1 Samuel 16:14-23


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We have begun the account of David’s rise to the throne of Israel. We are first told how David came to be present in Saul’s court. Now, you may be aware that this will present a problem later, for after David has killed Goliath, Saul acts as if he doesn’t know who David is (17:55). We’ll deal with that problem later.

v.14 It was Kierkegaard who said, “Whom God wants to destroy he first drives mad.” [Gordon, Com, 152] The narrative as it continues suggests that the torment Saul suffered was a combination of fits of depression and paranoia (irrational fears).

v.18 We don’t know precisely how old David was when he was described in these glowing terms by one of Saul’s servants, but he is still quite young for in the next chapter, in the account of David’s taking on Goliath, a great point is made of his youth. Still, we shouldn’t necessarily think of him as a mere boy, as the pictures in Sunday School material would suggest. In any case, David was something of a renaissance man already in his young manhood, a prodigy, we would say. A handsome young man, he is already an athlete, a warrior (if not with military experience, at least with bear and lion, as we shall discover in the next chapter), a musician, perhaps already by this time a poet – one who would become, of course, one of the greatest poets in the history of the world.

v.20 It is interesting that these three items are the same three that Samuel told Saul would be carried by the three men he was to encounter, as part of the demonstration of his calling by the Lord. (10:3)

v.21 Saul immediately formed a liking for David, as would Jonathan soon after. That David became one of Saul’s armor-bearers meant that he remained at court. It may be that he was made an armor-bearer precisely because there was no official position of “court lyre player” and this appointment was a way to keep him permanently present at court. It may also confirm the fact that David’s capabilities as a fighter were apparent to everyone who saw him.

v.23 There is an apocryphal psalm found in the Dead Sea Scrolls that includes, among David’s compositions, four ‘songs for making music over the stricken’, which suggests that David wrote the words as well as the music to the compositions he played to soothe Saul when he was disturbed. [Gordon, Com., 153]

Some of you may remember Robert Browning’s poem, Saul, in which David sings songs of his own composition to soothe and help the king and recovers him from his fits of torment.

I say then, — my song
While I sang thus, assuring the monarch, and, ever more strong,
Made a proffer of good to console him – he slowly resumed
His old motions and habitudes kingly. The right hand replumed
His black locks to their wonted composure, adjusted the swathes
Of his turban, and see – the huge sweat that his countenance
Bathes,
He wipes off with the robe; and he girds now his loins as of yore,
And feels slow for the armlets of price, with the clasp set before.
He is Saul, ye remember in glory, –ere error had bent
The broad brow… [In The World’s Great Religious Poetry, 119-125]

Some truths are so vital that they are taught repeatedly in the Bible, we meet them on virtually every page. They form the foundation of the Bible’s “worldview” or view of reality, if you will, and so we are never allowed to forget them. Preachers, I think, have a duty to represent in their preaching such fundamental truths in something like the frequency and with something like the emphasis with which and in which they are found in Holy Scripture itself.

One such teaching, which we have already encountered in striking ways in the Saul narrative, is the providence of God, God’s superintendence of all things, bringing everything to pass in human affairs so as to accomplish his will in the world.

We have that doctrine once again in the text before us and we have it in spades. Sometimes the Bible teaches its doctrines positively, by which I mean, we are given the truth in a form that we can easily embrace, indeed, in a form that makes us love the doctrine. What Christian does not thrill to hear of the providence of God as Paul describes it in Romans 8 where the conclusion is that because of God’s overruling of all things, “nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Or what Christian has not taken strong and sweet comfort from the assurance that, as the Lord teaches us in Matthew 10, the very hairs of our head are numbered and no one little bird falls from the tree apart from the will of our heavenly father, and, as he goes on to say, we are much more important than sparrows.

But, with virtually all of its doctrines, the Bible teaches not only in such positive and winsome ways, but polemically as well. Lest we miss the point, less we fail to grasp the nettle of this truth, lest we form an opinion of God’s ways that is not fully adequate to the reality we face in the world, we are made to hear the same truth with all the bark on, made to hear it so bluntly, so bracingly, so without qualification or mitigation that it seems as if the Lord is almost calculating to offend, to rock us back on our heels, to force us to face the truth as truth, as what really is, whether we like it or not. The Bible is full of such hard sayings and, as C.S. Lewis reminded us, the Bible’s hard sayings are of use and profit only to those who find them hard. They are meant to unsettle us, to make us realize the full force of the truth being taught us. All good teachers teach the truth in this way. It is only when you see what the truth must mean in those ways that we prefer to ignore or overlook, that you see what the truth really is and what it really means.

It is certainly so with the Bible’s presentation of God’s absolute sway over the affairs of the world, of his absolute and sovereign rule over the life of the world. Lest we mistake what we are being taught, lest we sentimentalize this truth, lest we shave or soften it, in texts like this one we are given both barrels right between the eyes.

