• The Explore the Bible lesson for Aug. 28 focuses on 1 Samuel 30.
Dealing With Disaster (1 Samuel 30:1-8)
The dramatic events of 1 Samuel 30 take place after one the strangest periods of David’s life. After sparing Saul’s life and achieving reconciliation with the king, David immediately leads his men to live among the Philistines. He firmly believed the peace would not hold and acted accordingly. David shrewdly asked the Philistine king, Achish, for a place on the outskirts of Philistine territory. David, his men and their families for the first time had a semi-permanent place to live, instead of the nomadic existence of a militia on the run. David quickly took on the role of desert raider (1 Samuel 27). As Saul’s story barrels toward its tragic end in 1 Samuel 28, David and his men join the army of the Philistines arrayed against Israel in chapter 29. Achish is fully confident David can be trusted to fight his own people, but the other Philistine leaders are not. We do not know what David’s plan was—whether he intended to be allegiant to Achish (as he claims in 1 Samuel 29:8) or whether the other Philistine commanders were right to expect him to turn against them at a critical moment. It is another incident of the ambiguous perspective of David. Regardless, he and his men are sent home.
When David brought his men back to Ziklag, total disaster awaited them. The Amalekites, who had been victims of David’s raids (1 Samuel 27:8), paid him back in full by burning the town of Ziklag, carrying off all its wealth, and worst of all, all of its women and children to be sold as slaves. The picture of David and his men weeping “until they had no strength left to weep” is a picture of total emotional devastation (1 Samuel 30:4). Tragedy turns to personal danger as David’s men plot stone him in their bitterness and anger. The Hebrew in 1 Samuel 30:6 literally means, “David was in a tight spot.” It was his responsibility to protect his own family and the families of his men. Whatever their goal had been in going out with the Philistine army, they had not achieved it. Instead, their absence provided the opportunity for this tragedy.
In this tight spot, David “found strength in Yahweh his God” (1 Samuel 30:8). This is the part of David’s character and motivation that is unambiguous. When his allies are talking openly of becoming his enemies, he finds strength in God. When his place of safety has been destroyed, he finds strength in God. When his loved ones are in danger, he finds strength in God. And when he needed guidance, he turned to God, asking Abiathar to consult the ephod, an ancient Israelite practice for communicating with God and determining his will. With the assurance of success, David then leads his men on desperate rescue mission.
Counter-raid (1 Samuel 30:9-20)
David’s mission is a resounding success, even with one-third of his fighting force unable to participate in the battle due to exhaustion. Ironically, the Amalekites’ callousness toward their slaves resulted in the loss of their newly kidnapped slaves. An Egyptian slave they had abandoned in the desert to die of illness and exposure becomes the guide to the Amalekite hideout in a ravine. Although this slave had been part of the raiding party (he would have had little choice regardless of his personal feelings) David not only restores him to health, but also promises to spare his life and help him retain his freedom (1 Samuel 30:15). David’s outnumbered forces battle the Amalekites for a full 24 hours and are a force of such strength the number of Amalekites who escaped was equal to David’s full complement of fighters. They were willing to stay and fight as long as they held the numerical advantage but fled when the numbers were equal. They knew they wouldn’t win a fair fight! Every person and every piece of property taken from David’s group was recovered.
“Evil Men and Troublemakers” (1 Samuel 30:21-31)
After the success of the battle, a crisis of another kind confronts David. The “evil men and troublemakers” among his men sensed an opportunity to enrich themselves at others’ expense. Their proposal might seem reasonable on the surface—these men did not fight, so they do not receive any of the spoils. But their next statement reveals the truth, “each man may take his wife and children and go” (1 Samuel 30:22). The troublemakers want to have it both ways. Their mission was not a raid but a rescue. In the process of the rescue, they gained more than they had lost, and now want to deny their comrades any share in what they gained, other than their families.
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David’s judgment in this tense moment again points directly to God. What they have rescued and what they have gained ultimately is given by God and not by their own strength. God is the one who protected the families when they were vulnerable and enabled David’s men to receive them back. The only appropriate thing to do with the gifts of God is for all to share alike. David’s statute for his militia would become the statute for all of Israel’s army when he became king. “They also serve who only stand and wait,” wrote John Milton, and David would have agreed.
David extends this theology of God as the giver of good gifts in a shrewd way. From his place in Philistine country, he sends part of the plunder of the Amalekites to a long list of his friends (or sympathizers?) in Judah. In case any were wondering where David’s allegiance was, his distribution of presents to the elders of Judah is a clear statement of alliance and loyalty, as well as a clear effort to maintain the elders’ loyalty to and support for David.
This is the end of David’s story in 1 Samuel, although he, of course, achieves the throne and rules in 2 Samuel. It is striking that in this final story, just as in his public introduction in 1 Samuel 17 fighting Goliath, the tension between David’s obvious faith in times of crisis and his ability to take advantage of his successes to enhance his reputation and standing is still in effect. In times of crisis, he (and often only he) points to God. In those moments of his story thus far when others have tempted him to act solely on self-interest, he consistently turns the conversation back to God and God’s will (1 Samuel 24 and 26). In those moments when his own interest has motivated him, he has been challenged to be faithful and keep God’s will as his priority (1 Samuel 25). David’s story, through success, trial and struggle, has been a string of victories. David at his best insists that the victory always belongs to God.