“The Lord has returned the evil of Nabal on his own head.”
With Saul’s pursuit after David dominating the narrative since chapter 19, the story here in chapter 25 seems like an abrupt switch. In fact, as chapter 26 picks back up with Saul chasing David again, chapter 25 seems almost out of place. Nevertheless, the change of scenes here is not out of place at all, and in fact fits perfectly into the developing social and political narrative. It deals with two primary developments: 1) God made David a man of wealth through no means of David’s own, and 2) a representative of Saul’s establishment is ruined, destroyed, and disinherited.
The story is carried out at a very personal and familial level, but it has implications for the broader covenantal society. What is illustrated as a contrast in character between foolish Nabal and David, is in the larger scope a contrast between David’s “kingdom” and the kingdom instituted under Saul. As such, the downfall of Nabal here foreshadows that which is to come for Saul and Israel in just a few chapters.
As this chapter provides useful historical background and foreshadowing themes, it also partakes of the Bible’s rich tradition of judicial typology. What we see here on a personal level the replay of the spoiling of the Egyptians. The wicked are disinherited and the righteous remnant inherits their loss. This is also part of the foreshadowing as well, for Israel will soon come to destruction and David will inherit Saul’s throne, as Saul himself just admitted in the last chapter.
As always, the lessons learned here challenge us as well—and at all levels. We must deal with character issues, the taunts and sneers of enemies who are wealthier and more powerful than us, personal anger issues, disses and betrayals, listening skills, patience, and one of the most difficult trials for many men—the intervention of a woman. In the end, as always, God works out His will to benefit His people in the end, and destroys the proud with their own pride.
A Clash of Character
We are introduced to a very wealthy and powerful man—a man who had a beautiful wife but a very bad attitude. He had a name that fit his disposition: Nabal, which means “fool.” This will come directly into play in the narrative later. The wife, Abigail, is said to be discerning which makes one wonder why she would marry a guy like this. Perhaps she married young, before her wisdom developed; or perhaps her prudence was in winning a man of financial security. Whatever the case, there is a clear contrast in character already. When David enters the scene, he will only add to this, and will go through the same contrasts within himself before he finally returns to sense and becomes a complement to Abigail.
Nabal is also described as a Calebite. On the surface of it, this merely pertains to his lineage. He was a descendant of the brave spy Caleb, the other of the two faithful spies, along with Joshua, whom Moses had sent in to spy out the Promised Land. This was certainly a mark of distinction. But on a literary level it has significance, too. “Caleb” literally means “dog” in Hebrew. The adjectival form found here does not translate as “of the house of Caleb” as the KJV says, but more like simply “Calebite.” But on the literal level, it means something more like “dog-like.” The Bible only uses the word this way in this one spot, and some double-entendre is almost certainly intentional. Yes, he was a descendant of the great Caleb. But he was also a cruel and harsh man, much like a snarling, growling dog.
This contrasts, of course, with everything we know about David up to this point. David is calm, reflective, and never reacts with undue hostility. He even loves his enemies, as we saw with how he treated Saul.
In fact, David was treating Nabal with compassion and love as well, indirectly. Nabal’s shepherds had been in the wilderness among David’s men, and David’s got along well with them and, in fact, provided de facto protection for them day and night (25:16). Thus, even when he was an outcast from society, David was serving that society. He was loving his neighbors as himself.
We could not say the same for Nabal. David hears that this dog-like man was shearing his sheep. For a man with three thousand sheep, this was quite an event. Indeed, in those times, sheep shearings were community events, usually involving great feasts. Thus David’s men said they had come on a feast day—not referring to any official Hebrew religious feast, but a private event. But since there would certainly have been a large feast with abundant food, and since David’s men had been serving Nabal’s men despite themselves being famished and homeless, David rightfully saw this as a good time to ask for a return favor.
What he got in return was not only not a favor, it was a supreme insult. Who is David?—as if anyone in Israel did not know of David. But Nabal assumed the young men were lying about being David’s messengers: There are many servants these days who are breaking away from their masters (25:10). Did he really believe David’s men could be runaway slaves? They provided a reference—Nabal’s own shepherds who had been among them. All Nabal had to do was check with them and find out the truth. The fact that he neglected such an easy verification shows he was not interested in helping them. It was a lame excuse put forth in an insulting manner. Given also that such an event involved abundance, and likely involved the community, to be refused in such a way was to be deemed by implication outside of the community and not worthy of even the crumbs that fell from the table.
