Some of you know that I've recently developed a love of the Scottish Highlands - one of the wonders of God's creation. And some of you may be getting rather bored with me telling you that. But the Highlands remind me of the awesomeness of God and that while we may go through some very difficult times in our lives he is with his people, his servants, overruling, rescuing, strengthening and guiding according to his will. Just as David discovers here in 1 Samuel 29 and as he wrote in Psalm 23:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me... Surely goodness and mercy shall follow [or better pursue] me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (v4,6)
Who needs to be reminded of that this evening?
Just before New Year I climbed Stac Pollaidh in the Highlands and on my descent I came across 4 walkers who’d got into difficulty trying to get to the very top as they were ill equipped. They’d forgotten to bring any ice axes or crampons. They were exhausted, the light was beginning to fade and although they weren't hurt they thought it impossible to make it down by themselves. Now they were probably praying for the mountain rescue team but instead they got me! But I was able to help them down and I drove them to their car a few miles away. They'd been foolish were now helpless and were thinking that their situation was hopeless but they were rescued by an unlikely person!
Have you ever faced a difficult dilemma or been in a seemingly impossible situation when there appeared to be no way out or resolution humanly speaking? I have and it was only by the Lord's goodness and mercy that I was able to come through it. I was helpless to do anything about it and the situation seemed hopeless. I had to learn to trust God and to obey him, to obey his will. In the last chapter we saw Saul hopeless on the eve of battle and in desperation turning to a medium for guidance. He’d sunk very low indeed. He didn't turn to God and trust him and his will and that would be disastrous both for himself and for Israel. Now we come to chapter 29 and it's David who, in a different way to Saul and partly due to Saul but also due to his own unwise choices, is seemingly helpless and in a seemingly impossible situation, at the mercy of Philistine decisions, at least humanly speaking. So what happens and why and what can we learn for today?
Now the events of chapter 29 actually take place between verses 2&4 of chapter 28. Last time we saw Saul wandering in the night at Jezreel, before the battle of Gilboa. In chapter 29 we see the Philistines and David at Aphek in the build up to the same battle but before the Philistines marched on northwards and camped at Shunem, which is mentioned in v4 of chapter 28.
So the writer pulls us back several days, drops us at Aphek, and shows us David and his men caught in their dilemma. What's their dilemma? Well it's that they're part of the Philistine build-up against Israel, against their own people! Why? Well unable to stay in Israelite territory because of Saul, David chose to take refuge with one of the Philistine kings, King Achish, along with his own small army of 600 men. Now it’s obvious that the Philistines wouldn't welcome Israelite soldiers unless they could be trusted to fight against their fellow Israelites. Well Saul, the king of Israel, was David's enemy. David had to persuade the Philistines that he and his men were and would remain the enemy of both Saul and Israel as a whole. Yet of course, David had no wish to attack Israelites, and he would never have become king of Israel if he'd ever done so. So he was in a jam albeit partly of his own making. Yes this was a very difficult time in David's life and as can happen in such times he was tempted to think that he had no choice but to find refuge in unhelpful places, which at first seem so inviting. And he found himself trapped deceiving both others and himself. Perhaps some of us are in that place at the moment.
But even at this difficult time God was with David. And we need to remember that as we face difficult situations and dilemmas at work or at home or at play. Sometimes we don't know what to do or how it's all going to work out. But God doesn't abandon us. And we can learn in different ways from both Saul and David not to resort to desperate measures but rather to trust God and his perfect will and plan. As I've said David seemed helpless and at the mercy of Philistine decisions. His group of men was too small to fight the Philistines, and he dared not disobey orders; the only hope he could see was to continue to deceive Achish. But God would and does provide a way out. His goodness and mercy does pursue his servants even when we think everything's hopeless. Not always in the way we expect, as we'll see, but God is in control and his will for David to be King of Israel, which is part of a bigger plan, would prevail. So back to the events.
