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Can the leopard change his spots? - 1 Samuel 25

West End Community Church, Sunday January 27th 2008


1 Samuel 25



I wonder what your own individual picture is of King David? When I started preparing for this I had a quick look around the Internet to see the kinds of artwork that this man, living something like 3000 years ago, has inspired. As you might guess, it is extraordinarily varied, in terms of what age he is shown – as a young man with sling, or a leader of armies, or an old man – or the equipment he has – showing him with different weapon or musical instruments – and also in the way artists like to dress him up. Sometimes he is a man after God’s heart, sometimes instead he’s falling for Bathsheba, sometimes he is feigning madness in front of the Philistine ruler. So often he is presented as a man of the artist’s own era, so you will find lots of pictures where he looks like a medieval king in full armour.

Maybe your picture of David doesn’t fit any of the things I have said: that’s OK, the Biblical account is full enough to feed many different images. Indeed, the two books of Samuel are the most subtle and rich of the narrative history books of the Bible, and they carefully provide us with all kinds of information, both positive and negative, about David and those men and women who surrounded him. To fill out our picture of David, we can look not just at the factual, historically-rooted stories in Samuel’s books or Chronicles, but also at the various psalms attributed to him. In fact we don’t know, and the Bible does not in fact make clear, exactly how many of those psalms were actually written by him personally, and how many were written by other people in imitation of his style or recognition of his accomplishments. I don’t think that matters much, since when they imitated his style and spoke of him, they recorded for us thoughts and feelings that are very much in line with how his own must have ranged, from triumph to despair, from great piety to great anxiety.

Today we have a passage from First Samuel to look at. I don’t know how you like to read your Old Testament, how you like to tease away at this wealth of insight into how to live with God. One of the things I like to do is go into how people are characterised to us, how they give away insights into their inner world by means of what they say and do, how other people around them are affected and changed. I said before that Samuel’s books are the most subtle of the Biblical history books, and one of the ways they show this is by giving us only part of the whole picture, little glimpses of the whole seen from particular angles. Does anyone here watch a long-running quiz show called “A Question of Sport” – apparently the longest-running quiz show on the BBC – one of the regular rounds on that is “The Mystery Guest” – a sports personality is filmed engaged in some slightly unusual activity, never showing him or her clearly. You see little close-ups of their hair, or their eyes, or looking over their shoulder, and of course the challenge in this round is to work out who is being shown just from this very incomplete view. I sometimes feel that the books of Samuel show us people like that. We see David, or Saul, or Samuel himself, or some of the other fighting men, or one or other of the women, in little glimpses, meeting and sometimes clashing with each other in surprising ways. Some people we meet just once as they slip into Saul or David’s orbit for a time, others we feel we get to know over a period of years. None of them, not even David himself, is painted for us in simplistic, static ways. These are real people, and they show their reality in the way they evade our attempts to pin them down – just when we think we know what they are up to, they do something surprising, something wise or brave, or perhaps something foolish. Just like the rest of us.

There are two things I want to focus on today concerning David’s character, which our narrator takes great care to repeat for us several times. These two things come to a focus in 1 Samuel 25, which we heard earlier, in his dealings with Nabal and Abigail. They have, perhaps, some points of contact with our own individual personalities. I also want us to think about what these things have to say about how we do things in our own church communities, about the life of the church that is bigger than the span of a single life.

David is presented as rather a secretive man in these historical books. We are only very rarely given any insight into his personal thoughts and feelings, the turmoil of things that surge and clash inside his mind – his heart, as the Biblical authors would prefer to express it. As you read through Samuel, take a look at how and when his words are recorded, and the kinds of things he says, and you will notice that almost all of them are, as we might say, public words. They are not spontaneous outbursts on impulse; they are quite obviously carefully delivered to an audience. David is, in modern terms, a political animal, and through most of his life what he said was chosen very carefully for the occasion. He only exceedingly rarely reveals to us his inner world. David clearly inspired great loyalty, and great love from others, both men and women, but as you read through these books you will see overwhelmingly that when people – Michal, Jonathan, and so many others – express their commitment to him, he is very sparing in giving anything back. This means that on those few occasions where his public profile breaks down, it is all the more shocking, such as the terrible moment when he realises that his son Absalom has not survived a battle. It also means that those psalms that do declare his inner life, his hopes and fears and passions, reveal to us a completely different side of this king.

