Last Monday The Times newspaper had a headline, “Missionaries arrested for ‘trying to convert Muslims’.” It then reported as follows: “Libyan police have arrested four foreign missionaries in the eastern city of Benghazi. They are accused of spreading the word of Christ … Under Libyan law it is illegal to preach any religion other than Islam … ‘”
Rupert Shortt, the religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement begins his little booklet Christianophobia, published just before Christmas, like this:
“It is generally accepted that many faith-based groups face discrimination or persecution to some degree. A far less widely grasped fact is that Christians are targeted more than any other body of believers … [There are] figures from the Pew Forum and the World Evangelical Alliance estimating that 200 million Christians (10 per cent of the global total) are socially disadvantaged, harassed or actively oppressed for their beliefs...
But that sadly is nothing new. The persecution of God’s people has always happened as you can see from our passage tonight (1 Samuel 21.1-22.5) entitled David on the Run. For it is all about David’s persecution and harassment by king Saul. So my headings tonight are, first, THE REALITY OF PERSECUTION; secondly, PERSECUTION and THE TEMPTATION TO LIE; and, thirdly, LESSONS TO BE LEARNT.
First, THE REALITY OF PERSECUTION
The context for our passage is that David is already anointed as the new king, but secretly. So he is not publicly recognised as king; for Saul, who has forfeited the kingdom because of his sin, is still alive and ruling. And Saul is jealous of David for his defeat of Goliath and other Philistines. In an evil rage he twice tried to kill David while playing the harp. Saul had tried before to kill him. But God kept him safe. David’s last chance of acceptance by Saul was through his friendship with Jonathan, the king’s son. But this friendship made things worse. Saul now tried to kill Jonathan. So David decided to leave Jonathan and the area. The last verse of the last chapter, 20 verse 42, says: “He [David] rose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city.” And verse 1 of chapter 21 says: “Then David came to Nob to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David trembling.”
David had come to the end of his tether. But before we discuss what happened next, let me underline the reality of persecution and the fact that persecution is not abnormal for the true believer. I learnt that lesson young, in the Sudan in the 1960s, when working at a Christian school in Omdurman. One day the school was invaded by scores of hostile Muslim youths and totally destroyed, as was our huge mission centre in Khartoum a little later with thousands on the streets outside.
But violence is not the only form of persecution. There is also harassment, mockery, false accusation and discrimination. So expect persecution. Yes, seek peacefully to counter persecution and “pray,” says Jesus, “for those who persecute you” (Matt 5.44). But Paul said in 1 Timothy 3.12: “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” And when he (along with Barnabas) were having follow-up classes for new believers at the end of his First Missionary Journey, we read (Acts 14.22), they were …
“ … strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
And remember how Jesus ended the Beatitudes (or Blessings) in his Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5.10-12).
But why is there persecution? Jesus explains. It is because Christian believers by their words and lifestyles inevitably challenge contrary beliefs and behaviours. Jesus says in John 15.18-20:
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
If you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, that is a challenge to all who do not believe. And many don’t like that challenge. Similarly, if you seek to live as God intended, those not living as God intended will often (not always, but too often) hate you. So when people know that as a Christian you think it is wrong to sleep around, people who are having sex outside marriage don’t like you challenging their lifestyle (which deep down they know is wrong). And especially don’t like it, when you have, as you do have, good social and psychological reasons. The same goes for cheating, dishonesty, fraud, slander, greed – you name it, any sin. So you will get hated - not always, but often. That brings us …
… secondly, to PERSECUTION and THE TEMPTATION TO LIE
Listen again to David’s experience – chapter 21 verse 1 and following:
“Then David came to Nob to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David trembling and said to him, ‘Why are you alone, and no one with you?’ And David said to Ahimelech the priest, ‘The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, “Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.” I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what do you have at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.’ And the priest answered David, ‘I have no common bread at hand, but there is holy bread’”
[Verse 6 ] “So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away. Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the LORD. His name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul's herdsmen.”
One of the reasons you need to read the Old Testament is for the warnings it gives you. In 1 Cor 10.6 Paul says that some of the historical experiences of the people of God recorded in the Old Testament, I quote, “took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did”. And when the people of God suffered as a result of evil doing (or sin), he adds, this was “written down for our instruction”. The Old Testament, therefore, has warnings for Christians. And there is a warning here in our passage. It is this. When you are being persecuted in whatever way – directly through people, or more indirectly by the devil himself causing all sorts of negative circumstances, you are open to temptation.
In his Parable of the Sower Jesus talks about the seed on the rocky ground as those …
“... who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” (Mark 4.16-17).
But David is not being tempted to fall away like that. Rather he is being tempted to lie, like Peter in the High Priest’s court on the eve of the Crucifixion. And David is lying to Ahimelech the priest.
First, he lies (verse 2) about being on a mission from the king when he is, in fact, escaping for his life. On that basis he asks for, and receives, food. Then, secondly, he lies about the reason why he needs a sword - verse 8 says:
“For I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king's business required haste.”
And Ahimelech gives David Goliath’s sword stored here at Nob. However, the narrative doesn’t pass judgment about David’s lying. It just reports it. But it does mention Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s herdsmen – one of Saul’s senior officials. And in the next chapter you read how Doeg has told Saul about David’s visit and you see clearly how David’s visit to the shrine at Nob was an utter disaster. For all the priests at Nob, including Ahimelech were killed, except Abiathar, Ahimelech’s son. So you read in chapter 22 verse 22:
“And David said to Abiathar, ‘I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there [at Nob] , that he would surely tell Saul. I have occasioned the death of all the persons of your father's house.’”