As the history of David’s rise to the throne of Israel continues, Saul’s dementia will play a major role in the events as they unfold. And where does that dementia come from? The narrator does not hesitate to tell us: it comes from God. He not only took his spirit away from Saul – removed the spiritual blessing which had equipped Saul for being Israel’s faithful king, if only he had been willing to be – but he sent an evil spirit to Saul to torment him! And it was by this means that God introduced David into Saul’s court. This is not what we expect to hear that God has done! We immediately think of such biblical statements as “For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone…” and “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.”

But, like it or not, this is what the Bible faces us with and not in this one instance only. Consider the following examples of a similarly disquieting providential control on God’s part, his ruling over even the dark and sinful responses of human hearts so as to bring to pass his will in the world.

1. As I said, we have already encountered this bracing and unrepentant assertion of God’s absolute sovereignty – that nothing happens in this world apart from the will of God – in Samuel. Take, for example, 2:25: “[Eli’s] sons did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death.”

2. And, we will get the same again in this book. In 18:10 Saul will make his first overt effort to murder David as a result, we read, of “an evil spirit from God [coming] forcefully upon Saul.” Or, later in 2 Samuel 17:14: “Absalom and all the men of Israel said, ‘The advice of Hushai…is better than that of Ahithophel.’ For the Lord had determined to frustrate the good advice of Ahithophel in order to bring disaster on Absalom.” Or, still more stikingly, we read in 2 Samuel 24:1 that David’s sin in numbering the people at the end of his reign resulted from God inciting him, saying, “Go, and take a census of Israel and Judah.” It was a sin for David to do it – for some reason – and he was punished for that sin, if you remember.

3. We remember well the number of times in which we read that the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart precisely that he might demonstrate his power in bringing Israel out of bondage in Egypt. But it wasn’t Pharaoh only. When Israel was in the wilderness, so we read in Deuteronomy 2:30, “Sihon king of Heshbon refused to let [her] pass through. For the Lord…God had made his spirit stubborn and his heart obstinate in order to give him into your hands.”

4. In the case of the Canaanites, we read in Joshua 11:20: “For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses.” Later in Judges we read that the Lord sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the citizens of Shechem, he created a rift between them that led to treachery and, eventually to the death of many of them as judgment for the sins they had committed against the house of Gideon.

5. And who can forget that scene in the heavenly throne room that the prophet Micaiah describes, when the lying prophet is sent from heaven to beguile Ahab to his death in battle against the Philistines?

6. Think also of the statements in the prophets to the same effect. Here is Isaiah (8:13-14) describing the Lord as the one we are to fear, for he will be a sanctuary but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” Or think of Ezekiel’s statement that the Lord himself will entice false prophets to make false prophecies precisely so that they might be judged and destroyed (14:9).

7. Or come to the NT. It doesn’t get better; in some ways it gets worse! The absolute sovereignty of God even over the sin and rebellion of men is stated, if possible, even more baldly. We not only have Paul’s blunt speaking in Romans 9, you have statement after statement from the Lord himself, of which John 9:39 may be taken as a case in point: “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Or, of the generation alive at the end of the world, we read in 2 Thessalonians 2:11: “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.” That is similar to the thought of Revelation 17:17, “For God has put it into their hearts to accomplish his purpose by agreeing to give the beast their power to rule until God’s words are fulfilled.”

8. And we still have not faced the fact that even the highest crime ever committed, the crucifixion of the Prince of Life, was ordered by the will of God. “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” [Acts 2:23] Or, in 4:27-28: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

And there are many more texts where those came from. God’s will takes up into itself even the most sinful acts and mental states of man, as here the depression and the paranoia of faithless king Saul. Is God still not the author of sin as the Bible says? Absolutely. He is light and in him there is no darkness at all. Does it remain the case that he tempts no one to evil? Yes, absolutely, for the Bible says so. God is able to use human sin sinlessly. Are human beings still absolutely responsible and accountable for the evil that they think, say and do? Absolutely. We know that evil comes from within the heart of man and that God did not put it there. That much we know. Are we able to harmonize all of the biblical data into a clear and unconfusing harmony? No, not at all.

God is far above us and his ways are far beyond our power of knowing. How he exercises his control of the human heart we cannot say. How he ensures that human sinfulness, even rebellion against him, will, at the last, accomplish his holy will for the world, we cannot see and cannot explain. How he orders events in the world, including the sins of human beings and remains perfectly untainted by that sin, this we cannot fully explain. That is as we should expect. We understand very little of the divine holiness or of human sin. We cannot begin to grasp the scope of God’s knowledge and rule. As the little children we are with the rudimentary grasp of things that we have, it is ours to believe and to trust the word of God. But we know from the repeated assertions of Holy Scripture that God rules over absolutely everything in human life and that he is perfectly pure and holy in all his ways. We are taught these unsettling things about God’s control of the evil ways of men precisely that we will not mistake the totality of God’s sovereignty. We do not believe in a partly sovereign God and a partly responsible man. We believe in a totally sovereign God and a totally responsible man. But resolving that tension is far beyond our ability.

