Like most of us, David’s life is filled with contradictions as he struggles to serve the Lord.
Note in chapter five that as the people accept David as king, they remind him of what God’s anointed should do: “shepherd” God’s people Israel. This point is significant because it is presented as a previously given message of the Lord. When it was given previously we are not told, but all Israel seems to know about it. It is presented here as a theme marker. David is to be a shepherd. In doing so, he will become Israel’s ruler.
God is often pictured in the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, as a shepherd. The work of shepherding is to care for the sheep, protect them, and lead them in a way that is secure and healthy.
The story of his reign begins with great promise. He conquers the Jebusite city of Jerusalem and it will become Israel’s capital city. He is honored by other kings – like Hiram, king of Tyre and he conquers Israel’s perpetual enemy, the Philistines.
But before long, David is marrying lots of wives – an ailment of the rich and powerful (especially kings), and while David inquires of the Lord twice in chapter 5, it isn’t long before he is acting on his own – and making mistakes.
It happens to us all: A few successes, an absence of difficulty, and we think “I’ve got it from here.” But we don’t, and like David, tragic mistakes bring disorder to our lives. The old hymn goes: “I need thee every hour most gracious Lord.” It’s when we forget that fact that trouble inevitably comes.
You should remember that God always knew Israel would want, and get, a king. He had anticipated it with His commands in Deuteronomy 17. There, prospective kings are to be Israelites. They are not to give themselves to the ways of kings of other nations. They are not to be materialistic. They are to submit to the law of God and not imagine themselves superior to their fellow Israelites.
Also as you read this, remember that it is to Israel’s credit that they do not ask for a king of their own making. In asking Samuel to appoint a king, they are asking God for a king.
As you read the reasons Samuel gives for not having a king, you might wonder why God was against it. After all, a king will bring organization to an Israel that heretofore had been a very loose confederation of tribes – and not very united at that. A monarchy will also produce a whole new industry: heralds, estate keepers, cooks and bakers to the king. More jobs produce a greater economy. What could be wrong with that?
Simply this: the monarchy, for all its benefits, would birth a class system among the people of God they had not known. Up to now, people might have had different jobs, but all jobs were equally important to the community. With the arrival of a king, however, all that would change.
Invariably, a worldly value system divides the people of God. You will see it in the New Testament church many times – most notably in the Corinthian letters. Paul will write to people who have separated themselves by class and say: “Who makes you different from anyone else?” Their worldly notion of pecking order will lead them to regard the apostle Paul as the garbage of the world.
In the family of God, there is no social pecking order. We are all children of God and His servants. We should regard one another with equality.
You shouldn’t miss the role of family in the monarchies of Saul and David. Abner, the head of Saul’s army was the brother of Saul’s father. Joab, the head of David’s army was the son of David’s sister, Zeruiah.
Though the Old Testament seems to be terribly patriarchal by modern standards, women were not without power. The fact that Joab’s father is never named (only his mother) might indicate that in that family, she was firmly in control. Connection with well-placed women could give a man right to position. If, for example, Abner really did have a relationship with Ish-Bosheth’s concubine, it would indicate an attempt by Abner to claim Ish-Bosheth’s throne. Ultimately, this is one of the reasons David asks that Michal be restored to him. Being married to the daughter of Saul would give him a claim on Saul’s throne. (You will see this again when Absolom sleeps with David’s concubines).
Two things stand out to me in chapter three: First, the violence. The civil war between the house of Saul and David has more in common with the worldly power struggles than with a holy Israel. But second is the sheer effrontery of Abner. He knew God promised Saul’s kingdom to David (3:10, 18). And yet, he led the opposition to David’s rule. Then, when his feelings were hurt, he went over to David’s side. David may have mourned the loss of Abner, but it is difficult not to believe that Abner got what he deserved. Abner was an incredibly strong person, physically and politically. He “ran” Israel. But he could not overcome the will of God.
A “lucky charm” is only a cereal. There is nothing, really, that one can carry to ward off failure or ensure success. Absent God, success is about preparation, hard work, connection to power, and being in the right place at the right time with the right idea. With God however, it’s not that those things don’t matter, it is that they don’t have to matter.
