Expositor's Bible Commentary
Now the Philistines gathered together all their armies to Aphek: and the Israelites pitched by a fountain which is in Jezreel.CHAPTER XXXIII
DAVID'S SECOND FLIGHT TO GATH.
1 Samuel 27:1-12; 1 Samuel 28:1-2; 1 Samuel 29:1-11.
WE are not prepared for the sad decline in the spirit of trust which is recorded in the beginning of the twenty-seventh chapter. The victory gained by David over the carnal spirit of revenge, shown so signally in his sparing the life of Saul a second time, would have led us to expect that he would never again fall under the influence of carnal fear. But there are strange ebbs and flows in the spiritual life, and sometimes a victory brings its dangers, as well as its glory. Perhaps this very conquest excited in David the spirit of self-confidence; he may have had less sense of his need of daily strength from above; and he may have fallen into the state of mind against which the Apostle warns us, "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall."
In his collision with Nabal we saw him fail in what seemed one of his strong points - the very spirit of self-control which he had exercised so remarkably toward Saul; and now we see him fail in another of his strong points - the spirit of trust toward God. Could anything show more clearly that even the most eminent graces of the saints spring from no native fountain of goodness within them, but depend on the continuance of their vital fellowship with Him of whom the Psalmist said, "All my springs are in Thee"? (Psalm 87:7). Carelessness and prayerlessness interrupt that fellowship; the supply of daily strength ceases to come; temptation arises, and they become weak like other men. "Abide in Me," said our Lord, with special emphasis on the need of permanence in the relation; and the prophet says, "They that wait on the Lord," as a habitual exercise, "shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint."
The most strange thing about David's new decline is, that it led him to try a device which he had tried before, and which had proved a great failure. We see him retreating before an enemy he had often conquered; retreating, too, by a path every foot of which he had traversed, and with whose bitter ending he was already familiar. Just as before, his declension begins with distrust; and just as before, dissimulation is the product of the distrustful spirit. He is brought into the most painful dilemma, and into experience of the most grievous disaster; but God, in His infinite mercy, extricates him from the one and enables him to retrieve the other. It is affliction that brings him to his senses and drives him to God; it is the returning spirit of prayer and trust that sustains him in his difficulties, and at last brings to him, from the hand of God, a merciful deliverance from them all.
Our first point of interest is the growth and manifestation of the spirit of distrust. "David said in his heart, I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul; there is nothing better for me than that I should speedily escape into the land of the Philistines." We find it difficult to account for the sudden triumph of this very despondent feeling. It is hardly enough to say that David could have had no confidence in Saul's expressions of regret and declared purposes of amendment. That was no new feature of the case. Perhaps one element of the explanation may be, that Saul, with his three thousand men, had not only become familiar with all David's hiding-places, but had stationed troops in various parts of the district that would so hamper his movements as to hem him in as in a prison. Then also there may have been some new outbreak of the malignant fury of Cush the Benjamite, and other enemies who were about Saul, rousing the king to even more earnest efforts than ever to apprehend him. There is yet another circumstance in David's situation, that has not, we think, obtained the notice it deserves, but which may have had a very material influence on his decision. David had now two wives with him, Abigail the widow of Nabal, and Ahinoam the Jezreelitess. He would naturally be desirous to provide them with the comforts of a settled home. A band of young men might put up with the risks and discomforts of a roaming life, which it would not be possible for women to bear. The rougher sex might think nothing of midnight removals, and attacks in the dark, and scampers over wild passes and rugged mountains at all hours of the day and night, and snatches of food at irregular times, and all the other experiences which David and his men had borne patiently and cheerfully in the earlier stages of their outlaw history. But for women this was unsuitable. It is true that this alone would not have led David to say, "I shall one day perish by the hand of Saul." But it would increase his sense of difficulty; it would make him feel more keenly the embarrassments of his situation; it would help to overwhelm him. And when he was thus at his wit's end, the sense of danger from Saul would become more and more serious. The tension of a mind thus pressed on every side is something terrible. Pressed and tortured by invincible difficulties, David gives way to despair - "I shall one day perish by the hand of Saul."
