“Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy?”
It was only a matter of time before Achish began to call upon David for return favors. When he did, he put David to task doing what he thought David did best: war. But this time the war was with David’s own people, and as David was marched off toward that day, he was caught between two loyalties: retaining Achish’s favor while outside of Israel, and refusing to kill his own brethren. Again he was in a pinch from which he could not deliver himself, and we will see how God works a deliverance greater than David even knew he needed.
Meanwhile, as the Philistines gather for war, Saul panics. Without Samuel, without David, without God, Saul turns to desperation in an attempt to obtain supernatural aid for the battle. In doing so, he upturns his own state and his own life. He contradicts one of the few righteous deeds he himself had done, only to learn in the end that he would lose the battle anyway, and die. We see that sin compounds itself unto desperation, and the wages of that desperation are still death.
The contrast in these two narratives illustrates the reality of God’s judgment of both the just and the unjust. David is preserved in even the direst of circumstance in which we can see no way out. On the other hand, Saul’s wickedness continues to mount and receives a definitive sentence of death in the next 24 hours. In the decisions each makes in the process, we learn even more about the effects of wickedness in high places, and the rewards of faithfulness unto the end.1
So it seems David is in quite a predicament here. He fled Israel and Saul to avoid coming judgment, and he took up residence under the civil authority of the pagan king Achish. Through some shrew lawyering, David was able to continue the battles of the Lord while keeping in Achish’s trust. Achish in fact believed David was warring against his own people, and thus making himself and odious enemy to them. Now, Achish is joining the other Philistine lords to go to battle against Israel, and he demands David show his loyalty in joining them as well. Has David’s decision come back to bite him? How can he avoid killing his own people and yet not expose his true colors to Achish?
At least one commentator thinks David was again fooling Achish with an equivocation, just as he had done before by reporting his raids as “against the Negeb” (see the last sermon). When David asks why he “may not go and fight against the enemies of my lord the king?” (29:8), the commentator thinks that by “my lord” David is secretly referring to God while allowing Achish to think David was referring to him. In this view, David knew exactly how he was going to solve his predicament: by attacking the Philistines from within once the battle was on. This therefore also confirms the suspicions of the other Philistine lords.2
That view is possible, and if David has actually been led into the battle ultimately, I believe that is what would have occurred. But honestly I do not believe David knew exactly whom the Philistines would be attacking. While the text informs the reader that the Philistines were gathering to attack Israel, Achish’s instructions to David do not relate that information. All we can deduce that David knew is that he was being sent into battle with the Philistines in the direction of Aphek. Well, Aphek was far from David’s usual haunts—100 miles to the north of Ziklag, actually, whereas David had been conducting his own campaigns toward the south. Further, Aphek was at the time in, or very near the edge of, Canaanite territory, near the outskirts of Saul’s kingdom. (This is one reason a witch could be found at Endor even when Saul had kicked them out of the kingdom—because Endor was in those same outskirts beyond Saul’s normal reach.) As David traveled through Philistine territory for 100 miles to Aphek, he would have passed several Hebrew bases and targets to the east they could have attacked along the way. So he would not necessarily have perceived that the enemy to be attacked was Israel, in fact, he may have perceived just the opposite.
Moreover, David was following along in the rear (29:2) of the convoy, so he was out of the loop. He would have been the last to know what the leaders ahead were planning. Considering all of this, I do not think David was even aware he was being sent to attack Israel in particular.
David had been unwilling to kill Saul twice when he had the chance. It is unlikely he would turn swords against him in battle. So if it had come to it, David would likely have turned back against the Philistines. We cannot discount some clever equivocation on his part, but considering David’s ultimate allegiance to God, we can appreciate all the more the irony of Achish’s trust in him: where the ESV and NASB have Achish saying he will make David his “bodyguard,” the KJV relates the more literal Hebrew, “keeper of my head” (28:2). Recall the great promise of Genesis 3:15—a theme played throughout 1 Samuel, as we have noted—and the irony is apparent. You can rest assured that David was saying to himself, “With pleasure.”