Now that I am 50 years of age, you are going to have to hear me say from time to time, “The older I get, the more it seems to me that…” Or, “when I was younger I used to think such and such, but now I realize…” Well, so hear. The older I get the more sure I am that there is a great deal in the Bible that is baffling to us and that it is part of our faith in God and his Word to accept that bafflement and simply to believe what the infinite God has said to us. Our spirit is to be that of David’s himself, who, no doubt, had often to ponder such things, as he could see God’s hand even in the evil of others, Saul in particular, by which he was eventually placed upon Israel’s throne.

“My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern
myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” [Psalm 131:1-2]

You see, the Bible is not really very interested in resolving all your questions. It is interested in your being sure that God is on his throne and that no one and nothing can dislodge him. He does what pleases him in heaven and on earth and nothing lies outside of his control. Even the worst things that happen in the world, even the most outrageous and wicked things, even the cruelest and most confusing things, even the things that would seem to many to be the proof positive that there is no benevolent God at the helm of the universe, even those things are, at the last, all subject to his will and all come to pass precisely in order to accomplish his will. The vilest rebel in his rebellion serves only to accomplish the divine purpose. The most wicked offender against God’s holy laws and against his people only serves to bring nearer his own judgment and the vindication of Christ and his church.

I was struck to read even C.S. Lewis admit this. There are passages in C.S. Lewis in which he accounts ultimately for the presence of evil in the world in other ways than the divine sovereignty. And, of course, there are different ways to account for that evil that are likewise in accord with the teaching of the Bible. The same event can be the will of God, the will of man, and the will of the Devil in different respects. But, I say, there are passages in Lewis, in his Problem of Pain, for example, when it appears that he would deny that God, at the last and ultimately, is accomplishing his own will in the evil that men do. But in a letter I read this summer, written to an Italian priest in 1947, Lewis speaks as candidly of the divine sovereignty as a Calvinist might. Speaking of the troubles into which the church had fallen, her persecutions and hardships, Lewis writes:

“Satan is without doubt nothing else than a hammer in the hand of a benevolent and severe God. For all, either willingly or unwillingly, do the will of God: Judas and Satan as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons.”

He goes on to say in the same letter that even Hitler, unknowingly and unwillingly, greatly benefited the Church. [Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis, 36-37]

It seems to me impossible to think or speak otherwise and be faithful to the Bible. Saul in his evil paranoia greatly benefited the church by being the means of David’s preparation for and then ascension to the throne of Israel.

In a world full of so much that disquiets the people of God, so much that threatens them, so much that they have reason to fear will work harm to the kingdom of God, it is essential for Christians to know that even this is the will of God, even this accomplishes his purposes, even this hastens the day of the Lord’s return.

God is in all and through all. In everything, even in the worst and the cruelest things of life, we have to do with him and his will. That will is beyond our knowing, to be sure, but it is the will of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is all we need to know to be at peace, to be confident in facing so uncertain a world, so lacking in the fear of God. And to be sure that we know that, that God is on his throne and working his purposes out in everything that transpires, from time to time the Bible reminds us that this is so even in regard to the most evil of human words and deeds. We must know that to know that everything is under his control. We may not be able to explain what God is doing. That is not necessary. What we must know is that it is God himself who is at the helm. That is enough for us to know.

Some years ago, you may remember, a man was elevated to be bishop of York in the Anglican church who had openly expressed his unbelief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Shortly thereafter lightning struck the cathedral and burned a large part of the roof of that tremendous church. The British tabloids immediately connected the lightning strike with the appointment of an unbelieving bishop. The Anglican clerics, as we would have expected, rushed in to assure the public that a God of love would not strike a church with lightning. Now, no one can be absolutely sure that the lightning strike was God’s direct response to the appointment of a false teacher in such a prominent position in the church – after all, he wasn’t the first unbelieving bishop to be given high position in the Church of England – alas that has been more the rule than the exception over the past few centuries. But, what is undoubtedly true is that God sent the lightning. It matters not if Satan also sent the lightning. But events in this world happen because they are willed by God – good events and bad. Such is the breadth of his sovereignty, such is the scope of his sovereignty. God sent that lightning bolt. We know that because he sends everything.

We know that because the Bible insists on our recognizing that God sends even those things we would never ascribe to him, such things as Saul’s evil spirit!

You are never more wise and understanding than when you turn to God as the source and the explanation, at least ultimately, of absolutely everything that happens in this world and so in your own life. He is far greater than we know. And all our lives, and the lives of everyone around us individually and the whole world in which we live, are, at last, the outworking of his almighty, perfect, and holy will. Give glory to God who sits on the throne!