The God of Brinksmanship

The set-up for the battle of Mt. Gilboa had provoked Saul to seek out the witch of Endor. With that episode done, we come now to a fork in the road. Chapter 30 describes David’s victorious battle against the Amalekites, and chapter 31 describes Saul’s disastrous defeat at the hands of the Philistines. The book of 1 Samuel ends with that marked contrast.

“Now the Philistines gathered together all their armies to Aphek: and the Israelites pitched by a fountain which is in Jezreel . . ..” (1 Sam. 29:1-11).

The Philistines gathered together for war at Aphek (v. 1), the same place where they had captured the ark of the covenant earlier in this book, many years before. The lords of the Philistines were the kings of each of their five major cities. Achish was the last of them to arrive at the muster, and David came with him (v. 2). The Philistine leaders were dubious about the presence of Hebrew soldiers as they prepared for a great battle with the Hebrew nation (v. 3). Achish, with perhaps a lack of appropriate diplomacy, said, “Oh, that’s actually David” (v. 3). The Philistine leaders, with more insight than Achish had, were angry with Achish and demanded that David be sent back to wherever Achish was keeping him (v. 4). They knew that David could force a reconciliation with Saul by turning on them in the midst of the battle (v. 4), and they even knew the song that had turned Saul against David in the first place (v. 5). Achish summons David, and swears to him in the name of YHWH (v. 6). This indicates he was perhaps a convert, and assures David that he had found no fault with him at all . . . but the Philistine lords were of a different mind (v. 6). So Achish asks David to go quietly, lest trouble flare up with the Philistine lords on the spot (v. 7). David’s reply is filled with possible ironies. Why can he not go out and fight against the enemies of “my lord the king” (v. 8)? This is how David had spoken about Saul on various occasions (1 Sam. 24:8, 10; 1 Sam. 26:17-18). Achish says that David had been an “angel of God” in his sight, but the other guys don’t think so. They were afraid he would turn and become an adversary to them. Their word for adversary (v. 4) is satan. He asks David to get up and depart at the break of the new day (v. 10), which, as it turns out, was the break of Israel’s new day. So David returned home to Ziklag (v.11), and the Philistines advanced toward the death of Saul (v. 11).

David had been true to Saul, and yet Saul was treacherous toward him. David had been (understandably) false with Achish, and yet Achish was true toward him. Saul attacked David multiple times; Achish defended David multiple times. Achish had made David his bodyguard for life (1 Sam. 28:2), while Saul had chased David out of his service. The Gentile king swore by YHWH and declared an innocent man innocent. The Israelite king swore by YHWH and declared an innocent man guilty. David is in a truly tight spot.

Given how tight the chronology is here, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that David was fighting the Amalekites in chapter 30 at the same time Saul was fighting the Philistines in 31. David fights and is victorious, while Saul fights and is utterly defeated. David fights with the Amalekites—and it was Saul’s disastrous disobedience with his Amalekite victory that set his disintegration in motion. The prospect for Saul’s battle looked very bad, and it was bad. The prospect for David’s battle looked very bad, and it was good.

You have heard before that God loves cliffhangers. He loves them because He loves what happens to us when we learn to trust Him in the tight spot. Trust learned there is a lesson long remembered. On the mount of the Lord it will be provided (Gen. 22:14). The Red Sea was not divided until the last possible moment, when the Israelite multitude had water lapping at their toes, and an Egyptian army at their back (Ex. 14:10). Trust God one day at a time (Matt. 6:34), and this of course includes those days when there is no apparent means of deliverance. And then here is this instance. David was penned in, and it looked as though he was going to have to choose between treachery toward a king who had been treacherous toward him and treachery toward a king who had been very kind to him.

We can be sure of two things here. One is that if it had come to the point, David would have behaved as the Philistine lords predicted he would. The second is that David was trusting God that it would not come to that point, and God honored his trust. God did this by using the anger of the Philistine lords, and He uses all things, to His glory. As He tells His great story, the holy God is not contaminated by unholy instruments, any more Tolkien was contaminated by Gollum.

We all want to learn godly steadfastness, which is good, but our problem is that we want to learn all of it from books. We can and should learn “the plan” from books. After all, God wrote a book for us. The problem does not lie in the possession of a book, or in the reading of it, or in the study of it. All such things are good. The problem occurs when we come to think that studying the playbook that the coach gave you is the same thing as showing up for the game. Some Christians show up for the game without knowing the playbook at all, and sure, they have their problems. Other Christians (let us call them “Reformed”), write massive tomes showing the greatness and wisdom of the playbook, and they provide us with detailed commentaries on the playbook. They find which plays are arranged as a chiasm. Since a football team has eleven players, everything is some kind of chiasm.

Why is this so easy to do? Scripture says that a man deceives himself in three ways, and all of them seem appropriate here. He deceives himself when he hears the word without doing it (Jas. 1:22), he deceives himself while claiming religion with an unbridled tongue (Jas. 1:26), and he deceives himself when he thinks he is something when he is nothing (Gal. 6:3). Why do we not take the field in order to run the plays? Well, there appears to be another team out there.



Theology That Bites Back



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