Part of this is explained by Nabal’s character—the dog-like man—but I think there is yet more to the story. It is likely that Nabal was more than just a grouch. He was a wealthy and therefore probably influential man in Judah. For a man with such social status to react with such incommensurate contempt at the mention of David hints at more than just personality disorders. For a man of wealth to have retained his wealth under the rapacious administration of Saul, that man must have had some political favor. My suspicion upon these facts is that Nabal was a loyal member and supporter of Saul’s establishment. He at the very least did not want to have anything to do with David given the well-known dangers of such associations since Nob. But it is even likelier yet that Nabal despised David just as much as Saul did, just as much as the Ziphites, etc. Being a proud son in the line of Caleb would have exacerbated his misguided pride. Nabal was one of those patriots’ patriots—the kind we have discussed before, whose patriotism is a confused nationalism and statism. The kind that thinks they are doing God a favor when they flaunt their God-blessed status, and ridicule the political purists in their midst as losers, rejects, and even abettors of terrorism. And remember, the men following David indeed included “everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul” (22:2). Nabal no doubt looked down on them in this manner. It was as if Nabal was saying to David’s men, “You think this great, accomplished conservative is going to donate anything to your little campaign for liberty? You pesky little fellas biting at my ankle are just losers who are extremely unaccomplished (unlike me) in this great society of ours. In fact, I will go so far as to say not only extremely unaccomplished but that the only reason you have become such crazed radical fringe fanatics for a change of government is because of your own complete lack of personal or professional successes.” Such a proud man was Nabal the Calebite, who lived up to his name: the dog-like fool.
David’s changes of heart
Nevertheless, no matter how rude an insult Nabal may have leveled, David’s reaction was as indefensible as it was out of character (up to this point anyway). At a mere personal slight and rejection, David called his men to arms. He was literally going to march 400 men into Nabal’s domain and murder him. There is no defense for this reaction. Even if David had been the enthroned king, personal vengeance is unjustified. Personal vengeance through violence is even less so. Murder, then, is unthinkable. David had snapped: now he was acting just like Saul! He was so hardened, he was planning to take vengeance against Nabal and his entire household, murdering every male in the whole place (25:21–22).
Nabal’s servants knew they had to act quickly. They bypass him assuming he is too stubborn and foolish even to listen to reason, and they go straight to Abigail. The moment she is informed what David and his men are planning, she moves into action. She prepares a substantial gift of food and drink, and promises to follow close behind her servants. She is bravely going to intercede with David.
Verses 23–31 relate Abigail’s intercession with David. It is a masterpiece of Christian persuasion. She bowed in deference and pleaded merely to be heard. She explained Nabal’s inherent foolishness. She assumed responsibility. She urged David not to lower himself to Nabal’s foolish level. She urged him according to God’s Law: do not bring bloodguilt upon yourself. She appealed to David’s conscience. She appealed to his reputation as a one faithful to the Lord: fighting the Lord’s battles. She was reminding him of his own words which he had spoken to Israel on that famous occasion. She even alluded to the defeat of Goliath: God will sling out David’s enemies as from the hollow of a sling. Abigail was urging David to return and behave like the faithful David of before—the man after God’s own heart. Her persuasion was effective. David repented of the evil he intended to do, and promised Abigail her house had been spared. It was a true change of heart.
Abigail here is a type of Christ. She rode in lowly on a donkey. She assumed the burden of all the sins of her household. Thus she would be a self-sacrifice, but also a representative, vicarious sacrifice. She also spoke blessings over the house of the new (will-be new) king of Israel, while offering a meal of bread and wine. She is also a type of the Holy Spirit. She intercedes, pleads, convicts, and changes hearts. The parallels to the Gospel are clear.
Nabal’s change of heart
Nabal had no idea any of this was going on. When Abigail returns, she finds the feast continuing, and Nabal is right in the middle of enjoying himself. In fact, he was enjoying himself a little too much. He was drunk, and was indulging in a feast like the feast of a king. What irony. Nabal had ridiculed and dissed the real king, who was left out in the wilderness, while Nabal himself feasted in luxury as if he were a king. But he was in for a big shock—one for which his proud heart was not prepared.
He was so drunk, Abigail waited and let him sleep it off. But even then he was not prepared. Abigail related all the story, noting the fact, no doubt, that David had come within a few minutes of killing Nabal and every male in the house. It came as such a shock that Nabal’s heart died within him and he became as a stone. That was a change of heart for the worse. He lingered in a coma for ten days before he finally expired. David listened to Abigail and became a new man; Nabal listened to Abigail and became a dead man. That is how the Gospel works: the same message works life in the elect and death in the reprobate. It is also how common grace works: God makes the sun to shine on the just and the unjust, but the just receive it with thanks and are blessed, while the unjust receive it unto damnation.