Turning kings’ hearts
As David arrived, the Philistine lords other than Achish saw David and his men and were startled. Here they were about to attack the Hebrews, and Achish parades a band of Hebrew warriors in their own camp! Achish? What are you thinking? They were angry, the text says (29:4).
The Philistine lords had very rational arguments. They knew David would fight against them once the battle started. Why? Because he was loyal to his own people. Because even if he was in disfavor with Saul, the best way (so they thought) to win back favor was with the heads of these Philistines. And they knew David was capable. They remembered the song that was sung of him after Goliath (a previous rout of Philistines, after all): “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (29:5). So they knew David was faithful, consistent, and capable in battle. There was no way they would risk it. They wanted him gone.
So Achish was forced to send David home. He broke the news, and after a brief exchange, David and his men started the three-day, 100-mile journey back to Ziklag.
What is of note here is that God used the pagan lords’ fear to spare David from this predicament. They were afraid of him, and that fear produced a prudence that opened the door for David simply to leave the scene peaceably with no confrontation or bloodshed (29:7). David could not have planned his way out of this one. It was much like the time he was trapped by Saul’s army only a mountain ridge away from certain death (chapter 23). Through God’s providence, David was delivered. David had no power here, but God had a means only He could control—the hearts of kings (Prov. 21:1)—to deliver David once again.
In fact, the entire remnant was spared. And they were not only spared from this predicament, but they were removed entirely from the scene of God using a pagan army to bring covenantal judgment upon deserving Israel. God used this situation to keep the remnant free and clear from it altogether. In the end, David and the remnant were spared. Even better, they had the testimony afterward that they had nothing to do with either side of it.
This does not mean everything would be easy. As they journeyed back to Ziklag, they had no idea of the shock and horror that awaited them at home. But we’ll discuss that in the next sermon. For now, let us back up to see how Saul handled this confrontation.
If the Philistines were fearful of David, Saul was even more fearful of the Philistines. When they gathered for war against Israel, the text says he was beyond afraid: his heart trembled greatly (28:5). All of his usual backstops were gone. Samuel was dead, the priests were all dead, and David had been run off. The only priest and only prophet we know of both left with David. Saul had nothing but his men and his armor.
It was a predicament in itself for Saul and for Israel, and it was a fitting, if pitiful, one. Here was the great “head taller” warrior for whom Israel had lusted—indeed, for whom they had rejected God Himself. This is the great military leader they thought would be their ultimately safety and security. Through the course of the past forty years, and through the very operations of that great king, God gradually stripped the people of their true supports, piece by piece, as their self-righteous sin manifested in persecution and murder of their own brethren. Now, all the nation had left was their vaunted military man. Let’s see how great he’ll be now. Not so great. He was trembling in his boots.
A rival providence thwarted
God had long since rejected Saul, and had long since quit answering him. Of course, Samuel had prophesied this from the beginning: the king would come, tyrannize the country, trouble would set in, and then, when the people cried out in prayer, God would not answer (1 Sam. 8:18). Saul knew he was on his own, but he was deathly afraid and knew he needed supernatural intervention to defeat these Philistines. He was desperate. As a last resort, he instructed his men to find him a spirit medium for supernatural counsel.
It just so happened there was just such a “witch” nearby in Endor—only nine or ten miles to the north as the crow flies. But that was a small problem: from the peak of Mt. Gilboah where Saul was, the mountainside descends about 650 feet down into a valley, and then back up the other side to Endor. It was a difficult trek of several hours, at least. But there was yet another problem. At the west end of that valley stood another peak by Shunem, and that was where the Philistines were assembled. Saul would have to make his climb quietly past the enemy’s camp in order to get his medium. I say this to point out just how desperate Saul was. Not only was he willing to defy the Law of God, but he was willing climb mountains, cross valleys, brave close encounters with the enemy in order to satisfy this lust for rebellion. This is a picture of total depravity.
