IT USUALLY TAKES MORE COURAGE TO REFRAIN FROM ANGER AND RETRIBUTION, THAN TO ACT ON IT
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1 Samuel #25. 1 Samuel Chapter 26:1-25
Often when I teach through the Bible, I am looking for tightly focused themes and messages in each passage. That works pretty well in the teaching portions of scripture. But often, when we get to narrative history, I feel like each passage is a box of chocolates: a lot of variety, a few surprises, but all of it is sweet.
I want to point out again David’s precarious situation. He trying to lead and support 600 men who can’t stay in one place. In fact, they can’t stay in any civilized place, because the king has declared him an outlaw, under the death sentence. He is dependent upon gifts from friends and strangers. He is also vulnerable to these same people, if they choose to betray them. We don’t know for sure how long David lived this way, but it was certainly years – maybe even as long as a decade.
One of the reasons I like to point this out is because many churches and popular preachers seem to suggest that if you have faith in God, everything will always go well for you. By implication, if things do not go well with you, it must because you don’t have enough faith, or you are not righteous enough. David was an imperfect human being, but he did live in faith. In fact he had a great deal of trust in the Lord, and always repented from his sins, and was willing to humbly learn to do better.
Even so, for many years, it did NOT go well with David. I just want to make sure that no one reading this ever falls prey to the teaching that if life is tough on you, it is because you don’t have enough faith, or you are a bad Christian or something like that. Also, I want to make sure you don’t believe that you can earn favors from God by being righteous, or saying the right words or having the right kind of faith.
I do want to say, however, that David became the great man he was because of faith. Sometimes things went very well for him and sometimes they didn’t. But how it was going on the outside was not as important to David as the quality of his relationship with the Lord. And because that relationship was more important to David than anything else, God was able to use him in amazing ways, and also to bless David without David thinking he had earned it.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to receive all of life as blessing, whether or not it looks that way outwardly? If we could do that, it wouldn’t matter much to us whether circumstances were good or bad. We would always be experiencing life as blessing. David was getting there.
In chapter 26, David is still in a time of outward difficulty. But we will quickly see that things are very good with his heart. Once more, the Ziphites betrayed David – the same people who almost got him killed in chapter 23. They knew where David was, and they told Saul to come and get him. As far as we know, Saul had left David alone since the incident when David spared his life in the cave. But the Ziphites basically tempted Saul to sin. Having betrayed David once, this group of people probably thought that if David were not killed, he would take retribution on them if he had the chance, so they may have been quite urgent and persuasive in trying to get Saul to start hunting David again.
David can hardly believe it, so he takes a few men on a reconnaissance mission to see if Saul really has come. One of them is Abishai. Abishai is the son of David’s sister Zeruiah, which made him David’s nephew. Since David was the youngest of ten, it is quite possible that he and Abishai are basically the same age, or even that Abishai is a little older. They might have spent a lot of time together as boys. At this point, they are both probably in their early or mid-twenties, in the prime of physical power and maybe a little inclined to try something crazy.
The two of them decide to sneak into the heart of Saul’s encampment at night. This is the desert, so the soldiers probably did not have tents. The picture seems to be that Saul chose his sleeping spot, and then the whole army arranged themselves around him, with his bodyguard closest to him and the rest around them in a rough circle. David and Abishai crept through the entire circle of sleeping men and came to Saul sleeping soundly, along with Abner, the chief of Saul’s bodyguard.
All this appears somewhat similar to chapter 24, but only superficially. Almost every detail is different. Saul doesn’t come alone into the cave where David and his men were waiting. Instead David creeps with only one companion into the middle of Saul’s camp. This time it wasn’t Saul almost finding David where he was hiding, it was David finding Saul where he was camped openly. Before, David was passive. This time he initiated the action.
I think that it is not coincidence that this happened shortly after David’s interactions with Nabal. In chapter 24, we have the record of how David was tested, in the cave with Saul, and he passed that test. But with Nabal, he failed. He fully intended to take matters into his own hands regarding Nabal, and was saved from sin only by the wisdom of Abigail. Now, once more, he gets the chance to take matters into his own hands, or trust the Lord.
Verse 12 says that the Lord put a deep sleep on Saul and the army, which made this whole incident possible. It is almost as if the Lord is giving David a chance to see if he really learned his lesson with Nabal. It isn’t just a test – obviously, God knew what was in David’s heart. But David may not have been sure of himself. He may have had times where he thought about the incident with Nabal, and condemned himself, and wished he had behaved differently. The Lord is giving him a second chance, a “do-over.”
