. Thus the Pharisees were left both without the spear and the water, until the time should come when they would be permitted to smite.
The same path is open to faith; and at times in a marvelous way God seems to put His hand upon the opposition which assails His servants, and gives them the opportunity of bearing such testimony as for the time being disarms the enemy.
Having removed to a safe distance, David now arouses the sleeping camp. He chides Abner for his carelessness in allowing the king to be without a guard. He taunts him, though a man of courage and having supreme authority, with allowing the king to be thus unprotected. He is worthy to die for such neglect. There could be no doubt as to the truth of David's charge, for the spear and water were witnesses of it.
Again Saul recognizes David's voice, and again repeats what is now scarcely more than mere sentiment. "Is this thy voice, my son David?" There is a ring of indignation in David's reply, and not the same tone of gentleness which marked it before. "It is my voice, my lord, O king." He challenges him to show his fault; and if he is guiltless, why does the king thus pursue his servant? He now pronounces a solemn curse upon those who are engaged in this bitter warfare. If it is the Lord who has stirred up Saul thus to persecute him, he appeals to the offering as his only shelter from divine chastisement; but if, instead of God, it is men thus persecuting him, he pronounces a solemn curse upon them, and adds that, so far as they are concerned, they have driven him out from the Lord's inheritance, and would turn him off among the heathen, to serve their gods.
This is the responsibility that faces all who would persecute the people of God, great or small. What a solemn thing it is, either by harsh treatment, cold criticism, or any other injustice, to intimidate the least of the Lord's people! It is in effect driving them out from the Lord's presence, unless His mercy comes in. "Take heed that ye offend not one of these little ones," says our Lord; for such an offender "it were better that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were drowned in the depths of the sea."
David's protest seems again to reach Saul, who acknowledges that he has sinned, and invites David to return. He declares that he will never more pursue him, because his life has again been spared. He characterizes his course as playing the fool, and erring exceedingly. But no confidence can be placed in the word of a man who has continually violated his most sacred obligations. So David makes no response to this, except to return the spear. Significantly, no mention is made of the water. He will put the weapon back into Saul's hands, but the Word he has deprived himself of.
Again David appeals to the Lord to render to every man his righteousness and his faithfulness. He had so acted toward Saul that he could with confidence count upon God's recognition of this. He does not ask that Saul shall spare his life, but appeals to God, who has seen his own magnanimity, to hold his life precious in his times of danger. This was an appeal he could make with all confidence; and how faithfully, up to this time, had God responded to it! No one had been allowed to touch him; and though there was but a step between him and death, God occupied that step, and none were allowed to harm him.
Saul utters one more word, the last of which we have any record which he spoke to David. Most significantly, it is a declaration of the blessing and victory which are his portion. "Thou shalt both do great things and also shalt still prevail." Prophetic words indeed! Thus from the very lips of the enemy God even exacts an unwilling tribute to his faithful servants. The promise to Philadelphia is that her enemies shall come and bow before her, and confess that she is the beloved of God. So too in the world, empty profession is often compelled to pronounce God's blessing upon the very ones whom they are persecuting, and Christians who are ignored and maltreated are declared by their enemies to be those whom God will eventually bless. In the day of final display, without doubt, the whole company of the lost, Satan and all his angels, together with those who have rejected Christ, will unite in acknowledging the blessedness of His redeemed, and their victory through the blood of the Lamb.
Saul now returns, and David goes on his way. With this fresh reminder of the almighty power of God engaged on his behalf, we would think that his faith would be greatly encouraged, and that he would continue in the simple course which he had heretofore pursued. In this he had been blessed, having been permitted to rescue some of God's people from the hands of the Philistines; but here, in God's faithful record, which never flatters His most devoted servants, we have an account of failure in David more glaring than his temporary lapse in the case of Nabal. The deliberate purpose which he forms, of dwelling among the Philistines, springs from a heart which for the time had lost sight of the all-sufficiency of God. "David said in his heart, I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul."
