Facing Adversity

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

1 Samuel 21-24

 

How do you respond to adversity?

Many of you will be familiar with the terrible condition known as ‘man flu’. For some reason, us males seem to crumble in a heap when we get a cold (let alone the actual flu!). We’re convinced that what we are suffering is objectively worse than whatever it is that females get. For some reason, most females seem to think that man flu is not a real condition, and so they use the term in a very patronizing way – very unfair!

But actually, if I’m being honest, I can admit that I don’t react well to being sick. I hate the way it saps your energy and enthusiasm for life. Things that are not supposed to be difficult or painful are suddenly difficult and painful. I can spiral a bit into self-pity when sickness sets it. Perhaps even a bit of ‘man flu’ syndrome…

I think today’s passage, the unfolding narrative of the tension and conflict between David and Saul in chapters 21-24 of 1 Samuel, raises for us the question of how we respond to adversity in life. How do we respond and why?

When circumstances get difficult, when people disappoint you, when things don’t go your way, when others seem to be getting attention and credit when you’re not, when you feel your financial and social security is being threatened… how do you respond? Do you experience a downward pull towards bitterness and desperate grasping for the things you want? Do you spiral into self-victimisation, where you attribute all sorts of malicious motives to people around you? Are you tempted to do whatever it takes to cling onto happiness and security?

Or are you able to bear the disappointments and frustrations without making it personal? Are you able to see beyond your circumstances and continue trusting that God is with you and has your best interests at heart, no matter how grim things look? Do you maintain your convictions and live by your values, even when it would make things a lot easier for you, remove a lot of scary risk, if you just ‘did what you needed to do’ sometimes…?

You see our passage today, which begins with chapter 21 and goes right through to chapter 24, is a story of two very different men, David and Saul, who respond to their circumstances in very different ways. Neither of them are perfect, but increasingly through the story, David and Saul are presented as stark contrasts in the way they respond to adversity, because of very different attitudes towards God and the people around them. One is a story of faith being tested and strengthened. The other is a story of jealously and rage, flowing out of fear and hopelessness.

 

David at his Weakest (Ch 21)

To give a bit of context, especially if you’ve just joined us today, we’re exploring the story of King David from the Old Testament books, 1 and 2 Samuel. We picked up in the larger story of these books at the point where Saul has been rejected by God as King, because he reveals that deep down he doesn’t want to be a King underGod – he fails to submit his own authority to God’s authority. And in his place, God selects an unlikely young man, David, out of obscurity to be a king after his own heart. David rises to prominence as he steps out in faith and delivers God’s people from the Philistines and their giant warrior, Goliath. Saul then becomes increasingly insecure about David and jealous about the way the people celebrate his bravery and success, and so he determines to kill him, trying again and again. Saul has made up his mind about David, and this has big implications for both of them.

In Chapter 21, which was read out for us earlier, we see David at a very low point. He is presented at his weakest: alone, on the run, fearing for his life. He knows Saul wants him dead. He’s narrowly escaped a few attempts on his life, and now he’s said a tearful goodbye to Jonathan, Saul’s son, as he begins life as a fugitive.

And the first place he turns is to Nob, just north of Jerusalem, where the sanctuary is set up at the time, and where the priests carry out their sacrifices and inquire of God on behalf of the people. As we heard in our reading, Ahimelek the priest is disturbed by David turning up alone and suspects the situation is not good. So David makes up a cover story about being sent on an urgent mission by the king, and needing help and provisions. And in the middle of this episode, after Ahimelek has agreed to give him the consecrated bread, but before we read of him sending him on his way with Goliath’s sword, we’re told, for some reason, about one of Saul’s servants detained there – Doeg the Edomite. Seems random, but also ominous. Kind of like when you’re watching a murder mystery on TV and the camera lingers on a mysterious person watching from the sides…

Then, as we read, David continues on, now with some bread and sword, but still alone, and comes to Gath in the land of the Philistines. Presumably David was hoping to pass unnoticed and lie low. But no such luck. The servants of the King, Achish, point out, isn’t this the hero of the Israelites who’s outshone the king?

And David is understandably very afraid. He’s fleeing one tyrannical ruler, bent of killing him. And now he’s exposed in enemy territory facing the whim of another ruler who will presumably want him dead. As they say, ‘out of the pan, and into the fire’! And again, David deceives those around him. He pretends to be insane, and does such a good job of it, that the King scolds his servants for bringing him yet another idiot into his house, as if he doesn’t have enough already!

