Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Sword, Self and Salvation

If you know the story of David’s life in any detail, you will probably remember that he had quite the collection of wives, as did most kings in those days. 1 Samuel 25 records the story of how Abigail came into David’s orbit. She was David’s second wife (or maybe third, depending on how you read some of the later historical comments about his family), and from the limited data given us in scripture, by far the shrewdest of the bunch.

Abigail’s remarkable discretion warrants an entire chapter of holy writ, which should be enough to merit a little consideration from the reader.

The setup is this: David and about 600 followers are in the wilderness on the run from King Saul, who is determined to kill David. The men have been protecting a group of local sheep shearers working a huge flock near Carmel. Having performed this unusual but unsolicited service for a man he does not know, David sends messengers to the owner of the flock to see if his generosity has earned any goodwill from the man whose property he has protected. He is hoping to be able to feed his men, who are getting hungry.

The owner, Nabal, responds ungratefully by brushing them off, insulting David and refusing to accommodate.

Getting What He Deserves

Enraged, David determines to give Nabal what he deserves. He and 400 of his followers strap on their swords with the intent of wiping out Nabal’s household. Just in the nick of time, Nabal’s wife Abigail is warned that a group of armed men are on the way, and surreptitiously goes to meet David with ample supplies of food as a peace offering. David accepts, Abigail goes home and tells her husband she has just saved his life, and Nabal is stricken by the Lord and dies a little over a week later, vindicating David, who later marries his widow.

But there’s a very interesting comment made by both David and Abigail about what Abigail has accomplished through this gracious and discrete intervention on behalf of her household. It’s put three slightly different ways, but they all appear to add up to the same thing. Abigail says to David, “The Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from saving with your own hand”; then, later, that David has been restrained from “working salvation himself”. David replies to Abigail, “Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand!”

Doctrine and History

Now, normally we don’t get our instruction about how to conduct ourselves from Bible history. There is plenty of that to be had from the New Testament epistles. Most of the time, the OT record of what people did is just that: a description of a sequence of events. Absent an editorial comment from the Holy Spirit, I am usually content to judge the morality of the Old Testament saints and sinners by their conformity to the divine revelation they had at the time, given — in part at least — to guide their actions and help the devout restrain their natural impulses.

However, in this instance it seems obvious both Abigail and David are acknowledging an external standard of appropriate conduct that is not merely a matter of personal opinion, but which I do not believe you find spelled out explicitly in the Law of Moses. Notice that there is no discussion of right and wrong here, and no self-justification or excuses on David’s part; the two parties immediately agree about this objective standard. And it’s not just the potential “bloodguilt” about which they are concerned. It is patently obvious that killing a bunch of innocent servants over an insult from their master would have been an evil act. The Law speaks of “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth”. David’s intended response to Nabal’s household would have been wildly disproportionate by the divine standard, though nobody even mentions that.

No, there is something more here about which both parties are concerned. Abigail feels confident stating that for David to have acted on his own behalf in this instance would have later troubled his conscience, and David implicitly agrees with her in his reply.

Vengeance vs. Salvation

Now, the Hebrew word Abigail uses for “saving” is yāša‘. It occurs 205 times in the Old Testament and is ordinarily translated “help”, “rescue”, “deliver”, “preserve” and most frequently “save”. Only in this one story in 1 Samuel 25 is yāša‘ ever translated “avenge”, as we find in the KJV. The word normally translated “avenge” is an entirely different Hebrew verb, and it comes up many times in the OT.

So I suspect the ESV has it right here when it uses “saving” and “salvation”: the King James translators are putting a little bit of an interpretive spin on things rather than simply telling us what Abigail said in our own language. David’s act would indeed have been an act of vengeance against Nabal, and that too would have been a sin in that vengeance is God’s prerogative, not man’s — but that’s not the problem with it that Abigail was pointing out and with which David quickly and humbly agreed.

The real problem was David would have been saving himself.

The Need for Salvation

Hey, let’s concede there was plenty of saving to be done. David and his 600 men were pretty much out of food. They were hungry, and they were out in the wilderness with few options. Had there not been a shortage of bread in the camp, it is highly unlikely David would have appealed to a local businessman to provide him with supplies. You may recall that only a few chapters earlier, David had prevailed on the priests at Nob to give him bread in time of need, and the result had been that Saul murdered an entire town for giving aid to his enemies. David confessed personal responsibility for Saul’s evil act, and would never have risked bringing the king’s wrath on others for helping him out if he had any options at all left to him.

