(Although written for the New Year, this article undoubtedly applies to any time of year.)
And David said in his heart, I shall now one day perish by the hand of Saul: there is nothing better for me, etc. – 1 Samuel 27:1
We read that Saul, Israel’s first king, was “turned into another man” and that “God gave him another heart” (1 Samuel 10:6,9). This sounds like conversion. However, in conversion God promises, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you” (Ezekiel 26:26) – and this is not the same. “Another heart” is not “a new heart,” and “another man” is not “a gracious man.” With Saul, God only equipped him for kingship and to deliver Israel from their enemies. In both these, Saul did well while he was humble (1 Samuel 15:17).
However, it was only a matter of time before his true character emerged. Without the new birth there can be no new life. After just two years Saul twice disobeyed God’s command, and the Lord rejected him from being king. This reminds us that our discipleship is always proven by our obedience; as the Master said, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 8:31).
Saul’s rejection was bitterly disappointing to Samuel, who found it hard to get over. The Lord, therefore, kindly said, “How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel? fill thine horn with oil, and go, I will send thee to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided me a king among his sons” (1 Samuel 16:1). Such disappointments will come, but they should not dismay us too much. David would be Israel’s next king, and he would be a man after God’s own heart. The Lord has other work for us to do, and He wants us to move on. We never know what blessing is just around the corner.
David, though, cannot immediately ascend the throne of Israel – that must be when Saul dies. The interval between David’s anointing and his crowning became a severe trial. Saul grew jealous, saw him as pretender to the throne and tried to kill him. David became a fugitive with a price on his head. He faced the treachery of Israelites who tried to betray him. In addition to his own and his family’s safety, he had the care of six hundred loyal followers and their dependents.
What a strange path to the throne! But it is a picture of our experience. We too are the Lord’s anointed (1 John 2:20) and one day we will “inherit the throne of glory” (1 Samuel 2:8; Revelation 3:21). Meanwhile, our lot is sometimes trials and troubles: “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). This, if sanctified to us, does two things. Firstly, it enables us to serve the Lord more fruitfully because we have proved His love and faithfulness. Without David’s troubles, he would not have been the king he was, nor could he have composed the precious psalms of this period, e.g. Psalm 57.
The story is told of little girl walking in a garden who noticed a particularly beautiful flower. She admired its fragrance. “It is so pretty!” she exclaimed. Then her eyes followed the stem down to the soil in which it grew. “This flower is too pretty to be planted in such dirt!” she cried. So she pulled it up by its roots and ran to the tap to wash away the soil. It wasn’t long until the flower wilted and died. When the gardener saw what the little girl had done, he exclaimed, “You have destroyed my finest plant!” “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I didn’t like it in that dirt.” The gardener replied, “I chose that spot and mixed the soil because I knew that only there could it grow to be a beautiful flower.” And so it is in our God-appointed circumstances that, by God’s grace, produce the beauty of Christian character and the fragrance of Christ.
The second thing it does is to prepare us for heaven. Without the “light affliction,” how could David – or we – appreciate the eternal “weight of glory” that will ultimately replace it? (2 Corinthians 4:17). Heaven will make amends for all.
Let us also notice that these troubles came upon David when he was in the way of obedience, not out of it. We can be pleasing the Lord and yet everything can go wrong. We can be in the centre of His will, just like the disciples who went across the lake at the Master’s command, and a storm can blow up. Our struggles and sufferings do not necessarily mean the Lord is displeased with us, quite the opposite. That is our great comfort when things are at their worst – if we are with Him, He is with us, and is leading us safely through (Isaiah 43:2) to greater blessing than before.