Now it just so happens that Saul had previously rid the land of all necromancers and mediums. It was one of the few faithful things he did during his reign. The Law forbad such (Deut. 18:10–12), and Saul had enforced the Law at this point. So it is no mistake that this medium is found near the outskirts of Saul’s kingdom. But because this was open rebellion, and because the enemy was nearby, Saul took every precaution to hide his actions: he disguised himself and went by night. Even then, this witch was reluctant. Specifically citing Saul’s policy, she balked at the request. The irony here is apparent: the outlaw is quoting government policy against the guy who made it, not realizing yet that he was Saul.
But it gets even better. Saul assures her with an oath: But Saul swore to her by the LORD, “As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing” (1 Sam. 28:10). This is one of the most remarkable rebellious acts Saul does in his life. He not only rebels against God’s commandment, but he takes an oath in the name of the Lord to defy the Law of that very Lord! And perhaps just as ironic: here is the chief civil ruler of the land who was oath-bound to enforce the Law of God, now taking a second oath to say that the Law of God shall not be enforced on his watch. This is the corruption of civil government come full circle. Saul had abandoned God, and while that rebellion had manifested in many unjust laws and acts up to this point, Saul here reaches a climax of wickedness by not only neglecting God’s Law, but by encouraging just the opposite: seeking revelation from a rival source.
It would seem that Saul had reached his lowest point. When Samuel had told him back in chapter 15 that “rebellion is as the sin of divination,” perhaps we did not realize how literally right he was. Now we see the two converge. The two concepts go together, of course, because divination, necromancy, etc., are attempts to get authoritative, divine revelation from a source other than God Himself. The act in and of itself is essentially an act of denying the exclusive sovereignty of God Almighty and instead asserting the divine authority of a rival god. Saul was showing the depth of his idolatry—seeking after a rival god that would help him in his situation. In short, Saul wanted his best life now, and since God would not answer him, Saul went to find a god who would.
Saul asked the medium to bring up Samuel for him. When she went to work, she shrieked in shock, and then knew immediately who Saul was. What is this all about? I believe it is best explained by understanding that she was a fraud, or at least was ineffective in her craft here. Samuel was asked for, and it was Samuel who actually appeared. She obviously did not expect him to appear, or else she would not have been surprised. The appearance, then, was obviously out of her control. This being the case, and Samuel being the one actually to appear, she perceived her client was none other than Saul. After all, there were not too many six-foot-eight Hebrews around period, let alone any for whom an angry Samuel would supernaturally appear.
Some have questioned whether this was actually Samuel. Some believe that since a medium was involved, any personage that appeared must have been the work of demons. But I believe it actually was Samuel. First, the text calls him Samuel (28:15, 16). Had it not been Samuel, the text would likely have called it something else, a lying spirit perhaps. But it specifically says, Samuel said. . . . Second, the medium’s reaction shows she did not expect Samuel actually to appear. This shows, as I said, she was not in control. Along with the fact that the figure is actually called “Samuel,” we should assume that God Himself was in control of this event. And that is the important point: God thwarted any rival providence. He overruled the wicked means in order to pronounce his judgment once again upon Saul. In doing so, He shocked the living daylights out of the medium as well. “Hey, this stuff is not actually supposed to work.”
Samuel’s bad news
Samuel was quite grumpy with Saul, asking why the failing king had disturbed him so. Saul gives a story of dire straits: conjuring Samuel was a last resort but a necessary one to save himself. Samuel’s answer was just as blunt as he had always been when criticizing Saul: If God has rejected you, what good can a mere servant of God do for you? As always, Saul was looking to men to save him. Samuel then reminded him of that rejection back in chapter 15. The Lord has stripped the kingdom from you and given it to David. Saul himself had confessed this.
But then Samuel added even worse news. Saul’s loss was about to be total. Not only would he lose the throne, he would lose his life, and the army and much of the kingdom would be lost to the Philistines. He said, “Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines” (29:19). This is another reason I believe this was actually Samuel: he gives new revelation from God that had not previously been given, and which would come true.
