“Fighting on Multiple Fronts”
1 Samuel 27:1-28:2
December 8, 2019
Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service
Our text this evening is from First Samuel, chapter twenty-seven, and extends to include the first two verses of chapter twenty-eight.
Back in chapter twenty-six we had yet another incident in which Saul tried to kill David, and David again proved his loyalty to Saul, leading Saul to relent. Saul has now tried to murder David many, many times, though David has done nothing to harm Saul, but has instead served him faithfully, even though God has promised to David that he would sit on the throne of Israel once Saul was no longer on it.
And it is after yet another incident like this that we come to chapter twenty-seven.
So, with that in mind, please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this evening:
27:1 Then David said in his heart, “Now I shall perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than that I should escape to the land of the Philistines. Then Saul will despair of seeking me any longer within the borders of Israel, and I shall escape out of his hand.” 2 So David arose and went over, he and the six hundred men who were with him, to Achish the son of Maoch, king of Gath. 3 And David lived with Achish at Gath, he and his men, every man with his household, and David with his two wives, Ahinoam of Jezreel, and Abigail of Carmel, Nabal’s widow. 4 And when it was told Saul that David had fled to Gath, he no longer sought him.
5 Then David said to Achish, “If I have found favor in your eyes, let a place be given me in one of the country towns, that I may dwell there. For why should your servant dwell in the royal city with you?” 6 So that day Achish gave him Ziklag. Therefore Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah to this day. 7 And the number of the days that David lived in the country of the Philistines was a year and four months.
8 Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt. 9 And David would strike the land and would leave neither man nor woman alive, but would take away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels, and the garments, and come back to Achish. 10 When Achish asked, “Where have you made a raid today?” David would say, “Against the Negeb of Judah,” or, “Against the Negeb of the Jerahmeelites,” or, “Against the Negeb of the Kenites.” 11 And David would leave neither man nor woman alive to bring news to Gath, thinking, “lest they should tell about us and say, ‘So David has done.’” Such was his custom all the while he lived in the country of the Philistines. 12 And Achish trusted David, thinking, “He has made himself an utter stench to his people Israel; therefore he shall always be my servant.”
28:1 In those days the Philistines gathered their forces for war, to fight against Israel. And Achish said to David, “Understand that you and your men are to go out with me in the army.” 2 David said to Achish, “Very well, you shall know what your servant can do.” And Achish said to David, “Very well, I will make you my bodyguard for life.”
This is the Word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
Let’s pray …
Lord, look upon us and deliver us,
for we do not forget your word.
Be our advocate and redeem us,
and give us life according to your promise.
Great is your mercy, Lord,
and so we ask you to give us life according to your law.
Help us now to love your word,
and give us life according to your steadfast love.
The sum of your word is truth,
and every line of your word endures forever.
And so help us to attend to it now, and grow in your truth,
in Jesus’s name. Amen
[Based on Psalm 119:153-154, 156, 159-160]
There are a few things going on in our text this evening, but one of the main ones, and the one we will focus on tonight, is that God’s servants often find themselves fighting on multiple fronts.
God’s servants often find themselves fighting on multiple fronts.
And this can take a number of forms, but one common form, which we see in our text this evening, is that they find themselves fighting the world on one end, and self-serving leaders of God’s people on the other end.
What do I mean by that?
Well, as we look at our text this evening, we see that David is first of all doing battle with the world that is hostile to God and to God’s people – and even that is something of a multi-front battle.
First, David is doing battle with the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites. We see that in verse eight. So – what is the nature of those battles?
Well, David here is raiding the people whom God had commanded Israel devote to destruction when they came into the land, but whom Israel had not yet destroyed. The Geshurites are mentioned in Joshua thirteen as those whom God had declared should be put to destruction. The Amalekites were hardened enemies of God’s people, who began their hostility to Israel in Exodus 17, and who continue their attacks on Israel into the Book of Esther. God commanded Saul to utterly destroy the Amalekites in chapter fifteen of First Samuel, and the Amalekites will come against David once more in chapter thirty. It is not entirely clear who the Girzites are, but it is reasonable to believe they fell into the same general categories as the Geshurites and the Amalekites. [Firth, 285; Copan, 173-174]
I won’t go into a lot of detail on the nature of God’s command to wipe these groups out. We talked about it in more detail back in May when we looked at First Samuel fifteen, and that sermon is available on our website if you’d like to dig into those questions a bit more deeply. But I will say a few things briefly.
