Scripture Text: 1 Samuel 27:30
One of the greatest historians of the past century was a man by the name of Samuel Elliot Morrison. During the course of his life, Morrison taught at Harvard, Yale and a number of other prestigious institutions. At the end of his illustrious career, a retirement party was thrown for him, and at that party someone asked him if he could sum up what his study of history had taught him about life.
Morrison thought for a moment, and then said that history showed him that life was very much like a game of poker. Certain nations are dealt good hands in terms of people, land and resources but they play the game poorly by squandering what they’re given and they end up losing the game. Other nations are dealt very little in terms of people, land and resources but they play their hand well and as a result they end up winning the game. Morrison concluded that history shows us that it’s not the hand you’re dealt but how you play the hand you’ve got that determines whether or not you win or lose at the game of life.
As I’ve thought about it, it seems that Morrison’s analysis is true not just of nations and countries but also of people. Some people have been dealt a tremendous hand in life: they’re attractive, intelligent, capable, come from good families and have great health. Others have been dealt a bad hand in life: they’ve suffered some tremendous handicaps and setbacks. Their spouse walked out or family members have died, they’ve suffered from poor health or some kind of disability or they were physically or sexually abused.
And yet the issue for most people in life doesn’t really seem to be “the hand they’ve been dealt” nearly as much as it seems to be “how they play the hand they’ve been dealt.”
We think of a person like Abraham Lincoln who was raised in abject poverty, wasn’t anything special to look at, had some tremendous problems and losses in his life, served as President at the time of our nation’s gravest crisis and yet became one of the greatest leaders the United States has ever known.
Or we think of a person like Helen Keller who was born deaf and blind and could hardly speak, yet graduated from Radcliffe College, became a talented social worker and went on to become an inspiration to millions around the world for her accomplishments.
Regardless of the hand we’ve been dealt, all of us want to win at the game of life so we need to ask: How do we do that? Is there a key that will enable us to manage our lives and our circumstances in such a way that when life is over, we can say that we handled it well and honored God?
The Contrast of Two Kings
I believe there is such a principle and we see it in many places throughout Scripture. But it’s clearly illustrated in the contrasting background and behavior of Israel’s first two kings, Saul and David.
Saul was dealt a good hand in life: he was tall, dark and handsome — a natural born leader who was chosen to be king by the people of Israel. David, on the other hand, wasn’t dealt a very good hand by life’s circumstances. He was the youngest son of eight boys, a shepherd who spent long, cold nights and hot summer days tending the sheep alone and fighting off lions and bears.
He was obviously gifted, but when recruited to Saul’s court, he was persecuted and hounded by the king and ended up living in the wilderness, on the run for years. David’s early career was not exactly what many of us would label the “good life.” But in time he became Israel’s greatest leader and Saul’s life ended in disgrace and disaster.
So what was it that David had and Saul lacked? What was it that enabled David to win at life despite his disadvantages and why did Saul, despite all his advantages, fail to do the same? The answer to those questions comes to us in the stories that cover chapters 1 Samuel 27. The stories have been arranged by the author in such way that they provide a comparison and contrast of the two men and, most importantly, they reveal what made David a success and Saul a failure. Let’s begin by looking at King Saul’s actions as recorded in chapter 1 Samuel 28.
Self-Reliance Leads to Spiritual Ruin
Here we find Saul preparing to fight the Philistines but his end is drawing near.
The Philistines had gathered together an enormous fighting force of thousands of men — an ancient version of “Shock and Awe” — and they had invaded the northern part of Israel. They had more men than the Hebrews but, of greater importance, they had iron weapons and chariots and Israel didn’t have much of either. In contemporary terms, it would be like going into battle against a massive army of tanks and armored personal carriers when you only had small, hand held weapons. You’re not only outmanned, you’re also outgunned. And according to 1 Samuel 28:4-5, when Saul sees the size and strength of the army that he has to fight, it utterly terrorizes him.
If we were in King Saul’s position and understandably afraid because we had to fight an enormous army with better weapons than ours, what would we do? My guess is that most of us would pray to God for His help. As the old saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” and that’s exactly what happens. Saul goes to the Lord but look at what happens: “He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. Saul then said to his attendants, ‘Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her'” (1 Samuel 28:6-7).
God won’t answer him so he turns to the powers of darkness. As we’re told in verses 1 Samuel 28:7-14, he calls on the witch of Endor to summon Samuel from the dead. And when Samuel comes up he says to Saul, “‘Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?’ ‘I am in great distress,’ Saul said. ‘The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has turned away from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do.’ Samuel said, ‘Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has turned away from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done what he predicted through me. The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors — to David'” (1 Samuel 28:15-17).
The word for “great distress” in 1 Samuel 28:15 is sar and it literally means to be in a “very tight place.” Here is Israel’s king, facing the biggest crisis of his life and yet God would-n’t answer his prayers or inquiries and had even become his enemy. And that raises some crucial questions with both temporal and eternal implications: Why wouldn’t God answer his prayer? Why had God become his enemy?
