Dear Abby

I Samuel 25

October 8, 2000 | Ray Pritchard

In our survey of the early years of David’s life, we have come to a little-known episode that ought to be better known. The story of David and Nabal and Abigail is riveting. It’s got it all. There is intrigue, injustice, conflict, anger, revenge, attempted murder, an impassioned plea, sudden death, and unexpected romance. All in the same chapter! It’s like an episode of Baywatch or All My Children, except that this story is entirely true.

Before we jump in, we need to know a few background facts. After David spared Saul at the cave near En Gedi (I Samuel 24), the two men went their separate ways. Eventually David and his men moved west from the Dead Sea area across the rugged mountains into the Desert of Maon. They settled near the ranch of a man named Nabal. While they were in the area, David and his men protected Nabal’s flocks and servants from the marauding bandits who would attack without warning.

We are told that Nabal was a wealthy man. The Hebrew word means “heavy,” which in modern terms means he was loaded. He had 1000 goats and 3000 sheep. In Hebrew his name means “fool.” That’s right. When someone said, “Hey, Nabal,” they were really saying, “Hey, fool.” First Samuel 25:3 tells us that Nabal was surly and mean. Matthew Henry called him a “muck-worm.” He was cursed with a narrow heart, a mean spirit, a senseless head, and a groveling nature. He was an unreconstructed jerk. And he was very rich. That’s not a good combination.

Sheep-Shearing Time

He had a wife named Abigail, which means “source of joy.” As we shall see, it was also an appropriate name. Verse 3 says that she was “an intelligent and beautiful woman.” So there you have it. A mean-spirited rich jerk married to an intelligent and beautiful woman. How did it happen? Who knows? As a friend told me years ago, there’s no accounting for taste. Perhaps it was an arranged marriage.

One other fact helps us understand this story. It takes place at sheep-shearing time, which was always a festive season. It was the time when you cashed in on months of hard work and it was a traditional time of hospitality. There was a fine old custom, sort of an unwritten law, that at sheep-shearing time you gave gifts to those who had been protecting your flocks.

The story begins with David sending his servants to Nabal asking him to share from his bounty since it is sheep-shearing time (verses 5-8). He sends his compliments and reminds Nabal that his men had protected Nabal’s flocks and his servants even though Nabal hadn’t asked for his help. Later in the chapter (verses 15-16) one of Nabal’s servants verifies that this was true and says that David’s men were like a wall of protection against bandits who might have attacked them. While his servants are speaking with Nabal, David is out in the field building a fire. He’s expecting to have lamb chops tonight. But there will be no feast tonight.

Nabal’s response is worth noting in full:

Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?” (I Samuel 25:10-11).

This is just plain stupid. Nabal earns his name with these comments. Here’s a basic principle to remember: You don’t mess around with a man who’s going to be king someday. Proverbs 20:2 says, “A king’s wrath is like the roar of a lion; he who angers him forfeits his life.” Nabal is about to learn the truth of those words. He has made two mistakes: 1) He refused to show kindness to David and his men, 2) He insulted David and his father Jesse. That last part was a big mistake. David was not the kind of man to overlook something like this.

Analyzing an Angry Man

We can see David’s response to Nabal’s harshness in verse 13: “David said to his men, ‘Put on your swords!’ So they put on their swords, and David put on his. About four hundred men went up with David, while two hundred stayed with the supplies.” He was hot under the collar and determined to teach this miserable muck-worm a lesson. After all, you don’t put on swords to have a discussion. The odds are now 400 to 1 in favor of David. It’s like killing a roach with a shotgun.

We can analyze his reaction this way: David had good reason to be angry but he had no right to seek revenge. He would have been better off saying, “This guy’s a jerk. Just forget about him and let’s move on.” But he didn’t. Before going any further, it helps to recall that just a few days earlier David had spared Saul in the cave near En Gedi. If anything, David had a greater reason to kill Saul and he had the perfect opportunity. But he didn’t. Now along comes Nabal and David is ready to snuff him out. Nabal is the lesser man—a nobody, really—but somehow he has become the greater irritation. David the merciful has become David the vengeful. If Abigail hadn’t stopped him on the road, he would have killed Nabal in a bloody massacre. He really meant to do it.

