The politics of fear and the surveillance state (1 Samuel 23)

“And the Lord said, ‘They will surrender you.’”

God had reconstructed the nation of Israel around to-be-king David, and had sent him a remnant led by a prophet, a priest, and a king. These things had all come together despite the slaughter of the priesthood in Nob, and without the aid of man’s plans or efforts. It must have been a great surprise to David, who was merely seeking respite in the wilderness. Yet no sooner had these things come together than God presented David with a series of new challenges: in leadership, in politics, and in pure faith.

David rightly responded to each of these challenges by doing nothing but seeking God’s Word, and in continuing in his civil duties faithfully. In the end, God wagged the dog and diverted Saul from his murderous pursuit, once again rescuing David while at the same time sending him confirmation of his kingly calling.

Are there lessons here for us today? Only if you think modern society could benefit from more dutiful, faithful, and loyal citizens, fearlessness in the face of tyranny, and a renewed devotion to social callings.

Questions of Loyalty

The whole chapter highlights the national divisions which develop after God’s establishment of the remnant with David. Some are spiritual divisions, such as David’s loyalty to God, and Saul’s loyalty to self. This, of course, continues from earlier rather than develops anew, and it drives the tensions which create the other divisions. Others are purely political: the men of Keilah must choose between militarily triumphant David and king Saul. The Ziphites must make the same choice. Jonathan’s loyalty to David appears again. What we see in these political divisions is the formation of what amount to political parties: one representing the faithful remnant, the others bowing out of fear to the political establishment.

Are you sure, David?

The first “division” appears between David and his own men. The Philistines were raiding the town of Keilah, and even though David was pushed out of the establishment, he still saw it as his duty to fight the battles of the Lord. So he was moved to do his duty, as he had always done. So the moment David received the news, he prayed to God. God answered and told him to go attack and save Keilah (23:2). Again, this is being dutiful, and doing so in a specifically faithful way.

But David’s men were hesitant. They were living in fear enough as it was there hiding in the wilderness. Why should they run the risk of exposing themselves and their whereabouts to Saul by running a military expedition? Not only would the sortie be dangerous enough (we’re only a few hundred men, after all), but once Saul picks up our trail, we’ll be toast. Thus David met resistance—a resistance based on fear.

This was the first test of David’s leadership in his new “kingdom within a kingdom.” It was a test of both his patience and his virtue. Remember how Saul had manipulated the men around him in the last chapter? Taunting them and threatening them into a loyalty based on fear? David is now faced fear as well. He could have used similar tactics—threats and insults—to bring these men in line. But he did not. Instead, David accommodated their weakness to a degree, and sought the Lord a second time. In this he showed patience and virtue: patience not to get irritated with the weakness of other men, and virtue to do the right thing, that is, to seek the wisdom of God. While very few leadership books today teach such techniques, David’s faithfulness succeeded. God sent direction a second time to go fight at Keilah, and with this assurance, the men responded as faithfully as their leader. They went, they fought, and they saved Keilah from the Philistines. It is amazing what can be accomplished when we begin with prayer. And all true leadership begins by leading in prayer.

Thanks a lot

David, however, knew that his men were right about one thing: by fighting a battle, they were exposing their whereabouts to Saul. This would inevitably lead to a confrontation, and if David stayed in Keilah, it would mean the men of Keilah would be forced to choose. Either they would choose to fight to protect David, or they would submit to Saul’s forces by turning David over.

Having just routed the Philistines on behalf of Keilah, you would think that the men of that city would be more than thankful to David, and supportive of him. A considering that Saul once again was not fighting the Lord’s battles as he should have, and did not come to Keilah’s aid, you would expect the men of Keilah to have been peeved at the administration. Certainly in the moments after David’s deliverance, all indicators would have been that these thankful people would aid and abet David against the bumbling establishment.

But that is before the tanks and planes—figuratively speaking—showed up. David understood this well, and anticipated the very real possibility of being sold out when the time came that Saul applied frightening pressure. So as soon as he heard that Saul was headed for Keilah, he took action. Again, he did not try to strive with men, he went straight to God. God confirmed the worst: Saul was indeed headed for Keilah, and worse yet, the men of Keilah would indeed cave and turn him over. This is the power of a corrupt political establishment at work: no matter what good has been done despite, and no matter what godliness dictates we ought to do, the fear of reprisal from the government often drives men to act contrary to the goodness and Law of God.