The people of Israel thought that by taking God’s “Ark of the Covenant” they would be guaranteed success. After all, God surely wouldn’t let anything happen to his Ark. He’d have to guarantee success.
But God doesn’t work that way. After all the evil prevalent in Israel, God would not be forced to give success to them because of the Ark. The Ark was the seat of God’s presence, and if they were going to treat Him that way, He simply wouldn’t be present.
Eli understood that, and so did Ichabod’s mother.
God will never be in your debt. He will never owe you anything. He grants blessing according to His will and by His grace and those blessings can be removed as easily as they were given. His slowness in doing so shows that He is not capricious, but his patience, eventually, comes to an end.
As we come to the end of Saul’s life here, I have found these observations from Edwin Good most thoughtful:
The remaining two episodes of the Saul narrative highlight the tragedy of the whole story of Saul. His recourse to Samuel’s ghost demonstrated his feeling that the people were no longer with him. But the starkly heroic act of the men of Jabesh-gilead (31:11-13), the site of Saul’s first triumph (ch. 11), shows the lasting respect, loyalty, and affection that he had in fact acquired.
The other piece of tragic irony is the moving lament uttered by David over Saul (2 Sam. 1:19-27). We cannot imagine that David wanted to fight against Saul, he escaped his command in the battle of Mt Gilboa only because the Philistine officers felt him a poor security risk. He was considered by others to be Saul’s most faithful servant (22:14). When he could easily have done so, he would not kill the King because he loved him greatly” (16:21).
Saul’s obsession with David was the construct of his own mind, and David’s response to Saul’s death demonstrates to us how tragically needless it was. Saul’s genuine greatness–his stature before the people, and the affection in which he was held, as shown by the deed of the men of Jabesh-Gilead–could have had full, free play in the monarchy. He could have been the kind of ruler to turn the kingship’s intrinsic ambiguity to the proper ends. But he was not the man. He was “little in his own eyes,” and he found it impossible to conceive that obedience to the Lord just might override his own self-perceived shortcomings. (From , Irony in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), 78-79).
David is not the only one going through desperate times. Saul is experiencing likely the largest and boldest incursion into his kingdom by the Philistines. They have advanced as far as Aphek and Jezreel, nearly as far north as the Sea of Galilee. Saul has to do something, but what?
Saul really doesn’t know what to do. God will not talk to him, and so he determines to make God talk to him by force through sorcery.
This is really the function of witchcraft, to influence the spirit world to do what you want it to do – if only to reveal information. It is also why magic and witchcraft is forbidden in the Bible. Eventually, folks get to using it to either bypass God, or force God to do their bidding. Such tactics will not work, but to use them is an affront to God.
How did the woman recognize Samuel? When she saw Samuel, why did she immediately make the connection with Saul? We are not told. Perhaps the surprise she registers comes about at her own ability to conjure up someone from the spirit world – particularly someone specific.
Saul asks for direction, but none is given. Instead, Samuel tells Saul what will be. Saul is past redemption. His doom is sealed.
I find the thought that anyone can be beyond redemption one of the saddest of all thoughts, but it is a reality. This is not to say that anyone gets to the point where God will no longer accept them, only that one can get to the point where he no longer will ever be willing to come to God. Saul is there.
The line separating holiness from ungodliness is a narrow one and walking it, it is as easy to fall to one side as to the other. In fact, depending on the circumstance, it is often easier to fall into ungodliness.
I see a bit of Saul in David in chapter 25. Saul vowed no one would eat anything until he had avenged himself on his enemies (1 Samuel 14). In a fit of rage, he almost killed his son Jonathan and later David. Saul was relentless in his vengance.
David too, having provided protection for Nabal and his herdsmen, is furious when the bill for his protective services is presented. David vows to kill every male in Nabal’s household.
And because the line between holiness and ungodliness is so narrow, we all need advisors along the way to keep us in the way of God. Abigail was just such an advisor and to his credit, macho David listened to her, considering her wisdom a corrective from God.
