The Long Road Home
I Samuel 30
November 12, 2000
This sermon is about one question and one question only: How do you come back to God? In putting the matter this way, I realize there are certain people who desperately need this message. I don’t know who you are but God does. I pray you will listen to his voice as you read my words. And if you don’t need this message now, I hope you’ll file it away because you may need it later. In earlier times preachers used to talk about “backsliding” and “backsliders.” A “backslider” is a Christian who has fallen away from his commitment to Jesus Christ. The dictionary defines the verb “backslide” this way: “To relapse into bad habits, sinful behavior, or undesirable activities.” Diane Dew offers the following analysis of how a Christian comes to be a backslider: “Spiritual decay is a gradual process. If it came as a splash of cold water in the face on a sweltering day, we’d recognize it for what it is. But Satan is sly, and his tactics are subtle. Even as the onslaught of many diseases can be insidious, the wasting away that occurs in the heart of the backslider may be nearly imperceptible.” She also applies this truth to a later period in David’s life: “The backslider does not suddenly wake up one morning and go out and commit adultery. Over a period of time, he may have become lax in his thought life, or entertained fleshly desires. King David watched Bathsheba undress, and soon it was but a little step for him to give expression to the imagination of his heart.” Repent!
John R. Rice asks some penetrating questions that help us face the issue squarely: “Was there ever a time when you were nearer to God than you are now? Was there ever a time when you read the Bible more, or enjoyed it more than now? Was there ever a time when you prayed more, when you had your prayers answered more frequently? Was there ever a day when you won more souls than you have won today? Was there ever a time when you were more completely absorbed in the Lord’s business? If there was ever a time when you were nearer the Lord than today, you are a backslider. You have slid back from that close intimacy with God, from that high place of blessing which you once had.” God’s word to the backslider is “Repent,” which means a change of mind that leads to a change of heart that leads to a change of behavior that leads to a change of life. To repent means that you’re going one direction and then you turn around and go in the opposite direction. As for the importance of repentance, consider this: “If we put off repentance another day, we have one day more to repent of, and one less day to repent in.”
And that brings us to David and the story recorded in 1 Samuel 30. For 16 months he has been living among the Philistines in a village called Ziklag. Evidently the Philistine king liked him and trusted him and believed whatever David told him. Little did he know that David was deceiving him about the raids he said he was making into the territory of Israel but were instead raids on Amalekite villages. He didn’t know because David was lying and then covering it up by killing all the inhabitants of those villages. When the Philistines went to war against Israel, David and his men tagged along in the rear of the army. They were saved from having to fight against their own people because the Philistine generals didn’t trust them. After being dismissed from the army, David and his men made their way back to Ziklag. Everything seemed to be going well for David. Little did he know what had happened in his absence.
It is highly significant that there are no recorded prayers or psalms during the 16 months David spent with the Philistines. During this period of spiritual compromise, he seems not to have made God a high priority in his life. But that is about to change.
First Samuel 30 records the six steps in David’s return to the Lord and to the Lord’s people. The six steps apply to anyone who is away from God and who wants to get back on the long road home. Let all backsliders consider this chapter. If you are ready for a change, this is God’s Word to you.
Step #1: Face the Truth
“David and his men reached Ziklag on the third day. Now the Amalekites had raided the Negev and Ziklag. They had attacked Ziklag and burned it, and had taken captive the women and all who were in it, both young and old. They killed none of them, but carried them off as they went on their way. When David and his men came to Ziklag, they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep. David’s two wives had been captured-Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters” (I Samuel 30:1-6a).
All of this was David’s fault.
It was David who entered Philistine territory.
It was David who led the raiding parties.
It was David who exterminated everyone in the villages.
It was David who lied to the Philistine king.
It was David who left Ziklag defenseless.
It was David who did it all.
No wonder the men are so angry. David is now …
Rejected by the Philistines.
Plundered by the Amalekites.
Threatened by his own soldiers.
And it’s all his fault. He had spent …
16 months living in enemy territory.
16 months pretending to be loyal to the Philistines.
16 months ignoring his conscience.
16 months living by his wits.
16 months doing it his own way.
16 months away from God.
But now as he surveys the smoking ruins of Ziklag, the truth cannot be denied. All the chickens have come home to roost. David can’t blame anyone but himself. No wonder his men wept and then wanted to stone him. By his compromise, he has brought great suffering to everyone who looked to him for leadership.
There is an enormously important principle at work here. God will not be ignored by his children. Sooner or later, he calls his children to account for their disobedience. No Christian ever gets away with sin. Sooner or later we have to face the music.