The kind of warfare God called Israel to was called herem warfare, and involved the destruction of all people, all livestock, and all goods. As we discussed in May, the first thing to note is that herem warfare – warfare that called for the total destruction of Israel’s enemies, was limited to a specific period of redemptive history, and was only invoked in relation to the conquest of Canaan. The second thing to note is that warfare of total destruction was limited to a specific set of people. Israel was not normally to wage herem-style warfare, and different rules applied to regular wars Israel might fight. The third thing to note was that herem-style warfare was limited to direct divine decisions, and commands from God. No human was ever allowed to decide that Israel would carry out a herem-style attack of total destruction. Only God could decide and command that, because only God has the authority to render that kind of judgment. Fourth, we should note that herem-style warfare was focused on military targets. And though the Geshurites, Girsites, and Amalekites that David went against in our text clearly involved both men and women, they were also groups that were active militarily, as their raid on David just a few chapters later indicates. As one commentator puts it, David and his men were acting in this chapter as “desert raiders who raided desert raiders.” [Davis, 280] The point of all this is that David was raiding not random civilian villages, but he was instead carrying out raids on the enemies of God, whom God had specially called on Israel’s leaders to devote to destruction, and who were themselves military forces and ongoing threats to Israel. [Capon, 158-197]
That said … David is not actually carrying out the total destruction of these enemies – he is not carrying out the ban of herem warfare, even though he is attacking those who were designated for destruction under the ban. [Leithart, 150]
David destroys the men and women, as the ban calls for, but he does not destroy the livestock, both so he could use it as the tribute he needed to give to Achish, and so that he could sustain those under his care – not only his six hundred men but also their families … a group which must have numbered several thousand people.
David here has to walk a difficult line. He is aiming to serve Israel, to advance God’s kingdom as God has commanded Israel to, and to protect Israel from her enemies. But he is working under Achish, and he is leading an army without the resources a king would have to provide for his army. The way forward that David decides on is to raid these enemies whom God had designated to destruction, and to devote the men and women to destruction (which also serves pragmatic needs for David), but then to refrain from destroying the goods and livestock. This is how David is able to do the work of the kingdom while also providing for those he has obligations to. In all this, David carries out the conquest commanded by God on a world that is hostile to the kingdom of God.
That is one aspect of David’s battle with a world that is hostile to God comes in the form of these raids. The other comes in the form of his relationship to Achish. This one is more of a political and diplomatic battle than a violent one.
Achish had already come close to killing David once, back in chapter twenty-one, when David came to Gath alone. But now the situation has changed. Now David has an army. Now Achish sees him as a possible asset.
And so Achish brings David close, and soon he demands David’s ultimate allegiance. David obviously can’t give that – his ultimate allegiance is to the Lord – to Yahweh. With that, he is of course loyal to Israel. And within that loyalty, David has pledged his faithfulness to Saul. In a range of ways, David cannot give Achish what Achish wants.
And so David deceives him. Now, commentators disagree on whether David outright lies to Achish in verse ten, or just subtly misleads him through ambiguity – it depends on whether we assume that David is answering Achish’s question in verse ten by referring to people or to geographic regions. [Compare: Alter, 170; Leithart, 150] I still owe you a sermon on the overall theme of deception in First and Second Samuel. But for now, I’ll just point out that most Christians would agree that deception is a valid form of warfare, and that this would fit in that category in a number of ways.
Of course David’s deception places him in a difficult situation by the end of chapter twenty-eight – a situation that will not be resolved until chapter twenty-nine. The point for us to focus on though, is not the means of this battle – which is in this case deception – but the fact that this is yet another battle front for David to deal with.
