Our Wednesday night bible studies through the enthralling book of 1 Samuel continue. My own understanding of the psalms has really deepened through these studies as all those references to the pursuit of David’s enemies have come alive!
I especially enjoyed dealing with Chapter 23 last night so I have transposed my notes below.
Read 1 Samuel ch 23 (KJV)
“Then they told David, saying, Behold, the Philistines fight against Keilah, and they rob the threshingfloors. 2 Therefore David enquired of the Lord, saying, Shall I go and smite these Philistines? And the Lord said unto David, Go, and smite the Philistines, and save Keilah.
The Philistines have launched a series of raids against one of Judah‘s cities. In the midst of all of the court intrigue of the last few chapters we might have forgotten that the Israelites are at war!
Certainly Saul seems to have forgotten who the real enemy is. With the king having his spies everywhere it is reasonable to assume that he knows about the travails of Keilah & it was the duty of the king to do something about it.
But Saul has other things on his mind. He will do something about Keilah but only once he learns that David is there. He doesn’t care about its people, only about David. Such is the obsessional condition of Saul that he cannot see that David isn’t the real threat to his kingship but rather the Philistines.
Instead it is left to the fugitive David to defend Saul’s own kingdom! The concern for Israelite welfare demonstrated by David in this chapter shows us who has the real heart of a king & contrasts vividly with the murderous Saul of the previous chapter.
His men are not so sure about the expedition however…
3 And David's men said unto him, Behold, we be afraid here in Judah: how much more then if we come to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines?
They make their views known to their leader: “We are on the run, pursued every day. Are we in a position to fight a battle with the Philistines? Don’t we have enough problems David?”
So David checks with the Lord again. We sometimes criticise Gideon for having to put the fleece out a second time but if you’re not sure then you’re not sure! There is nothing intrinsically unbiblical in asking for a confirmation: better that than blundering into disaster because you presumed upon the Lord.
4 Then David enquired of the Lord yet again. And the Lord answered him and said, Arise, go down to Keilah; for I will deliver the Philistines into thine hand.
We are meant to see in this chapter the contrast between the sources of information that the respective protagonists Saul & David have to rely upon.
Saul is getting all of his information from mere men. His spies & accomplices, some of whom like Doeg the Edomite of the last chapter are both foreigners and scoundrels: we are known by the company we keep! His inability to hear from God is going to make Saul more & more desperate & will culminate in him immersing hmself in witchcraft & necromancy before his tragic end.
David in striking contrast is hearing directly from the Lord! The precise instrumentation being the ephod mentioned in v6.
6 And it came to pass, when Abiathar the son of Ahimelech fled to David to Keilah, that he came down with an ephod in his hand.
The presence of the priestly Abiathar reminds us that David is in tune with the spiritual men of Israel. The great & the good have worked out whom the rightful king is and whom they ought to be supporting.
5 So David and his men went to Keilah, and fought with the Philistines, and brought away their cattle, and smote them with a great slaughter. So David saved the inhabitants of Keilah.
The wit Oscar Wilde famously observed that in this world, “No good deed goes unpunished.” We have all known those occasions where you did the right thing but it all blew up in our face!
David has won yet another famous victory over the Philistines. You would think the king would be grateful and that he would see that David is actually his greatest military asset. But Saul is blinded with fear & hatred now: all he notes is an opportunity finally to capture his rival, and he is happy to use David’s service to his subjects to his own advantage.
7 And it was told Saul that David was come to Keilah.
Saul’s spy network assists him again. These present chapters have reminded me of what life must be like in a police state, where people live under constant surveillance with government spies everywhere. The state (here the king) offers both bribes & threats to those who help uncover its enemies. Saul’s neurotic search for David has created an atmosphere of perpetual suspicion. David can trust very few, and as he moves from place to place potential betrayal lurks around every corner. Many believers around the world would recognise this in their own lives today!
And Saul said, God hath delivered him into mine hand; for he is shut in, by entering into a town that hath gates and bars.
Saul senses an opportunity. Whilst David hid in forests & caves he always had quick escape routes open to him. In a fortified town Saul can send on ahead to those in the city who can bar the gates & lock him in.