Now it’s interesting isn’t it, that the narrator doesn’t comment on David’s deception in either of these situations. Is this commendable ‘thinking on his feet’? Or sinful and desperate actions, reflecting a lack of trust in God? I think that perhaps the point here is not so much whether David’s actions were morally right or wrong, but rather to highlight the weak and desperate situation of David. He’s alone, he’s fleeing for his life, he’s desperately afraid, and he feels compelled to lie to friend and foe alike. This is the starting point for David as he begins life as a fugitive – on the run from an angry and jealous king who wants him dead.

Gathering Support (22:1-5)

Reading on, in the first few verses of chapter 22, David escapes Gath and heads for a cave in between Israel and Philistine. And here, David begins to see some support, although it’s a pretty unimpressive start.

His brothers and father’s household come and meet him, presumably to save themselves from Saul because of their association with David – whether they like it or not! And not just his family, but ‘all those who were in distress or in debt or discontented’ gathered around him and David became their commander. Hard to imagine a less desirable or impressive sounding army! It’s not like half of Israel, or half of Saul’s army, defects to David, wanting him as the king. No, he’s got 400 losers. 400 men who have got nothing to lose by joining David and who haven’t got a whole lot to contribute either. But from this rag tag beginnings, an army grows and forms – an army that God uses to protect his people and establish his true King.

 

The Descent of Saul (22:6-23)

Well David takes his family down to Moab for (relative) safekeeping, and then takes his little army of mercenaries off to hide in the forest of Hereth, somewhere in Judah. And at this point, 22:6, Saul hears about David’s location. And he broods. He’s not coping well with the stress of David being ‘out there’ – a threat to his throne as long as he lives.

Saul has some kind of outdoor court set up, seated under some big tree on a hill, with his officials at his side. And he begins whinging and complaining to them.

From verse 7, “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? 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.”

Did you notice what Saul does? He accuses all his officials of conspiring against him and David of lying in wait for him. There’s no evidence of either! Saul is a self-pitying, self-sabotaging, determined-to-be-a-victim kind of guy. He has created his own problem by trying to kill David out of jealousy, rather than nurturing and honouring a faithful servant, and now he’s blaming everyone else! You know what it’s like to create your own problems don’t you? Paint yourself as a victim, when there’s no one else to blame? Throughout this narrative, Saul keeps being held up as a sad reflection of how not to cope with life’s challenges…

Well, presumably none of Saul’s officials say anything in reply, but then suddenly someone we’ve met before pops into view – someone we had a sneaking suspicion was going to be bad news. Doeg the Edomite, who happened to be standing with Saul’s officials, pipes up, “Well I saw the son Jesse come to Ahimelek son of Ahitub at Nob. Ahimelek inquired of the LORD for him; he also gave him provisions and the sword of Goliath the Philistine.”

 

Doeg shows himself to be a classic ‘opportunist’. He knows he’s about to get Ahimelek into hot water, and I don’t think he really cares much at all about Saul or David – he’s an Edomite, not an Israelite after all. But he sees at opportunity to earn some favour from the guy who’s in power right now, and he doesn’t hesitate. You’ve met people like this haven’t you? People who seize hold of opportunities to advance their career or their reputation, without any real regard for principles. As we’re about to see, Doeg and Saul seem to be trying to outdo each other in a game of “don’t copy me if you want to be a decent human being…”

Well Saul immediately sends for Ahimelek and questions him, in verse 13, accusing him of conspiring against him and aiding and abetting a known criminal. Now this is of course all Saul’s own fabricated, self-sabotaging perspective on the situation, and Ahimelek respectfully tries to help the king see things from a more objective situation. In verse 14, he answers, “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? 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.” Ahimelek is telling the truth and giving Saul an opportunity to see the whole situation from a much more reasonable perspective – a chance in fact to perhaps stop this whole ridiculous business and treat David the way he should have.

And does Saul listen and consider his words like a reasonable man? No, far from it. Verse 16, ‘But the king said, “You will surelydie, Ahimelek, you and your whole family.” 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.”’

Saul’s ego has been wounded. He sees himself as the victim, and he lashes out. His insecurities and fear now drive him to react out of all proportion and abuse his power, by ruthlessly ordering the murder of the priests of the LORD. The fact that Saul has now gone too far in his self-serving paranoia is highlighted all the more by the fact that the king’s officials are unwilling to raise a hand to strike the priests of the LORD. How could they kill the holy priests of God? How could they do such evil and bring such judgement on themselves?

But their unwillingness doesn’t wake Saul up to the reality of his actions. He just turns to the only one in their presence who isn’t held back by the same principles. Verse 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. 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.’

This man is only too pleased to continue to shine as a beacon of helpfulness to Saul, by not only killing the innocent priests, but every living thing in the town of priests – the women and babies and even the animals.

