In the Presence of My Enemies
I Samuel 23
September 24, 2000
In our study of the early years of the life of David, we have been tracing his rise from the sheepfolds of Bethlehem to the throne of Israel. It is an unlikely story and a journey with many surprising twists and turns. Years ago I read a novel by Chaim Potok called My Name is Asher Lev. I’ve never forgotten the first line of the book: “All beginnings are hard, especially the ones you make for yourself.” The words stick in the mind because they are entirely true. No beginning is easy but the ones you make for yourself are the hardest of all. By God’s direction David is making a new beginning and nothing about it is easy. Little by little the teenaged shepherd is learning how to be a king. And some of the lessons are painful indeed.
This little poem captures a great truth about the way God prepares us for the future.
When God wants to drill a man,
And thrill a man,
And skill a man;
When God wants to mold a man
To play the noblest part,
When he yearns with all his heart
To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed,
Watch his methods, watch his ways—
How he ruthlessly perfects
Whom he royally elects.
How he hammers him and hurts him,
And with mighty blows, converts him
Into trial shapes of clay
Which only God understands,
While his tortured heart is crying,
And he lifts beseeching hands.
How he bends but never breaks
When his good he undertakes.
How he uses
Whom he chooses,
And with every purpose fuses him,
By every act induces him
To try his splendor out.
God knows what he’s about.
First Samuel 23 is all about the last line of that poem: “God knows what he’s about.” Everything that happens to David seems to be one random event after another, and yet behind it all stands the Lord, guiding events with his invisible hand. If you ask, “Where is God in this chapter?” He is nowhere and he is everywhere. Just because you don’t see him or hear him or feel him, that doesn’t mean that God isn’t there. He is always with us even in our darkest moments, even when we feel forgotten and abandoned. In those moments when we are in the wilderness wondering why God has left us alone, even then we discover that he is with us to deliver us “at just the right moment.”
I. David at Keilah: God gives a victory
When David was told, “Look, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah and are looting the threshing floors,” he inquired of the Lord, saying, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?” The Lord answered him, “Go, attack the Philistines and save Keilah.” But David’s men said to him, “Here in Judah we are afraid. How much more, then, if we go to Keilah against the Philistine forces!” (I Samuel 23:1-3).
A couple of background facts help us understand this story. At this point David and his men are in the forest of Hereth in Judah. It’s a good hiding place and naturally the men don’t want to leave it. Keilah was on the plain near the border with the Philistines. If they leave the forest, they will be out in the open and could be wiped out by the Philistines and Saul could catch them before they return to the forest. They aren’t cowards; they simply don’t think the danger is worth the risk. Keilah will have to defend itself.
So David inquires of the Lord not once, but twice. Both times the Lord tells him to go and attack the Philistines and save Keilah. Two points are worth noting: 1) David is unwilling to help without hearing from the Lord. He’s not thinking, “How can I leverage this to help my reputation?” His only question is: “What does God want me to do?” As with David, so with us. Our only desire should be to do God’s will. 2) David immediately obeyed once he knew God’s will. Once you know, you go. Case closed. David doesn’t complain about the danger. He simply rises to do his duty.
And we can also say that if David had been looking to himself, he would have ignored Keilah. Strictly speaking, King Saul should have sent his army to protect the village but for some reason, he doesn’t get involved. David is willing to risk himself and his men because he is determined to obey God no matter what the cost.
II. David on the Run: God gives a warning
Saul was told that David had gone to Keilah, and he said, “God has handed him over to me, for David has imprisoned himself by entering a town with gates and bars.” And Saul called up all his forces for battle, to go down to Keilah to besiege David and his men (I Samuel 23:7-8).
Here are two men going in opposite directions. Both men say they want God’s will, but only one man truly wants it. Saul did what we often do. He mistook his personal desires for the will of God and he proceeded to misinterpret events on the basis of what he wanted instead of what God wanted.
When David realizes Saul may come after him in Keilah, he uses the ephod to inquire of the Lord. He asked God two questions: 1) “Will Saul come after me in Keilah?” Yes, the Lord replied. 2) “Will the men of Keilah turn me over to Saul?” Again the answer was yes. Realizing his danger, David took his men and “hit the road” once again. He moved from one place to another, trying to stay one step ahead of Saul. In all of this he continued to seek the Lord’s will in everything. And God shows his approval by sending a warning so that David can get out of town before Saul arrives.
III. David in the Forest: God sends a friend
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 desert 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. While David was at Horesh in the Desert of Ziph, he learned that Saul had come out to take his life (I Samuel 23:13-15).
Ziph was a village located about seven miles southeast of Hebron. That region was remote and desolate and offered excellent places to hide. Saul kept looking for David but God would not let him find him.
