Expositor's Bible Commentary
And Samuel died; and all the Israelites were gathered together, and lamented him, and buried him in his house at Ramah. And David arose, and went down to the wilderness of Paran.CHAPTER XXXII.
DAVID AND NABAL.
1 Samuel 25:1-44.
WE should be forming far too low an estimate of the character of the people of Israel if we did not believe that they were very profoundly moved by the death of Samuel. Even admitting that but a small proportion of them are likely to have been in warm sympathy with his ardent godliness, he was too remark- able a man, and he had been too conspicuous a figure in the history of the nation, not to be greatly missed, and much spoken of and thought of, when he passed away.
Cast in the same mould with their great leader and legislator Moses, he exerted an influence on the nation only second to that which stood connected with the prophet of the Exodus. He had not been associated with such stirring events in their history as Moses; neither had it been his function to reveal to them the will of God, either so systematically, or so comprehensively, or so supernaturally; but he was marked by the same great spirituality, the same intense reverence for the God of Israel, the same profound belief in the reality of the covenant between Israel and God, and the same conviction of the inseparable connection between a pure worship and flowing prosperity on the one hand, and idolatrous defection and national calamity on the other.
No man except Moses had ever done more to rivet this truth on the minds and hearts of the people. It was the lifelong aim and effort of Samuel to show that it made the greatest difference to them in every way how they acted toward God, in the way of worship, trust, and obedience. He made incessant war on that cold worldly spirit, so natural to us all that leaves God out of account as a force in our lives, and strives to advance our interests simply by making the most of the conditions of material prosperity.
No doubt with many minds the name of Samuel would be associated with a severity and a spirituality and a want of worldliness that were repulsive to them, as indicating one who carried the matter, to use a common phrase, too far. But at Samuel's death even these men might be visited with a somewhat remorseful conviction that, if Samuel had gone too far, they had not gone half far enough. There might come from the retrospect of his career a wholesome rebuke to their worldliness and neglect of God; for surely, they would feel, if there be a God, we ought to worship Him, and it cannot be well for us to neglect Him altogether.
On the other hand, the career of Samuel would be recalled with intense admiration and gratitude by all the more earnest of the people. What an impressive witness for all that was good and holy had they not had among them! What a living temple, what a Divine epistle, written not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart! What glory and honour had not that man's life been to the nation, - so uniform, so consistent, so high in tone! What a reproof it carried to low and selfish living, what a splendid example it afforded to old and young of the true way and end of life, and what a blessed impulse it was fitted to give them in the same direction, showing so clearly "what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."
By a remarkable connection, though perhaps not by design, two names are brought together in this chapter representing very opposite phases of human character - Samuel and Nabal. In Samuel we have the high-minded servant of God, trained from infancy to smother his own will and pay unbounded regard to the will of his Father in heaven; in Nabal we see the votary of the god of this world, enslaved to his worldly lusts, grumbling and growling when he is compelled to submit to the will of God. Samuel is the picture of the serene and holy believer, enjoying unseen fellowship with God, and finding in that fellowship a blessed balm for the griefs and trials of a wounded spirit; Nabal is the picture of the rich but wretched worldling who cannot even enjoy the bounties of his lot, and is thrown into such a panic by the mere dread of losing them that he actually sinks into the grave. Under the one picture we would place the words of the Apostle in the third chapter of Philippians - "Whose god is their belly, whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things; "under the other the immediately following words, "Our conversation is in heaven." Such were the two men to whom the summons to appear before God was sent about the same time; the one ripe for glory, the other meet for destruction; the one removed to Abraham's bosom, the other to the pit of woe; each to the master whom he served, and each to the element in which he had lived. Look on this picture and on that, and say which you would be like. And as you look remember how true it is that as men sow so do they reap. The one sowed to the flesh, and of the flesh he reaped corruption; the other sowed to the Spirit, and of the Spirit he reaped life everlasting. The continuity of men's lives in the world to come gives an awful solemnity to that portion of their lives which they spend on earth: - "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he that his filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still."