David’s life has fallen apart because he has left God out of his life. Now he comes to the moment of decision. Will he continue to run away from God? Will he continue to compromise? Or will he take the first step on the long road back to God? Of all the steps, the first one is the hardest. Until you face the truth about yourself, you cannot get better. As a wise man once said, “The truth will set you free, but it will hurt you first.” Until you are willing to face the hard truth about yourself, you can never be set free. What has happened at Ziklag is David’s fault, but it is also a “severe mercy” from God, designed to bring him to his knees and ultimately back home where he belongs.
Step #2: Remember God’s Love
The New International Version says that at this, the lowest moment of his life so far, “David found strength in the LORD his God.” The Hebrew literally says that David “strengthened himself in the Lord his God.” That’s a striking thought: “David strengthened himself.” It had to be that way because he was in enemy territory and his own men had turned against him. And this time Jonathan is nowhere to be found.
What do you do when you reach the bottom and there is no one around to help you? How do you strengthen yourself in God? You do it by …
Remembering who God is.
Repeating God’s promises.
Meditating on God’s faithfulness in the past.
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Our text says that David strengthened himself in “the Lord his God.” What a telling phrase that is. This was very personal with David. It was more than just a dry review of theology and a quick scan of his memory verses. No, David reflected on all that God had done for him. As he surveyed the ruins of Ziklag, he could not say “my city, my home, my possessions,” or even “my wife.” But he could say “My God!” Here is a powerful and profound truth. The Amalekites had taken everything from him but one thing-They couldn’t take God from him! Whatever else we lose, we are rich if we have him. Whatever else we have, we are poor if we do not know the Lord.
We can say it this way. You’ll never know if Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have. And when Jesus is all you have, then and only then do you discover that Jesus really is all you need. Something like that is happening to David. God has stripped away all his human resources so that he is now trapped by his own compromise. When there is no place to go but to the Lord, David discovers that the Lord is enough for all his needs.
This explains so much that happens to us. Many times our trials come to bring us to precisely the place where we will turn to God with a whole heart and embrace his goodness. Corrie Ten Boom reminds us that God is good all the time whether we see it or not: “Deep in our hearts we believe in a good God. Yet how shallow is our understanding of His goodness. How often I have heard people say, ’How good God is! We prayed that it would not rain for our church picnic, and look at the lovely weather!’ Yes, God is good when He sends good weather. But God was also good when He allowed my sister Betsie to starve to death before my eyes in a German concentration camp.”
It is in the moment of adversity that the Christian’s true resources are revealed. When in trouble, we turn to the Lord. We have something the world cannot match and does not understand. We have the living God on our side. And in those moments when life tumbles in around us, we discover what we truly believe-and the watching world discovers what we believe as well. During happy times the world may ignore us, but the world has no answer for a Christian whose faith shines in the darkness of personal tragedy.
Step #3: Humbly ask for God’s Help
Here is a crucial step in getting right with God. Once we realize our condition, and once we remember who God is, it’s time to humbly ask him to help us. In this case it meant that David called for the high priest and used the ephod to ask God if he should pursue the Amalekites. The answer from heaven came quickly: “’Pursue them,’ he answered. ’You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue’” (I Samuel 30:8). As far as we know, this is the first time in 16 months that David has asked God for guidance. During his stay in Philistine territory, he was living by his wits, fending for himself, and for most of the time seemed to prosper on his own. But now, having been thoroughly humbled, he cries out to God and the answer comes from heaven.
I find it very hopeful that once he repented, David was immediately back in contact with God. No waiting period. No probation. Here is hope for the worst of sinners. If you will come home to God, he will take you back into the fold. The words of the final verse of Charlotte Elliott’s lovely hymn come to mind:
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
It is hard to humble yourself, hard to admit you were wrong, and very hard (for some of us, at least) to cry out for God’s help. But when we do, we find that God meets us where we are and gives us far more than we ask for.
Step #4: Get Back in the Battle 9-20
And so off they go after the Amalekites. David took 400 soldiers with him and left 200 behind to guard the supplies. Eventually they found the enemy army, surprised them, and won a total victory. “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” (I Samuel 30:18-19). This is the pure grace of God. What David lost through sin, God restored through grace. David’s part was simply to be obedient to the Lord’s command.
Step #5: Focus on Others 21-24
Now that the victory had been won, it’s not surprising that a squabble broke out. The 400 soldiers who fought with David didn’t want to share the spoils of victory with the 200 men who stayed behind the guard the supplies. Their attitude was, “We fought the battle, this belongs to us. Why should we share it with those who didn’t do any of the fighting?” Here is David’s godly response in verses 23-24: “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. Who will listen to what you say? The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike.” David realizes that every victory comes from God and that without him, they would never have prevailed over the Amalekites. Furthermore, he points out that they’re all on the same team. The ones who guarded the supplies were doing their part so that the fighters could do theirs. For each soldier at the battlefront, there are probably 8 to 10 people behind the lines in various vital support roles. Now that David has gotten his heart right, he doesn’t want to mess things up by giving in to selfish impulses.