Nabal’s change of heart became an opportunity for everyone else—everyone his pride and harshness had held in oppression. His wife—who was too good for him—ends up marrying the future king of Israel. David was impressed with her discernment and discretion. The moment he heard Nabal was dead, he thanked God, and then he sent for Abigail’s hand. She wasted no time responding positively.
But there’s another great change that tales place here that is not explicit in the text, but certainly entailed. When Nabal died, his wife inherited all of his great wealth. Thus, the moment David married her, David inherited. In short, here you have the story of the disinheritance of the stiff-necked fool. Simultaneously you have the righteous seed spoiling the enemy through God’s providence. We have to stress the providence aspect. David did nothing of this by this own hand. In fact, both Abigail and repentant, thankful David explicitly say that salvation must not come from our own hands (25:31, 33). David, being reminded of the lesson he already knew and which he had practiced already on so many occasions, reposed himself in the Lord and watched as the Lord brought salvation to pass in a way that no man could have orchestrated. The wicked seed was disinherited, and the righteous inherited. The wealth of the unjust had been laid up for the just.
Furthermore, little shepherd boy David was now more than just a folk hero in status. He had now married into the wealth of the establishment in Judah—something that may in fact help him in the not-so-distant future.
1. The wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God
James teaches, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jam. 1:19–20). In this passage we see the anger of man front and center in both Nabal and David. Nabal’s wrath was persistent and defining of his character. He refused to repent, and his sin destroyed him. Had it not been for the intercession of his wife, his sin would have destroyed all the males in the house.
David’s wrath was out of character up to this point, but was nevertheless destructive. Indeed it was murderous. Again, had it not been for Abigail, David would have committed a heinous sin. But that is the key here: David’s heart was pliable enough, and his ears open enough, that he could hear the Law of God and repent. David calmed his personal wrath, and left vengeance to God. God did indeed work His own righteousness.
The lesson is timeless, and thus pertains to us today, too. This is hardly controversial. We must be extremely careful of reacting with personal vengeance or wrath. Too many times we allow disagreements and debates to become personal, and then interject all kinds of negative emotion into them. Out flows invective, insult, slander, murder. Those who are too cunning to speak such overtly and publicly resort to backstabbing, gossip, rumor, insinuation, etc., in an effort to destroy someone’s reputation or to silence a critic. In any of these cases, we are employing the wrath of man to achieve our own agendas, and to satisfy our own lust for retribution—all under the guise of the righteousness of God. It will never work. God will not leave unpunished those who operate in this sinful manner.
It is important to note in the text that the wrath did not occur in a vacuum. In Nabal’s case, as we explained, there was social status entwined with his contempt for others, particularly for David’s lowly, embittered ones and debtors. There were very likely grand but misguided nationalistic feelings, an overwhelming sense of self-worth, political ties and personal investment in the greatness of the current administration, a name for oneself, etc., bound up in Nabal’s heart. He really thought he was somebody—and all the indicators by which he had conditioned himself to judge told him that he was head-and-shoulders above the rest, and he looked down on them correspondingly.
From this often flows an entitlement mentality in which the proud person allows himself to lash out with invective, insult, and anger, but screams and cries foul the moment anyone else does against him or his cause. The problem may be so bad that it cannot even be called conscious hypocrisy—but a personality fully consumed by deep-rooted bitterness leading to full delusion and denial. We even see this in Nabal: he insults with impunity, but when he learns that he was to be a target, he goes into utter shock.
The Christian world is riddled with such cases of double standard—and indeed of brother against brother. We can, like Nabal, end up putting our personal views, friendships, allegiances, or alliances ahead of our biblical values. This quickly and easily manifests in expressions of political values, where people have ties, loyalties, pay, or other personal investments in certain establishments start to defend those systems no matter how corrupt they are or become. Such people will often abuse faithful critics with impunity while decrying even the slightest elevation in rhetoric against them. This is just as foolish and dog-like as Nabal’s behavior was. It was certainly included in what James warns against.
But David’s reaction was no better. The greatest tragedy for him was that it was out of character. What made a man so longsuffering up to this point snap so quickly at so small a slight? Perhaps Saul’s confession that David would be king had gone to his head. Whatever it was, it was tragic to see a godly man descend into depraved reaction. But there is something instructive in it. I don’t normally quote Friedrich Nietzsche favorably in a sermon, but one thing he wrote has always stuck with me as wise. Paraphrasing: “When you fight a monster, take care that you don’t become a monster.” We see something like that occurring here with David. When insulted and barked at by a dog-like fool, David reacted in knee-jerk fashion just the same: he jumped in anger to go rip Nabal’s throat. In short, when fighting a dog he became a dog himself.