There is another lesson to be gathered from a matter of external order before we proceed to the particulars of the narrative. This chapter, recording David's collision with Nabal, and showing us how David lost his temper, and became hot and impetuous and impatient in consequence of Nabal's treatment, comes in between the narrative of his two great victories over the spirit of revenge and impatience. It gives us a very emphatic lesson - how the servant of God may conquer in a great fight and yet be beaten in a small. The history of all spiritual warfare is full of such cases. In the presence of a great enemy, the utmost vigilance is maintained; every effort is strained, every stimulus is applied. In the presence of a small foe, the spirit of confidence, the sense of security, is liable to leave every avenue unguarded, and to pave the way for signal defeat. When I am confronted with a great trial, I rally all my resources to bear it, I realize the presence of God, I say, "Thou God seest me"; but when it is a little trial, I am apt to meet it unarmed and unguarded, and I experience a humiliating fall. Thus it is that men who have in them the spirit of martyrs, and who would brave a dungeon or death itself rather than renounce a testimony or falter in a duty, often suffer defeat under the most ordinary temptations of everyday life, - they lose their temper on the most trifling provocations; almost without a figure, they are "crushed before the moth."
Whether the death of Samuel brought such a truce to David as to allow him to join in the great national gathering at his funeral we do not know with certainty; but immediately after we find him in a region called "the wilderness of Paran," in the neighbourhood of the Judean Carmel. It was here that Nabal dwelt. This Carmel is not to be confounded with the famous promontory of that name in the tribe of Asher, where Elijah and the priests of Baal afterwards had their celebrated contest; it was a hill in the tribe of Judah, in the neighbourhood of the place where David had his encampment. A descendant of the lion-hearted Judah and of the courageous Caleb, this Nabal came of a noble stock; but cursed with a narrow heart, a senseless head, and a groveling nature, he fell as far below average humanity as his great ancestors had risen above it. With all his wealth and family connection, he appears to us now as poor a creature as ever lived, - a sort of "golden beast," as was said of the Emperor Caligula; and we cannot think of him without reflecting how little true glory or greatness mere wealth or worldly position confers, - how infinitely more worthy of honour are the sterling qualities of a generous Christian heart. It is plain that in an equitable point of view Nabal owed much to David; but what he owed could not be enforced by an action at law, and Nabal was one of those poor creatures that acknowledge no other obligation.
The studied courtesy and modesty with which David preferred his claim is interesting; it could not but be against the grain to say anything on the subject: if Nabal had not had his "understanding blinded" he would have spared him this pain; the generous heart is ever thinking of the services that others are rendering, and will never subject modesty to the pain of urging its own. "Ye shall greet him in my name" said David to his messengers; -and thus shall ye say to him that liveth in prosperity, Peace be both to thee and peace to thy house, and peace be to all that thou hast." No envying of his prosperity - no grudging to him his abundance; but only the Christian wish that he might have God's blessing with it, and that it might all turn to good. It was the time of sheep-shearing when the flocks were probably counted and the increase over last year ascertained; and by a fine old custom It was commonly the season of liberality and kindness A time of increase should always be so; it is the time for helping poor relations (a duty often strangely over-looked), for acknowledging ancient kindnesses, for relieving distress, and for devising liberal things for the Church of Christ. David gently reminded Nabal that he had come at this good time; then he hinted at the services which he and his followers had done him; but to show that he did not wish to press hard on him, he merely asked him to give what might come to his hand; though, as the anointed king of Israel, he might have assumed a more commanding title he asked him to give it to "thy son, David." So modest, gentle, and affectionate an application, savouring so little of the persecuted, distracted outlaw, savouring so much of the mild self-possessed Christian gentleman - deserved treatment very different from what it received. The detestable niggardliness of Nabal's heart would not suffer him to part with anything which he could find an excuse for retaining. But greed so excessive, even in its own eyes, must find some cloak to cover it; and one of the most common and most congenial to flinty hearts is - the unworthiness of the applicant. The miser is not content in simply refusing an application for the poor, he must add some abusive charge to conceal his covetousness - they are lazy, improvident, intemperate; or if it be a Christian object he is asked to support, - these unreasonable people are always asking. Any excuse rather than tell the naked truth, "We worship our money; and when we spend it, we spend it on ourselves." Such was Nabal. "Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse? There be many servants now-a-days that break away every man from his master. Shall I then take my bread, and my water, and my flesh that I have killed for my shearers, and give it unto men, that I know not whence they be?"
