Ziklag Is Burning!
I Samuel 27-30
October 22, 2000
Once upon a time the devil decided to have a garage sale. He did it because he wanted to clear out some of his old tools to make room for new ones. After he set up his wares, a fellow dropped by to see what he had. Arrayed on a long table were all the tricks of his infernal trade. Each tool had a price tag. In one corner was a shiny implement labeled “Anger—$250,” next to it a curved tool labeled “Sloth—$380.” As the man searched, he found “Criticism—$500” and “Jealousy—$630.” Out of the corner of his eye, the man spotted a beaten-up tool with a price tag of $12,000. Curious, the man asked the devil why he would offer a worn-out piece of junk for such an exorbitant price. The devil said it was expensive because he used it so much. “What is it?,” the man asked. The answer came back, “It is discouragement. It always works when nothing else will.”
Surely all of us can testify to the truth of that little fable. We all know from hard experience how the devil uses discouragement to keep us from moving ahead. When anger won’t stop us, when lust can do us no harm, when envy finds no foothold, discouragement always works. It is the devil’s number one tool.
The dictionary defines discouragement as “anything that makes us less confident and hopeful.” Another way to look at it is to say that encouragement is the act of putting courage into someone. Therefore, discouragement is anything that takes the courage out.
That’s a dangerous state to be in because a discouraged person makes many mistakes. You won’t be surprised to learn that David’s life offers an excellent example of what discouragement can do to a man of God. The story is told in I Samuel 27-30, a passage little known to most of us but one which is perfectly relevant today.
I. What Discouragement Did to David
The story begins this way: “But David thought to himself, ‘One of these days I will be destroyed by the hand of Saul. The best thing I can do is to escape to the land of the Philistines. Then Saul will give up searching for me anywhere in Israel, and I will slip out of his hand’” (I Samuel 27:1). In those words you have the x-ray of a discouraged soul. It shows us what discouragement can do to you and me.
First, discouragement destroyed his perspective. It all begins when David starts to think about his situation. For nearly ten years he’s been running from Saul. Ten years is a big chunk out of a man’s life. Maybe he was tired on this particular day. No one could blame him for feeling down. We’ve all been in the same place. But this time his mind jumps from one negative thought to another until at last he reaches a hopeless conclusion: “One of these days Saul is going to get me. I don’t know where or when or how but I can’t run like this forever. It may not come for a year or it may happen tomorrow but sure as sunrise, it’s going to happen.” The future looks bleak because he has decided to focus on the negative instead of the positive.
As I said, we can excuse and even understand such thinking except for two key facts. First, God had promised that David would be the next king. That wasn’t a prediction the way political pundits predict the next president. No, it was a rock-solid promise and David could take it to the bank. Meaning that Saul would never kill him no matter how bleak the circumstances might appear.
Second, David had just emerged from a string of three remarkable spiritual victories. He had spared Saul’s life once in the cave at En Gedi (I Samuel 24). Then he had spared Nabal’s life when Abigail interceded (I Samuel 25). Then he had very recently spared Saul’s life again when he crept into the camp and found Saul sleeping (I Samuel 26). Perhaps it isn’t surprising that discouragement came hard on the heels of such remarkable victories. It is often that way for the children of God. We could almost say that when things are going well, watch out because you are set up to be blindsided by temptation of one kind or another.
In any case, David chooses to focus on what might happen instead of what has happened, and on his own resources instead of God’s promises. As a result, he completely loses his perspective on life.
Dumb and Dumber
Second, it led him to an impulsive decision. You can certainly say the decision to go live with the Philistines was impulsive. You can also say it was just plain dumb. Again, David has his reasons. The big one is that by going to the Philistines he will make Saul quit chasing him. The other one is a bit more subtle. You may recall this isn’t the first time David has lived with Goliath’s people. He did it before, back in chapter 21, when he lied to Ahimelech to get bread for his men. That episode ended in humiliation with David slobbering on his beard to make Achish think he had gone nuts. So now David turns around and makes the same mistake all over again. There is a great warning for all of us in this. One act of spiritual compromise—no matter how small—makes it easier to compromise the next time. Even a tiny step in the wrong direction sets us up to take the next step sooner or later.
Third, it forced him into a position of compromise. God’s word was crystal clear: The children of Israel were not to mix with the surrounding nations. Over and over the warning was given and every time somebody tried it, disaster resulted. David knew all that and he did it anyway. I’m sure if you had asked David as he led his band toward Gath, “Are you deserting God?” he would have said no. He probably would have been insulted by the very question. “Me, desert God? Are you kidding? I believe everything I always believed.” “But David, these are not God’s people.” “It makes no difference. I’m going to go live there for a while until the pressure is off. It’s not a big deal. I can have my quiet time in Gath just as easily as I can in Israel.”
We always have an excuse when we compromise. It seems logical enough to us. Some of us are doing it right now. We are involved in shady deals, compromising relationships, and business arrangements that we know aren’t quite right. We’re going along with some things that would embarrass us if anyone else knew. We’re still in church this morning, still singing the songs of Zion, but in our hearts, we know we’ve taken the low road. Discouragement does that. It leads us slowly downward until we end up doing things we would never dreamed we would do. What starts as a fleeting thought becomes a plan, a plan becomes a commitment, and eventually a commitment becomes a lifestyle.