The opening of 1 Samuel 27 comes at the height of David’s troubles and danger. He loses heart, and in near despair took his own way out:
And David said in his heart, I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul: there is nothing better for me than that I should speedily escape into the land of the Philistines; and Saul shall despair of me, to seek me any more in any coast of Israel: so shall I escape out of his hand.And David arose, and he passed over with the six hundred men that were with him unto Achish, the son of Maoch, king of Gath.And David dwelt with Achish at Gath, he and his men, every man with his household, even David with his two wives, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess, and Abigail the Carmelitess, Nabal’s wife.And it was told Saul that David was fled to Gath: and he sought no more again for him.
This reaction may astound us. But have we not found that sometimes faith and patience have seriously faltered? Spurgeon described Asaph in Psalm 73 in a way that fits David here – and perhaps us all too often,
Here you have the psalmist in a fainting fit. He has allowed the flesh to conquer the spirit. The observant eye of reason has for awhile rendered dim the clear vision of faith.
Gospel ministers can suffer this “fainting fit,” and sink into deep dejection. Some can hardly continue, and some even leave the pastorate. Many Christians have sunk terribly low or turned aside from the right way. It may be, dear reader, that as 2015 draws to its close you find yourself on the brink of this. Or maybe you have already come to where David was and are now snared in the consequences.
David’s “fainting fit” is on record here for our admonition and comfort. Let us follow the account of what happened and seek to apply it to ourselves. We can see that,
1. THERE WERE REASONS FOR THIS LAPSE
Verse 1 “And David said in his heart, I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul, etc.”
1] The long, drawn-out trial.
David was in his teens when anointed, and thirty when crowned. The danger and pressure from his enemies lasted for perhaps thirteen years. By now he could take no more. Sometimes, the hardest part of God’s dealings is that they go on and on with no end in sight. This is worse than the trial itself. Then trust can weaken, we become “weary and faint in [our] minds” and finally take things into our own hands. It is a comfort to know that no less than David came this way.
2] It followed a personal victory.
Chapter 26 records David’s encounter with Saul from a safe distance. He had his enemy in his power and could have had him killed, but he spared his life (verse 23). Using this, he asked Saul to spare his life and cease pursuing him (verse 24). This melted Saul and he acknowledged David as the heir apparent (verse 21,25). Thus, David proved the truth of Romans 12:19,20
Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
Why, then, this sudden hopelessness? It was probably because he knew Saul had not fundamentally changed and would soon be pursuing him again. The king has promised similar before and then reverted to his murderous pursuit (1 Samuel 24:16-22). David realised it probably would happen again.
However, there might be another factor. David had great grace in sparing Saul. He “overcame evil with good” (Romans 12:21) – faith was in exercise and forgiveness triumphed. But the next minute it is as though it had not happened. Where is grace and faith now? It might be that pride rose up at David’s finest moment, and now, the Lord withdraws His grace. He falls, like his New Testament counterpart Peter with his self-confidence and denial of the Master. Beware of pride. The Lord hates it, and will not give any of His glory to a creature (Proverbs 29:23). Sometimes, to remind us it is only by grace we stand, He uses a controlled failure that teaches us dependence for the future. Even our sins are overruled to His glory! (Romans 8:28). As Thomas Watson says, “God makes the saints’ maladies their medicines.”
3] David received bad advice.
“David said in his heart, etc.” He reached this conclusion after considering the situation. It was certainly not the result of prayerfully seeking the Lord’s guidance. Let us beware of forgetting the Lord and resorting to human reason. Scripture warns us against this: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart, and lean not to thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5 cf Jeremiah 17:9). David now sounds little different from an unbeliever: “I shall now perish one day … there is nothing better for me, etc.” This was neither true nor fair. A.W. Pink justly says,
Under the pressure of trials, relief is what the flesh most desires, and unless the mind be stayed upon God, there is grave danger of seeking to take things into our own hands. Such was the case with David: having leaned unto his own understanding, being occupied entirely with the things of sight and sense, he now sought relief in his own way, and followed a course which was the very opposite to that which the Lord had enjoined him (1 Samuel 22:5). There, God had told him to depart from the land of Moab and go into the land of Judah, and there He had marvellously preserved him. How this shows us what poor weak creatures the best of us are, and how low our graces sink when the Spirit does not renew them!