As often happens, excessive selfishness overreached itself. Insult added to injury was more than David chose to bear; for once, he lost self-command, and was borne along by impetuous passion. Meek men, when once their temper is roused, usually go to great extremes. And if David's purpose had not been providentially arrested, Nabal and all that belonged to him would have been swept before morning to destruction.
With the quickness and instinctive certainty of a clever woman's judgment, Abigail, Nabal's wife, saw at once how things were going. With more than the calmness and self-possession of many a clever woman, she arranged and dispatched the remedy almost instantaneously after the infliction of the wrong. How so superior a woman could have got yoked to so worthless a man we can scarcely conjecture, unless on the vulgar and too common supposition that the churl's wealth and family had something to do with the match. No doubt she had had her punishment. But luxury had not impaired the energy of her spirit, and wealth had not destroyed the regularity of her habits. Her promptness and her prudence all must admire, her commissariat skill was wonderful in its way; and the exquisite tact and cleverness with which she showed and checked the intended crime of David - all the while seeming to pay him a compliment - could not have been surpassed. "Now therefore, my lord, as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, seeing the Lord hath withholden thee from coming to shed blood, and from avenging thyself with thine own hand, now let thine enemies and they that seek evil to my lord be as Nabal." But the most remarkable of all her qualities is her faith; it reminds us of the faith of Rahab of Jericho, or of the faith of Jonathan; she had the firm persuasion that David was owned of God, that he was to be the king of Israel, and that all the devices men might use against him would fail; and she addressed him - poor outlaw though he was - as one of whose elevation to sovereign power, after what God had spoken, there could not be the shadow of a doubt. Her liberality, too, was very great. And there was a truthful, honest tone about her. Perhaps she spoke even too plainly of her husband, but the occasion admitted of no sort of apology for him; there was no deceit about her, and as little flattery. Her words had a wholesome honest air, and some of her expressions were singularly happy. When she spoke of the soul of my lord as "bound in the bundle of life with the Lord thy God," she seemed to anticipate the very language in which the New Testament describes the union of Christ and His people, "Your life is hid with Christ in God." She had a clear conception of the "sure mercies of David," certainly in the literal, and we may hope also in the spiritual sense.
The revengeful purpose and rash vow of David were not the result of deliberate consideration; they were formed under the influence of excitement, - most unlike the solemn and prayerful manner in which the expedition at Keilah had been undertaken. God unacknowledged had left David to misdirected paths. But if we blame David, as we must, for his heedless passion, we must not less admire the readiness with which he listens to the reasonable and pious counsel of Abigail. With the ready instinct of a gracious heart he recognises the hand of God in Abigail's coming, - this mercy had a heavenly origin; and cordially praises Him for His restraining providence and restraining grace. He candidly admits that he had formed a very sinful purpose; but he frankly abandons it, accepts her offering, and sends her away in peace. "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, which sent thee this day to me; and blessed be thy advice, and blessed be thou which hast kept me this day from coming to shed blood, and from avenging myself with mine own hand." It is a mark of sincere and genuine godliness to be not less thankful for being kept from sinning than from being rescued from suffering.
And it was not long before David had convincing proof that it is best to leave vengeance in the hands of God. "It came to pass, about ten days after, that the Lord smote Nabal that he died." Having abandoned himself at his feast to the beastliest sensuality, his nervous system underwent a depression corresponding to the excitement that had accompanied the debauch. In this miserable state of collapse and weakness, the news of what had happened gave him a fright from which he never recovered. A few days of misery, and this wretched man went to his own place, there to join the great crowd of selfish and godless men who said to God, "Depart from us," and to whom God will but echo their own wish - "Depart from Me!"