And so, David is doing battle with the unbelieving world, in two ways that God has called him to do so. He is carrying out the conquest that the Lord has ordered Israel to carry out. He is holding back Achish and the Philistines, the enemies of God, from God’s people. David is, in these ways, doing the work of God’s kingdom, and doing battle with a hostile world.
But then, of course, there is another front to this battle: the one we encounter in the first four verses. David continues to be in conflict with Saul.
Remember, this whole sequence of events here in chapter twenty-seven is set off by Saul’s continued attacks on David. That is what David is lamenting in verse one.
David flees to the land of the Philistines to be safe from Saul. And it works. When Saul hears that David is in Gath, he stops pursuing David.
But the nature of this battle that David faces with Saul – this battle which forms the foundation of many of the difficulties David has to navigate in this text – the nature of this battle is worth pausing to reflect on.
Why is David fighting against Saul – not actively fighting maybe, but still facing and having to deal with potentially deadly hostility – why is David dealing with that?
And the simple answer is that because while David’s pattern of life is to focus on God’s kingdom, Saul’s pattern is to defend his own turf and his own power against someone who should be an ally.
Saul’s pattern is to defend his own turf and his own power against someone who should be his ally in their joint work for the kingdom of God.
Throughout First Samuel, David only seeks to serve the kingdom of Israel – of God’s people – of which Saul is king. David may be next in line for the throne, but he is no enemy of Saul’s. If Saul would put God’s kingdom first as David does, then they could work together.
Saul won’t. He is concerned first with his own turf – with his own power. And so he begins to attack another member of God’s people – someone who should be his ally.
This then creates a second major battle front for David.
And so, what we see in David is that God’s servants often find themselves fighting on multiple fronts: against the hostile unbelieving world on one end, and against self-serving leaders of God’s people on the other end.
We see this pattern of fighting on multiple fronts in David … we see it in a number of God’s people … but we probably see it most clearly in the kingdom work of Jesus Christ.
Jesus came to save sinners – he came to seek the lost. He came to seek those who had turned from God and he came to call them to repentance. Jesus carried out that kingdom work throughout his earthly ministry and beyond it.
And as he did that work, the greatest opposition he faced was not from hardhearted pagans who refused to turn from their ways. The greatest opposition Jesus faced was from self-serving leaders of God’s people.
It was Herod who first tried to kill Jesus, causing his parents to flee with him to Egypt when he was a baby.
It was the Pharisees who were relentlessly going after Jesus for his teaching and his healing ministry.
It was the chief priests and the scribes who worked together to bring about Jesus’s crucifixion.
Jesus did the work of the kingdom while under almost constant attack from those in power over God’s people – specifically those who were more concerned with defending their own position and their own power than they were with the kingdom of God.
And so Jesus too found himself fighting on multiple fronts.
We see this pattern in David here in First Samuel twenty-seven. We see it at the heart of Jesus’s ministry. How does this pattern relate to us? How does it relate to you and me?
Most of us are not concerned with swords or armies as David had to be, or with trials and the threat of crucifixion as Jesus had to be.
Our battles right now mainly take place in the realm of words and accusations, of institutional and social power.
They are not battles of physical violence – but they still matter. They can still have serious significance for the kingdom of God.
And as we think about these patterns in our texts, we have to ask ourselves two questions: First, do we tend to fall into the pattern of Saul? And second, are we willing to walk in the ways of David?
So – first: Do we tend to fall into the pattern of Saul?
Saul’s pattern is to defend his own turf and his own power against someone who should be his ally in their joint work for the kingdom of God.
And Saul’s pattern is not that unusual among God’s people.
Of course, in Saul’s case his pattern has overtaken his whole spiritual life. Saul has become highly rebellious towards God. But degrees in this kind of self-serving pattern are common. True believers can walk in the pattern of Saul … while their primary love may be for God’s kingdom, they can find themselves attacking fellow-believers out of a desire to preserve their own turf and their own power in God’s kingdom.