But what remarkable self-delusion these words also betray! Can he really believe that it is the Lord who has given his enemy into his hand? Does he think that Yahweh is helping him even now? Yet we recall that history is full of examples of religious men who genuinely deceived themselves that they were about God’s work, from the Pharisees who murdered Christ to the papal interrogators of the Inquisition.
Saul’s self-deception is complete if he believes the Lord is still with him for in reality it is David alone who is hearing from God…
8 And Saul called all the people together to war, to go down to Keilah, to besiege David and his men. 9 And David knew that Saul secretly practised mischief against him; and he said to Abiathar the priest, Bring hither the ephod. 10 Then said David, O Lord God of Israel, thy servant hath certainly heard that Saul seeketh to come to Keilah, to destroy the city for my sake.
Notice the heart of the true king of Israel! David is worried that there will be another massacre like with the priests of Nob in the last chapter. Again we think of how brutal regimes have operated in more recent times: the Nazis would destroy entire villages for their assistance of resistance fighters. It taught the local population not to help its enemies. That this kind of environment prevails in Israel at this time helps to explain the next verses:
11 Will the men of Keilah deliver me up into his hand? will Saul come down, as thy servant hath heard? O Lord God of Israel, I beseech thee, tell thy servant. And the Lord said, He will come down. 12 Then said David, Will the men of Keilah deliver me and my men into the hand of Saul? And the Lord said, They will deliver thee up.
David knows now there will be no refuge in Keilah. They will betray him to Saul to save themselves despite the fact that he and his men have just saved the place from the Philistine raiders. In the climate of fear created by Saul’s paranoia the townsfolk would feel that they had no choice. David leaves, both to avoid capture plus any prospect of bloodshed in the city.
13 Then David and his men, which were about six hundred, arose and departed out of Keilah, and went whithersoever they could go
We ought not to miss the tone of desperation in those final words. For David & his men this is no organised plan, no orderly evacuation to a prearranged destination; but rather a mad scramble to get to any place of relative safety.
David surely must be wondering about the wisdom of his military expedition to Keilah now. It had not bought him a new hiding-place, instead it had only revealed his position to Saul & placed him in great jeopardy. I’m sure certain of his men must be grumbling those famous four words: “I told you so!” at this point.
And it was told Saul that David was escaped from Keilah; and he forbare to go forth.
King Saul calls off the assault upon Keliah. Joyce Baldwin notes the contingent nature of the prophecy David had received: the prophecy had warned that Saul would attack the city & that its residents would betray him. In fact neither happened - by fleeing the city David averted the fulfilment of the prophecy. When we obey prophetic warnings then fulfilment can be prevented as we see with the predicted doom of Nineveh (Jon 3:4).
14 And David abode in the wilderness in strong holds, and remained in a mountain in the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God delivered him not into his hand.
Another day, another temporary refuge, what must have seemed like another escape by the skin of his teeth. But in reality David was never in any danger for God did not give him into his hand.
We do well to recall the famous story of Robert the Bruce & the spider that hastily weaved a web over his hiding place, misdirecting his pursuers,
"Where God is, a spider's web is as a stone wall. Where God is not, a stone wall is as a spider's web."
However seemingly dangerous the plight of a persecuted believer is, the reality is that nothing can happen to him that is outside of the will of God.
Nevertheless David is, we sense, extremely discouraged. Sometimes in this book a few simple words have hinted at a maelstrom of emotions lying behind...
15 And David saw that Saul was come out to seek his life…
Perhaps he had hoped that his victory over the Philistines would have won Saul over: made him see that David was not his enemy at all. If so, he was now sorely disappointed! David is at one of the lowest points of his life. He has despaired in the past of ever being free of Saul & now the king has shown that there is nothing David can do that will cause him to call off the pursuit.But God brings encouragement to us at just the right time- just when we need it!
…and David was in the wilderness of Ziph in a wood. 16 And Jonathan Saul's son arose, and went to David into the wood, and strengthened his hand in God. 17 And he said unto him, Fear not: for the hand of Saul my father shall not find thee; and thou shalt be king over Israel, and I shall be next unto thee; and that also Saul my father knoweth. 18 And they two made a covenant before the Lord: and David abode in the wood, and Jonathan went to his house.