The shock of this story isn’t Nabal’s unkind comments. What else can you expect from a mean-spirited muck-worm? The shock is how quickly uncontrolled anger has turned David into a killer.

Enter Abigail

With the stage thus set for a bloody massacre, Abigail enters the picture. For what she does and what she says, and the courage and grace she shows under pressure, for her quick thinking and her wise intercession, she deserves to be numbered among the great women of the Bible.

Knowing that David’s men were hot, tired, and hungry, she whips up a meal for 400 angry men. The feast includes bread, wine, lamb, grain, raisins and figs. It was an early version of Meals on Wheels. She intends to intercept David’s men, feed them, and talk David out of killing her husband. She is also fulfilling Proverbs 16:14, “A king’s wrath is a messenger of death, but a wise man will appease it.” Her offering of food illustrates the doctrine of propitiation, which means to turn away wrath by the offering of a gift. We usually apply it to the death of Christ, but it also applies to many human relationships.

Dear Abby to the Rescue

First Samuel 25:20 tells us what happened next: “As she came riding her donkey into a mountain ravine, there were David and his men descending toward her, and she met them.” Over the hill comes David riding full tilt, with 400 men kicking up dust behind him. His eyes flash with anger. “I’m going to teach that so-and-so a lesson he’ll never forget.” Then he looks down the road and there on a donkey is a beautiful woman riding toward him—reins in one hand, a crock pot under her arm. It’s Dear Abby to the rescue!

If there is such a thing as love at first sight, this is it. He looks at all the food, knowing that his men are hungry. When he halts before Abigail, she does something strange. Getting off her donkey, she bows down in the dust before David. She asks David to take revenge on her because she is Nabal’s wife. David has never met a woman like her before. He’s not about to do anything to her.

In everything she does we see her greatness. She is prompt in her actions, generous in her gifts, and wise in her words. It is clear that she cares more for her family than she does for her reputation.

Abigail’s Three Arguments

What follows in verses 23-31 is her speech to David. I commend this as worthy of your study because it shows how to handle an angry person. With a deft touch and just the right words, she defuses a deadly situation. First, she says, “It’s my fault—blame me,” though none of it is her fault (verse 24). Then she admits that her husband is a fool: “May my lord pay no attention to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name—his name is Fool, and folly goes with him.” (I Samuel 25:25). Contrary to what you might think, she’s not being disloyal. She is protecting him by admitting the truth to David.

Then she offers three reasons why David should spare her foolish husband:

#1: God sent me to protect you from making a foolish mistake.

“Now since the Lord has kept you, my master, from bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hands, as surely as the Lord lives and as you live, may your enemies and all who intend to harm my master be like Nabal. And let this gift, which your servant has brought to my master, be given to the men who follow you. Please forgive your servant’s offense, for the Lord will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my master, because he fights the Lord’s battles. Let no wrongdoing be found in you as long as you live” (I Samuel 25:26-28).

This is the doctrine of the restraining grace of God, or you might call it the Preventive Providence of God. Abigail says, “God sent me to keep you from committing murder by killing my husband.” She appeals to his higher nature by calling him to grant forgiveness to a fool. Let the Lord fight your battles and you will win every day.

#2: God is the avenger of the wicked.

“Even though someone is pursuing you to take your life, the life of my master will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the Lord your God. But the lives of your enemies he will hurl away as from the pocket of a sling” (I Samuel 25:29).

This is a beautiful piece of advocacy. She refers to Saul’s pursuit of David and reaffirms that God will keep him safe “in the bundle of the living.” David, God himself has protected you and will protect you. You can afford to show kindness to Nabal. When she mentions “the pocket of a sling,” there is a clear reference to the day David defeated Goliath with one stone from a sling. It’s a subtle way of saying, “If you rely on the Lord to fight your battles, you will win every time.”

#3: You will never regret it later.

“When the Lord has done for my master every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him leader over Israel, my master will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself” (I Samuel 25:30-31).

