Sometimes Satan comes in by the back door, quiet and unassuming, at the place we only have a sideways glance for. All attention is focused on the prime target, the obvious fight, and we leave our, um, rear flank open for a good whipping. David was busy not killing Saul and almost killed Nabal.
In the middle of the story of Saul and David are two nearly identical stories and in between those two stories is one about a woman caught in the middle of everything. While hiding from Saul, David and his men had to eat. He had provided protection for this man, Nabal’s, flocks and then requested food in exchange. Seems weird to us, but apparently a pretty standard understanding in that day. But Nabal, living up to his name, refuses and offends David, basically taking advantage of him. So David, in a weak moment, runs to avenge himself, full of the same passion and skill we’ve seen before, but this time misguided. Abigail, a beautiful and wise woman famously married to a rude idiot, runs to meet him. And the man who took out a giant listens to her—not because she was beautiful (although it probably didn’t hurt) or she flattered him or because he was wrong about Nabal, but because she reminded him of his responsibility before God.
Vengeance is mine… Jehovah will vindicate his people! See now that I, even I, am he and there is no god beside me; I kill and make alive; I wound and I heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
She echoes Moses’ song in Deuteronomy, which echoes the first commandment from Sinai: you shall have no other gods in my presence. A life that recognizes God’s proper place refuses to put trust and confidence in anything else. Nothing compares to God, nothing is in the same category, nothing else is worthy of our prayers, reliance, pursuit, adoration and unwavering loyalty. So Abigail deftly puts David back in his place by putting God in His. She reminds him that God wants to give him a dynasty because it will be characterized by fighting God’s battles (not his) and by sinlessness (so don’t!). If you are threatened, you will be kept alive by the care of God but your enemies will not be kept in his care but abandoned. And because of this when you are king, by the hand of God, you won’t have the burden of conscience that comes from needless bloodshed or the second-guessing of self-achievement. She says all this using language that reminds David of his battle with Goliath (a battle that was God’s battle, motivated not by revenge or offense to him, but to God) and with a double reminder of the error that is saving yourself. Perhaps the lady married to the rude idiot knew something of waiting for the deliverance of God.
David gave Abigail his ear (and then some) and it’s evident in his next encounter with Saul. In the first story, Saul practically falls into David’s lap, walking right into the cave he was hiding in. In the second, David rose and came to the place where Saul was encamped, and walks through Saul’s entire army in the dead of the night. In the first story, David cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe, a reaching of his hand and weapon that was a little too close for comfort. The second time around, he refuses to touch him, only taking his spear and water bottle to prove his proximity. All of this adds up to a David who is simultaneously more bold and more harmless, a strange combination. His rash reaction to Nabal has made him wary of himself, but more resolute to trust God. As he tells Abishai in chapter 26, The Lord will strike Saul, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish. The Lord forbid that I should put out my hand against the Lord’s anointed. David refused to kill the anointed the first time around, but now he does so because (as Abigail reminded him) both his own wellbeing and the timing of Saul’s death are within God’s hand. To kill Saul would be sin, which meant that it could not be a battle the Lord wanted him to fight—and fighting it would be to abandon the God who had made him king as the only God worth serving. David taunts Abner for not protecting the life of the anointed. His point is that he, Saul’s supposed enemy, is doing a better job at protecting him than his own commander, thus proving his innocence and determination to do God’s will. “David dreams of power; his dream, however, has limits beyond which he will not go. In that moment of refusal, David seems to know that violence against Saul would destroy him as well as Saul.” (Brueggeman) David refused to be a king after his own heart.
Sometimes the hardest part of a fight is standing still, waiting for the right moment. Outwardly David looks spotlessly courageous, but the psalms tell a different story of an intense inward struggle over the danger in his life and the implications it had for God’s faithfulness. As Murphy said of David, “He has to cooperate with the divine providence by doing nothing: the story of David exhibits “the paradox that all evil must be punished, but it is heroic to refrain from punishing… ‘David’s heroism comes not from deeds of war but from his heroic mercy… David’s heroic mercy is sustained and kept intact through his faith in a God who alone is just, whom he can trust to punish the evil he faces.”
It is here that we see the beauty of Christ as God’s final anointed one, truest Son of David. As Jesus hung on a cross, awaiting vindication of his righteousness, his lips muttered the words of his ancestor who had travailed the wilderness and found the faithfulness of God. When God shows up we see the heart David lived according to. We chase the infinite spiral of the incarnation when we wonder who followed who here. But both teach us that snatching for ourselves is never true achievement, that often if we just stand still God’s matchlessness will shine, that waiting for God is hard but deeply satisfactory. That life comes from death and sometimes the pulled punch wins the battle. The waiting and the fighting of the completely blameless One has given us so much glory—a king not just after God’s heart, but God for a king. Whatever’s worth fighting for should be given, not taken.
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me;
he will put to shame him who tramples on me. Selah
God will send out this steadfast love and his faithfulness!
My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody!
Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.