Abishai hasn’t matured in that way at any rate. He asks permission to kill Saul. It would be all over. The good times could begin. The days of wandering homeless, despised by people around, in danger all the time, could all be ended by one swift spear thrust. As before, it was a powerful temptation. Who could blame David? In Saul’s mind, anyway, they were enemies. It would be an act of war. It wouldn’t even be David who struck the blow.
But David has learned his lesson thoroughly. He says:
10“As the LORD lives, the LORD will certainly strike him down: either his day will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. 11 However, because of the LORD, I will never lift my hand against the LORD’s anointed. Instead, take the spear and the water jug by his head, and let’s go.” (1Sam 26:10-11, HCSB)
He saw the battle with Goliath as the Lord’s fight. So he sees the struggle with Saul. It isn’t his, really – it is God’s business, and David trusts God to take care of it in His own time and in His own way.
As morning breaks, from a safe distance, David calls and awakens the camp. He shows them the spear and the water jug he has taken from Saul’s side. David is young and strong, and he has accomplished an amazing, bloodless feat of arms. So he teases Abner, Saul’s commander for a moment. I get the feeling he is rejoicing in what he and Abishai just did. But then, once again he respectfully confronts Saul with his wrongdoing. Like Abigail did with David, so David does with his king, Saul. He shows Saul he is wrong; he reminds him of true righteousness in God’s eyes – but he does it all with respect. You might say that David is submissive to the authority of Saul, but he is not subservient or a doormat.
At the end of the discussion, David shows where his trust is:
23 May the LORD repay every man for his righteousness and his loyalty. I wasn’t willing to lift my hand against the LORD’s anointed, even though the LORD handed you over to me today. 24 Just as I considered your life valuable today, so may the LORD consider my life valuable and rescue me from all trouble.” (1Sam 26:23-24, HCSB)
He doesn’t ask Saul to treat him the way he treated Saul. Instead, he declares that he trusts the Lord to treat him with righteousness and love.
Throughout this, Saul seemed to be full of remorse. But he was remorseful last time two, after David spared his life in the cave. David has learned something important from Saul: Remorse is not the same as repentance. Saul let his emotions rage through him uncontrolled. Sometimes he was full of murderous fury; sometimes he was full of regret and sorrow. But the regret and sorrow did not lead to true repentance for Saul – they were just feelings he had sometimes. So, even though Saul invites David to come back with him, David does not do it. Saul is in God’s hands, but David is wise enough not to trust him.
It’s another great story, and I love it just for the daring deeds and passion and trust in God. But what does it mean for us now? What does the Lord want to say to us through this passage today?
One of the things that catches my attention here is that David and Abishai accomplished a daring exploit, a great feat of war – yet without violence or bloodshed. If you are a young man, particularly, you may sometimes yearn to do something daring or great. Often it is easiest to imagine doing this in the context of some kind of violence – saving comrades during a battle, or saving your family from the bad guys. There is nothing wrong with the desire to do daring deeds, or with having a warrior-spirit. In fact, it is a good thing, used by god. By trusting the Lord, David allowed his warrior-spirit to be used and satisfied without committing violence.
Along with that, David shows that withholding violence takes more courage than doing something violent. With one violent act, his troubles could have over. It was much harder – it was a much greater deed – to leave Saul unharmed. I think we can all learn from that. Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. It takes a lot more courage to do that than to take matters into our hands, and protect ourselves. It takes courage not to reply with harsh words or gossip when someone hurts us. It takes courage to not repay hurt with hurt.
As we read the Old Testament especially, I think it is helpful to ask: “Where is Jesus in this text?” Remember, David is sometimes a “type of Christ.” What this means is that God used David at times to show the world what the real Messiah (Jesus) is like – to people who would never get the chance to know Jesus in their earthly life.
This passage does show us a little bit of what Jesus is like. Like David, Jesus is a mighty warrior, forever in the prime of life, full of bravery and wisdom; ultimately and absolutely victorious over his enemies.
David held back from harming Saul, who, without a doubt, deserved to be harmed by David. In the same way Jesus holds back the punishment that we all richly deserve. Jesus told us to love our enemies, to pay back evil with good. David did that very thing. Jesus forgave the people who were crucifying him, even as they did the deed.
Here’s something else that I think is very significant. David did not know at the time that the Lord was using him to show the world what Jesus was like. He didn’t realize how significant his actions were. But because he lived in trust and obedience, many people in his generation, and for a thousand years after, had some idea of what the Messiah was like.
We don’t always know when someone has a chance to see Jesus through us. We can’t always tell when the Lord is doing that. Very often the opportunity comes when we least feel like it. There was a huge temptation for David to act precisely opposite of how Jesus is. So in the same way, it may be in our toughest moments that God uses us to show Jesus to the world.
What is the Holy Spirit saying to you right now?