Abigail reminds David that one day he will be king and when that happens, little pipsqueaks like Nabal won’t matter. But what will matter is whether or not his hands are clean. It took enormous faith to say that because at the moment David was the leader of a rag-tag band of vagrants on the run from Saul. But she could see that David was God’s man and that one day he would reign over the nation. In light of David’s destiny, he can’t afford to give in to the temptation to get even. Revenge feels good now but it will feel bad later. You simply can’t win by trying to get even. So many tragedies would be avoided, so many broken relationships would never happen, so many tears would never be shed, so many marriages could be healed, if only we would stop and think before we act or speak. Many of us have said or done things in anger and then wished a thousand times we could take them back.

The End of the Story

Once Abigail finishes her speech the story quickly comes to a climax. In verses 32-35 David agrees with Abigail and gives thanks to God that she saved him from a huge mistake.

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands. Otherwise, as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me, not one male belonging to Nabal would have been left alive by daybreak” (I Samuel 25:32-35).

Notice that David praises God, blesses Abigail, and sees God’s hand in her intervention. In this she models the truth of Proverbs 17:10, “A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool,” and also Proverbs 15:31, “He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise.” In this case David got the wisdom while Nabal’s life was spared—at least for a few days.

Many of us—most of us, I suppose—think it is enough to take a rebuke patiently and quietly. Few will take it thankfully and fewer still will see God’s hand in it. Not often do we thank the person who cared enough and had enough courage to stop us in our tracks. But that’s what David did.

As for Nabal, he comes to a sad end. While Abigail is saving his life, he’s home having a party. When she finally arrives at home, he is drunk. The next morning when she tells him how close he and his men came to being massacred, the news gives him a heart attack. He became “like a stone” (meaning he was in a coma) and died ten days later. David responded to the news by giving God thanks for keeping him from killing Nabal and for bringing Nabal to justice in his own way and in his own time (verse 39).

That should be end of the story. But there is one loose detail that needs to be wrapped up. Now that Nabal is dead, Abigail is a single woman again. David realizes what a tremendous woman she is and sends his servants to ask her to become his wife. (He was already married but polygamy was common among the kings of Israel.)

“She bowed down with her face to the ground and said, ‘Here is your maidservant, ready to serve you and wash the feet of my master’s servants.’ Abigail quickly got on a donkey and, attended by her five maids, went with David’s messengers and became his wife” (I Samuel 25:41-42).

It is a fairy-tale ending to a very strange story. In time Abigail turns out to be the best wife David ever hand. In retrospect we can see that God solved a dangerous situation because a godly woman convinced an angry man to wait for God to do his work. He waited, God worked, and they became husband and wife.

In all of this we see the principles of Romans 12:17-21 fleshed out. Abigail poured the hot coals of kindness on David’s head and thus overcame evil with good. David gave room for God’s wrath to work itself out in Nabal’s life. At least for David and Abigail, all’s well that ends well.

Two Important Lessons

As we stand back and look at this story, two very important truths stand out for our consideration.

1) Yesterday’s victories do not win today’s battles.

How quickly David was overcome by anger. How quickly the same thing may happen to us. You may win the battle yesterday and lose it today. Or you may have patience today and snap at your children tomorrow. Is this not a mirror of life? We may conquer in a moment of enormous temptation and then lose in a tiny skirmish tomorrow.

As I consider the larger context and the flow of events in David’s life, I think I understand why things happened as they did. David knew that Saul wanted to kill him so he wasn’t surprised when he tried. And because he had plenty of time to deal with his own anger and frustration, he was ready when the moment came. I think David showed mercy in the cave because he had thought it all through many times and had decided beforehand that he would not lift up his hand against the Lord’s anointed. And that same principle explains his reaction to Nabal. He had every reason to expect better of Nabal and therefore he wasn’t prepared for the hostile rejection. And because he wasn’t prepared, he reacted in anger.