Let us observe the manner in which this feeling grew to such strength as to give rise to a new line of conduct. It got entrance into his heart. It hovered about him in a somewhat loose form, before he took hold of it, and resolved to act upon it. It approached him in the same manner in which temptation approaches many a one, first presenting itself to the imagination and the feelings, trying to get hold of them, and then getting possession of the will, and turning the whole man in the desired direction. Like a skilful adversary who first attacks an outpost, apparently of little value, but when he has got it erects on it a battery by which he is able to conquer a nearer position, and thus gradually approaches, till at last the very citadel is in his hands, - so sin at first hovers about the outposts of the soul. Often it seems at first just to play with the imagination; one fancies this thing and the other, this sensual indulgence or that act of dishonesty; and then, having become familiar with it there, one admits it to the inner chambers of the soul, and ere long the lust bringeth forth sin. The lesson not to let sin play even with the imagination, but drive it thence the moment one becomes conscious of its presence, cannot be pressed too strongly. Have you ever studied the language of the Lord's Prayer? - "Lead us not into temptation." You are being led into temptation whenever you are led to think, with interest and half longing, of any sinful indulgence. Wisdom demands of you that the moment you are conscious of such a feeling you resolutely exclaim, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" It is the tempter trying to establish a foothold in the outworks, meaning, when he has done so, to advance nearer and nearer to the citadel, till at last you shall find him in strong possession, and your soul entangled in the meshes of perdition.
The conclusion to which David came, under the influence of distrust, as to the best course for him to follow shows what opposite decisions may be arrived at, according to the point of view at which men take their stand. "There is nothing better for me than that I should escape speedily into the land of the Philistines." From a more correct point of view, nothing could have been worse. Had Moses thought of his prospects from the same position, he would have said, "There is nothing better for me than to remain the son of Pharaoh's daughter, and enjoy all the good things to which Providence has so remarkably called me;" but standing on the ground of faith, his conclusion was precisely the opposite. Looking abroad over the world with the eye of sense, the young man may say, "There is nothing better for me than that I should rejoice in my youth, and that my heart should cheer me in the days of my youth, and that I should walk in the ways of mine heart and in the sight of mine eyes." But the eye of faith sees ominous clouds and gathering storms in the distance, which show that there could be nothing worse. As usual, David's error was connected with the omission of prayer. We find no clause in this chapter, "Bring hither the ephod." He asked no counsel of God; he did not even sit down to deliberate calmly on the matter. The impulse to which he yielded required him to decide at once. The word "speedily" indicates the presence of panic, the action of a tumultuous force on his mind, inducing him to act as promptly as one does in raising one's arm to ward off a threatened blow. Possibly he had the feeling that, if God's mind were consulted, it would be contrary to his desire, and on that ground, like too many persons, he may have shrunk from honest prayer. How different from the spirit of the psalm - "Show me Thy ways, O Lord, teach me Thy paths; lead me in Thy truth and teach me, for Thou art the God of my salvation; on Thee do I wait all the day." Dost thou imagine, David, that the Lord's arm is shortened that it cannot save, and His ear heavy that it cannot hear? Would not He who delivered you in six troubles cause that in seven no evil should touch thee? Has He not promised that thou shalt be hid from the scourge of the tongue, neither shalt thou be afraid of destruction when it Cometh? Dost thou not know that thy seed shall be great and thine offspring as the grass of the earth? Thou shalt come to thy grave in a full age, like as a shock of corn cometh in his season.
So "David arose, and he passed over with the six hundred men that were with him, unto Achish the son of Maoch, king of Gath." It is thought by some that this was a different king from the former, the name Achish like the name Pharaoh being used by all the kings. At first the arrangement seemed to succeed. Achish appears to have received him kindly. "David dwelt with Achish at Gath, he and his men, every man with his household, even David with his two wives." The emphasis laid on the household and the wives shows how difficult it had been to provide for them before. And Saul, at last, gave up the chase, and sought for him no more. Of course, in giving him a friendly reception, Achish must have had a view to his own interest. He would calculate on making use of him in his battles with Saul, and very probably give an incredulous smile if he heard anything of the scruples he had shown to lift up his hand against the Lord's anointed.