 

We’re meant to be horrified by Saul and Doeg. This is what humans can come to when they think only of themselves. When they are motivated by fear or greed, without fear of the God who made them and who rules this world and who will judge them. This story presents the descent of Saul – the spiraling attitudes and actions of a man who is not responding well to adversity. Things have not gone exactly as Saul would like. I can appreciate his position. But it doesn’t excuse the way he has responded does it? Saul only confirms more and more how little he deserves to be king as he tries to cling onto the throne, violently lashing out in rage, and relying on ruthless and godless men like Doeg.

But Doeg is not absolutely successful – one man escapes. Verse 20, ‘one son of Ahimelek son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled to join David. He told David that Saul had killed the priests of the LORD. 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. 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.”’ David accepts the role he has played in this tragedy, and now these two men, both fugitives under Saul’s rule, form an alliance and seek support from each other.

 

Hope in Adversity (Chapter 23)

Well, as if to highlight the contrast between Saul and David, as we read on in Chapter 23, we see David proactively defending the Israelite town of Keilah from the Philistines. This is not a trivial thing for his small rag-tag army to do, and the men are afraid. But David seeks the guidance of the LORD, both to know if it’s something God would have him do, but also to reassure his men that they will succeed, because it is God’s will. And this little episode also serves to draw our attention to the fact that David now has access to God’s will through Abiathar the priest. When he fled to him from the slaughter he brought with him the Ephod, which was used to seek God’s guidance. So whilst Saul is brooding over enemies he’s created for himself, he fails to protect his people from realenemies. And at the same time, David is stepping in to do what the king should be doing. And whereas Saul is ordering the slaughter of God’s priests and cutting himself off from any access to God’s help, David is protecting Abiathar and inquiring of the LORD.

 

Disappointment and Deliverance (v7-14)

Well Saul hears that David is in Keilah and he actually has the spiritual blindness to think that God has delivered Davidinto hishands, “for David has imprisoned himself by entering a town with gates and bars.” And he gathers all his forces for battle to besiege David and his men.After all he has done, I really don’t know how Saul can maintain the belief that God is on his side, painting himself as the victim and David as the evil usurper, but well, we tell ourselves what we want to hear sometimes don’t we?

But reading on from verse 9, ‘When David learned that Saul was plotting against him, he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod.” David said, “LORD, God of Israel, your servant has heard definitely that Saul plans to come to Keilah and destroy the town on account of me. Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me to him? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? LORD, God of Israel, tell your servant.”

And the LORD said, “He will.” Again David asked, “Will the citizens of Keilah surrender me and my men to Saul?” And the LORD said, “They will.”

So David and his men, about six hundred in number, left Keilah and kept moving from place to place. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he did not go there.

David stayed in the wilderness strongholds and in the hills of the Desert of Ziph. Day after day Saul searched for him, but God did not give David into his hands.’

Wouldn’t this have just been so disappointing for David? He’s just risked his life and the lives of his men to save the town of Keilah from the Philistines. He knows not to presumethat the people of the town will make a stand against a huge army, which is exactly why he inquired of God. But you would hope they would stick with you if you’d just saved them wouldn’t you? You’d hope they’d at least consider it! But he learns the hard truth from God – they will hand you over to save themselves. So David moves on, going from place to place, and hiding in the wilderness and the hills of the desert.

But even in the midst of the disappointment and the ongoing hardship, it’s important to appreciate that God is still delivering David from the clutches of Saul. The truth that the people of Keilah would hand him over might have been hard to hear, but it saved him. And whilst it might have felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel for David, and that the days of being on the run from Saul were never ending, God kept him safe. He had declared that David would be his chosen king, anointing him to rule his people, and he was bringing his plans to pass, even if it was a long and difficult path for David.

 

Strengthened in God’s Word in the face of Adversity (v15-18)

And this is exactly what David needed to be reminded of as he endured the relentless persecution of Saul. He needed to be reminded that God hadspoken, and that God’s Word would come to pass. He needed to be encouraged and strengthened by a friend to trust in God’s purposes for him as he felt the weight of his circumstances.

From verses 15-18, we read that while David was at Horesh, in the Desert of Ziph, once again trying to escape Saul, Saul’s son Jonathan went out to David and helped him find strength in God. ‘“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “My father Saul will not lay a hand on you. You will be king over Israel, and I will be second to you. Even my father Saul knows this.” The two of them made a covenant before the LORD. Then Jonathan went home, but David remained at Horesh.’

