"David's Devastation-sized Encourager"
July 19, 2009 1Samuel 30:1-10, 18-25
DEFENCE FROM DESPAIR
You don't have to live very long until you discover that bad things happen in life. Yes, bad things do happen to good people. But sometimes it's not just one or two bad things; sometimes there's a whole string of serious losses that leaves you wondering where it will end. Some cynic with a sense of humour said, "Just when we think we see a light at the end of the tunnel, it turns out to be a training coming right at us!"
When losses mount, it is tempting even for Christians to despair. But faith in God helps us overcome doubts and damage. Jeremy Taylor wrote, "It is impossible for that man to despair who believes that his helper is omnipotent." In my chaplaincy work at the hospital, I meet many believers who are thankful that they know God and find confidence in Him despite serious illness and a doubtful prognosis. They often remark, "I don't know how people manage who don't believe."
Indeed, apart from trust in God, life can be oppressively dark when losses mount, if not unbearable. A skeptic wrote in his autobiography: "What else is there to make life tolerable? We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night, and in the emptiness sometimes a voice answers out of the darkness. But it is the voice of one drowning, and in a moment the silence returns and the world seems to be quite dreadful. The unhappiness of many people is very great, and I often wonder how they endure it."
What a depressing view! Yet without knowing a sovereign wise and loving God, that can be where one ends up. By contrast, in today's passage, we see David turning to God when losses seem unbearable, and being encouraged in the Lord.
FAITHFUL SUPPORT TO AN UNUSUAL ALLY
Last week we saw that although King Saul in his jealousy made at least 3 attempts to kill David with his spear, and pursued him relentlessly with thousands of troops, David spared Saul's life twice. But even though Saul called off the hunt, David didn't feel very safe. Up to that point he and his 600 men had been moving around amongst the outlying areas, providing security services to farmers and ranchers. For example, Nabal's servants in chapter 25(16) of 1Samuel describe David's men as a 'wall of protection' from robbers and wild animals (NLT).
But in chapter 27 David feels he'd be safer from Saul if he were to escape to the land of the Philistines, Israel's enemies who occupied the coastal area just east of the Mediterranean. Achish the king of Gath seems happy to have him aboard; perhaps the situation is different than when David feigned madness before Achish back in chapter 21(10) in that David has built a reputation for resisting Saul, and leading a skilled band of fighters like himself.
So David, the renowned slayer of a Philistine giant from Gath, becomes loyal to a Philistine, king of Gath - in exchange for sanctuary from his own king, Saul. However David requests from Achish permission for living space out in a town 'in the sticks' rather than right in the capital - perhaps less bother to the king, but also less under surveillance with more freedom. Achish grants permission for them to have the town of Ziklag, some 20-odd miles to the south of Gath.
Deprived of their legitimate 'protection service' business, David and his men turn to making a living Robin-Hood style, raiding Israel's enemies who'd become notorious for raiding them - nomads further south towards Egypt, including the Amalekites (27:8). You may recall it was the Amalekites who attacked Israel unprovoked shortly after they left slavery in Egypt; at that time the Lord had decreed the memory of Amalek would be completely blotted out (Ex 17:14ff). In 1Samuel 15(2f) the Lord through the prophet Samuel gave Saul the task of totally destroying the Amalekites as punishment for the way they'd waylaid the Israelites centuries earlier - and it was Saul's incomplete execution of this that grieved the Lord to the point of rejecting Saul as king (15:10, 23). David apparently picks up the task where Saul left off.
Meanwhile, the Philistine leaders of the other major cities decide it's time to push back the Israelites along their borders. At the beginning of chapter 28 King Achish informs David that he and his fighting force have been conscripted to help out - which David accepts. His loyalty prompts Achish to respond, "Very well, I will make you my bodyguard for life." He trusts David so much! So there is a surprising bond between David who had killed his 'ten-thousands' and these former enemies. Later, David is served beyond the call of duty by troops from Gath ('Gittites') who make up his own personal bodyguard - they stick by him even when it seems the whole country has turned against him to follow Absalom (2Samuel 15:18-21).
David and his troops show up for the Philistine-Israel battle as ordered. Nevertheless, the other Philistine army commanders view this inclusion of Hebrews as an unacceptable security risk: they fear in the heat of battle David's men might turn on them and support their original Israelite king. So the assistance of David and his men is rejected. But note Achish's words of commendation: "...from the day he left Saul until now, I have found no fault in him...[speaking to David in 29:6] As surely as the LORD lives, you have been reliable, and I would be pleased to have you serve with me in the army. From the day you came to me until now, I have found no fault in you...[v9] I know that you have been as pleasing in my eyes as an angel of God." (1Sam 29:3,6,9) Such affirmation - words of high praise! How many of our employers could say that about us? Reliable - faultless - as pleasing as an angel. Yet this employer is a Gentile and part of a group that is the foe of Israel!
David acted honourably and without prejudice toward those of different backgrounds, in such a way as to be a witness to them; note King Achish refers to the name of the Israelite God, "As surely as YHWH lives," and uses the comparison of 'an angel of God'. Maybe he'd heard David sing some of his psalms! God calls us today as well to be witnesses for him amongst peoples of diverse backgrounds, who may be quite diverse and unlike us. Also to serve our employers with real integrity and loyalty. Paul wrote to slaves who were part of the church at Colosse: "Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." (Col 3:22-24) The way we work can be a witness!