II. What Compromise Did to David
As we read on, we find things rapidly getting worse. His compromise involved innocent people in his wrong decision. First Samuel 27:2 says that “David and the six hundred men with him left and went over to Achish son of Maoch king of Gath.” Each man brought his family with him. That means there were at least 600 men, 600 women, and who knows how many children involved. All now living with the enemy because of David’s choice.
The same thing happens to us. Whenever we begin to compromise, we take other people with us. Naturally, we don’t think about it at the time, but soon enough we discover that our impulsiveness has hurt a lot of innocent people.
If you keep on reading, you find one fact that may surprise you. David’s compromise ushered in a period of temporary peace and prosperity. Verse 4 tells us that Saul did indeed stop searching for David. Verses 5-6 record that David and his people were given the village of Ziklag to live in. I Chronicles 12 informs us that during this period a great many of Saul’s soldiers defected to David in Ziklag. Finally, verse 12 says that Achish king of Gath was very pleased with David.
On the surface, it looks like David made a wise decision. You could argue that God is blessing David for going to the Philistines. For a period of weeks or maybe months I’m sure he felt vindicated. Things were going well. He gets up in the morning about nine, reads the Ziklag Gazette, goes down to the aerobics center to work out with the boys, in the afternoon he raids a nearby village, and in the evening maybe there’s a feast. Not a bad life.
There is a clear biblical principle at work here. Disobedience often results in a temporary lessening of pressure. We remember that Hebrews 11 speaks of “the pleasures of sin for a season.” Sure, David felt better for a while. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that sin isn’t fun. The exact opposite is true. Sin is lots of fun and compromise is exciting. That’s why so many Christians do it.
There’s a third result of David’s compromise. It led him into further sin. Here’s the other side of the coin. First there was discouragement, then there was desperation, then defection, and now further disobedience that leads to deceit and needless death.
Verses 8-11 describe raiding parties David would undertake while he was living at Ziklag. You need to know a little geography to get the picture. Ziklag was a tiny village off in the wilderness between Gaza and Beersheba. David would take his men and raid the villages to the south and southwest of Ziklag. But when Achish asked, “Where did you go raiding today?” David would answer, “I’ve been to the Negev of Judah,” which was south and east. The implication of David’s answer was that he had been raiding his own people Israel. Actually he had been going the opposite direction. But the deception served the purpose of convincing Achish that he was truly loyal to him.
That doesn’t seem like such a big deal until you read verse 11. “He did not leave a man or woman alive to be brought to Gath, for he thought, ‘They might inform on us and say, ‘This is what David did.’” So what started as a plundering party ended in a bloody slaughter. After all, dead men tell no tales.
Playing for the Wrong Team
But are you surprised? That’s what happens to all of us when discouragement leads us to compromise. When David attacked those villages, he did it without God’s permission, without provocation, under false pretenses, and with unnecessary cruelty. David is caught in a terrible downward spiral and the worst is still to come.
There is one final result of compromise. It climaxed with an order to join the other side. For David and his men, everything seems to be going great. In fact, it seems like God is blessing him more than ever before. Life is beautiful until the day David gets his draft notice. First Samuel 28:1 puts it this way: “In those days the Philistines gathered their forces to fight against Israel. Achish said to David, ‘You must understand that you and your men will accompany me in the army.’” Now the chickens are coming home to roost. Why did Achish welcome David’s defection so many months ago? He was collecting an IOU and now he calls it in. What’s worse, he names David as his personal bodyguard. That means that if the Philistines win the battle, it will be the bodyguard’s duty to kill the defeated king. Which means that David will be forced to do the one thing he has steadfastly refused to do—kill Saul.
David never intended to get into this mess. In his mind, going to live with the Philistines was just a temporary maneuver to buy some time and space. But now he is faced with the full results of his compromise. Unless God intervenes, he will be forced to fight against his own people. But that’s what happens whenever you live your life apart from God. One little step leads to another, one tiny compromise opens the door to another, and before long you find yourself in too deep to get out. When that happens, you think, “It’s okay. I’ll make it.” But you won’t.
By now, David is too indebted to Achish to even think about backing out. He is the perfect picture of the carnal man operating on his own resources.
III. How David Bottomed Out
So now the scene is set. The Philistines gather at Aphek to war against the men of Israel. The soldiers gather in small groups, check their weapons, discuss strategy, and wonder when the battle will begin. Men are here from all the various Philistine cities—Gath, Ekron, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza—the total number is up in the thousands. This is no small skirmish; this is all-out war. David and his men are bringing up the rear.
All goes well until one of the Philistines says, “What are those Jews doing here?” Then someone else says, “Get those guys out of here.” Word shoots through the ranks and something like a small riot breaks out. The generals come to Achish and say, “What’s this man David doing here? Don’t you remember the song they used to play on the Hebrew Hit Parade about ten years ago?” And they quote that little ditty that used to make Saul so mad, “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.” They object to David being near them because they fear he will turn against them in the heat of battle in order to regain Saul’s favor.