The fact that none other than the man after God’s own heart has been here gives us comfort – and hope.
2. THERE ARE LESSONS FROM THIS LAPSE
What can we learn more particularly from David’s “fainting fit”?
1] How this dishonours God.
David makes no mention of divine providence or protection. It is as if there is no God to whom he can look. It is the language of unbelief. He is different from how he was in Psalm 27, probably written during this period,
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When we lapse like this we virtually deny our Christian profession and seem like different people. Yet, the Lord maintains His work in us. Despite our sinful failure, the Lord remains faithful and can raise us up again. Asaph in Psalm 73 confessed in wonder, “Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand” (verse 23). Preserving grace is as wonderful as saving grace. It is not our hold of Him, but His hold of us that counts!
2] This was ironic.
David was so near the end of the trial period now. Saul’s death was not long in coming and David could then ascend the throne in God’s time and way. Dear believer, the appointed time of your deliverance may be very soon – it may be it is to come early this New Year. Your times are in His hand. “Wait on the LORD, and keep his way, and he shall exalt thee” (Psalm 37:34).
3] Yet, great good came of David’s failure.
The Lord delivered him from the dangerous consequences of where he was. At first, his new master Achish determined to have David and his men on his side in the impending battle with the Israelites (1 Samuel 28:1,2). What horror for David – the prospect of fighting against Saul the Lord’s anointed whom he would not touch before! What can David do now? Into what impossible situations our impetuosity can bring us!
However, the Lord is over all. The Philistine commanders do not trust David and his men and demand that they be relieved of duty (29:1-7). This was how the Lord intervened for David’s deliverance, for He has the hearts of all men – even enemies – in His hand. We may stray from the right path but we do not stray from a faithful God. This was for David a tremendous token for good.
Moreover, we notice Achish’s language as he has to dismiss David and his men: “Surely as the LORD liveth, thou hast been upright, etc.” This phrase “as the LORD liveth” is found more than twenty times in the OT – always on the lips of Israelites, including Gideon, Boaz, David himself, Ittai, Elijah, Elisha, Micaiah and others. It is never on the lips of a heathen. Yet it is on the lips of Achish the Philistine here! Could it be that he has been converted, through the witness and influence of David – even in his distrust and disobedience? If so, it shows the wonderful overruling sovereignty of God. Who would imagine that David’s failure here could further the kingdom of God! Similar was accomplished through Elimelech’s mistake (Ruth 1:1 – Ruth’s conversion) and Jonah’s rebellion (Jonah 1 – the mariners’ conversion). It is on record here, not to justify David’s error but to comfort us over ours. God in mercy takes up our worst mistakes and foolishness and makes us a bringer of blessing to others. If He does this through us at our worst, then surely He will do this when we try to serve Him at our best!
And so David and his men were kept safe in “the land of the Philistines” while the terrible battle raged and Saul was killed (1 Samuel 31). The Lord even gave them a gracious token over the Amalekite sacking of their city Ziklag. He answered David’s prayer, enabled him to “recover all” because he “encouraged himself in the LORD his God” (1 Samuel 30:6). All was right again, his danger and troubles were over, and now he could ascend the throne of Israel.
Believe, dear reader, that the way of obedience may not be the easiest way – but it is the safest. The Lord is wonderfully with us in it (Exodus 3:12) and never fails us. Turning aside from that way is to invite worse trouble, as one false step leads to another and dangers multiply. However, all is never lost for a true child of God. Saul’s turning aside will prove ultimately fatal, but the Lord will recover His own like David. There is hope for you – do not conclude that despairing surrender is the only course. Or, if you have done that, that there is no hope now (2 Corinthians 4:8). In your fainting fit, look to David’s God, believe He is above the mess you have made, and call upon Him.
Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:6-9)
Used with kind permission of the author