1 Samuel 21: Lessons in Deliverance

Bob Deffinbaugh, in a commentary on 1 Samuel 21:1-22:4, “A Man Without a Country:”

Many like to think of David as a real man. I believe our text portrays him as a real man. He does not always think or do the spiritual thing. He has a heart for God, but he also has feet of clay. David seeks refuge from Ahimelech, yet admits that he knows better. He admits that he is to blame for the deaths of the priests and their families (22:22). He flees to Philistia, looking to his enemies for sanctuary, rather than to God. He then flees to Moab, where a prophet must tell him to go home. David does not do everything right. He is a real man, not a caricature, and not a mythical creation of some author’s mind. It is often because of David’s failures that we are encouraged and given hope, for he was a man “with a nature like ours.” God deals graciously with us as He did with David.

One could quite easily pass over the events of our text without taking a second look. To the untrained eye, it looks like David has very good luck, at least twice in our text. First, David manages to escape to Nob where there is no bread except that reserved for the priests. Ahimelech makes an exception and gives David some of this bread. Second, David “escapes” to the land of the Philistines, bearing Goliath’s sword, and finding himself at this giant’s hometown. He seems marked for death, but his feigned insanity gets him an escort out of town. How lucky can a guy get?

David’s Deliverance and David’s Psalms

Other texts of Scripture make it very clear that this is not “good luck,” nor is David’s deliverance the result of his cunning. This is a divine deliverance. In fact, we shall soon see (chapter 22) that while David escapes from Nob to Gath, the priests and their families are not so fortunate. The veil is lifted for us in the Psalms. The historical backdrop of Psalm 52 is Doeg’s report to Saul that he has seen David at Nob.Psalms 34 and 56 are written during David’s time at Gath. Psalms 57 and 142 are written while David hides out in the cave. These psalms are David’s reflections and considered conclusions about what really happened in our text. Let us pause to briefly reflect on some of the lessons the Psalms point out to us.

(1) Deliverance is Divine. God is the One who saves. Consequently, He is the One to whom we must cry for deliverance (34:4-7; 57:1-3; 142). He is also the One whom we must praise for delivering us. It may not always look as though God is the one doing the delivering, but all deliverance is from Him. On the surface, one would not see God as David’s Deliverer when He spares him at Gath, but Psalm 34 makes it very clear that David’s deliverance is from the Lord.

(2) God is our Deliverer from those who seek our destruction (56:1-7; 57:4-6). David sees his destruction as purposed by wicked men and God as the One who delivers men from the hands of the wicked.

(3) Divine deliverance is given to those who love and trust God, and who call upon Him for salvation (56:3-4, 9-11; 57:1-3; 142:1-2). God cares for, and thus protects, His loved ones, those who seek refuge in Him. He delivers those who fear Him and who call upon Him for salvation.

(4) God’s deliverance is undeserved; it is a gift of His grace (57:1). Divine deliverance is not granted because men merit it, but because God is gracious and merciful. He is moved with compassion by our afflictions (34:17-18; 56:8). His deliverance often comes from the consequences of our own foolishness and sin.

(5) God delivers men in order to bring about thanksgiving, praise, and glory to Himself (Psalm 56:12; 57:5, 8, 9, 11; 142:7). When God delivers men from their afflictions, they are expected to publicly thank and praise Him for His goodness, and thus to publicly glorify Him. In this way, our divinely-wrought deliverance is not just for our good, but for God’s glory.

(6) God also delivers men so they may learn more of Him, and then instruct others from what they have learned (34:8-14). I believe David writes about the fear of the Lord in Psalm 34 because he has learned a great deal about fear. David is first afraid of men. This appears to be his reason for fleeing to Gath. He fears Saul. Then, he seems to fear the Philistines. David learns that God casts our fears aside, and in the process, we learn to fear God rather than men. This fear of God teaches us to “keep our tongue from evil, and our lips from speaking guile” (34:13). I believe David recognizes the importance of telling the truth, and when he comes to fear God more than men, he speaks the truth and urges others to do likewise. David’s deliverance enables him to instruct others from what he has learned.