As we read the whole story of I Samuel we see that Saul had developed a destructive a pattern of self-reliance. He disobeyed direct commands of God, he made a rash vow against his own son, he attempted to murder David, he eventually murdered the priests at Nob, he chased David down for no good reason and he always rationalized everything he did.
This episode with the witch of Endor is simply one more illustration of Saul’s ongoing lifestyle of self-reliance. It violated God’s law which contained severe commands against dabbling with the powers of darkness; it even repudiated his own prior orders as king (1 Samuel 1:3). Throughout his entire life, Saul relied on himself and his gifts; he didn’t care what God wanted or what God demanded — he cared about what he wanted and the people demanded. And so here, facing the biggest crisis of his life, God abandons him.
We need to recognize that a spiritual law is at work here: we make choices and, over time, those choices make us. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”1
Put negatively, in the context of this passage, self-reliance is disobedience and that leads to a hardness of heart; hardness of heart then leads to more self-reliance and disobedience, which in turn, leads to even greater hardness of heart. Finally, after a period of time, it gets to the point where we can’t change because our hearts have become spiritual concrete!
A few years ago I visited The Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and it quickly became obvious that the curators were quite intentional in their arrangement of the museum. It’s a self-guided tour so you go to the top floor and then slowly work your way down, floor by floor. At first, you encounter Nazi ideas and then move on to read some early Nazi propaganda. Then you move on to see examples of Nazi vandalism and persecution.
As you make your way down, you next encounter pictures and artifacts of thousands of Jewish prisoners and then, eventually, you come face to face with the horrific reality of the Final Solution. What started off as a series of racist ideas devolved into death camps for millions of innocent people!
We’re not Nazis and we don’t want to end up like Saul, but this part of the story should send a chill up our spines — at least it does mine! It’s a warning that tells us that we can be part of the people of God, we can be someone who is incredibly talented, gifted and good-looking. We can even be a leader in the church — a pastor, an elder or a deacon. And yet we can — due to a series of sinful choices over time — get to the point where God abandons us and becomes our enemy.
This is a very scary principle for a couple of reasons. First, we all have a tendency to operate apart from God — that’s our built-in sin nature. And second, we live in a culture that is rooted in radical individualism and self-reliance. It’s almost part of our national heritage. Our society encourages us 24/7/365 to rely on our own gifts, talents, abilities, looks or money to make it in life.
So, we need to ask ourselves — and have others ask us as well — if we’re operating on our own and apart from God at work, in our relationships or even in our ministries, because that’s a dangerous way to live. Acting on our own over a long period of time will not only hurt those close to us but it can also lead to our own spiritual and moral destruction.
The Right Response: A Repentant Reliance on God
But life doesn’t ever have to be that way. There’s a far wiser way to play the hand we’re dealt as the story of David shows us. In chapter 27 we find him worn down from years of living under the constant threat of death by Saul and not surprisingly, verse 1 says, “But David thought to himself, ‘One of these days I will be destroyed by the hand of Saul. The best thing I can do is to escape to the land of the Philistines.'”
The word for “thought to himself ” literally means “vowed in his heart.” The author wants us to know that David was relying on himself and as we know, that’s dangerous! He proceeds to flee the land of Canaan and journey to Philistia where he entered the service of Achish, king of Gath, and all his men and their families go with him. And, in time, Achish gives David the town of Ziklag as a base of operations, where he lived for 16 months (1 Samuel 27:6-7).
This was a bad decision, not only because he allied himself with the visible enemies of God, but also because he told a series of lies and even found himself in the Philistine army waiting to fight King Saul (1 Samuel 29)! But the Philistine generals don’t want him in their army so he and his men are discharged and head back to Ziklag. It’s at that point that David, just like Saul, found himself in a great crisis.
1 Samuel 30:3-6say, “When David and his men came to Ziklag they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep. David’s two wives had been captured — Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters.” As the text shows, this was a terribly difficult situation and the author says that David was greatly distressed (sar) just like Saul in 1 Samuel 28.
But this is where the difference in character and spiritual commitment of the two men is revealed. In 1 Samuel 30:6 we read, “But David found strength in the Lord his God. Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, ‘Bring me the ephod.’ Abiathar brought it to him and David inquired of the Lord, ‘Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake it?’ ‘Purse them,’ He answered. ‘You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue.'”
This portion of the narrative raises the key question for us. Both Saul and David were warriors; both were relying on themselves; both were in a very tight place facing a deadly enemy. But God answers David and ignores Saul. Why? Was there a qualitative difference between the two men that caused God to act as He did and if so — what was it?
The fundamental distinction between the two was that David always had an attitude of repentance and Saul always had an attitude. If, like Saul, we can’t see any reason to change, we’ll always oppose Christ’s call but if we’re sensitive to His Spirit, like David, we’ll recognize the need to turn around when we’re headed off a spiritual or moral cliff. That’s what repentance is: it’s an attitude and action which moves us to change course, give up doing things our way and take the necessary steps to get things right.
