THE FUGITIVE YEARS END 1 Samuel 26–31
“One of these days I will be destroyed by the hand of Saul” (1 Sam. 27:1).Sometimes the pressure becomes so great that we try to run away. David finally became discouraged and fled to Philistia. As is often the case, the deepening darkness was a harbinger of a new dawn.
Mercenaries. In ancient times bands of unemployed soldiers often hired out their services to foreign rulers. Later David himself had a guard of 600 men from Gath, who remained faithful to him when his own people rebelled (cf. 2 Sam. 15:16–22). When David fled from Saul into Philistine territory, the ruler of Gath treated him and his men as a mercenary force, and expected David to be loyal to the mercenary code of that day.
David and his followers settled in Philistine territory (27:1–12). As war approached, Saul desperately sought guidance, finally turning to a medium who consulted the dead (28:1–25). Meanwhile, David was saved from fighting against Israel when the Philistine rulers expelled his men from their army (29:1–11). David returned home to find his city burned and the wives and children of his men captured (30:1–6). They overtook the raiders and saved their families (vv. 7–31). Saul was killed in the Philistine war, and David’s adventurous fugitive years ended at last (31:1–13).
Understanding the Text
“The Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed” 1 Sam. 26:1–25. Once again David had an opportunity to kill Saul, this time while he slept surrounded by his army. Instead David took the king’s spear and water jug, and used these items to prove he had again spared his enemy. Saul promised to stop pursuing David, and admitted that David would “do great things and surely triumph.” The king might well have been sincere—for the moment. But sincere words are not sufficient evidence of reform. David knew by now that Saul was not worthy of trust. Despondent and afraid that “one of these days I will be destroyed,” David decided to leave Israel. We can give Saul the benefit of the doubt, and say that he was sincere when he made this promise. Sometimes you and I are sincere when we make commitments. But sincerity is not enough. Sincerity moves us to make commitments. But it takes integrity to keep them. We must guard against thinking that our own sincerity is enough when we make promises to others. We must be men and women of integrity. “David . . . went over to Achish . . . king of Gath” 1 Sam. 27:1–12. The Philistine ruler treated David as a mercenary leader, and gladly gave him a country town to live in. Achish expected David to live up to the mercenary code. David, however, raided Israel’s enemies, telling Achish that his raids were against Hebrew settlements. This deception was not to David’s credit. But David’s decision to leave Israel almost forced him to act deceptively. David intended to be king of Israel one day, and would never raid his own people. Yet David was in a position where he had to act as a subject of one of Israel’s most bitter enemies. David’s experience teaches us an important lesson. One way to avoid deceit is to stay out of situations where lies will seem necessary. “Find me a woman who is a medium” 1 Sam. 28:1–25. Saul was terrified by the size of the Philistine army that was drawn up against him. He received no answer when he went to God for guidance. So he ordered his retainers to locate a medium. The Old Testament called for the death of those who used sorcery, divination, or other occult practices (Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:10–11). Saul himself had tried to rid the land of occult practitioners. In his fear, he now turned to dark forces for aid. The familiar story tells how stunned this “witch of Endor” was when the shadowy form of Samuel actually appeared. She may have been a channel for demonic expression, but she had no access to the spirits of the dead. Samuel told Saul clearly that it was too late for him. Israel would be defeated in the next battle with the Philistines, and Saul himself would be killed. It is possible for a person to wander so far from God that there is no way back to the place of blessing. Yet to the king who lived in paranoid terror, seeing conspiracy everywhere, death would be a gift. There are worse things than dying. One of them is living on after losing all sense of God’s presence. “I would be pleased to have you serve with me” 1 Sam. 29:1–11. As a vassal of Achish, David was obligated to have his fighting men join the Philistine army. What a dilemma this posed! The decision David had made when discouraged by Saul’s constant harassment placed him in an impossible situation. There is no record of David asking the Lord if he should move to Philistia. It’s important for us to learn not to make hasty decisions when we are emotionally drained and that it is never wise to make significant choices without carefully seeking God’s guidance. In this case, God rescued David again. The other Philistine rulers refused to let David serve with Achish, and so Achish apologetically sent David back home. Did David learn his lesson? Apparently. The next chapter tells us that he paused under the most intense pressure to consult the Lord before acting (cf. 30:7–8). It is bad enough when you or I make serious mistakes. It is worse if we fail to learn from them. “They had attacked Ziglag and burned it” 1 Sam. 30:1–31. Returning home, David found his village burned and the wives and children of his men captured. This was a devastating low point for David, as his own men were bitter enough to talk of stoning him. Now David consulted the Lord and was guided by the Urim and Thummim to follow and attack the raiders. The families were rescued, and David even had extra spoil taken from the raiders to give as gifts to various communities in Judah. His generosity served David well. It helped the people of Judah forget his flight to Philistia, and later Judah was the first tribe to recognize David as king. “Saul and three of his sons . . . died” 1 Sam. 31:1–13. Israel was defeated by the Philistines and Saul was killed. The text adds a touching note. The bodies of Saul and his sons were taken by night from the walls of a Philistine city where they had been nailed for display. This was done by the men of Jabesh Gilead. In his first act as king, Saul had saved that city from the Ammonites. Its citizens now repaid his kindness. During his long reign Saul had proved to be an effective military leader. And he was rightly honored by his people. If not for his one great flaw, the inability to trust and obey the Lord, Saul could have been a great king, and his godly son Jonathan a worthy successor. With Saul’s death, David’s fugitive years were over.
Moving to Philistia? (1 Sam. 27)
My 31-year-old son is a “starving artist.” No. Not one of the artists who contributes to the sales sponsored under that name. Paul is a very talented painter, totally committed to his art. And living on the wrong side of poverty. Paul can understand the pressure that David felt after months and years of narrow escapes from Saul. He can understand why David, deeply discouraged, finally decided to move to Philistia. Often my son has wondered if he shouldn’t just give up his art and take a job that promises more than a bare living. To him that would be as great a surrender as David’s decision to move into Philistine territory. It would be a denial of who he is, and who he is called by God to be. I can’t judge what my son should do. It hurts me deeply to see his struggles and not be able to help. Sometimes I think it would be easier for him just to give up. To let his exceptional talent go, and try to make a better living in this world. Then I remember David. He gave up. But among the Philistines David found himself forced to deny who he was-the future king of Israel. David lived a double life there, and was again forced to lie just to survive. There may be no guidance for my son in this period in David’s life. But there are principles that you and I need to live by. When life is hard, let’s guard against seeking the easy way out. All too often the “easy way” takes us into a situation in which we’re forced to compromise who we are just to survive.
Circumstances are seldom the best guide to God’s will.