I pause to remark on David’s mental and emotional state at this point. Oddly enough, it seems like no matter what he does, things get worse. He rescues a village only to end up running from Saul all over again. We know what David was feeling because he wrote a number of psalms during this period of his life. They speak of David’s sense of loneliness, his fear of his enemies, his sense of discouragement, and his desire for God to vindicate him. (See Psalms 52-59 for more details.) I think any of us would be discouraged if we were in David’s shoes. You serve God, you do the best you can, you risk your life to help others, and all you get for your trouble is more trouble.
There is an important biblical principle at work here. One writer phrased it this way: A period of God’s blessing is often followed by deep personal discouragement. We see this many times in the Bible. After Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal, he ran away and hid by the brook, sinking into a deep depression. Many great Christians testify to going through a “dark night of the soul” in which God seems far away. It often happens that when God is about to honor us, he humbles us by allowing us to enter a period of personal sorrow. And when God wants to raise us up, he first casts us down that we may learn to depend wholly on him. In some ways David now is worse off than before he entered Keilah. The harder he tries, the worse things get. This is a dark riddle the righteous will never fully solve.
It is just at this moment that God sends a friend to encourage David: “And Saul’s son Jonathan went to David at Horesh 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” (I Samuel 23:16-17). God sent Jonathan to “strengthen David’s hand in God.” This is the finest thing one friend can do for another. Jonathan didn’t simply say, “Attaboy, David. Chin up. Hang in there and everything will be alright.” He did that but he also reminded David of the promises of God: “Right now things look bleak for you. But one day you will be king, David. God has promised it and he will do it.” They soon parted and as far as we can tell, never saw each other again.
Again we see God at work in the timing of life. “At just the right moment” Jonathan shows up. This is no coincidence. When God puts us in the wilderness, he sends a Jonathan to encourage us. Many of us can testify to the help we have received from a friend who came along and encouraged us when we felt like giving up.
Through everything that is happening to him, David is being weaned away from the world. His sorrows are teaching him that nothing in this world can satisfy. Friends come and go, no one stays in one place forever, our health fails eventually, and life itself comes to an end. All earthly treasures fade and even our vaunted dreams vanish in the mist. Only God lasts forever and only he can satisfy us forever.
IV. David at the Rock: God sends the Philistines
The Ziphites went up to Saul at Gibeah and said, “Is not David hiding among us in the strongholds at Horesh, on the hill of Hakilah, south of Jeshimon? Now, O king, come down whenever it pleases you to do so, and we will be responsible for handing him over to the king.” Saul replied, “The Lord bless you for your concern for me. Go and make further preparation. Find out where David usually goes and who has seen him there. They tell me he is very crafty” (I Samuel. 23:19-22).
You need to know one crucial background fact. The village of Ziph was in the territory of the tribe of Judah. David was from the tribe of Judah. He had every reason to expect that his kinsmen would protect him. But instead they sold him out by going to King Saul and revealing his location. Saul’s response shows how utterly he misunderstands the situation. He mouths godly words but his heart is full of evil. No doubt he thought he had David trapped this time for sure.
So the men of Ziph go back home, locate David in the wilderness, and send a message to Saul who leads his army after David. Eventually they locate David near a mountain in the Desert of Maon. What happens next is an Old Testament Merry-Go-Round:
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. That is why they call this place Sela Hammahlekoth (I Samuel 23:26-28).
In my mind I have this picture of an ancient Keystone Kops comedy film. Here comes Saul, there goes David. Round and around and around they go with Saul edging closer and closer. Finally he is ready to close in for the kill. Suddenly a messenger arrives with news that the Philistines have invaded the land. That shouldn’t bother Saul. After all, he didn’t care enough to rescue Keilah, which is why David got involved in the first place. Perhaps this time the invaders have come much deeper into Israelite territory. The situation is so critical that Saul can’t waste any more time chasing David. Off he goes in pursuit of the Philistines. David is saved. In honor of God’s deliverance, he and his men named that place “Rock of Escape.”
In all of this we see the invisible hand of God intervening “at just the right moment.” To make matters more ironic, God is now using his enemies (the Philistines) to save his servant David. From all of this we learn several truths:
First, God sometimes allows his servants to be reduced to desperation. It happens to all of us sooner or later. Second, he never allows them to stay in a state of desperation without sending divine aid. Third, he often delivers them at the moment of greatest peril. Fourth, he makes use of varied and unexpected means.
As the chapter closes David is still on the run, still in trouble, still hiding from Saul. But he is protected by God at every step. His escape in the desert is a miracle of God’s timing. As Saul chases David around the mountain, he comes closer and closer and closer. Finally he moves in to capture him. Just then—in the nick of time!—the messenger arrives. Consider how many things had to happen at exactly the right time and in exactly the right sequence:
1) The Philistines had to attack at just the right moment.