So David was a man who chose his words carefully, who had an overwhelming care for his public image. I think he took very seriously the commission which Samuel had invested in him, and from that time early on put a guard on his speech. In some places and times this would be an admirable thing, to be restrained and cautious in what you say, but there is a cost in this too, and the cost is paid in the quality of personal relationships that remain available to someone choosing this route. People around such a person become aware of this trait – they may respect such a person, they may want them to be their trade union representative, or their boss, but not often their friend or their intimate. You see this in David’s relationship to his first wife Michal. She is twice said to have loved David – indeed she is the only woman in the whole of the Old Testament who is explicitly said to have loved a man – but we don’t get any real sense David reciprocated this, and in the end her love turned into hatred and bitterness at his treatment of her. To him, she was of political value… or else no value. Back in 1 Samuel 25, I think Abigail knew well this trait of David’s, and that this knowledge shaped the way she dealt with him. After all, the first thing we are told about her, before we hear that she is physically attractive, is that she is clever.

The other personality trait of David I want to highlight today is his tendency towards violence. At a young age he was an able fighter, and first developed these skills in defence of his father’s flocks and herds. So long as this violence was directed towards threats to the livestock, or later on directed outwards towards threats to the nation, I don’t suppose anyone minded too much. You want a shepherd, a warrior, and a leader of warriors, to be able to fight. But as time went on, and enemies became fewer, we start to see this being turned inwards, against fellow Israelites, his own family, his own person. I suppose a key step along this road was the arranged murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, and the later years of his life were marred by the turmoil that his cold, often calculating violence wreaked on his household. This trait was part of David to his dying day, when over half of his last words to his son and royal successor Solomon listed acts of revenge to be carried out on his behalf on a variety of individuals. For all his years of walking with God, for all his piety, his repentance over particular actions he had carried out, for all the years of grief and pain that had burdened him, nevertheless his last wishes are laced through and through with a passion to settle a balance sheet with blood.

In church circles, I’ve sometimes heard it said that it took one night to get the Israelites out of Egypt, and forty years to get Egypt out of the Israelites. But actually things are a little more complicated than that. Both for Israel as a nation, and for each of us as individuals, there are some things within us that don’t take just overnight, that don’t take just forty years, but are things that lurk in and remain with us throughout life. This does not at all deny the transformational work of God’s Spirit in us, but is, I believe, a sensible and sensitive way to understand our own personal struggles and those of others… both in the times we, or they, succeed and the times we, or they, fail. At the end of Judges Chapter 2 we learn that the LORD deliberately left certain of the hostile tribes and clans, cities and nations in the land of Israel, so that His people would continue to have the experience of struggling and, from time to time, failing. The Promised Land may well have flowed with milk and honey, but it also harboured threats and anxieties, foes who were not to be easily vanquished. It is, I think, the same for us as individuals. Some aspects of our thoughts, feelings and actions are resolved by God’s indwelling presence almost at once. Others are addressed little by little as we walk with Him or through the personal or professional ministry of others, but still others are left with us and in us, rather like the thorn Paul describes in the second letter to Corinth. So it will ever be in this life.

Let’s go back again to 1 Samuel 25. David sends out a request that seems good in his eyes to this wealthy landowner, Nabal, who lived in Carmel. This is not the same Carmel as Elijah would stand on much later to challenge the prophets of Ba’al, but a different place in the tribal territory of Judah, a little south of Hebron, David’s home town. Now, David’s request comes over at first a little bit like a demand for protection money, but we learn later in the chapter that he and his troops have genuinely guarded Nabal’s men. So David would no doubt have seen this as recognition of service already rendered, rather than just a naked and abrupt demand for provisions. Nabal refuses, full of the contempt of the rich landed secure man for a person he must have seen as a landless and lawless rebel, in bad odour with the royal establishment, and not even able to stay a few miles up the road with his own family.

And here we see David’s violent streak. On hearing the news from his messengers, he takes no time to think or negotiate, but sets out with bloodthirsty revenge in mind. When it was useful to him, David could be circumspect – today’s chapter is carefully sandwiched between the two occasions when David could have killed without warning the unsuspecting Saul – but here he has no political motives to stay his hand. He has been offended, he owes Nabal nothing … so off he goes with sword in hand, and four hundred armed men behind him to overpower whatever household defences Nabal can muster. I do sometimes think it is funny how our modern translations suddenly go all coy at times and disguise the plain sense of Scripture. The New International renders David’s oath as saying he would not leave alive “one male” of all Nabal’s household. What the Hebrew actually records David saying is a rather coarser expression, more of a soldier’s expression – he says he will not leave alive anyone who urinates against a wall. The King James version keeps this rather coarse slang: most modern translations gloss over it. Sometimes I think we try to make these Biblical figures to be rather nicer, pleasantly spoken chaps than they actually were. About the only positive thing about the situation is that David was not planning on wreaking terrible revenge on the women in the house alongside the men.