Availing himself of the favourable impression made on Achish, David now begs to have a country town allotted to him as his residence, so as to avoid what appeared the unseemliness of his dwelling in the royal city with him. There was much common sense in the demand, and Achish could not but feel it. Gath was but a little place, and Achish, if he was but lord of Gath, was not a very powerful king. The presence in such a place of a foreign prince, with a retinue of soldiers six hundred strong, was hardly becoming. Possibly Achish's own body guard did not come up in number and in prowess to the troop of David. The request for a separate residence was therefore granted readily, and Ziklag was assigned to David. It lay near the southern border of the Philistines, close to the southern desert. At Ziklag he was away from the eye of the lords of the Philistines that had always viewed him with such jealousy; he was far away from the still greater jealousy of Saul; and with Geshurites, and Gezrites, and Amalekites in his neighbourhood, the natural enemies of his country, he had opportunities of using his troop so as at once to improve their discipline and promote the welfare of his native land.
There was another favourable occurrence in David's experience at this time. From a parallel passage (l Chron. 12) we learn that during his residence among the Philistines he was constantly receiving important accessions to his troop. One set of men who came to him, Benjamites, of the tribe of Saul, were remarkably skilful in the use of the bow and the sling, able to use either right hand or left with equal ease. The men that came to him were not from one tribe only, but from many. A very important section were from Benjamin and Judah. At first David seemed to have some suspicion of their sincerity. Going out to meet them he said to them, "If ye become peaceably to me to help me, my heart shall be knit unto you; but if ye be come to betray me to my enemies, seeing there is no wrong in my hands, the God of our fathers look thereon and rebuke it." The answer was given by Amasai, in the spirit and rhythmical language of prophecy: "Thine are we, David, and on thy side, thou son of Jesse; peace, peace be unto thee, and peace be to thine helpers; for thy God helpeth thee." Thus he was continually receiving evidence of the favour in which he was held by his people, and his band was continually increasing, "until it was a great host, like the host of God." It seemed, up to this point, as if Providence had favoured his removal to the land of the Philistines, and brought to him the security and the prosperity which he could not find in the land of Judah. But it was ill-gained security and only mock-prosperity; the day of his troubles drew on.
The use which, as we have seen, he made of his troop was to invade the Geshurites, the Gezrites, and the Amalekites. In taking this step David had a sinister purpose. It would not have been so agreeable to the Philistines to learn that the arms of David had been turned against these tribes as against his own countrymen. When therefore he was asked by Achish where he had gone that day, he returned an answer fitted, and indeed intended, to deceive. Without saying in words, "I have been fighting against my own people in the south of Judah," he led Achish to believe that he had, and he was pleased when his words were taken in that sense. Achish, we are told, believed David, believed that he had been in arms against his countrymen. "He hath made his people Israel utterly to abhor him; therefore he shall be my servant forever." Could there have been a more lamentable spectacle? one of the noblest of men stained by the meanness of a false insinuation; David, the anointed of the God of Israel, ranged with the common herd of liars!
Nor was this the only error into which his crooked policy now led him. To cover his deceitful course he had recourse to an act of terrible carnage. It was deemed by him important that no one should be able to carry to Achish a faithful report of what he had been doing. To prevent this he made a complete massacre, put to death every man, woman, child of the Amalekites and other tribes whom he now attacked. Such massacres were indeed quite common in Eastern warfare. The Bulgarian and other massacres of which we have heard in our own day show that even yet, after an interval of nearly three thousand years, they are not foreign to the practice of Eastern nations. In point of fact, they were not thought more of, or worse of, than any of the other incidents of war. War was held to bind up into one bundle the whole lives and property of the enemy, and give to the conqueror supreme control over it. To destroy the whole was just the same in principle as to destroy a part. If the destruction of the whole was necessary in order to carry out the objects of the campaign, it was not more wicked to perpetrate such destruction than to destroy a part.
True, according to our modern view, there is something mean in falling on helpless, defenseless women and children, and slaughtering them in cold blood. And yet our modern ideas allow the bombardment or the besieging of great cities, and the bringing of the more slow but terrible process of starvation to bear against women and children and all, in order to compel a surrender. Much though modern civilization has done to lessen the horrors of war, if we approve of all its methods we cannot afford to hold up our hands in horror at those which were judged allowable in the days of David. Yet surely, you may say, we might have expected better things of David. We might have expected him to break away from the common sentiment, and to show more humanity. But this would not have been reasonable. For it is very seldom that the individual conscience, even in the case of the best men, becomes sensible at once of the vices of its age. How many good men in this country, in the early part of this century, were zealous defenders of slavery, and in America down to a much later time! There is nothing more needful for us in studying history, even Old Testament history, than to remember that very remarkable individual excellence may be found in connection with a great amount of the vices of the age. We cannot attempt to show that David was not guilty of a horrible carnage in his treatment of the Amalekites. All we can say is, he shared in the belief of the time that such carnage was a lawful incident of war. We cannot but feel that in the whole circumstances it left a stain upon his character; and yet he may have engaged in it without any consciousness of barbarity, without any idea that the day would come when his friends would blush for the deed.
