So what's going on as we come to 1 Samuel 23? David's still on the run from Saul. His life is always at risk (v14). Saul sought him every day. And he's also betrayed by those he saves at Keilah. The persecution of God's elect king continues. And on this Palm Sunday there are things here which remind us of what Jesus would go through as he entered Jerusalem to die for you and me. Welcomed as a Saviour and then handed over to be crucified by the crowd. Betrayal. Desertion. God's chosen King hunted by the leaders of the day.
And these were desolate and trying times for David. And there was hardly anyone he could trust. Now we may not be King David but perhaps we too are facing a degree of persecution at home, school, university, or work? One person was telling me the other day that after 13 years he'd finally decided to stand up and be counted for Jesus Christ by not getting dragged into the wrong practices of his work colleagues. It wasn't easy but it was right. The way of the cross is not easy. Or perhaps we're going through desolate and trying times for other reasons. Times which can be lonely and painful. Christian ministry can sometimes be lonely and painful.
And perhaps we're asking does God provide in such times? Does he really? And if so why does it sometimes seem to take so long?! Well the question does God provide in such times is both asked and answered by this passage.
And the answer in Scripture is yes. God does provide. Yes it can involve waiting. But God's timing is perfect as this passage makes clear. Psalm 54 also reveals that God provided for David at this point in his life. In v4 David can say:
Behold, God is my helper;
the Lord is the upholder of my life. (Psalm 54.4)
So what resources does God make available to his servants in times of continuing trial? How does he provide in such times? Well first there's
DIVINE ACCESS v1-13
Now they told David, “Behold, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah and are robbing the threshing floors.” (1 Samuel 23.1)
There was, as we say in Yorkshire, trouble at mill - Keilah was under threat from the Philistines. Now David's willing to counter the Philistine menace but the question is how? It seems impossible. So what does he do? What's the first thing he does? What's the first thing we do when faced with a difficult or impossible situation? Does he ask his men for advice? No first he asks direction from God. V2-5:
Therefore David enquired of the LORD, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?” And the LORD said to David, “Go and attack the Philistines and save Keilah.” But David's men said to him, “Behold, we are afraid here in Judah; how much more then if we go to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines?” Then David enquired of the LORD again. And the LORD answered him, “Arise, go down to Keilah, for I will give the Philistines into your hand.” And David and his men went to Keilah and fought with the Philistines and brought away their livestock and struck them with a great blow. So David saved the inhabitants of Keilah. (1 Samuel 23.2-5)
God tells him he would have success against the Philistines. David's men are not so sure - a direct hit on the Philistines? Is that wise? So David goes back to God but there's no mistake - they would win & they do v5 just as God had said.
How could David get such clear guidance? Well v6 is key to this section - it highlights both how Keilah was saved and how David and his men were saved.
When Abiathar the son of Ahimelech had fled to David to Keilah, he had come down with an ephod in his hand. (23.6)
Everything hinges on Abiathar and the ephod. By such guidance David has success in both his attack and now in his escape from Saul. V9
David knew that Saul was plotting harm against him. And he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” Then said David, “O LORD, the God of Israel, your servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city on my account. Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O LORD, the God of Israel, please tell your servant.” And the LORD said, “He will come down.” Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And the LORD said, “They will surrender you.” (23.9-12)
So v2-12 tell of God's guidance or ephod guidance. What is ephod guidance some of you are asking?! Well the ephod here is the high priestly ephod bearing the 'breastpiece of judgment' and the 'Urim and Thummim' through which the Lord's will could be determined. David asks God 2 specific questions and receives 2 affirmative answers in v9-12. David didn't need to ask any more questions - he knew what to do. Look at v13&14:
Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the expedition. And David remained in the strongholds in the wilderness, in the hill country of the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God did not give him into his hand. (23.13-14)
Saul (v7) thought that God had given David into his hand. But God had not. V14 makes that very clear. In contrast to Saul David has direct access to God and God's guidance through the appointed priest.
Now you might be thinking "I see all that and it's all very nice but I don't always receive the kind of precise, direct guidance that David did." Well neither do I. Why? Because we don't need it in the same way David did. None of us is the chosen King. No. David's role is far more crucial than ours in salvation history! David's preservation more key than mine or yours! What was essential for God's elect king to have he received.
But of course in principle there's no difference between this elect king and us. You see in what context was God's guidance given here in 1 Samuel? Was it not in access to God through the appointed priest? And isn't that the privilege you and I enjoy? Through a much greater one than Abiathar? What after all does Hebrews 4:14-16 mean?
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4.14-16
Since we have a great high priest we can come to the throne of grace and find grace for help at just the right time. Surely knowing whether Saul will come down to Keilah can't be any better than that! Secondly there's
DIVINE ENCOURAGEMENT v14-18
And we all need divine encouragement don't we? The Christian life is blessed but it's not always easy. Ministry can be hard. And we get things wrong and mess up. So we all need divine encouragement whether through his word and by his Spirit or through his people. Here David was being preserved from Saul by God in the wilderness of Ziph. Look at v14 again:
And David remained in the strongholds in the wilderness, in the hill country of the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God did not give him into his hand. (23.14)
Note that God is in sovereign control of David's destiny. And we too can trust God's sovereignty. He is in control. David may escape Saul but he never escapes the shelter of the Most High. Saul sought him constantly but God did not give him into his hand. And very encouragingly for David, his friend and Saul's son, Jonathan did find him even if his father didn't. V16:
And Jonathan, Saul's son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and [NOTE] strengthened his hand in God. (23.16)
God provided for David a great encouragement in Jonathan. Why? Because Jonathan strengthened David's hand in God. He put David's hand into God's hand. How? Chiefly by what he says in v17 - where he reaffirms God's promise to David:
And he said to him, “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Saul my father also knows this.”(23.17)
You see Jonathan's presence would have been a great comfort and refreshment to David. Christian friendship is important. Drawing alongside those in need to comfort them with God's comfort is important. Paul in 2 Corinthians 1 writes this:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, [why?] so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor.1.3-4)
God the Father is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. How does God's comfort get passed on? Usually through those who've experienced it for themselves.