How opposite is the arguing of unbelief to that of faith! Faith reasons, "Because Thou hast been my help in time past, therefore under the shadow of Thy wings I will rejoice." Every past mercy is a pledge for mercy to come. Unbelief looks upon every fresh danger as a greater menace than all that had previously occurred; and, forgetting the mercy of God, recalls only the various dangers to which it has been exposed. We need not chide David severely, but rather ask ourselves, Have not we too often fallen in the same way? The disciples also, again and again, forgot the Lord's sufficiency when we would think it would have been impossible for them to do so. He had fed the five thousand; and when the need is presented again, with four thousand to be fed, they ask the same unbelieving question. This is always nature's way. Unless our faith is in living exercise, we dishonor the Lord by doubting His care and His power. But if we lose sight of the Lord and His sufficiency, what other resource have we?
David here has no thought, apparently, of hiding in the strongholds of the land. If he loses sight of God, there is nothing better for him than to go speedily down into the land of the Philistines. But what an exchange! Those enemies against whom he had fought all these years, over whom he had won such notable victories, whose champion he had laid in the dust, he must now seek refuge with. How humiliating! Has he forgotten his previous failure when he fled to Achish, king of the Philistines, and had to feign himself a madman? And is it not mad folly to lose faith in the all-sufficiency of God, and to trust in an arm of flesh?
But we would like to get rid of the constant assaults of persecution. Without grace, we weary of oft-repeated attacks, and the soul, losing sight of the Lord, asks, Shall I not for the time being sacrifice my principles, give up my testimony, leave the ground which I see to be the heritage of God's people — can I not let all this go for the time, to secure a little ease? Here David takes the ground to which hitherto all the power of Saul had not been able to drive him. It is ever true that our greatest enemy lurks in our own hearts. Not all the malice of Satan, nor the cunning craftiness of men, can dislodge the soul which has put its unwavering trust in the living God. It is only when faith falters that a servant-maid can lead one to deny his Lord (Mark 14:66-69).
David goes, with all his household and his men of war, back to the court of Achish, to the very city of Gath where once abode Goliath. He does indeed thus rid himself of Saul but in giving up his trouble how much more does he sacrifice with it! It was told Saul that David was fled to Achish, and he sought no more again for him but it is one thing to rid ourselves of trial, and another to keep the sense of God's approval. This has already been alluded to, but we may well repeat that, whenever we are pressed to sacrifice a distinct principle and a true position, either under pressure of opposition or the plea that we shall thereby gain fresh adherents, we are practically leaving the land of Judah ("praise") and going down into the Philistines' country.
Remembering, too, that the Philistines stand for the principle of hierarchy, and of succession — fully developed in the ecclesiastical system of Rome — we see where disloyalty to Christ may lead one.
As we have said, it was no sudden lapse in David at this time, nor is he driven away from Achish as before, but rather he asks for a permanent place where he can abide, and Ziklag is given to him. Well indeed was it for David, as it is always well for us, that Another was working for him, who would overrule even his acts of unbelief and folly. "Ziklag," we read, "pertaineth unto the kings of Judah unto this day."
David remains in the land of the Philistines a long time, a year and four months, which shows how long a course of departure from God may continue. There was, too, considerable activity at this time, an activity which it is somewhat difficult to characterize. David goes up into the land of the Geshurites and Gezrites, where also the Amalekites were, and smites them completely, leaving neither man nor woman alive, and carrying away the spoil. These seem to have been Israel's ancient enemies, and therefore under a ban, but there seems little to relieve the darkness which has gathered about David here. We cannot feel that his victory is to be classed along with those of Joshua, or even of the Judges.
Coming back to Achish, he makes a false pretence of having gone into the land of Judah, among his own brethren, with the object of leading Achish to think that he had completely turned against Israel. He has utterly cut off every one, so that none remain to give Achish the truth, who is thus led to think that David, having openly taken sides against his own people, will now be a vassal to the Philistines forever. A false position leads to falsehood, and mars even those activities which otherwise would meet with commendation. How often, too, does one seek to make up by great activity for glaring unfaithfulness. Distinct truth as to one's own place may be rejected, and a lower path adopted. Along with this may go great apparent activity in assailing certain forms of error, and a great show of faithfulness. Well is it if this show does not lead one to publicly assail those whom he knows to be in the place God would have them occupy.
The ruse succeeds with Achish, as it may succeed for a time in any case, but chastening is sure to follow. The Lord loves His servant too well to allow him to go on in a false position, and to gain prestige with his enemies by even a false declaration of his conflicts with the truth.