The Philistines were now preparing a new campaign under Achish against Saul and his kingdom, and Achish determined that David should go with him; further, that he should go in the capacity of "keeper of his head," or captain of his body guard, and that this should not be a temporary arrangement, but permanent - "forever." It is difficult for us to conceive the depth of the embarrassment into which this intimation must have plunged David. We must bear in mind how scrupulous and sensitive his conscience was as to raising his hand against the Lord's anointed; and we must take into account the horror he must have felt at the thought of rushing in deadly array against his own dear countrymen, with most of whom he had had no quarrel, and who had never done him any harm. When Achish made him head of his body guard he paid a great compliment to his fidelity and bravery; but in proportion as the post was honourable it was disagreeable and embarrassing. For David and his men would have to fight close to Achish, under his very eye; and any symptoms of holding back from the fray - any inclination to be off, or to spare the foe, which natural feeling might have dictated in the hour of battle, must be resisted in presence of the king. Perhaps David reckoned that if the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines he might be able to make better terms for them - might even be of use to Saul himself, and thus render such services as would atone for his hostile attitude. But this was a wretched consolation. David was entangled so that he could neither advance nor retreat. Before him was God, closing His path in front; behind him was man, closing it in rear; and we may well believe he would have willingly given all he possessed if only his feet could have been clear and his conscience upright as before.
Still, he does not appear to have returned to a candid frame of mind, but rather to have continued the dissimulation. He had gone with Achish as far as the battlefield, when it pleased God, in great mercy, to extricate him from his difficulty by using the jealousy of the lords of the Philistines as the means of his dismissal from the active service of King Achish. But instead of gladly retiring when he received intimation that his services were dispensed with, we find him (1 Samuel 29:8) remonstrating with Achish, speaking as if it were a disappointment not to be allowed to go with him, and as if he thirsted for an opportunity of chastising his countrymen. It is sad to find him continuing in this strain. We are told that the time during which he abode in the country of the Philistines was a full year and four months. It was to all appearance a time of spiritual declension; and as distrust ruled his heart, so dissimulation ruled his conduct. It could hardly have been other than a time of merely formal prayers and comfortless spiritual experience. If he would but have allowed himself to believe it, he was far happier in the cave of Adullam or the wilderness of Engedi, when the candle of the Lord shone upon his head, than he was afterwards amid the splendour of the palace of Achish, or the princely independence of Ziklag.
The only bright spot in this transaction was the very cordial testimony borne by Achish to the faultless way in which David had uniformly served him. It is seldom indeed that such language as Achish employed can be used of any servant - "I know that thou art good in my sight, as an angel of God." Achish must have been struck with the utter absence of treachery and of all self-seeking in David. David had shown that singular, unblemished trustworthiness that earned such golden opinions for Joseph in the house of Potiphar and from the keeper of the prison. In this respect he had kept his light shining before men with a clear, unclouded lustre. Even amid his spiritual backsliding and sad distrust of God, he had never stained his hands with greed or theft, he had in all these respects kept himself unspotted of the world.
The chapter of David's history which we have now been pursuing is a very painful one, but the circumstances in which he was placed were extremely difficult and trying. It is impossible to justify the course he took. By-and-bye we shall see how God chastised him for it, and by chastising him brought him to Himself. But to those who are disposed to be very severe on him we might well say, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at him. Who among you have not been induced at times to try carnal and unworthy expedients for extricating yourselves from difficulty? Who, in days of boyhood or girlhood, never told a falsehood to cover a fault? Who of you have been uniformly accustomed to carry to God every difficulty and trial, with the honest, immovable determination to do simply and solely what might seem to be agreeable to God's will? Have we not all cause to mourn over conduct that has dishonoured God and distressed our consciences? May He give all of us light to see wherein we have come short in the past, or wherein we are coming short in the present. And from the bottom of our hearts may we be taught to raise our prayer, From all the craft and cunning of Satan; from all the devices of the carnal mind; from all that blinds us to the pure and perfect will of God - good Lord, deliver us.