David’s lying, therefore, achieved no good whatsoever. And after all this dishonesty David is in a worse state than before. For chapter 21.10-15, tells you that David flees to Gath, the home town of Goliath, his great foe. What a misjudgment! And soon David realises that. He then has to act the fool, because he has been a fool. And, not surprisingly, you read in verse 22:
“David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam.”
So you have here a warning about being vulnerable to temptation when you are going through hard times. And here the warning is especially against the temptation to lie. How important that warning is today with lying so widespread in society, not least at the top of business and politics - think of poor Chris Huhne.
Yes, lying is wrong! The Old and New Testaments are clear. Proverbs 12:22 says: “Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD.” Jesus says (John 8.44) that lying is devilish for “the devil … is a liar and the father of lies.” Paul says (Titus 1.2), our God is one “who never lies”. And in Colossians 3.9 he says: “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices.” And theologians down the years following the Bible have been clear. You must not lie.
The great early theologian Augustine even commented:
“Nor are we to suppose that there is any lie that is not a sin, because it is sometimes possible, by telling a lie, to do service to another.”
Let’s take some time to think about that. It has raised questions. For what about Rahab the prostitute, for example, who features as a hero of the faith in Hebrews 11.31:
“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.”
But in Joshua 2.5 you read she hid Joshua’s two spies on the roof and then lied to the king of Jericho’s men that the spies had left the house. So is Augustine wrong? Well, here are three reasons why the mainstream of the Church can say he is right.
First, it was Rahab’s faith, not her lying, that was commended in Hebrews 11.
Secondly, yes, it is true that some have argued that murderers and other wicked people, such as the Nazis in World War II and the enemy in any just war, have no right to know the truth. So the first draft of the new Roman Catholic Catechism contained these words:
“To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error [and then it added] someone who has the right to know the truth.”
However, after discussion and more thought, the final version of the Catechism cut those words out, namely “someone who has the right to know the truth.” It now says that all lying is wrong.
And, thirdly, it is a fact that there are tragic situations, such as in war, where individuals are caught up in a totality of evil, and almost anything that is done will be wrong. And so they lie. That is what Corrie Ten Boom did (although her sister disagreed).
Corrie Ten Boom was an amazing Christian Dutch-woman who helped Jews escape from the Nazis in World War II by hiding them in a secret place in her house, and lied, until she was discovered. She then ended up in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. But in her book The Hiding Place she reports her first lie to the Nazis like this:
“I began to tremble. Not because for the first time in my life I had told a conscious lie. But because it had been so dreadfully easy.”
She knew there was something wrong with lying, for all the good she achieved. Surely that is why it is never right to call a lesser evil good. So again to quote Augustine – in these situations it is “quite enough that the deception should be pardoned, without its being made an object of praise.” That is paralleled with William the Conqueror in 1066 seeking, as he did, divine pardon for the blood shed at the battle of Hastings, rather that glorying in the body count.
Well, back now to David - Jesus never commented on David’s lying in this incident, one way or another. But, as reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus did comment on this incident with reference to David’s eating the Priest’s bread. This, Jesus said (e.g Mark 2.23-28), proved that meeting basic human needs (such as the need for food) trumps ceremonial niceties and rules (such as reserving this bread exclusively for the priests, or in his day very strict Sabbath rules). But that only says the ceremonial law, not the moral law on lying can be relaxed.
So thirdly, what, then, are the LESSONS TO BE LEARNT from this episode in the life of David? There is a good idea of what lessons David himself learnt from Psalm 34. For Hebrew tradition tells us that Psalm 34 was written by David after he left Achish – so after his experiences at Nob and Gath. It would, therefore, have been penned during or after the period described in verses 1-5 of chapter 22. Just look at 22 verse 1 and following:
“David departed from there [that is Gath and king Achish] and escaped to the cave of Adullam. And when his brothers and all his father's house heard it, they went down there to him. And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became captain over them. And there were with him about four hundred men. And David went from there to Mizpeh of Moab. And he said to the king of Moab, ‘Please let my father and my mother stay with you, till I know what God will do for me.’ And he left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him all the time that David was in the stronghold. Then the prophet Gad said to David, ‘Do not remain in the stronghold; depart, and go into the land of Judah.’ So David departed and went into the forest of Hereth.”
David is now a changed person. He gives encouragement to people in distress. He is keeping God’s moral law by “honouring his Father and Mother” (the 5th of the 10 commandments) and seeking provision for their old age. And supremely, he his now wanting (verse 3) to “know what God will do for me”. No longer is he simply doing the first thing that comes into his panic-stricken mind. Who needs to learn that lesson tonight?
Perhaps in someway you are under attack and you don’t know what to do. Well, seek God’s will and what he will do for you. Pray for guidance and then trust and obey. And expect God to answer. Jesus promises, “seek and you will find”. So when David wanted to know God’s plan, somehow, Gad the prophet comes his way and reveals it to him. David is (verse 5)
“… ‘to depart and go into the land of Judah.’ So David departed and went into the forest of Hereth.”
But what more precisely were the lessons David had learnt after his experience at Nob and Gath and that changed him? They are there in Psalm 34.
So in conclusion and from Psalm 34 let me underline four of those lessons that David learnt and so should we.
One, David had learnt that even in the darkest times there is always something to thank God for. He knew that God strengthens your faith through suffering and persecution. So he says verse 1:
“I will bless the LORD at all times.”
Two, he also had learnt that God does answer prayer – verse 6:
“This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.”
Three, he learnt that God, by his Holy Spirit, is always present to help – verse 7:
“The angel of the LORD encamps round those who fear him, and delivers them.”
He delivers them from danger but also from sin, as the New Testament makes clear by forgiveness through the Cross of Christ.
And, four, he now says that lying is always wrong – verse 13:
“Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.”