It can happen on a smaller, more individual scale, or a larger, more tribal or institutional scale.
On the smaller scale it can be the pattern of many of the petty conflicts that happen among the people of God. You have probably faced the temptation yourself.
Maybe someone else begins to participate in a ministry that you are also a part of … and at least one of the responses in your heart is frustration with them … because this ministry was your thing … and now they are encroaching on it. And those thoughts in your heart can grow into critical words … or even actions to obstruct their participation. And suddenly you are working against or speaking against someone who should be an ally in the kingdom. And you’re doing it out of a desire to defend your own position or your own power. You are acting or speaking or thinking in the pattern of Saul.
Of course it could happen on an individual level in other ways as well: criticism of other ministries, or other Christians, or other families in the church, that is not really motivated by anything bad they are doing, but out of a fear that they might encroach on the turf of your ministry, of your status, or your family. There are a range of ways that we can begin to walk in the pattern of Saul in our personal lives – critiquing or attacking those who should be our allies in the kingdom out of a desire to defend our own personal power or turf.
But it happens at larger institutional or tribal levels as well.
It can be easy, for example, for us to be dismissive of those outside of our theological or our liturgical tribes. It can be easy for the first thing out of our mouths to be a critique about what we think some other group of Christians is doing wrong, rather than a compliment about what they are doing well. It can be much easier for us to find reasons why we shouldn’t be a part of a ministry someone else started, rather than reasons why we should.
Now … of course we should not abandon our theological or liturgical convictions. But what I’m talking about is not when we offer the riches of our theological or liturgical traditions to others. It’s also not when we explain or defend why we do or believe what we believe. What I am talking about is our tendency to treat other Christians as a threat – our tendency to unnecessarily attack.
Because the fact is that we, and many in our Reformed tribe more broadly, often do attack unnecessarily. We attack fellow believers who are doing good kingdom work. We critique those who should be our allies in the work God has given us. And often, when we do, the thing that motivates us is not our love for God’s kingdom or its purity, but our desire to defend our own turf – our desire to gain a larger market-share in evangelicalism – our desire to hold on to power we want to hold on to in the broader church. Far too often … in the name of good theology we walk in the ways of Saul.
Of course there are many other examples. We can also be prone to attack other Christians outside of our cultural tribe. We can find ourselves being easily antagonistic to Christians of a different educational background than us … or of a different racial background than us … or of a different socio-economic status than us … or of a different gender than us … or of a different generation than us …
We could go on and on. Saul’s actions towards David are murderous and heinous … but the underlying pattern is not at all unique. We far too often are tempted to be hostile to our brothers and sisters in Christ – to our allies in the kingdom – out of a desire to preserve our own power and position.
That’s the first thing for us to consider and to examine in our own lives.
Second, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we are willing to walk in the pattern of David.
Are we willing, like David, to be faithful even when it means that we will be attacked on multiple fronts?
Are we willing, like Jesus, to be attacked and criticized even by other Christians, for doing the work of the kingdom?
Because when the work of the kingdom is hard, and when the criticism from others of God’s kingdom is harsh, then we often begin to falter. And we all have a weak spot where we are tempted to withdraw.
Even those who think of themselves as being willing to do the hard work of ministry, there are often certain kinds of hard work they are willing to do … and other kinds of kingdom work that causes them to hesitate.
And in a similar way, even those who think of themselves as unaffected by criticism, it usually means that there are certain groups whose criticism they don’t mind … but there is almost always someone else whose criticism would cut deeply for them.
The temptation when we find ourselves attacked on multiple fronts – when we find the work of ministry itself to be hard, and the attacks or critiques of fellow Christians to be discouraging – the temptation in those situations is to give up on one of the battles. The temptation is to withdraw from kingdom work in the world and stick to what is safer … or the temptation is to get fed up with the Church for how Saul-like it can be, and then abandon the Church. It is much like how David could have given up on the conquest, or given up on Israel.
Which are you tempted towards?