SUBJECTED TO A STRING OF DISAPPOINTMENTS
Now this is where things start to go really bad for David and his men - as if being outlaws banished from their homeland weren't bad enough. They've just made a 3-day journey to muster with the rest of the troops; now they're told to pack up and leave (29:2,10). Yet note how God sovereignly works it out so David and his band don't have to wind up fighting his own kin as a result of Saul's insane jealousy!
The beginning of chapter 30 finds them making the 3 day journey back home to Ziklag. About 6 days total on the road, on foot must have been tiring. But when they get back from co-operating honourably with the conscription, what do they find? Amalekite raiders had pillaged Ziklag in their absence and burned it to the ground - sort of a 'scorched-earth' approach. They'd captured and carried off all the women and children and livestock (30:3). What a shock! How devastating! David and comrades are utterly demoralized and distraught. You can sense the degree of their despair by v4, "David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep." That's getting very low - completely drained. Besides the material and personal loss, it was an emotional catastrophe. Totally devastated.
This past week in the news an airplane crashed in Iran, killing 168. Two were Canadians - a single mother of Armenian background who was taking her young son to visit his grandmother for the very first time. How sad for that family. When in your life have you felt devastated? When did you weep so much you had no tears left? If you've been there, you can begin to understand how David must have felt.
His grief soon became complicated by another threat: a challenge to his leadership. Mutiny was afoot. V6, "David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters." Understandably so. Loss led to grief, then anger, then bitterness; and bitterness, as usual when it's not resolved before God, prompted lashing out destructively.
Yet although his family and goods were gone, his house was burned, and his leadership was in danger, David didn't give in to self-pity or suicidal thoughts. Note carefully how v6 ends: "But David found strength in the LORD his God." (1Sa 30:6) Or as the King James version puts it, "David encouraged himself in the LORD his God." He found God to be his devastation-sized Encourager.
We find words of a song David wrote in Psalm 56(3f) that express similar sentiment: "When I am afraid, I will trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?"
Likewise, Jesus' words in Matthew 10(28,30f) give us assurance when we're threatened by deadly attacks. Jesus reminds us how precious we are to our Heavenly Protector. "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell....Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." God loves us individually, right down past the head-count to the hair-count; He has a plan and a purpose for us, in Christ; and He will see us through.
OBEDIENT RESPONSE...SURPRISING REVERSAL
Although things seem stacked against David so as to destroy him, when he finds strength in the Lord, that makes all the difference. Rather than getting stuck in complaining, "Why me?!" David's approach is to ask, "What next, Lord?" Vv7f, "Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, "Bring me the ephod." [a priestly garment which contained an apparatus for giving direction] Abiathar brought it to him, and David inquired of the LORD, "Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?" "Pursue them," he answered. "You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue.""
That was all David needed to hear. Without a 'But' or 'That's impossible!', David and his men set out in pursuit of the raiders. Don't forget their state, physically and emotionally exhausted; there are times to yield even one's tiredness to serving the Lord. In v10 when they come to a ravine, fully one-third of the men are too exhausted to continue. They stay and guard the equipment, allowing the others to press ahead. And the result of the chase? Vv18f, "David recovered everything the Amalekites had taken, including his two wives. Nothing was missing: young or old, boy or girl, plunder or anything else they had taken. David brought everything back." What a turn-around! God rewarded David's faithfulness by returning his family and his goods, and much more besides.
A temptation is always to think we accomplished some great deed just by ourselves. But David knows God's the one responsible here. When they return to the ravine, some 'evil men and troublemakers' among David's followers maintain the plunder shouldn't be shared with those who were too exhausted to fight. But hear how David upholds God's sovereignty and grace, obligating us to be gracious in turn: "David replied, "No, my brothers, you must not do that with what the LORD has given us. He has protected us and handed over to us the forces that came against us...All will share alike." (1Sa 30:23f)
David viewed God as the One in control, the One to be credited with the victory, not himself. Likewise he viewed himself as part of a team with all the 600. We need others, we share alike in the group's outcome. In v20 the men are driving the flocks and herds saying "This is David's plunder" but what does David do with it? V26, he sends some of the plunder to the elders of Judah - and the text lists the leaders of over 13 places where David and his men had roamed. God-honouring teamwork.
Paul reminded the early church how Christianity rises above selfishness to recognize our corporateness, our oneness together in Christ. Romans 12:5, "so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others." And Ephesians 4(7,4,15), "But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it." Jesus pours out grace along with the Father's love into our lives. "There is one body and one Spirit...[And] Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." One head who supplies grace, one body we're a part of. Devastating circumstances prove the wisdom of that design: we find strength in God, and help others to work through their overwhelming difficulties.
OUT OF THE DEPTHS - RAISED UP
For example, this past Wednesday our short-term missionary in Dublin Ireland, Hannah Uyl, shared by email that she was totally overwhelmed by accompanying some of her young girl charges home to a housing complex where the adults were just hanging around in the courtyard, wearing sweatsuits and smoking. It was hard for her to let a 4-year-old girl have to make her way through the crowd and up to her apartment alone because her mother wasn't there to meet her. Hannah felt totally destroyed by it all. But when she returned to Dublin Christian Mission and shared with others on the team, she said, after hugs and talking, "I'm OK." The Body of Christ encouraged her when she'd felt destroyed. She's learning to let her heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.
What keeps us going when we're tempted to despair? At the core of Christianity is a prevailing hope and optimism that isn't trite or flip, but grounded in the deep experience of Jesus Christ who endured total loss for our sake out of love for us, and who after making Himself nothing, was raised victorious. A verse to remember in 'down' times is Ephesians 4:10: "He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe." Let's pray.