Saul for his part thought he had David trapped. Keilah was a walled city, so he thought he would be able to surround it and coerce the city into surrendering David. While David was being dutiful and fighting the Lord’s battle, delivering the Lord’s people, Saul was thinking only of himself, and believing that the slightest condition in his favor was a divine gift to him. He actually said of David, “God has given him into my hand” (23:6), as if David was an enemy that God would deliver to him. Saul did not plan on the fact that God was way ahead of him. Through answering David’s prayer, God gave David enough time to get out of town before Saul arrived.

The Surveillance State

David and his men escaped into the wilderness of Ziph. In this brief rest, Jonathan somehow found David and went to meet him. He would bring a message of comfort and hope in the midst of the wilderness: “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you” (23:17). The message was also distinctly political: “You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Saul my father also knows this” (23:17). Jonathan affirms the eventual manifestation David’s kingship. When Jonathan says he shall be “next to” or “second to” David, he does not mean this in the sense of conspiracy with David, or even having a spot in David’s government; he means that despite his father’s desire that Jonathan would rule as a successor, Jonathan will actually be second behind, or in submission to, David. Finally, Jonathan notes that Saul knows this, too. This fact will be apparent in the next chapter, and then again in chapter 26. Jonathan concludes his visit by reaffirming his covenant with David.

The fear of Saul’s establishment, however, or perhaps genuine loyalty to it, apparently had extensive reach through the land. No sooner had David escaped from Keilah than he ran, unknowingly, into a new group ready and willing to turn him in. Perhaps having watched Jonathan come and go through their land, the Ziphites moved quickly to discover David to Saul. They were even more loyal to Saul than the men of Keilah would have been, and the Ziphites did not even have the emotional restraint of having been delivered in battle by David. Indeed, it is quite possible these guys had heard about what happened to the priests at Nob, and feared that something similar could happen to them if they did not take initiative to distance themselves from David once he was in their territory. Whatever the case, these guys did not have to wait until Saul and his armies were approaching. There was indeed no crisis at all. Either out of fear or loyalty to Saul, these guys jumped immediately on their own volition went to inform the establishment. Again, it was “see something, say something,” and the Ziphites were dialing 911.

Just as Saul easily manipulated his young men in chapter 22, so he here turns these willing tattletales into tools of a surveillance state. They had readily informed on David. Now Saul demands that they exert even more effort on his, the state’s, behalf. He had them go back and spy upon David until they had his location nailed down for certain. And thank you for your loyal service to your country. So they went. There was no question where their loyalty lay.

The Rock of Division

The final section of chapter 23 includes the climactic escape of David by God’s grace. Whether by the efforts of the Ziphites or others, we do not know, Saul learns of David’s whereabouts again. David hears of Saul coming and he flees. Saul pursues. Saul closes in so close that he is on the very same mountain as David and his men. The only thing separating David and certain death is the ridge of this single mountain. Saul’s men almost have David, and this time, David has no way out, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. This is the end. It is only a matter of time.

Then, right at the last minute, a messenger comes running to tell Saul that the Philistines have made a raid against the land (23:27). It seems strange that Saul would care at this point. He apparently did not care too much when Keilah was attacked. Perhaps this time, the phrase “the land” indicates a part of the land to which Saul was more emotionally attached, for he felt immediately that he had to drop his pursuit of David and go fight against these Philistines. Diverted from his pursuit of David (perhaps not even knowing how close he was), Saul leaves off to go fight the Philistines.

Thus God delivered David, and once again, through no work or fight of David’s own hands. The ridge which separated Saul and David is named the “Rock of Division.” The ESV, NASB and others say “Rock of Escape.” The Hebrew can have two meanings, but “escape” is based on a meaning which is more literally “smooth” or “slippery,” and “escape” is stretched as a metaphor from that. I think the primary meaning used in the older translations is better: “division.” It not only explains how God preserved David by putting a wall of division between him and Saul, but how God divided Saul’s attention, as well as the theme of divided loyalties that occurs all through the chapter. Whatever the meaning, notice that God is our solid rock, and it is He who is our fortress and our defense. And even when our enemies have us trapped with no way out, God still forms a barrier that divides between us and them. And He can find ways to divert even the most powerful of earthly forces in order to fulfill His will.