In light of these temptations, the path of David … the path of Jesus … the path that does the difficult work of the kingdom, and also takes on the criticism or attacks of self-serving fellow believers is a difficult path.
What might it look like for you?
Where have you already experienced fellow Christians who have acted towards you like Saul – who have attacked or disparaged you – and you are ready to walk away from the Church as a whole? Where are you tempted to give up on Israel and embrace Achish?
Or on the other side: In what areas do you know the good thing that you should do … in what areas are you convinced by Scripture as to what God is calling you to … but you are hesitating – you are avoiding it – because you fear the criticisms you may receive from other Christians? And you may even know that those criticisms will be petty and self-centered, but the idea of being critiqued and attacked by one set of fellow believers keeps you from the good you know you should do?
Where is the right road – the road of faithfulness, the road of David – where is it set before you, but it just looks too hard?
Accepting battles on multiple fronts is a hard path. But it’s also a good path. It’s the path of Christ our Lord. It’s the path our Lord often calls us to.
There’s a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that Brené Brown talks about and it goes like this – Roosevelt says: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” [Quotes in Browne, xviii]
Saul, for all his attacks on David, was not actually in the arena serving and aiding Israel. The scribes and the Pharisees and the chief priests, for all their criticism of Jesus’s ministry, were not actually in the arena making faithful sons of Abraham out of wayward sinners.
Critique is easy. Real kingdom work is hard. That’s why we so often prefer the path of Saul to the path of David – it’s so much easier. But it’s also relatively worthless.
The path of David – the path of Jesus – is that path that leads us to meaningful accomplishments for the kingdom in this life.
What kingdom work are you being called to … but holding back from? What task will likely bring on spiritual battles for you on multiple fronts … and you know you should do it … but you are hesitating because of the possible cost to you? Where is God calling you to follow in the steps of David or of Jesus and to step into the arena despite the costs and the consequences?
Of course, as we say all that, we also recognize that when we step into the arena, all will not go as we hope. We might struggle. We might fail.
So what, then, is our hope as we step out? What is our hope in pursuing this kind of work – kingdom work that we know may put us on the margins and place us under critique from fellow believers? What is our hope in pursuing such ministry?
Our hope, as we see it in our text this evening … our hope is that God is often at work in the disregarded margins, and from there he is working to remake the world.
God is often at work in the disregarded margins, and from there he is working to remake the world.
Think for example, of David in our text. David is far from the halls of power. David is outside of Israel. David isn’t even in the royal city of the Philistines, let alone the royal city of Israel. David is at Ziklag. A town of little or no consequence. But it’s there in Ziklag that God is at work.
One commentator puts it like this – he writes: “Ziklag never became the center of Israel or even of Philistia. But for sixteen months, Ziklag was the center of world history, because it was the place where seeds of a new Israel were germinating. The God who began the ‘revolution of the elites’ with a poor barren woman in the hill country of Ephriam was bringing her hopes to fruition in the land of the Philistines. Who knows in what Ziklags [God] is at work today?” [Leithart, 150]
In the time described in First Samuel twenty-seven, it was not in the royal courts of Saul that God was at work for the future of humanity. It was not in the royal courts of Achish that God was at work for the future of humanity. It was in the little town of Ziklag.
And of course, at this time of year we are reminded of the same dynamic in the life of Jesus.
We are reminded that he was born not to a king in a palace, but to an unknown couple who had trouble finding anywhere to stay at the time of his birth. We are reminded that he was from Nazareth, and as Nathanael would ask Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
And his ministry all took place in Israel, among the Jews – a conquered and powerless people in the first century, hardly worth mentioning among the powers of the world in his day.
And yet … it was in that manger … and then later in that home in Nazareth … and finally in the workings of the conquered Jews, that God was at work to remake the world – to redirect human history, and to accomplish his cosmic work of redemption.
In Jesus Christ we see again that God is often at work in the disregarded margins, where he is working to remake the world.
What, then, about us?
The challenges of the world set against us can set us back. And critiques from fellow Christians can make things even harder.