All five Philistine kings have arrived with their armies at Aphek. King Achish and his Gath division pass in review, and the commanders observe David and his men among them. They're taken aback: What are these Hebrews doing here? (v3). Achish, don't you know who we're fighting? Achish replies: Haven't you heard of mercenaries? David's been with me a long time and has been totally dependable (v3). But the top military brass will have none of it. How better, they argue, for David to get back into Saul's favour than by being a fifth column within Philistine ranks and rolling Philistine heads? And everyone knows that Israeli song—"Saul has struck down his thousands, David his ten thousands" (v5). The commanders are irate (v4): how could Achish be so dense, so naive? Well the Philistines did have a reputation for being slow.
Achish comes back to David to deliver the bad news that is actually good news: "And now go back in peace..." (v7). There's some humour here. Look at v6-8. Achish stands there, apologetically emphasizing how he thinks David should go with him and praising David's faithfulness, which he has no reason to praise. On the other hand, David with disbelief on his face and exasperation in his voice protests the rejection he has no reason to protest. The deceived defends his deceiver, and the relieved disputes his relief! Achish replies, "Look, I know you're as solid as a rock, but the commanders... well, they command. My hands are tied. So in the morning, you must leave for Ziklag" (v9-10).
So what do we as Christ's servants today learn from this? That even if we use deception God will always bail us out? No but we certainly can say that 1 Samuel 29 is not the story of a lucky break but of a divine deliverance, indeed a merciful deliverance when we consider David's folly. The author doesn't say so but he leaves us to come to the conclusion that it was really God who overruled Achish and rescued David from an impossible situation. And he used an enemy of Israel in the process. God is in control and his will will be done. But what does it say about our God that will lead you and me to know him better? Well first that
1. God's Presence Is Often So Quiet But No Less Real
Perhaps the most obvious mark of this story about the Lord's goodness is that it says nothing explicitly about the Lord's goodness. Indeed, there's almost nothing here about God at all. Yet we've met this before in 1 Samuel. The Holy Spirit doesn't make everything so obvious here. Perhaps he intends us to think, to ask questions. God here is delivering his servant David and silently so. One commentator writes:
There's no mention of God here, but the under¬current of divine governance is clear without being explicit. God is with David everywhere (18:12, 28), and surely he's with him among the Philistines as elsewhere, surely in chapter 29 as in those places where it's explicitly stated. This isn't about luck.
And as we look back at our own lives do we see that God was clearly but quietly present to save and support us? I don't mean a kind of self-fixated, trivial overkill: "I was so afraid I'd be bored at the dentist's surgery, but the Lord showed me there on the table in the waiting room a copy of Country Life magazine with an untypically engrossing article." But as you ponder the ground you've travelled, the murky stuff Christ has carried you through, the twists and turns of your life, can you not see glimpses of silent mercy, of quiet care? There was no noise or tempest but the Lord was there. And does that not strengthen you for the future - for times of trial still to come - or even for now because you're going through it now and you've been asking where is God?
But you might be asking why does God often work in such a subdued way? Well what a relief that his work doesn't come blasting at you like a television commercial. I don't know about you but I find that overkill with commercials is often so counter-productive and you just switch off or simply avoid them altogether. You see God doesn't always necessarily declare his work but allows you to discover it, for if you have to think and wrestle over the matter, there's more likelihood you'll be led to truly thoughtful worship. Secondly
2. God's Ways Are So Surprising (Yet Consistent With His Character)
So what instruments does God use to rescue his servant from his dilemma? Answer: the commanding officers of the Philistine army. Now it has to be said that this passage carries no guarantee for me. It doesn't promise me that if I get my life so tangled by my own cleverness and foolishness, off track by my own short-sighted decision, that God will infallibly rescue me from my mess. What he's done for David he may not do for me. What it does teach is that even in our folly, we're still no match for our God, who has thousands of surprising ways by which he rescues his people—even by the mouths of Philistines. He can make the enemy serve us as a friend. He not only prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies but also has the knack of making the enemies prepare the table!