Saul had sought revelation from Samuel—albeit through a witch—and now he had gotten fresh revelation from Samuel, and it was not pretty. Here was Samuel, whose words God never let hit the ground (3:19). There was no more sure word in all of Israel—indeed, all the world. And that word now said that tomorrow, Saul, you are going to die—you and your sons with you—and the hosts of Israel will fall in battle.3
Saul’s “Last Supper”
Saul was weak, and became even weaker as he fell in fear because of Samuel’s words. He had just sneaked past the enemy, down and up rugged terrain for hours just to come to this medium—only to find out he was just as rejected of God as he was before he left. The only new thing he learned was that death was hours away. He was shaken, scared, and weak. He was in no shape to make that journey back.
The witch noted his condition and begged him to stay so she could feed him before he left. He insisted not, but his men persuaded him into staying. I see this in contrast to an earlier story in which David’s men counseled him to do something wrong. When in the cave at Engedi, David’s men argued with him to kill Saul. David withstood bad counsel even under such peer pressure and refused to do so. Now we see just the opposite: Saul’s men counseling him to do something questionable at best—dine with a witch—and he gives in.
And once you consider the biblical theological imagery of a meal, this act was beyond questionable on Saul’s part. But it is nonetheless a fitting part of the narrative, especially at this point in the narrative. What we are seeing is a covenantal meal prepared by an agent of Satan. And Saul, rejected of God and now prophesied to die as an enemy of God, is submitting and partaking of the table of the enemy. This is Saul’s Last Supper, and it is served by the Devil. And notice: there is no wine. Recall from our sermons on chapters 1, 16, and 25 that the gift of wine represents the renewal of the kingdom. Here, the symbolic meal includes no wine. Saul was not gaining a new kingdom—he was losing one. Once thus fed, Saul arose and left to go meet his fate.
1. Your sin will discover you
We have watched Saul’s career gradually compound sin upon sin until it has reached this point of desperation. He was never able to repent, but always used the façade of religious affection when it suited himself. Now in his darkest hour, he tried to turn to God for help, but met the harsh reality of his rejection. Ever attempting to justify and preserve himself, Saul was forced to reveal his true allegiance: he joined forces with the devil to defy and revoke God’s Law in the land. But now, instead of hiding behind the façade of true religion, Saul is trying to disguise himself as he engages in false religion, divination.
And what was the result of this? No matter how much he tried to hide, God cut right through the darkness and disguise to discover Saul and his sin. Judgment and imminent death followed.
There are so many spiritual lessons in this. First, you cannot hide your sins. God knows all, and the deepest darkness, the best disguise, the most covert cover is no better than the original fig leaves Adam and Eve devised. God sees through all and judges all. The only recourse for life is through true repentance, and the only effective cover for sin is the blood of Christ. All else is compounding sin and imminent death—indeed, death already.
Second, when we do not repent and embrace Christ, our sin does not sit idle. It grows and compounds itself, as we noted also in previous chapters. Saul’s career of sin was one of ever-increasing wickedness, from mere self-centeredness to mass murder, and now to divination.
Third, once entrenched in ever-increasing sin, we grow hardened to our real need. With the power of sin comes a stubbornness to refuse help. Sin becomes a way of life, even though it kills us eventually. Saul was so stubborn at this point he would cross canyons and brave death itself in order to have his will. And yet, he did so only to find out death was closer than he could have imagined.
Fourth, continuing in sin can end up undoing what good we have done. We see Saul here trampling his own righteous policy in order to continue on his sinful mission. Sin will make us all hypocrites in this way, if we do not repent.
Do not think we are immune from all of these effects if we do not repent. Many people, many people sitting in pews every Sunday, are so hard-hearted and stubborn they are blind to their real need, and yet have found a thousand canyons to cross and mediums to entreat before they will deal their sin. Let Saul’s failure be a lesson to us all to fly to God in tears, and beg His mercy to repair the ruins of our sins. For as Paul said of the pagans, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Rom. 1:28), so it was with Saul, and so it can be with us. Sin, and the life-crippling effects of it, becomes its own punishment. If that it was we prefer—by refusing to repent—that is what God will give us.