This brings me to one of the things I want to say about communities. To be sure, David was the leader, and no doubt would have final say in the matter, but so far as we can tell not one of those four hundred men did anything to restrain him, to argue with him, to try to persuade him not to take this path. We know that sometimes in Israel this did happen – for example Saul’s men talked him out of killing his son Jonathan to fulfil a vow – but on this occasion it did not. I wonder why that was? Why did not one of them suggest he have a second round of talks, or find another nearby landowner who might be more amenable? Why did not one of them question David turning his military machine on fellow-Israelites in his own tribal area?

Being part of a community is an odd thing for us humans. We all know that there are times when the community is able to exert a restraining influence on wickedness – people can limit each other’s capacity to do harm, they can provide or imitate positive role models, they can pass laws or develop traditions that build rather than destroy. However, there are other times when community influence does the reverse – we often talk of peer pressure doing this, or of how mob rule takes over a group of well-meaning people – and individual goodness is submerged beneath a layer of surging feelings that can be child-like or animal-like. How often, I wonder, do present-day communities imitate David’s men here, and fail to challenge an obviously wrong course of action? Of course we are in a church here, so it is natural to think about how church communities have failed in this way – but the same principle applies in a work community, or a football crowd, or among a group of friends.

And then we get to Abigail. She has to be counted amongst the most skilled and able users of words in the Bible. Unlike David’s 400 sword-wielding men who are simply following him to slaughter Nabal’s men, she is able to halt this juggernaut with an eloquent line of thought, some gifts, and the presentation of herself as an alternative. She gave David another option, another way to resolve his problem. Now one of the interesting things about her offer is that you get the definite impression she is playing quite a devious game here. As per her original description, she is both clever and attractive, and there is more than a hint from the narrator that as she grasped the situation, David seemed to her a better long-term option than Nabal. She wastes no time trying to appeal to David’s sense of morals, but to the practical, political shrewdness which was so ingrained in him. Although she talks about the loss of life if he continues on this course, she does not do this to shock him into horror at such a heinous crime, but to point out the cost to his political reputation when he comes to be king. It was indeed a shrewd move, and perhaps no other approach could have arrested David’s match towards Nabal. The plan works – David is persuaded to withdraw, and Abigail withholds from Nabal the news until a moment when the shock is fatal. David’s hands are clean: Abigail is then free to marry him and before long enter a palace rather than a mere country estate.

At this stage of his career, David’s band of followers would have seemed little different to many of the other groups of semi-brigands that troubled the land at this time. Egyptian writings of this time, and those of the various Mesopotamian nations, describe armed groups called Habiru. Habiru groups lived by their wits and their armed might, they lived on the edge of society and were seen as outcasts and villains by the authorities, every now and again needing to be controlled by police-keeping actions by the regular army. It’s a familiar situation even today in some parts of the world, though the weapons have changed from sword and sling to automatic rifle and rocket launcher. The Bible describes a number of these groups, such as the group of “worthless men” who were led by Jephthah in Judges. It was David’s political skill, and his destiny, to transform his leadership style from brigand chief to founder of a royal dynasty, and to transform his men from rough and tough outcasts into people suitable to govern a kingdom. This chapter teaches us that David, humanly speaking, could not have done this without the intervention of women at key moments. Abigail was one such woman, and although like Solomon’s mother Bathsheba their relationship began under rather dubious conditions, her mental and verbal skill was, I am sure, a key factor in transforming David from bandit to king, and transforming the nation from chiefdom to kingdom.