There's a story in which a Christian woman, alone and out of food, was praying to her heavenly Father and asking for her daily bread. Somehow a neighbour, an atheist, overheard the woman praying and decided it was time for a little divine fun. He went and purchased two loaves of bread and left them at her door. Upon discovering them, the woman burst into a devout and grateful prayer of praise. But her neighbour told her that it was nothing to do with God. He'd happened to hear her praying, so he bought the bread and placed it on her doorstep. It wasn't God who'd answered her prayer, he told her. But the lady retorted: "Oh, yes, it was the Lord who answered my prayer—even though he used the devil to do it."
But "God's ways are so surprising" isn't merely an observation. Whether in Scripture or in life, whether he uses Philistines or atheists, whenever we catch a glimpse of this, we're meant to respond. The wonder and surprise of God's ways are meant to lead us to worship and praise. There ought to be those times when you throw up your hands and say out loud that God's decisions are unsearchable and his ways untraceable (Romans 11:33). Thirdly
3. God's Mercy Is So Tenacious
You can imagine what massive relief David felt. But that mustn't show. So Achish sees the shadow of disappointment then the flash of anger across David's face. V8 "But what have I done? What have you found in your servant from the day I entered your service until now that I may not go and fight against the enemies of my lord the king?" You get a trifle nervous at this point. Will Achish reconsider? So you're tempted to shout out: "Don't mess it up, David—just accept the Philistines as your personal saviour and get out of there!" And he does. Phew! Morning comes. David is heading for Ziklag (v11).
Yes David's original decision to go to Philistia was ill-advised, it was understandable but not wise, explicable but not faith-full. Now, however, when you place chapter 29 alongside 27, the character of God shines brilliantly. We can see how God's mercy still pursues his servants even in our follies. How strong, tenacious, and un-let-go-able the Lord's mercy is! God isn't short-tempered with his people. His mercy and patience are not exhausted when we choose our foolish Philistias. You know sometimes we've a tendency to construct and believe in a god made in our own image, who, when once one of his children has botched a section of life, goes into a huff (as we would) and out of holy glee abandons them to fry in their own juice. Do you have a tendency to think like that? Well is that the God and Saviour of David? Do you see David here? Marching with the Philistines, caught in his own trap, he and his men on their way to attack his own people at the side of these pagans. Does his God allow him to stew in his own gravy? No, God's mercy can find David even in Philistia. The God who saved him from Saul again and again will surely save David from himself. Inexhaustible mercy doesn't dry up easily.
Does that speak to you? Well those who are trusting in Christ should take heart from this passage. As some of you look back on your lives, like me you'll have no trouble picking out times when you were depending on your own cleverness, sure of your own ability to assess and handle the situation, confident you already knew the right way. And it proved disastrous, in fact it nearly destroyed you. And you fear Christ's mercy has withered. After all, your mercy would've done so. But there's some good news for all God's servants in this folly of his chosen king, David. God doesn't cast you off in your foolishness. Our bungling doesn't evaporate his mercy. It's yet full and warm—and stubborn, so stubborn it insisted on pursuing David into Philistia. He really did know something of God's goodness and mercy pursuing him all the days of his life. And David's jam and God's deliverance by his chosen pagan saviours shows that David's success is due not to his own abilities but only to the Lord's mercy.
I must finish. There's a striking contrast between the endings of chapters 28 and 29. The last line of chapter 28 breathed despair as it told how Saul and companions trudged off into the darkness. But it's not night at the end of chapter 29. David walks away in the morning (v11), saved by the Philistines who would destroy Saul. Not that David knew nothing of darkness. But David's night wasn't like Saul's night. He knew the Lord's mercy. As he wrote in Psalm 30:5, Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
The vast majority of us here tonight know Christ's mercy through faith in him, through faith in his death and resurrection. So Psalm 30 is true for you too. That difficult time you're experiencing may seem endless and dark. But joy comes in the morning. In Christ there is hope. His mercies never come to an end. His mercies are new every morning.