You may also recall not everyone who followed David was necessarily the desirable sort. The anointed future king of Israel was the leader of choice for “everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul” in Israel. Under Saul, many of these men likely had very good reason to be seriously unhappy, but that doesn’t make leading a group of malcontents a whole lot of fun. A number of these men are later described as “worthless and wicked”, good in a fight but not for much else. On another occasion when things were not going well, these fellows even talked about stoning David.

So then, David’s leadership position was not exactly rock solid. At this point, it was quite precarious. Undoubtedly he felt a fair amount of pressure to come up with a solution to the food problem, which may explain his overreaction to Nabal’s untimely and foolish provocation.

Testing the King

No, David needed saving. He was in a jam. And the temptation facing him was not so much a temptation to disproportionate revenge (David was generally pretty good in such situations) as it was the temptation to act in urgency to solve a genuine problem in a less-than-godly way.

It was actually the same temptation Saul had once faced, and at which he had failed miserably. Succumbing to it cost Saul the kingdom that was now promised to David. “Act now! Save yourself! You’re running out of time! Your army will disband and go home!” Saul’s men were scattering, Samuel was nowhere to be found, seven days had already passed, and if the burnt offering were not offered, that looked like it would be the end of the army and of Saul’s ability to lead Israel against the Philistines.

Too bad Saul didn’t have the prudent appeal of an Abigail to stay his hand. David was persuaded to wait on the Lord for salvation, and the Lord provided through the discretion and wisdom of Nabal’s wife.

The Psalms and the Lord’s Salvation

David responded so quickly to Abigail’s plea because she reminded him of something he already knew very well, but had forgotten in his haste and anger. David’s psalms are riddled with this truth: that it is the Lord, and the Lord only, who is the author of salvation:

Psalm 3: “Arise, O Lord! Save me [yāša‘], O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked. Salvation [yᵊšû‘â, a related participle you may recognize] belongs to the Lord.”

Psalm 7: “My shield is with God, who saves [yāša‘] the upright in heart.”

Psalm 12: “Save [yāša‘], O Lord, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man.”

Psalm 18: “I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved [yāša‘] from my enemies.”

Psalm 25: “You are the God of my salvation [yᵊšû‘â]; for you I wait all the day long.”

Psalm 62: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation [yᵊšû‘â].”

We could go on all day. There are dozens of these. Everywhere in the Psalms David declares that not just vengeance but salvation is God’s prerogative. Only God truly saves. So, very early on, David learned to wait. Saul never did.

Yes, there were plenty of times David worked out his own salvation with his able sword arm, but he invariably credited God as the one who gave him the required strength and wisdom to slay or spare, to act or to withhold his hand. There was the battle with Goliath (“The Lord will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine”). There was the time he spared Saul’s life when he could once and for all have finished off his mortal enemy (“So may my life be precious in the sight of the Lord, and may he deliver me out of all tribulation”). There was the defeat of the Amalekite raiders (“the Lord ... has preserved us and given into our hand the band that came against us”). There was the battle with the armies of the Philistines (“The Lord has broken through my enemies before me like a breaking flood”).

Natural and Spiritual

Do I need to spell out the lesson? Surely not. I find it very difficult to wait. Looking to the Lord for salvation when faced with a problem is all-too-rarely my first instinct, and I am not usually (read: never) in danger of starvation, abandonment or enemies that want me dead. I am not under the pressure David was when I reach for my Visa card or my line of credit instead of getting on my knees and asking the Lord to show me how to deal with unexpected financial crises. Faced with problems in the family, I am more inclined to nag or manipulate than to pray. I know Christian wives who are regularly tempted to bob and weave around the expressed will of husbands whose motives and goals they don’t understand or agree with. How will the right thing get done if they don’t act to make it happen? Faced with gossip or perceived insults, it is far easier to hit back harshly than to commit our cause to the Lord and keep the peace.

When we act to save ourselves from whatever it is we fear, we are responding naturally rather than spiritually. We are failing to consider what God might be teaching us in the situation, what he might want, and how he might be glorified if we act with his desires and goals in view rather than our own.

Learning to Wait

I get it. It’s difficult to wait. It’s difficult to have your choices questioned, mocked or disagreed with by your peers. It’s difficult to let the Lord reveal his plans and purposes in his time. It’s difficult to sit quietly through an obvious insult or criticism in the present while waiting for the Lord to vindicate you.

But our “solutions” are often vastly inferior, producing unpleasant and unexpected consequences down the road. And even if we are able to “save” ourselves, why would we want to rob the Lord of an opportunity to display his grace in us and reveal his wisdom and glory to the world?

No comments :

Post a Comment