You see our troubles and our comfort are for a purpose. After all, all sunshine makes a desert! It's the difference between a Euston experience and a Crewe experience. Let me explain. Euston station in London is a terminus. Crewe station is a junction. We're not to be Eustons but Crewes. Meaning that we're not to be the terminus of all the comfort God wants to bring us. Yes, part of its destination is us certainly but we're also to be comfort junctions - sharing and passing on the comfort that we've known. So often God takes our suffering and uses it for good. Our experience can help others, as well as building up our own faith. Perhaps you feel you've had your fair share of pressure and suffering. Well, God wants to use you to help others. He wants you to be a junction and not a terminus.
So let's be aware of those in this fellowship who are in need of God's comfort and draw alongside and very importantly encourage them from God's word with the knowledge that God is alongside them. You see while our presence is important it doesn't have the abiding encouragement that God's sure word does. 2 Corinthians 1 reminds us that God does care. The word comfort literally means called alongside. God's comfort is real. His presence is real. The Holy Spirit is called the Comforter. He really is close to the broken hearted.
Now 2 Cor 1 reminds us not only of God's comfort but also of one reason why we go through trials. You see it's not only that we might help others but also that we might depend more and more upon the Lord. 2 Corinthians 1:8-11:
For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. (2 Cor.1.8-11)
Troubles can increase our faith. And God will deliver us. So reading God's word is important. You see we best encourage not by being cuddly with people but by reminding them of the promises of God. Encouragement from God for the people of God comes from the word of God. Solid lasting encouragement comes not from emotional closeness but from God's word. And that was true for David here in v17. God keeps his promises. We can trust him.
Again we see God's great timing in providing this encouragement. Without Jonathan's ministry would the Ziphite betrayal (v19-24) have been more than David could bear? Would their treachery right on the heels of the disillusionment in Keilah have proven too much?
And here there's a shadow of a greater than Jonathan - Jesus our Friend. Andrew Bonar, the Scottish preacher, once wrote: Spent an hour in my old retreat - in what I call the wood of Ziph - where God has often strengthened my hands, my divine Jonathan meeting me there.
Jonathan Edwards, the preacher, longed for the same divine Jonathan when on his death bed he asked ‘Now where is Jesus of Nazareth, my true and never failing Friend?’ It was this friendship of the Lord that Paul cherished when others left him. Paul writes this in 2 Timothy 4:16-17:
At my first defence no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! 17 But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. (2 Tim. 4.16-17)
It was the last time David and Jonathan ever saw each other. Look at v18
And the two of them made a covenant before the LORD. David remained at Horesh, and Jonathan went home. (23.18)
So there's a solemn note here. But Jonathan had accomplished his mission. He'd strengthened David's hand in God. But Jonathan is not the ultimate presence David needs. Ultimately he and we need the Lord. So thirdly
DIVINE PROVIDENCE v19-28
Here God grants displays of his providence to David in the face of a near betrayal. The Ziphites disclose David's location to Saul who hunts David v25. And it's a real nail biter.
And Saul and his men went to seek him. And David was told, so he went down to the rock and lived in the wilderness of Maon. And when Saul heard that, he pursued after David in the wilderness of Maon. (23.25)
The tension becomes absolutely unbearable in v26:
Saul went on one side of the mountain, and David and his men on the other side of the mountain. And David was hurrying to get away from Saul. As Saul and his men were closing in on David and his men to capture them... (23.26)
But then just at the right time a messenger came v27-28:
a messenger came to Saul, saying, “Hurry and come, for the Philistines have made a raid against the land.” So Saul returned from pursuing after David and went against the Philistines. Therefore that place was called the Rock of Escape (23.27-28)
There's of course a delightful irony here. The Philistines become David's personal saviour! And if we read this with the eye of faith we can marvel at God's timing and rejoice that even the Philistines can be pressed in to the Lord's service.
So do you see? V19-28 teach us what providence means - the strange ways God works to keep his people on their feet. But is this providence for David only? No. Surely we have our own stories to tell about God's strange saviours and timings? Yes God is working his purpose out.
I must conclude. As I do so let's remind ourselves what David himself learned from his experience in Ziph from Psalm 54, p475. First that we need to look to God. He's in control and is trustworthy. David writes in v1&4:
O God, save me by your name,
and vindicate me by your might...
Behold, God is my helper;
the Lord is the upholder of my life. (Psalm 54.1,4)
Rather like the persecutions or trials we face Saul isn't yet gone for good. David's distress isn't over. But the Lord upholds us and gives us the resources we need in the middle of our trials so we can withstand the pressure of them.
God answers prayer:
O God, hear my prayer;
give ear to the words of my mouth. (Ps 54.2)
Justice will be done in the end:
He will return the evil to my enemies;
in your faithfulness put an end to them. (Ps. 54.5)
And through faith in Christ he has delivered us, he does deliver us and he will deliver us and his timing is perfect. In response we are to praise him with our lips and our lives. Look at v6-7:
With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to you;
I will give thanks to your name, O LORD, for it is good.
For he has delivered me from every trouble,
and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies. (Ps. 54.6,7)