When David heard of his death, his satisfaction at the manifest interposition of God on his behalf, and his thankfulness for having been enabled to conquer his impetuosity, overcame for the time every other consideration. Full of this view, he blessed God for Nabal's death, rejoicing over his untimely end more perhaps than was altogether becoming. We, at least, should have liked to see David dropping a tear over the grave of one who had lived without grace and who died without comfort. Perhaps, however, we are unable to sympathize with the earnestness of the feeling produced by God's visible vindication of him; a feeling that would be all the more fervent, because what had happened to Nabal must have been viewed as a type of what was sure to happen to Saul. In the death of Nabal, David by faith saw the destruction of all his enemies - no wonder though his spirit was lifted up at the sight.
If it were not for a single expression, we should, without hesitation, set down the thirty-seventh Psalm as written at this period. The twenty-fifth verse seems to connect it with a later period; even then it seems quite certain that, when David wrote it, the case of Nabal (among other cases perhaps) was full in his view. The great fact in providence on which the psalm turns is the sure and speedy destruction of the wicked; and the great lesson of the psalm to God's servants is not to fret because of their prosperity, but to rest patiently on the Lord, who will cause the meek to inherit the earth. Many of the minor expressions and remarks, too, are quite in harmony with this occasion: "Trust in the Lord and do good, so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed." "Cease from anger, and forsake wrath; fret not thyself in any wise to do evil." "The meek shall inherit the earth." "The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom," - unlike Nabal, a fool by name and a fool by nature. The great duty enforced is that of waiting on the Lord; not merely because it is right in itself to do so, but because "He shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light and thy judgment as the noonday."
The chapter ends with Abigail's marriage to David. We are told, at the same time, that he had another wife, Ahinoam the Jezreelite, and that Michal, Saul's daughter, had been taken from him, and given to another. These statements cannot but grate upon our ear, indicating a laxity in matrimonial relations very far removed from our modern standard alike of duty and of delicacy. We cannot acquit David of a want of patience and self-restraint in these matters; undoubtedly it is a blot in his character, and it is a blot that led to very serious results. It was an element of coarseness in a nature that in most things was highly refined. David missed the true ideal of family life, the true ideal of love, the true ideal of purity. His polygamy was not indeed imputed to him as a crime; it was tolerated in him, as it had been tolerated in Jacob and in others; but its natural and indeed almost necessary effects were not obviated. In his family it bred strife, animosity, division; it bred fearful crimes among brothers and sisters; while, in his own case, his unsubdued animalism stained his conscience with the deepest sins, and rent his heart with terrible sorrows. How dangerous is even one vulnerable spot - one un- subdued lust of evil! The fable represented that the heel of Achilles, the only vulnerable part of his body, because his mother held him by it when she dipped him in the Styx, was the spot on which he received his fatal wound. It was through an unmortified lust of the flesh that nearly all David's sorrows came. How emphatic in this view the prayer of the Apostle - "I pray God that your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of the Lord." And how necessary and appropriate the exhortation, "Put on the whole armour of God" - girdle, breast-plate, sandals, helmet, sword - all; leave no part un- protected, "that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand."
Thus, then, it appears, that for all that was beautiful in David he was not a perfect character, and not without stains that seriously affected the integrity and consistency of his life. In that most important part of a young man's duty - to obtain full command of himself, yield to no unlawful bodily indulgence, and do nothing that, directly or indirectly, can tend to lower the character or impair the delicacy of women, - David, instead of an example, is a beacon. Greatly though his early trials were blessed in most things, they were not blessed in all things. We must not, for this reason, turn from him as some do, with scorn. We are to admire and imitate the qualities that were so fine, especially in early life. Would that many of us were like him in his tenderness, his godliness, and his attachment to his people! His name is one of the embalmed names of Holy Writ, - all the more that when he did become conscious of his sin, no man ever repented more bitterly; and no man's spirit, when bruised and broken, ever sent more of the fragrance as "of myrrh and aloes and cassia out of the ivory palaces."