2) A messenger had to be dispatched to find the king.
3) Someone at the palace had to know where the king was.
4) The messenger had to get precise directions to find the king.
5) He had to arrive just before David was about to be captured.
If the messenger gets lost or doesn’t arrive on time or if he gets the wrong directions, or if anything else happens other than what did happen, David is a dead man. Thus we see the hand of God at work protecting his servant. No wonder they called that spot the “Rock of Escape.” I wonder if David was thinking about his close call when he wrote these famous words: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5).
Comfort for Those in the Wilderness
This sermon will have special meaning for those readers who find themselves in the wilderness right now. For everyone else, I hope you’ll remember what we’ve talked about because sooner or later, we’ll all spend time in the wilderness.
Here are four truths that help us apply what we have learned from I Samuel 23.
1) When your circumstances are confusing, remember that God is still in control.
It is easy to believe that God is in control when the sun is shining, you have money in the bank, a good job, a happy marriage, wonderful children, no health problems, and the future looks bright. But what will you say when your money runs out, your boss fires you, your spouse leaves you, your children disappoint you, your health fails, and your friends desert you? Is God still on the throne? Or is your God only a God of the good times? The thought occurs as I type these words that in many places around the world—in Sudan, Somalia, India, Indonesia, and in many Middle Eastern countries, Christians at this moment are being severely persecuted for their faith. They live everyday in dangerous, difficult, chaotic circumstances. Yet they trust the Lord, even to the point of death. Should we do any less?
This is a good time to repeat what I said at the beginning. Just because you don’t see God, don’t feel God, don’t hear God, that doesn’t mean he isn’t there. Your emotions and your senses are not a reliable guide to God’s presence. Whether you feel him or not, he is always there and all things are under his control.
2) When you are tempted to panic, turn to the Lord.
Too many believers turn away from the Lord in the time of trouble. But how will turning away from God help you when life crumbles around you? If you run from God, you are abandoning your only source of help. When hard times come, you need the Lord, you need the Lord’s people, you need the Word of God and you need the worship of the church. You need the hymns and prayers and you need the Lord’s Supper to reorient you to what is really true. If you turn from God’s appointed means of grace, the world has nothing better to offer.
3) When you don’t know what else to do, do God’s will even if it doesn’t make sense to you.
It’s easy to lose your way and become disoriented in the wilderness. Sometimes we shut down altogether because we don’t know what to do or where to go. I am impressed that when God told David to fight the Philistines at Keilah, he got up and obeyed the Lord. That’s always the safest thing to do. David’s men didn’t want to go into battle because they confused safety with geography. They thought they were safer in the forest than they would be on the plain. That’s perfectly true from a human point of view. But God’s perspective is entirely different. He can deliver on the plain just as well as in the forest. He doesn’t need trees and caves to protect his people. The safest place in the world is doing whatever God has called you to do wherever God has called you to do it. David understood that safety is a matter of proximity, not geography. If you are where God wants you to be, then God himself is there with you, and you are the safest person in the whole universe. That’s why it’s safer to fight Goliath in the valley than to cower in fear behind the boulders.
So if you don’t know what to do because the situation is so confused, don’t stay in bed moaning about it. Get up, get dressed, wash your face, put on a clean shirt, dedicate the day to God, and then go out and do what you need to do. If it makes sense, fine. If not, do it anyway. And God will bless you for it.
4) When deliverance comes, don’t forget to thank God and give him the glory.
Sooner or later God always delivers his people. You won’t stay in the wilderness forever. When God’s purpose has been fulfilled in your life, he will bring you out into a better place. When that day comes, be sure to give God the glory. There are far too many “foxhole Christians” who cry out to Jesus when they are in trouble but forget him the moment the crisis is over. Don’t be like that. When God delivers you, stand up and say, “If it had not been for the Lord, I would not have made it. If the Lord had not been on my side, my feet would have slipped and I would have fallen. If the Lord had not helped me, I would not be here today. If the Lord had not taken up my cause, I would have been destroyed and my enemies would have triumphed against me. But because the Lord is good, I can testify that he brought me through and I stand here today by the grace of Almighty God. To him alone be the glory forever.” Don’t forget to say it. And then say it again. Tell it to everyone who will listen. When God delivers you, don’t be timid. Stand up and bless the Lord so that by your example others may bless his holy name.
Let’s end where we began with this affirmation: When God wants to shape us and mold us and make us into something better than we were before, he often sends us to the wilderness for a season. Like David we may find ourselves bumping and bouncing from one crisis to another and we may even wonder why God has left us. Be of good cheer. Our God never abandons his children. Even when you don’t see him, God is still there. Wait on the Lord and when the time is right, God will deliver you. You will discover the same truth that David learned. Even in the wilderness, “God knows what he’s about.” Amen.