A Grotesque Parody of Holy War

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In the Gospel of Mark, we read the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Mark 6), but this occurs immediately after John the Baptist’s head was brought before Herod, at a banquet, and it was brought out on a platter. There are two kinds of kings, two kinds of rulers—those who feed the people and those who eat the people. There is no middle way.

“David therefore departed thence, and escaped to the cave Adullam: and when his brethren and all his father’s house heard it, they went down hither to him . . .” (1 Sam. 22:1-23).

David escaped to Adullam, a place halfway between Gath and Bethlehem (v. 1). Those who were in various kinds of trouble gathered to him there, until he had a force of about 400 men (v. 2). David took the time to situate his aging parents in Moab (vv. 3-4), where his great-grandmother Ruth was from. The prophet Gad, apparently with him, tells him leave an unnamed stronghold, and to return to Judah (v. 5). Saul hears about David’s whereabouts while he is holding open air court at Ramah (v. 6). He there upbraids his men for not being informants against Jonathan and against David (vv. 7-8). At this point Doeg reports on what he saw at Nob (vv. 9-10). Saul then summons Ahimelech and all the priests, and they come (vv. 11-12). Saul accuses Ahimelech of treason (v. 13), which Ahimelech ably denies (vv. 14-15). Saul then pronounces a death sentence (v. 16), and commands his men to kill the priests. They refuse, which was to their credit (v. 17). He then gives the command to Doeg, and so he kills 85 priests (v. 18). He then attacks the priestly city of Nob, killing everyone and everything
there (v. 19). Only one of the priests managed to escape, a man named Abiathar (v. 20), and he escaped with the ephod (1 Sam. 23:6). Abiathar told David of the slaughter of the priests (v. 21). David says that he was afraid of that—he had noticed Doeg there (v. 22). He invites Abiathar to stay with him (v. 23), which Abiathar does.

David eventually succeeds in establishing a powerful force, with an impressive array of mighty men (2 Sam. 23: 8-39). But initially the materials were not really promising. He gathers 400 men right away, but they are the ones in distress, in debt, or discontented. A bit later he has 600 men (1 Sam. 25:13). It looks as though David took all comers. For those who are curious, this place in Scripture is where the feature of Credenda magazine entitled the “Cave of Adullam” comes from—comments offered on life in the Israelite mainstream, and offered from our offices in the back of the cave.

When men come in distress, or in debt, or discontented, the basic problem can either be theirs or somebody else’s. Sometimes people get in distress themselves, and sometimes it is done to them. Sometimes people get into bad debt themselves, and other times it is done to them. Sometimes the discontent comes from within, and other times it is imposed. But even when it comes from without, the person to whom it is done must guard against internalizing it, against owning it somehow. As Thomas Watson said, it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. But sometimes men suffer wrong, and then, because they process it wrongly, begin to do wrong in their hearts. But as someone once wisely said, becoming bitter is like eating a box of rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.


So David’s forming army sounds like the problem that many church planters have—trying to build a fresh, joyful community out of a group of people who are still seething. Everyone who comes that first Sunday has a history. But as we learn here, God is not stumped by this kind of thing.

We have noted before that the Spirit has come upon David, which means that he is blessed by God even though he has to live in a cave. Saul sits on a throne, abandoned by God. David sits on a rock outside his cave, accompanied by God. A new Israel starts to form around him, and though it looks like a bunch of losers, this is just the kind of situation God loves to work with. The Lord Jesus, as we know, is our prophet, priest, and king. Here with David, on the run from Saul, we have the prophet (Gad, v. 5), we have the priest (Abiathar, v. 23), and we have the king (David, v. 1). David has been finally exiled from Saul’s court, and we are just a few weeks into it—and already the shape of the future kingdom was beginning to appear. Abiathar stays with David for the rest of David’s life. Gad lives to see the Temple built, and even helped to regulate its worship (2 Chron. 29:25). Gad was also one of the chroniclers of David’s life (1 Chron. 29:29). All of this started to come together right away.

The holy war which Saul refused to carry out against the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:9), and which cost him his dynasty, was a war which he then carried out against a priestly city of Israel (vv. 18-19). This was an ungodly action, but God was using it as the penultimate stage of His judgment against the house of Eli (1 Sam. 3:12-13). The final stage of that judgment occurred when Solomon finally exiled Abiathar (1 Kings 2:26). So what we see here is a striking example of the “no neutrality” principle. You either gather or scatter (Luke 11:23). You either feed or devour. You will wage holy war (total war) on sin or on righteousness. An Israelite city could be the object of a holy war, but it had to be a city that had gone after other gods (Dt. 13:12-18). This was the great sin. What Saul would not do to the Amalekites, he was willing to do to a faithful city in Israel. Muddle and compromise are always seeking to carve out a third way. They want a neutral zone. They want a place to hide from decisive choices. But, as you have heard, not to decide is to decide. Not to decide decisively is to decide decisively. Dithering is deciding. Why? Because that is how God writes His stories.

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