(7) God delivers, even when it appears the deliverance is wrought by other means (34). Who would even think that David’s acting insane and his expulsion from Gath is from the hand of God? Is it not good luck, or skillful acting, on David’s part? Not in David’s mind! It is God who delivers David from Gath, even if the means He employs is David’s feigned insanity. (Was it not God who first planted the idea of feigning insanity in David’s mind?)

(8) God works though means that appear normal and, perhaps, even disgustingly human (34). Have you ever watched a movie that sought to portray some spiritual or religious theme? Even when I am away from the television, listening only to the sound, I can tell when a “spiritual” scene is taking place. There is almost always a background of “heavenly music.” I don’t know how to describe it, but it is music with an auditory halo. It is music we have come to associate as spiritual or heavenly (usually violins or harps are employed for the desired effect).

Do you remember seeing the sign placed along the highway before you come to a road repair or construction site? It reads, “Slow, Men Working.” I think this is the way many Christians expect God to act. When God is delivering someone in the Bible, we expect to see a sign which reads, in effect: “Slow, God Working.” We want to hear some form of “heavenly music” playing in the background, or something which tells us that God is present. But such trappings are not evident at the time that Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. They are not evident, to Job at least, when Satan makes his life miserable. Neither are they evident when David is drooling and doodling in Gath. But God is at work, even when it is not apparent to our eyes. Later on in the Book of 2 Samuel, we will see that Solomon becomes the heir to his father’s (David’s) throne, even though he is born to Bathsheba, the woman who is Uriah’s wife. The temple will be built on ground that David purchased because he willfully numbered the people of Israel, knowing it was wrong. It was at the threshing floor of Arunah, the Jebusite, that David offered a sacrifice to God when the plague was halted by God (2 Samuel 24). God is at work where we would never expect to see His hand.

(9) God’s deliverance is often brought about in the midst of circumstances which make escape seem impossible (142:4). God delights to let us get into impossible situations, so that when He saves us, it is very clear that it was entirely of Him. In his psalms, David paints a very bleak picture of his condition, and then goes on to describe the way God rescues him.

(10) God delivers us in ways that are not flattering, but humbling. Occasionally film footage on the television news shows the rescue of someone in a most unflattering way. It may be a woman, whose hair is a mess, whose face is dirty, and whose clothing is deplorable. No one likes to be rescued in this way, or in this condition, but when given the choice of being rescued in a humbling way or not being rescued at all, the decision is rather obvious. God rescues David in a way that humbles him greatly. God is not out to bolster David’s ego; He is out to save David in a way that humbles him and causes him to turn to Him for deliverance. It is strange but true that God often has to humble us first, so that we will see how desperate our circumstances are, so that we will humbly cry out to Him for deliverance.

As I think through the Bible, I realize how often God “saves” or delivers His own from destruction, but in very humbling ways. I think of Abram, who fled to Egypt for “deliverance” during a time of famine. In doing so, he put not only his own life at risk, but the promise of God that he and Sarai would have a child, through whom blessings would come on Abram and the whole world (see Genesis 12:1-3 ff.). Abram lied about Sarai, representing her as his sister rather than his wife, and as a result, she was taken into Pharaoh’s harem. God delivered Abram and Sarai, but in a way that was humbling. Pharaoh ran them out of his land, giving them what appears to be an armed escort out of town (see Genesis 12:17-20).

One of the most humbling deliverances (other than David’s, in our text) is that of Naaman. You may remember that Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, was also a leper. Through his Israelite slave girl, Naaman learns there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him. But when he arrives at the prophet’s door, the prophet does not greet him personally, but sends his servant who instructs Naaman to bathe himself seven times in the Jordan river. Naaman is furious, because he is not treated as a dignitary. Finally, after receiving wise counsel from his servant, the Syrian commander obeys and is delivered from his malady. God saves him, but in a way that humbles him (see 2 Kings 5).

(11) God’s deliverance is more than temporal, more than just physical; God’s deliverance includes His deliverance from eternal condemnation (34:21-22; 56:13). It is interesting that in the New Testament the word that is very often rendered “saved” is used more broadly than just of spiritual salvation. It is used of physical healing and other acts of deliverance. In our text, God saves David’s life, but in his psalms David informs the reader that this temporal salvation is a prototype of the eternal salvation which God also accomplishes. The God who saves us from our afflictions and from our enemies, is the same God who saves us from His eternal wrath.


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