So Achish has to go back to David and say, “I’m sorry, but you can’t fight with us. My men don’t trust you. Go back to Ziklag. We’ll let you fight in the next battle.”
The World Doesn’t Trust a Compromising Christian
There is an important lesson for us to consider at this point. A child of God defects—even temporarily—to the other side and then he discovers that the other side doesn’t want him because they don’t trust him. Why? Because a child of God is always a child of God. The new nature within cannot be taken away even though it can be covered up and camouflaged by compromise. That’s why backsliding is a kind of spiritual suicide. The believer who cuts himself off from the people of God soon discovers the people of the world don’t want him around either. So he is fated to spend his years in a kind of no-man’s land, half in the world, half in the church. He is a man without a country.
When I preached this sermon, a woman came up to me and thanked me for pressing home this point. “I’ve been too concerned with what the other women in my neighborhood think of me.” She had been trying to become like them in order to win their favor. But it never works. The people of the world are smarter than that. They can recognize the true children of God and they won’t respect us if we try to play on their team. The world respects Christians who stand up for what they believe. They may not like us (they might even persecute us) but they will respect us and they can’t deny the reality of our faith.
The end is almost upon David and he doesn’t even know it. As he and his men march back to Ziklag, I imagine they feel pretty lucky. Only a last-second intervention prevented them from joining the attack on Israel. They are almost home now, only one more hill to cross. Suddenly one of the men says, “I smell smoke.” Another says, “I do, too.” Someone shouts, “It’s Ziklag.” In a moment, 600 men break ranks and run for the village. Their eyes are not prepared for what they see. While they were gone, the Amalekites came and took their wives, took their children, took all their possessions, and burned the village to the ground. Nothing is left.
You see, the Amalekites were part of those villages David used to raid when he was playing that little game and pretending to attack Judah. Remember, David not only raided those villages, he also killed the people to keep them from talking. Now the Amalekites have returned the favor.
David has been flirting with disaster for a long, long time. What started out as a simple case of discouragement has now led to something inconceivable. When he first came to the Philistines, he only meant to relieve the pressure. He never meant for anything like this to happen. And all this time, God has been trying to get his attention but David won’t listen. Finally, disaster strikes and David is totally unprepared.
The text says that David and his men wept until they could not weep anymore. It also says David’s men were so bitter that they talked of stoning David. And why not? Ziklag is burning and it’s all David’s fault. What started with discouragement led to desperation which led to defection which led to disobedience which culminated in disaster.
Now God is beginning to get David’s attention. Sometimes the Lord has to do that in order to get through to us. Disaster comes and we stand in the blackened, smoking ruins of a part of our life. And at last we come to our senses. After 16 months of compromise and disobedience, David finally begins to look up. The tragedy is that it took so long and hurt so many people.
IV. How David Turned His Life Around
The turning point comes so quickly that we may miss it. First Samuel 30:6 says that “David found strength in the LORD his God.” David found strength. That means he is no longer relying on his own strength. David’s number one problem from the beginning was that he was so gifted that he could operate very successfully apart from God. We know he was handsome and strong, we know he was a gifted musician and a mighty warrior, we know that women were attracted to him, we know he was a born leader. David had it all. He was every woman’s dream and every man’s hero. In later years, those qualities would make him Israel’s greatest king. But one reason God put David through ten years of obscurity in the desert was to teach him not to rely on his own abilities but in the Lord alone. That’s a hard lesson for all of us to learn and doubly hard for those with great natural gifts.
As long as David leaned on the Lord, those enormous gifts could be used to accomplish great ends. We have seen it already and we will see it again as he leads his people to the greatest era of prosperity they will ever know. But every time David leaned on his own strength to get the job done, he got in trouble. And he hurt a lot of people in the process.
What lesson should we take from this story? Primarily the one mentioned in I Corinthians 10:12, “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” What happened to David can happen to any of us.
Beyond that, we can sum up three clear warning statements and one positive application:
1) Discouragement is inevitable when we attempt to face the problems of life in our own strength.
2) Compromise with the world offers only a temporary solution to our problems.
3) God’s punishment is usually to let us face the consequence s of our own wrong decisions.
4) Discouragement is not meant to throw us on our back, but to bring us to our knees.
Where is the grace of God in this story? To paraphrase a famous hymn, this story is all about the “love that will not let us go.” God loves us too much to let us stay forever in our sin. The Lord knows his own, he puts his seal upon us, and he watches every move we make. When we decide to live in our own strength, God lets us go our own way in order that when we fail (and we will fail eventually), we will turn to him with a new resolve and a firm commitment to walk in the light. Because we are little children, we have to fall in order to learn how to walk. There is a warning here and also great hope based on a God whose love is so strong that even when we sin, that same love keeps calling us back home.
Some of us have done exactly what David did. Some of us are still doing it. There’s a lesson to be learned and a warning to be taken. The good news is this—whenever we’re ready, truly ready, we can turn things around. That’s what the grace of God is all about. The question is, how far will we have to go before that moment comes?