True wisdom is not just knowing wisdom when you hear it. True wisdom requires following the wisdom you hear no matter what it costs.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, but desperation itself is not an acceptable lifestyle for people of faith. In chapter 21, David is not having one of his better faith-filled moments.
Who could blame him?
He was a man on the run. Saul had threatened his life. His soldiers had entered his home and he would have been a dead man had it not been for the subterfuge of his wife Michal. He was a wanted man without sword to defend himself, friend to encourage him or money to buy food. Aside from his personal fears, he feels responsible for those closest to him – for his wife and his father’s family, all of whom are now in danger because of him.
David knows he has been anointed king, but he is not a king. Furthermore, he cannot in good conscience attack the king because he too has been anointed of God. He does not know what to do, and God has provided no direction for him. You are expected to see these desperate straits in chapter 21.
He pretends he is on an official mission to get food and sword, thus lying to the priest Ahimelech. His presence in Nob endangers the entire house of priests who live there. He takes refuge in philistine territory (with Golaith’s sword no less) for protection and then must feign insanity to escape capture.
Why are we given this scene? There is nothing about it complimentary to David.
And perhaps that’s the point. David had every reason to be secure in the Lord. If he had known what we know, how would he have reacted? And there, in a moment, you know the story’s purpose. Faith is not the confident action of a moment, but an every day security in God. Had David known what we know, his whole lifestyle would have been different. You know the end of the story. Does your life exhibit desperation or security?
Saul reigned over Israel for forty-two years. The beginning of his reign was marked by incredible success. But as the end drew near, success began to elude him.
Perhaps it was not totally Saul’s fault. At the end of chapter twelve, Samuel warned Israel of the consequences of unfaithfulness. But now Israel had a king. Surely that would make a difference.
In the very next chapter, the Philistines have so over-run God’s people that their army and weaponry is decimated. Saul and Jonathan are leading valiantly (if unfaithfully on Saul’s part), but it will not be enough. Sin will bring disaster.
Though Saul faced many enemies, the Philistines were his most prevalent. But chapter fourteen would seem to indicate that Saul ran his army in a very worldly way – focusing on tactics, weaponry, and strength. That would be, of course, why he has so much trouble. Contrast his attitude with that of Jonathan however whose faith leads him to attack the Philistines with a lone sword, an armor-bearer, and the strength of the Lord. The Philistines are routed magnificently in a panic sent by God.
You will see in chapter fourteen that Saul is fairly self-absorbed, and because of that, he has trouble seeing the help God offers. It’s true with all of us: our world would look bigger if we were seeing less of ourselves in it.
Nahash was a bully.
It was one thing for the Ammonite king to oppress Israel. The Ammonites had done it before. But Nahash wanted more than oppression. He wanted to humiliate Israel. He’d make a treaty as long as he could blind in one eye (the right eye) every man of the city known as Jabesh Gilead. (Aside from the incapacity and indignity, it would also prevent them from taking aim in battle.)
This isn’t the first time we’ve read of Jabesh Gilead.
As the book of Judges came to a close, you will remember a crime was committed shocking all Israel. The culprits are of the tribe of Benjamin and Israel decides they will totally destroy the Benjaminites. It is a reckless and immoral vow. It does not appear, however, that the people of Gilead (relatives of the Benjaminites as descendants of Rachel through Joseph) participate in this vow. In Judges 21 we learn that Israel is sorry for making it, and meets to find a way around keeping it. The people of Gilead do not participate in this ill-conceived matter either, and the Israelites make an equally reckless vow to destroy the Gileadites. It would appear that rather than be destroyed, the people of Jabesh Gilead give up their virgin daughters to the men of Benjamin – thus paying for the sin of Israel in trying to destroy Benjamin – something the people of Gilead had no part in.
Now the Gileadites, a people of some conscience, were being oppressed again. In the Judges story, they were oppressed because of the Benjaminites. This time, they are to be rescued by a Benjaminite – Saul.
The men of Jabesh Gilead will never forget their rescue, as we shall see later in the life of Saul.