2. Wicked rulers will defy the law
We have noted several times now that Saul acted against his own civil policy against mediums. Even though it was God’s own Law, the policy was utterly useless to society without faithful rulers to enforce it. Worse yet, ignoring God’s Law invites judgment upon the land. In Saul’s case we know this is just on the horizon.
From this we should observe that laws and rights are only worth the paper they are printed on, if we do not have God-fearing and courageously faithful civil leaders. Even if we were somehow able to roll back government to the proportions of biblical Law, and align every legal code and constitution with God’s Law perfectly, those documents would be powerless by themselves, and will not right society. If God does not reign in the hearts and minds of those called to judge and enforce the law, society will suffer.
Not only will society suffer, but its sins will grow and fester just as we discussed with the individual heart. The longer proper leadership is neglected, the further bad leadership will corrupt the system. Soon, you will find Christians so desperate to win elections that even overt proponents of biblical Law will set it aside, or even trample it stubbornly, and accept pagan policies instead. And for what? For a morsel of bread in the form of lip service to “God and country”? For the illusion of victory? Or worse, for thirty pieces of silver. Much of the former good that was upheld will be undone by their new testimony.
3. A Reputation of faithfulness
While Saul was doing nothing but compounding sin upon sin, David remained faithful to God even amidst the most serious of predicaments. In fact, he has done nothing but be faithful in a powerful and inspiring way since he appeared on the scene (with the one exception of that brief fit of anger at Nabal). And it is this long history of faithfulness and God’s rewarding of that faithfulness that leads to his deliverance here: for it was his reputation that caused his enemies to fear his presence among them.
This reputation had three components which stood out in this case: faith, constancy, and capableness. The Philistine lords were fearful of David because they 1) knew he was faithful to his God and to his people, 2) knew he had not declined from that faithfulness since the time of Goliath (they remembered that far back), and 3) knew also from that event and subsequent ones that David was perfectly capable of destroying them.
Without coincidence, perhaps, these are the same three qualities that Jethro mentioned to Moses for choosing civil rulers: “Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens” (Ex. 18:21). They have to fear God, so they have to be faithful. They have to be trustworthy and able to withstand temptations, so they must be constant in their faithfulness to His Law. And they must be able men, so they have to be capable to perform the office. These things being the case, we ought to make just as certain as Moses and David to support only civil rulers who fit these descriptions. In the persistent failures of many people in this regard, we too often settle for those who appear capable, but we give a pass on the other two areas.
We can go beyond this even, for we are all called to emulate this example of David: to have such a prominent reputation in these things that our enemies fear us and their mouths are stopped. Peter teaches us to develop and maintain such a reputation, and that it should extend to the civil realm:
Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God (1 Pet. 2:12–17).
Peter also tells us how to go about developing that type of character:
Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall (2 Pet. 1:5–10).
God will preserve His remnant, and God’s remnant will, by His grace and power, develop the type of courageous faithfulness exhibited by David throughout these trials of his. Over time, that high level of self-control leads to steadfastness and a reputation that silences the ignorance of foolish people and makes enemies fear.
- As a side note, some textual critics argue that the text has been cut-and-spliced here. Note, after all, that the David/Achish story begins in 28:1, but is quickly interrupted by Saul’s visit to Endor, and David’s story does not pick up again until chapter 29. But I do not see why the Holy Spirit would have any trouble telling a two-scene narrative creatively with much difficulty. In my opinion, this particular part of the narrative is so wonderfully constructed and integrated that it does relate the theological reality of God’s simultaneous judgment on multiple groups to different outcomes. As such, these two chapters demand to be treated as a single unit, despite the length.(↩)
- P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., 1 Samuel, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 8 (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 427, 428.(↩)
- We do not need to be disturbed by the fact that Samuel said that Saul “shall be with me,” as if this meant “in heaven.” Samuel was merely referring to sheol—death, the grave—in general. Sheol housed both the righteous and wicked dead, albeit in separate and exclusive areas, until Christ came.(↩)