Let us remember that the righteousness of God will never be achieved through the anger of men—at least not by our intentions. Whether we live in contempt of other men, and entitle ourselves to speak contemptuously to them, or whether we only react in anger “out of character” on occasion, let us expect a setback rather than an advance in God’s kingdom. And let us not deceive ourselves or be deceived when someone is smiling, calm, and kind on the outside, and says all the right things in public, but is working to tear down, usurp, or destroy. The anger and bitterness are still there, even if in the hand you do not see performing the trick. And let us be especially wary of those angers which arise from disagreements in the social or political realm, or which have ties to our personal allegiances. We must put the Law of God first: crucify the allegiance if necessary, and certainly crucify any hatred and contempt born from it.
2. The sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous
Perhaps the most important point in this narrative is the disinheritance of the wicked and the inheritance of his wealth by the righteous. As I mentioned, this partakes of the Exodus motif in which the Israelites spoiled the Egyptians before they left. David’s son noted this (having benefited directly from it): “the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous” (Prov. 13:22). This is true in a broader, covenantal sense as well. It does not pertain only to finance, but dominion in general. Thus Jesus told his generation of unbelieving Jews: “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits” (Matt. 21:43). This is expressed in many of his parables, as well as His teaching to the apostles: “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:18). We see this clearly in Nabal, who lost everything he had, and everything he thought he had, too. And the one who had—faith and obedience, that is—more was given.
This was expressed on the social level very clearly and at length in God’s covenantal sanctions to Israel (Deut. 28–29). If they obeyed His Law, the blessing would be endless: peace, prosperity, population growth, etc. If they rebelled against His Law, social curses would follow: famine, disease, war, defeat, captivity. And the same principle applies in general, for God held non-Israelite nations such as Sodom and also Nineveh to His righteous standards lest they should fall into judgment. Let us not think that rampant sin in our society will go unpunished by God.
But we should not be afraid to consider a similar principle on the individual level. In some cases, this occurs in very practical ways. Many follow covetousness and greed into the captivity of debt, not even realizing their slavery. Many ruin marriages and children through all kinds of idolatry, adultery, envy, lies, etc. But God will also punish those sins of omission and hidden sins of which we do not repent. The sanctions here may not come in ways obviously predictable by God’s Word and common sense, but God will punish according to His will in due time. This is exactly why Paul taught that we reap what we sow:
Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Gal. 6:6–10).
Note how that even though “Spirit” sowing is contrasted with sowing “to the flesh,” the nature of such sowing ought to be good works and a refusal to get weary of doing good works. And the results of such good works will be reaping good in due time. We should look therefore to serve our fellow man, and we should expect good things to come of it in due time. This is, of course, not to preach prosperity in the sense it is so abused; but we cannot ignore the fact that a virtuous society will grow richer, and in a richer society, individuals tend to grow richer the more they serve their fellow man ethically.
But consider Nabal. Was he not a wicked man, and yet was he not wealthy? Yes, indeed, we see that most of the wealth in the world today is under the control of evil men. Yet David—who personally experienced this turn of events, after all—would encourage us not to be dismayed when things are so out of place: “fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!” (Psa. 37:7). And what is David’s method to deal with such men? Read on: “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.” Why, it is almost like he read point one of my sermon. But it the next verse is even more inspiring:
The evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. . . . But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace (Psa. 37:9, 11).
This is the exact verse Jesus quotes in His sermon on the mount: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). It is taken from a context of covenantal disinheritance and inheritance. Thus while we live with wickedness enriched around us, this is only temporary. We should look for ways to serve others, love our neighbor, obey God, and through these means reap the promises of God—to make this temporary state as temporary as possible.
This “interlude” between the two confessions of Saul makes for a very clear example of God’s dealings among men in history—rewarding the meek and destroying the proud. Yet these events illustrate these grand covenantal principles on a very personal and individual level. Let us be instructed on both sides. On the one hand, let us be ever resolved that God will bring to pass His promises to His people, to depose the wicked and give dominion to the faithful, no matter no matter how many Nabals currently sit in power and influence, often ridiculing us. Yet we are all intimately engaged in the historical drama at an individual level, and we are expected to exhibit the utmost of faithfulness and character: peace, patience, love, etc., in the face of these Nabals. We are to avoid personal anger and vengeance, and the obedience to this principle or not factors directly into how God brings sanctions in our lives and in our societies. It will affect our friendships, families, business relationships, our churches and governments as well. Meekness not only has to do with our private spiritual lives, but as Jesus said, it has to do with inheriting the earth as well.