Nothing could have refreshed David more at this point than the unexpected arrival of Jonathan. The encouragement isn’t just companionship: Jonathan's greatest service to his friend here is to remind him of God’s promises over his life.
One of my favourite sayings is “Never forget in the dark what God told you in the light.” It is easy to lose sight of God’s Word in the midst of our trials! That David will indeed be king is the assurance he receives from his friend. "This too shall pass." Jonathan's words must have been like a draught of cold water in a desert to the struggling David.
But the relief is short-lived- Saul has found him again!
19 Then came up the Ziphites to Saul to Gibeah, saying, Doth not David hide himself with us in strong holds in the wood, in the hill of Hachilah, which is on the south of Jeshimon? 20 Now therefore, O king, come down according to all the desire of thy soul to come down; and our part shall be to deliver him into the king's hand. 21 And Saul said, Blessed be ye of the Lord; for ye have compassion on me.
Again we note the strong element of self-deception- Saul is not a man who can bestow the blessings of Yahweh upon anyone!
This betrayal of David by the people of Ziph earned them the dubious distinction of a psalm all to themselves (see Ps 54). The commentators note that the betrayals of Keilah & Ziph may have been especially poignant to David as they are both tribes of Judah: he is being let down by his own people.
22 Go, I pray you, prepare yet, and know and see his place where his haunt is, and who hath seen him there: for it is told me that he dealeth very subtilly. 23 See therefore, and take knowledge of all the lurking places where he hideth himself, and come ye again to me with the certainty, and I will go with you: and it shall come to pass, if he be in the land, that I will search him out throughout all the thousands of Judah. 24 And they arose, and went to Ziph before Saul…
Saul isn’t taking any chances this time, after all those previous escapes. He makes elaborate preparations to cut off all of David’s prospective bolt-holes. The would-be king is in greater trouble than ever before, in the midst of one of the most dangerous moments of his long exile. Saul is getting cleverer & cleverer & David is running out of space & running out of options fast! This time simply being quick on his feet will not be enough to save David. It is going to take a remarkable intervention from the Lord.
…but David and his men were in the wilderness of Maon, in the plain on the south of Jeshimon. 25 Saul also and his men went to seek him. And they told David; wherefore he came down into a rock, and abode in the wilderness of Maon. And when Saul heard that, he pursued after David in the wilderness of Maon. 26 And Saul went on this side of the mountain, and David and his men on that side of the mountain: and David made haste to get away for fear of Saul; for Saul and his men compassed David and his men round about to take them.
David has gained a temporary respite by the seeming happenstance of Saul taking a route to the wrong side of the mountain. But it can only be temporary: David is trapped & there is nowhere to run. It is only a matter of time before Saul's forces close in. I am sure Hollywood would have done a great job of showing Saul’s army nearing the edge of the mountain & bearing down on the trapped refugees hidden just out of view.
But at almost the very point of discovery a cry stops Saul in his tracks…
27 But there came a messenger unto Saul, saying, Haste thee, and come; for the Philistines have invaded the land. 28 Wherefore Saul returned from pursuing after David, and went against the Philistines: therefore they called that place Selahammahlekoth. 29 And David went up from thence, and dwelt in strong holds at Engedi.
A messenger has come! The Philistines are attacking! Saul turns on his heels & turns back.
In truth I see two miraculous interventions here:
Firstly the news of the attack of the Philistines coming just at the right moment: had the messenger been delayed even an hour it would have been too late for David.
But secondly & perhaps more remarkably, the simple fact that Saul actually takes notice of the Philistine emergency this time!
He, after all, seems to have ignored the last enemy incursion that occurred at the start of the chapter. Whether this was a bigger raid or in a more strategically dangerous place, we don’t know; but it is truly amazing that at the very moment when the obsessive Saul knows he is almost upon his feared nemesis he should so quickly call off the pursuit.
Except that we recall,
“The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will. “ (Prov 21:1)
It turns out that, not withstanding the worldly cynicism of an Oscar Wilde, that in God’s universe good deeds are ultimately rewarded & not punished: it was the Philistines who had got David into trouble in the first place & now it is the Philistines who save him!
David’s trust in God was not misplaced. David names the place: “The Rock of Escape” and it joins so many other place-names in the Bible where God proved himself to be faithful.