What a lesson this is for all of us. “Be sober, be vigilant,” says the Lord. This is the nature of all spiritual warfare. In the moment of great triumph, you may stumble and fall. When we face a great crisis, we normally rally all our resources to help us get through. We pray, we seek the Lord, we search the Word, and we depend on our friends. We know we have to lean hard on the Lord or we won’t make it. But when it’s a little trial—an everyday irritation—we are much more prone to go into battle unguarded, unprepared, and unarmed. And that’s when we’re set up for a fall. The devil is a cunning foe who knows when to hit us hard. He knows that after a great triumph is the moment when we are likely to let our guard down.

That explains why you will sometimes see great Christians—the kind who would suffer a dungeon for Jesus’ sake—fall in the ordinary pressures of life. They are good people who lose their temper at the slightest provocation. The words of I Corinthians 10:12 come to mind at this point: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”

2) Revenge is for fools.

David learned this lesson the hard way. Though he was a saint, if not for the intervention of Abigail, he would have made a mistake that would have marred his future. Revenge never works the way we want it to. We call it sweet revenge and we say we’re going to get even. We’re going to settle an old score, give him a dose of his own medicine, measure out an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, tit for tat, blow for blow.

But it’s still wrong. In the first place, we can never be sure our punishment is just. Because we don’t know all the facts, we may be too harsh or too easy. And when we seek revenge, we are usurping God’s authority and blocking his work in someone else’s life. Either we let God do it or we can do it, and God is much better at revenge than we are. As a friend wrote me this week: “God is large and in charge.” Leave the revenge to him.

Our job is to show kindness, to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile, to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to pour hot coals of love on the head of the person who hates us. In so doing, our kindness may convict them in a way our harsh words never could.

Once again we come face to face with our Lord Jesus who forgave his killers and died that they might be set free. He loved those who hated him. We should go and do likewise.

Two Personal Applications

I’d like to wrap up this sermon with two personal applications. First, it may be that your greatest need is to meet Jesus Christ as your own Lord and Savior. Did you see the gospel in this story? It’s right there on the surface. David pictures the human race overcome with anger, lusting for revenge, heading full speed down the road of self-destruction. Abigail pictures the Lord Jesus Christ who took it upon himself to intercept us on our headlong rush to destruction. He stood in the road, stopped us in our tracks, and said, “See what I offer you.” And by his death on the cross he turned away forever the wrath of God. His bloody sacrifice satisfied God’s righteous demand and created the basis by which we could be forgiven. God accepted the death of his own Son and therefore will accept the sinner who trusts in him. This means that if you have never met Jesus Christ, he stands in the road right in front of you. He is there whether you can see him or not. He stands with his arms outstretched, bidding you to consider your ways, to turn from your sin, and to trust him as Lord and Savior. This is your moment to believe on him. If you have the slightest desire to be saved, if you need a new life, if you want to be forgiven, if you know God is calling you, stop what you are doing and run, run, run to the cross of Christ. Lay hold of the Son of God. Trust in him and him alone. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.

Second, I am sure that I am writing to someone who has reserved in the temple of his heart a room that is not open to the Holy Spirit. It is a private place, a citadel locked from the inside, a hidden storehouse of hatred and revenge. It is a dark room filled with pain and anger and you keep it locked because you don’t want anyone else to know the room is there. And maybe you even pretend to yourself that the room doesn’t exist. It is a room that God will not enter without your permission.

It’s very possible that you are nursing hatred and bitterness and a desire to get even with someone who hurt you terribly. And you may say, “But I’m justified in it. They did me wrong.” And you may be entirely right about that. But I ask you, How can God’s Holy Spirit do his work and bestow his blessing in a life filled with anger? If God is ever going to greatly use you, and if your life is ever going to change, that door must be opened by you because it is locked from the inside. I can’t open it for you, and God won’t. He is the perfect gentleman. He waits to be invited inside.

No one is more miserable than the person who harbors secret hatred and wishes for revenge. And no one is happier than the person who finally opens the door to the Holy Spirit and says, “Come in and do your work in me.” In the moment when you say that, healing begins on the inside. Instead of hatred there is love; instead of bitterness, kindness. Instead of revenge, forgiveness. If I am describing your life, then God’s word to you is: “Open the hidden door and let my Spirit come in.” May God give you grace and strength to open the door so that the healing may begin today. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?