We tend to dream of and focus on the people and places and institutions of power and attention. We want to be those people. We want to operate in those places. We want to build those kinds of institutions – the ones that everyone looks to, the ones where the “real” power is at work, the ones that we believe shape the world.
You can see that even in how much attention we pay to the centers of power in our country and our world, rather than to the actual people, and places, and institutions the Lord has put us in.
We are a people obsessed with the royal courts of Saul … and so when we cannot get there, when resistance from the world and attacks from fellow Christians keep us from the idea of success we have in our mind, we get discouraged. We are tempted to give up.
But God is at work in Ziklag. God is remaking the world from Ziklag.
I was in Seattle this week for an all-day meeting of the Pacific Northwest Church Planting Network – a ministry that facilitates the planting of churches in our presbytery.
The network’s vision – its dream – is to “re-parish” the Pacific Northwest. To have a solid church in every neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest.
One of the things Mike Kelly said at the meeting had to do with creating and anticipating a pipeline for future church planters. We tend in our culture to focus on the big and flashy – on big institutions with polished systems, or on rock-star church planters who have planted mega-churches. But what Pastor Kelly pointed out was that in a number of our PCA churches in the Pacific Northwest Presbytery, right now, there is a ten-year-old child who will one day plant a church. They may be the planting pastor. They might be the planting pastor’s wife. Or they may play some other key role. But what we need to be thinking of is how we are raising those children – of the vision we are giving them for the kingdom – of how we are discipling those whom God will use for such work.
We often look to the big and the flashy – the seats of power and the places that get attention. But Mike Kelly was telling us to look to the Ziklags in our own midst – to the kids in our Sunday school classes.
One question to ask ourselves is: Are we willing to take our eyes off of the royal cities that beckon to us, and look to Ziklag to see what God is doing – whether Ziklag be those in our congregation we tend to overlook, or those in the wider kingdom that we tend to overlook,
But then the second question is whether we are willing to live in Ziklag ourselves. Are you willing to turn from the royal courts of Israel and turn from the royal courts of the Philistines, and to embrace, to request a place in Ziklag instead … like David did?
Are you willing, as Anna Waring put it in her wonderful hymn, to be “content to fill a little space, if [God] be glorified”?
Because the fact is that if we embrace Ziklag – if we embrace the margins, if we embrace obscurity, and renounce recognition, then neither the resistance of the world nor even the attacks of fellow Christians will cut us as deeply in our soul … because the importance of the opinions of others will shrink in our minds as the importance of what God is doing in his kingdom grows.
For God is at work in the disregarded margins … and it is from there that he is often at work to remake the world. The question is whether we will join him there.
The Christian life, lived faithfully, is not easy. It is often hard.
We see it in the life of Moses. We see it in the life of David. We see it in the lives of the prophets. We see it in the lives of the Apostles. Again, and again, God comes to renew his people from an unexpected angle, and again and again those he uses face attacks not only from those outside of God’s people, but also from those within.
It’s tempting to join in such attacks. It’s tempting to withdraw from the hard kingdom work God calls his people to. But the lives of those who join in on such attacks – the lives of those who withdraw … they are not the ones who advance the kingdom.
Jesus established his kingdom amid attacks not only from Rome, but also from Israel. He had to fight on multiple fronts. And if that is how the kingdom was established, that is how we should suspect it will often advance.
And so, with that in mind, let us be a people who step into the arena – a people who are willing to face the attacks not only of our enemies but of those who should be our friends. Let us, as Roosevelt said, be willing to get into the arena and dare greatly.
Let us accept whatever place the Lord has put us, and embrace the work he calls us to in the margins. And though we do not know what the outcome will be for each work we do, let us embrace a place in Ziklag, knowing that it is from places like Ziklag that God is often at work to make all things new.
This sermon draws on material from:
Alter, Robert. The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Davis, Dale Ralph. I Samuel: Looking on the Heart. Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2000.
Firth, David G. 1 & 2 Samuel. Apollos Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.
Leithart, Peter J. A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.