David was not immune to discouragement or feeling overwhelmed by the adversity he was facing in life. He would have been finding it hard at this point to believe that God’s anointing through the prophet Samuel would ever come to anything. And he needed to be encouraged by a friend to keep trusting – to know the truth of God’s word, even in the face of frustration and bleak circumstances.

 

Saved by the bell (v19-29)

Well, David was going to need that strength, because as we read on from verse 19, yet again enemies emerge to make his life more difficult. The Ziphites go up to Saul and rat out David, proud to be able to play their role in handing him over to the king. Saul is delighted, and even blesses them in the name of the LORD – that is, the God whose priests he just murdered. His hypocrisy is really quite astounding isn’t it? But he does ask them to go and do the hard work of making sure exactlywhere he is – he’s getting a little sick of running around the desert hills after David. They set out to find David, and David hears about it and moves to hide in the Desert of Maon, which Saul then hears about and comes after him in pursuit.

We reach a climax then in verse 26: ‘Saul was going along one side of the mountain, and David and his men were on the other side, hurrying to get away from Saul. As Saul and his forces were closing in on David and his men to capture them a messenger came to Saul, saying, “Come quickly! The Philistines are raiding the land.” Then Saul broke off his pursuit of David and went to meet the Philistines.’

You can imagine the scene can’t you! Things were getting tense for David! Time and time again he’d managed to keep out of Saul’s reach. Moving from place to place, frustrating Saul and his scouts. But now it looked like his time was up. He’d used up his 9 lives and Saul was finally going to catch him. But just as they’re closing in, a messenger happens to arrive with news of an actual enemy doing real damage – the kind of threat he’s been ignoring – and he has no choice but to call off the chase and go deal with the problem. Saved at the eleventh hour! Or saved by the bell, you might say. The Philistines just happen to raid then, and the messenger just happens to arrive at the last moment. God’s sovereign protection over David was revealed once again, despite how dicey things looked.

And it highlights once again doesn’t it, what God’s deliverance so often looks like. It’s not the promise that we will be spared suffering or adversity – even scary and painful scenarios. Rather, it’s the assurance that God will be with us and will ultimately deliver us out of every adversity. One thousand years later, Jesus himself could see how the stories of David pointed forward to his own suffering, and how God would deliver him in the end. Not by sparing him the pain, or even by preventing his death at the last moment, as in this stage of God’s kingdom story… but by delivering him out of death itself and vindicating him as his faithful servant. This is our hope in the face of adversity.

 

Faithfulness that flows from Faith (Ch 24)

Well after this narrow escape, we arrive at the final episode in today’s passage, and it reveals how David has learned to trust in the deliverance and justice of God rather than snatch at solutions that he knows are wrong.

Chapter 24, verse 1 tells us that Saul just goes straight back to chasing David after dealing with the Philistine raiders. He takes three thousand crack soldiers, and follows his latest intel to the ‘Crags of the Wild Goats’ – sounds like a nice place for a holiday doesn’t it?

Then, in a twist of fate – or rather we should say, in the providence of God – Saul goes in to a cave to go to the toilet, not realising that David and his men are further back in that very same cave. What irony! After hunting David for so long, with all his resources as the King, Saul unwittingly presents himself alone and vulnerable to David. No wonder David’s men say with glee, “This is the day the LORD spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’” Do it now David! One swift swing of your sword from behind and all your problems are gone! God has delivered your enemy into your hands!

So David creeps up unnoticed and… does what? Cuts off the corner of Saul’s robe.Rather than kill Saul then and there, he just snips off a bit of his robe and sneaks back to his men. You can imagine their reaction can’t you? ‘What are you doing!? Why didn’t you kill him?! Do you want to survive or not?!’

But instead of being shamed for not ‘doing the deed’, David is conscience-stricken for even having cut off the corner of his robe. From verse 6, ‘He said to his men, “The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the LORD’S anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the LORD.” 7 With these words David rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul.’

These words reveal the conviction of David – the difference between him and Saul. David won’t snatch power, especially not if it means harming the LORD’s anointed. Even if Saul has shown he is not worthy of that title, and even if God has rejected him as king, David appreciates that it is no small thing to lift your hand against God’s anointed. His faith in the significance of his own anointing drives him to resist taking the easy way out with Saul.

So Saul leaves the cave unharmed, none the wiser about what has just happened, and then, verse 8, David follows him out and the calls out to him, “My lord the king!” When Saul looked behind him, David bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. 9 He said to Saul, “Why do you listen when men say, ‘David is bent on harming you’? 10 This day you have seen with your own eyes how the LORD delivered you into my hands in the cave. Some urged me to kill you, but I spared you; I said, ‘I will not lift my hand against my master, because he is the LORD’S anointed.’ 11 See, my father, look at this piece of your robe in my hand! I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you. Now understand and recognize that I am not guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life. 12 May the LORD judge between you and me. And may the LORD avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. 13 As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds,’ so my hand will not touch you.