Step #6: Renew Your Broken Relationships 25-31
Whenever we move away from God, we always hurt other people in the process. Now that David has returned to the Lord, he sends gifts to the leaders of various towns in Judah. It was his way of saying, “I’m through living in enemy territory. I’m going home for good, and this gift proves the sincerity of my words.”
One part of true repentance is realizing that we have deeply hurt others, and then doing what we can to make things right. That may mean an apology, a phone call, a letter, or a face-to-face meeting. Broken relationships usually aren’t healed overnight. Rebuilding trust takes time and effort and a deep commitment on both sides to do what it takes to keep the lines of communication open.
Writing on this passage over 150 years ago, Charles Simeon of Cambridge put forth two summary applications. First, let us secure God as our God. “Unless God be ours, we can have but little reason to encourage ourselves in him.” Look to Christ. Run to the cross. Trust in the Son of God, and then you will be able to call God “my God” with true and deep conviction. Second, let us encourage ourselves in God. It is certain that we will meet many trials in this life, and many times we will find no way to encourage ourselves because our circumstances are so grim. In those dark moments, we must turn to our God and remind ourselves that we know him, that his promises are still true, and then we must cry out to him. “Let us, like David, chide our unbelief, and henceforth say with him, ’In the day of my trouble, I will call upon God.’”
As we come to the close, let’s consider again these words: “If we put off repentance another day, we have one day more to repent of, and one less day to repent in.” Are you ready to repent and turn from your sin? Have you been running long enough? Are you ready to start on the long road home? If you are, then it’s time to take the first step. There’s a town in Canada in the province of Newfoundland in western Labrador called Wabush that was completely isolated for many years. A few years ago engineers cut a road through the wilderness to reach it. It now has one road leading into it, and thus, only one road leading out. This illustrates a great spiritual truth. If you want to come back to God, you’ve got to retrace your steps. If you are ready to turn around, you can start for home this very moment.
Prone to Wander
It was a bright Sunday morning in 18th-century London, but Robert Robinson’s mood was anything but sunny. All along the street people were hurrying to church, but in the midst of the crowd Robinson was a lonely man. The sound of church bells reminded him of years past when his faith in God was strong and the church was an integral part of his life. During his teenage years, he had lived a wild life until his conversion after hearing a sermon by the famous evangelist George Whitefield. He became a pastor and wrote a number of poems that later became hymns. It had been years since he set foot in a church-years of wandering, disillusionment, and gradual defection from the God he once loved. That love for God-once fiery and passionate-had slowly burned out within him, leaving him dark and cold inside.
Robinson heard the clip-clop, clip-clop of a horse-drawn cab approaching behind him. Turning, he lifted his hand to hail the driver. But then he saw that the cab was occupied by a young woman dressed in her Sunday best. He waved the driver on, but the woman in the carriage ordered the carriage to be stopped.
“Sir, I’d be happy to share this carriage with you,” she said to Robinson. “Are you going to church?” Robinson was about to decline, but then he paused. “Yes,” he said at last. “I am going to church.” He stepped into the carriage and sat down beside the young woman.
As the carriage rolled forward Robert Robinson and the woman exchanged introductions. There was a flash of recognition in her eyes when he stated his name. “That’s an interesting coincidence,” she said, reaching into her purse. She withdrew a small book of poems, opened it to a ribbon-bookmark, and handed the book to him. “I was just reading a verse by a poet named Robert Robinson. Could it be…?”
He took the book, nodding. “Yes, I wrote these words years ago.”
“Oh, how wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Imagine! I’m sharing a carriage with the author of these very lines!”
But Robinson barely heard her. He was absorbed in the words he was reading. They were words that would one day be set to music and become a great hymn of the faith, familiar to generations of Christians:
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
His eyes slipped to the bottom of the page where he read:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it- Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.
He could barely read the last few lines through the tears that brimmed in his eyes. “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.”
The woman suddenly understood. “You also wrote, ’Here’s my heart, O take and seal it.’ You can offer your heart again to God, Mr. Robinson. It’s not too late.”
At this point history moves in different directions. Some accounts say that he returned to the Lord, others say we can’t be sure. It is fitting that only God knows how the story really ended.
When I preached this sermon, two men approached me with separate stories. One man, deeply moved, thanked me for the message and then said, “I’m not ready yet, but I’m thinking about it.” The other man told me that this sermon was the story of his life. Although he had known the Lord, for years he had walked in his own ways and eventually hit rock bottom. “I have discovered that when I am faithless, God is faithful still.” It has been eight years since he turned back to God and the smile told me that he is still on the right road.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. If the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart, I urge you to respond. It is good to think about it; it is better to do something about it. The message is very clear: It’s never too late to come back to God. But the first step is up to you.