What has happened here is another salutary lesson about community. Objectively, David has in fact been prevented from killing the innocent along with the guilty. The thing that his followers would not do, this resourceful woman has done. That is, surely, a good thing: better by far that David not have this particular crime on his conscience. But one cannot help feeling that neither David nor Abigail was really motivated by very lofty motives. Abigail clearly wanted – and achieved – a secure place with a man of influence and power. David had political ambitions, and sacrificed a great deal to achieve them. These two frail humans, each with their own weakness and neediness, their own agenda, interacted in a way that managed to avert a wicked act. This is something else that community does – we often manage to help each other, to reduce in some way the tendency towards selfishness and lack of care, not by the aspects of us that are most godly but by the needy, struggling places in us. For this to work there has to be effort – Abigail worked hard and fast, putting herself at some considerable risk to intercept him, and for David had to make an effort to listen to her and alter his plan of campaign, and perhaps risk losing face among his men for backing down at her words.

We have here one of those curious reversals of our expectation that the writers of the Old Testament so delighted in. David’s men were operating out of their gifting – they were loyal, skilled in battle, and faithful to the one anointed and foretold to be king. But their actions served only to increase the threat and peril of the situation. Abigail, on the other hand, is operating out of her human weakness and self-interest, but what passed between her and David served to avert a massacre. It’s easy for us to think that good things always happen when we work out of the gifting we have each been given, but kingdom life is a little more complicated than that. Just like Jesus’ parable of weeds growing among the wheat, the redeemed and fallen parts of our souls are so closely growing together we cannot pull them apart. Everything we do is rooted in a mixture of these two, everything has both upright and immoral aspects. I am not saying that we should run away from our gifting in case it leads us or others into trouble! Whatever good things God has placed in the strands of your natural humanity, and whatever good things He has placed in you as grace-gifts of spirituality, those things should be cultivated and tended so that they grow and bear fruit. But at the same time, we need to be aware that they will not automatically protect us or those around us from being led into wrongdoing. David’s men were carried away by their loyalty and enthusiasm, and failed to challenge his choice, and Abigail stopped one kind of wrongdoing in a way that makes it hard to see her as innocent of deception. Can a good end ever justify the use of bad methods? Can operating out of our gifting ever justify a bad end?

I want to finish by setting this chapter in its wider context. The two books of Samuel relate the careers of Saul and David, Israel’s first two kings. Both kings rose to a peak of success, and then slid off it again – into very different kinds of decline to be sure, but for both men the point at which they took the throne was pretty much the high point. Staying king is a much harder job than becoming king. So for David, we are nearing the zenith of his life history in this chapter. In terms of wealth and influence, he is still very limited, but Saul is now in decline, and David’s own kingship is on the horizon. And to highlight this fact, our narrator tells us of two marriages for David – marriage being a traditional emblem of successfully making it to maturity.

Of course Abigail is one of these wives, and the other is Ahino’am of Jezre’el. Since Biblical narration is very sparing with its words and very dense in its significance, it is well worth looking at these two women for a moment. I expect you know that Biblical names always have meaning and significance. Abigail’s name speaks of joy, and Ahino’am’s of delight: sensations that David was starting to enter into. Abigail came from the southern region of the tribe of Judah, and Ahino’am from the northern region headed up by Ephraim and Manasseh: in a short time David was going to unite these two parts of the land in a single kingdom, and symbolically he is uniting here with each in marriage. Abigail came from Carmel, which means vineyard, and Ahinoa’m from Jezre’el, which indicates a field: David has here come into his inheritance of vineyard and harvest-land, so his needs are met and his satisfaction is complete.

In summary, then, what is this chapter doing? It is showing us how David could be swayed from personal vendetta by considerations of his political future, and how Abigail’s swift and urgent action forestalled a massacre. It shows us how David, while still according to outward appearance on the run and in a precarious position, was in fact in the ascendant, indeed on the verge of securing his kingdom and fulfilling the prophecy spoken over him by Samuel.

But, as with all good Biblical passages, it shows us these things in shades of grey, in muted tones rather than bold primary colours. It shows us how a community of people can be led into wrongdoing when they act out of loyalty without thinking, and how one person’s charisma can carry along a large group on a bad path without challenge. It shows us how two people who are willing to make efforts to meet, both in body and mind, knowing their frailties, their individual vulnerability and fallen-ness, can nevertheless do something to stem evil. Our own communities – be they at home, at church, at work, or in the nation as a whole – need to be thinking, sensitive communities, able to recognise the risks of unity as well as the benefits, and the opportunities of frailty as well as the risks. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for scattering and a time for gathering, a time for war and a time for peace. David’s men did not see that the times they were a-changing, and were following him on a journey to scatter and for war: Abigail showed him that a different path was possible, for gathering and for peace. I wonder where that leaves us.

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