Just like everyone in this narrative, we will be faced with questions of loyalty. Just like these, our loyalties will be tried such that we will placed in situations in which we must trust and obey God even in the face of tyranny and peer pressure. In the end, we will emerge with a testimony like one of the people or groups in this narrative. Shall we fear? Shall we hesitate? Shall we sell out? Shall we betray someone for our own benefit? Shall we suffer tyranny? Shall we willingly support tyranny? Or shall we perform our duty faithfully? Let’s consider:

1. No matter what the world does, perform your calling

In this period in his life, David is the role model for constancy and faithfulness. No matter what position he was forced into, no matter how difficult and adverse the circumstance, no matter how bare and inhospitable the literal or social wilderness around him—David sought ways to continue performing his calling. Here we see him thrust out of Israeli society. He was a marked man. Especially after Nob, David was a liability. No one wanted him around. Yet despite being despised and hated, treated like a cancer, and no doubt slandered everywhere he went, David still risked his life in fighting battles for these very people. That is faithfulness to your calling.

We must simply do the same in our day. If you choose to remain faithful to God and His Law to your utmost, you will be resisted, mocked, slandered, betrayed, schemed against, and even thieved and plundered. And that is just from your own brethren—we’re not even talking about the unbelievers yet! But we must be faithful to our callings, and not worry about what God has not put within our control. If you are called to fight a battle in behalf of ingrates and sellouts, then fight that battle. You may deal with their ingratitude later, or perhaps not. God will decide that. It may be that you are called to fight that battle, and specifically not be the guy who deals with the imperfections and rank sins of those on whose behalf you have been called to sacrifice. Worse yet, you may be called to fight like that, only to have to bear the burden of their sins directly. What did our Christ Himself do after all? You are brave enough to fight? Yes? But are you brave enough to fight like Christ? This is what David did here, and what we should aspire to do as well. Perhaps your biggest trial in life is that annoying person with whom you have to work. If so, then thank God for how good you have it, and what a great opportunity He has given you to glorify Him in your patience. Perhaps your trial is bigger: cancer, crime, conspiracy. If so, pray that God will give us strength and support to carry on and perform our callings despite the adversity.

Further, David could possibly have been wounded or even killed in behalf of these ungrateful and self-serving brethren. Would they have even cared? Would they not rather have been relieved, while yet feeling entitled to have David defend them to his death? And yet he fought on. And even when he learned that they would betray him, he did not turn upon them, nor think differently of his service to them, but did only as much as he needed to keep himself safe. David simply trusted God by performing his calling and not going beyond it—even when the overt sins of others begged for address and repair.

So it should be with us. We ought to be so ready and faithful in our jobs and callings that we perform them as God wills, even if this means risking our lives only to be sold out by those for whom we have risked our lives. The simple fact is that we have no idea what God intends to do with those people, but we have a fairly good idea what He desires of us. So stick with what you know. No matter what the world may say about you—before or after you have sacrificed—stay faithful to God’s Word, and to the tasks God has put in front of you.

On the other side, we may also consider what God should think if we allowed ourselves to be sidetracked and distracted by a dozen grievances and grudges—even if they were legitimate—and never completed the task we need to do. Could we then be called good and faithful servants? The remedy then is to put the faithfulness first, and leave the grievances in God’s hands as best we may.

2. Principles of leadership: start with prayer and God’s Word

I briefly want to recall your attention to David’s methods of leadership. We saw that when he was tested with hesitance and fear among his men, he backed down and turned immediately to God in prayer. Although he was vindicated and reassured in doing so, David did not first presume upon the rightness of his plans and impeccability of his leadership. Instead, he accommodated the weakness of his men, and the tools for doing this were prayer and God’s Word.

Some aspects of David’s leadership here are almost anathema, certainly antithetical, to so much of what is taught in the modern industry of leadership. I remember when I was in seminary, the most appalling books I had to read were for a leadership course. While there are usually helpful tips and tactics, and often lip service given to prayer and Christian ideals, the driving ideas were often pagan visualization techniques coupled with varieties of manipulations to herd people mindlessly after the “vision.” And the leadership should never allow itself to be called into question in front of the constituent followers. Never should it appear so weak or wrong as to have to retreat for second thoughts after being questioned.