14      “Against whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom are you pursuing? A dead dog? A flea? 15 May the LORD be our judge and decide between us. May he consider my cause and uphold it; may he vindicate me by delivering me from your hand.”

David takes a calculated risk stepping out after Saul, hoping that Saul will be shamed into leaving him alone. Of course, Saul could have called his troops and had him executed, so it was a risky move. But David was sure even Saul wouldn’t stoop so low. The evidence that Saul’s campaign against David was completely unjust and baseless would be right there in David’s hand. If he really was conspiring to kill Saul, he could have and he would have done it then and there. The corner of the robe proves that David is innocent and Saul has been hunting him for no good reason. But David goes further than just claiming innocence doesn’t he? “May the LORD be our judge and decide between us… May the LORD vindicate me by delivering me from your hand… May the LORD avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you.” David is determined not to grasp at security by killing Saul, and instead looks to the justice of God. Just like Jesus Christ a thousand years later, David expresses the faith of one who ‘entrusts himself to him who judges justly’ (1 Peter 2:23) rather than fearfully snatching at survival and vengeance.

And how does Saul respond? From verse 16, recognising David voice, he weeps and confesses that he has been treating David very badly, whilst David himself has been righteous and only done him good. He sees that God had delivered him into David’s hands, and David has done what no man would normally do – shown mercy and kindness to his enemy. And in the face of all this, Saul finally and publicly acknowledges that David will be king. Verse 20, “I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands. Now swear to me by the LORD that you will not kill off my descendants or wipe out my name from my father’s family.” He’s finally confronted with the way things really are, for a moment at least, and accepting David’s claim to the throne settles for trying to protect his descendants from the slaughter after he’s gone.

Now, we’re going to explore this more in coming weeks, but it’s worth appreciating that Saul’s confession and acceptance of the situation at this point is very short lived. All too soon things go back to the way they were – almost as if this scene never happened. It’s a reminder that remorse and apologies can often just be on the surface, covering over an unrepentant heart. Yet another example of how not to live life. Beware of remorse over sin, sorry and embarrassment that you’ve been caught out or slipped up again, but failing to actually repent – to cut the sin out of your heart and put it to death.

 

Fostering Faith in the Face of Adversity

So what do we learn from this tale of two men, both facing circumstances they wish were different? The thing that really stands out is how profoundly different it looks when you face adversity and disappointments with trust in God’s promises and justice compared with facing life without any real hope. David grows in courage and faithfulness as he learns to trust God in the face of relentless persecution, whilst Saul spirals into bitterness, jealousy and ungodly rage as he grasps at security. And what we are reminded of in particular about trusting God in adversity, is that we really are called to trust him in the midst of adversity, rather than assuming God will spare us from experiencing it in the first place. This is biblical faith, as it’s revealed in the history of God’s people, as it’s expressed in the Psalms, and ultimately in Jesus himself. We learn to trust that God is with us and working for our good, convinced that he will deliver us in the end, no matter how frustrating and disappointing our circumstances might be here and now.

 

But the second key thing I think this section of David’s story teaches us is how important it is for us to strengthen each other to trust God in the face of adversity. This passage reminds us of the crucial role we all play in speaking the truth of the gospel into each other lives – helping each other lift our vision from the messiness of life that can overwhelm us and focus on the certainty of God’s promises. David was unsurprisingly getting to the point of wondering if God really did intend to make him king – or even to keep him alive! But Jonathan comes to strengthen him and remind him of the promise of God – ‘you will be king.’

The New Testament letters are full of exhortations to continue meeting together to encourage each other in God’s word. This is not primarily about people like me preaching or teaching the Bible. This is about you being there at the right time for each other, seeing the reality of what people around you are struggling with and helping each other see how the promises of God in Christ make everything different. “Don’t be afraid, don’t give up in the face of this cancer, or this sin, or this stretch of unemployment, or this relationship breaking apart… Don’t be afraid, and don’t give up. God will keep his word and keep working in and through you to make you like Jesus, to redeem you from sin and death and bring you into his eternal kingdom of peace and joy.”

Each of us has this role to play and it’s huge. Your words, you sharing God’s words in the messiness of life – that can be the difference between facing adversity in faith and hope or with bitterness, insecurity and fear.

 

So let’s keep looking to God’s promises, and let’s keep helping each other look to God’s promises. Let’s keep fostering faith in the midst of adversity, knowing God is with us and for us. Let’s face adversity together with faith and hope.