Such techniques are what we have come to expect—and in fact have seen—from Saul. But what does David do? Just the opposite. Part of true courage and true leadership is in affirming that God is in our midst and that He is our true leader. When the programs and decisions of men seem proper to be called into question, the leader should shoulder that weakness and bring it publicly before the feet of God. No leader should fear having his credibility tarnished for such a prayer. For with God in our midst, and our prayers laid at His feet, he is able to corral and draw his people just as surely as David’s hesitant soldiers finally went to battle. If a congregation is so fickle as to be upended with ambition or annoyance at a leader who does this, then we can say with some assurance that there is some spiritual dysfunction somewhere besides in that leadership.

If God is our leader, then should our leadership not be primarily driven by prayer? If only God’s Word is infallible, and all men are liars, and all the plans of men are as fragile as their next breath, what should we depend upon more for our goals and our guidance? If the shepherds of the flock do not provide these means as the vast majority of their leadership techniques, then they are false shepherds, trying to enter in by a door other than Christ, likely as robbers to fleece the flock.

Let the leaders in God’s kingdom be warned by David’s example: do not fear to go to prayer, and to have your plans challenged and molded by God’s direct Word.

3. The politics of fear and the surveillance state

In this narrative we see the social effects of Saul’s murderous attacks upon David, especially his slaughter of the entire city of Nob. It was now publicly known that anyone who aided and abetted that terrorist David would be liable to similar punishment by the central government. This is why Keilah would have turned him over, and this is most likely why the Ziphites ran to Saul as soon as they saw David in their land.

Although, the Ziphites seem to have been more than merely fearful of Saul. It seems they were supportive—good patriots—of Saul’s administration. This allowed Saul to build a surveillance state on their zeal. When they came to rat out David, Saul charged them to become perpetual spies until they pinpointed the terrorist threat. This was beyond “see something, say something”; this was a camera on every corner, warrantless wiretapping, and indiscriminate mass data collection in the name of fighting terrorism and promoting national security. It is bad enough to have men like those of Keilah who would be fearful and cave in the face of such tyranny. It’s even worse to have deluded statists like these Ziphites willing to advance such tyranny with their own lives and fortunes. They probably enlisted their sons in Saul’s unlawful armies, and did so willingly and proudly, thinking they were making the most Christian, ultimate sacrifice in defense of God and country. They may even have enlisted their daughters so willingly, too. And just as much as Saul believing God was on his side, and God had delivered David into his hand, you can bet our modern-day Ziphites believe every statist measure they uphold is ordained, blessed, and rewarded by God Himself.

And how different are we today? Let me not rehearse the language of modern surveillance I have already used, for what is taken from today pertains to today, and it stands as a condemnation of our politics of fear and control. Too many Christians support such tyranny in the name of PATRIOT Acts and national security. We perpetuate and even support arbitrary and secret courts, seemingly limitless surveillance and invasions of privacy, perpetual undeclared wars, war by executive order, indefinite detention, entire cities on lock down, door-to-door searches by armed SWAT teams. We scream and cry about targeted IRS investigations, but probably only because it is the other side targeting ours. Neither side seems to care about the same civil rights when the emotional power of 9-11 is invoked, or “terrorism” is in the fore. Then only the far left and far, far right libertarians speak out, and they are dismissed as a social cancer in the way David was.

And if you are in those groups, or share such principles, what shall be done? All we can do is to follow David’s example: pray, and if necessary, get out of town. In the end, however, there is only so far we can run. We could truly find ourselves only a mountain ridge away from certain annihilation. And yet, if God wills, he can steer the entire police state as with a ring through the bull’s nose. A wicked state may try to wag the dog, but God will wag it back his way. If God so wills. It may be that we wills us to mirror David’s example, to such an extreme close call. Or more: He may have us live out the extremity of Christ’s example. Whatever be, we should stand for the rights and perfections of God’s Law without compromise, perform our duty as faithfully as we can, and seek to persuade others in every way possible. Do what you are called to do, and leave what is beyond your control to God Himself.

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