Last summer, on a boiling hot evening in July, I went to Dairy Queen to get a chocolate-dipped ice-cream cone. After the server made my cone, the ice-cream slid off and fell all over the counter. Behind me, the line was getting longer and people were getting impatient. So, the young man tried it again and as he dipped the cone into the chocolate sauce, the ice-cream fell off into the chocolate! I’m sure the server heard the crowd grumble, but he decided to try it again and this time the ice-cream fell off the cone onto the floor!
I stood there thinking, “Buddy, are you gonna give this up before there’s a riot?” Well, he thought about it for a moment and then wisely asked one of his female co-workers for some help. She dipped my cone in the chocolate sauce, got it out safely, handed it to me and the people in line almost broke out in applause! In our view, that kid made the right decision because he repented of his errors and relied on some good help to get things right!
That’s what David always did. Sometimes he definitely got off track and, like all of us, he too often relied on his innate gifting and ingenuity. But ultimately he was concerned about God’s will, God’s plan and God’s kingdom. And when he got out of line and it caused trouble — which it inevitably did — he ultimately turned away from himself and back towards God! Saul would never do that and at the end of his life he couldn’t. It was too late because, as the text shows, he fell down in fear but not before God (1 Samuel 28:20).
David wasn’t dealt the greatest hand by life but whenever he was out of God’s will he always — in time — played the repentance card! Saul was dealt a great hand by life but he would never play the repentance card and, eventually, he lost at the game of life. And that requires us to make two essential observations.
What do we do?
First, we’re all going to blow it at different times, we’re all going to make some mistakes and on occasion, we’re all going to act in a self-reliant fashion and sin. When that happens, the right response is to always play the repentance card because it’s the one card that we all have in our deck.
There’s a story from the middle ages about a young woman who was expelled from heaven and told that she would be readmitted if she brought back the one gift God valued most. She brought back drops of blood from a dying patriot. She collected coins given by a destitute widow for the poor. She brought back the remnant of a Bible used by an eminent preacher. She even brought back the dust from shoes of missionaries who served many years in a distant land. Although she brought back these things and more, she was turned back repeatedly.
One day as she watched a small boy playing by a fountain, she saw a knight ride up on horseback and dismount to take a drink. When he saw the boy playing, he thought of the innocence of his own childhood but as he looked into the water of the fountain all he saw was a reflection of his own hardened face. He was overcome with the sins of his life and in that moment, he wept tears of repentance. The young woman took one of those tears back to heaven where she was received with joy.
Now I like that story because it shows that repentance is the first gift we offer to God, but we must be careful that we don’t make repentance just an emotion. First and foremost, it’s always an attitude and an action. As the Chinese proverb says, “If we don’t change our direction, we’ll end up where we’re headed.”
Second, if we’re living in a self-reliant way or if there’s something going on in our life that is pushing us away from God, hurting us or hurting other people, let’s repent TODAY! Let’s don’t wait and procrastinate — it only gets more difficult the longer we wait. King Saul waited too long!
Maybe you’re wrestling with a sin that could destroy you or your family; if so, please get some help and repent TODAY! Or maybe there’s a grudge you’ve been holding or a relationship that was broken and you’re stuck. Make that phone call or give that apology TODAY! Or maybe you’ve just slowly drifted away from the Lord. Please, come back TODAY!
An old Rabbi used to tell his students: “Repent the day before you die.” And the students would respond: “But rabbi, we don’t know the day of our death.” He would always reply: “Then repent today!”
The Result is Our Redemption
After repenting and seeking the Lord, David and his men go after the Amalekites who had ransacked Ziklag. As they do, they providentially come upon an Egyptian slave who had been abandoned by the Amalekites because he was sick. After David and his men fed the slave and gave him water, he took them to the Amalekite camp which they quickly attacked. And their rescue operation was more than successful; 1 Samuel 28:19 says “Nothing was missing: young or old, boy or girl, plunder or anything else they had taken. David brought everything back.”
Friends, please notice this. After repentance and reliance on God, there is always recovery in some form or another. The Lord doesn’t give up on us and He’s always willing to give us another chance if we’ll just turn back to Him. Tom Watson, Sr. was the founder of IBM and its guiding inspiration for over 40 years. On one occasion a promising junior executive was involved in a risky venture for the company and lost over 10 million dollars in the gamble. When Watson called the nervous executive into his office, the frightened young man blurted out, “I’m ready to clean out my desk and hand in my letter of resignation.” Watson replied, “Are you kidding? We just invested 10 million dollars in your education!”2
That’s how God treats us and it’s what the Bible refers to as redemption. God takes our mistakes, problems and sins and graciously works through them to bring about good. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for our disobedience — there always are as the ongoing story of David’s life demonstrates. But God’s merciful and mighty action with him in this narrative illustrates what Paul later wrote in Romans 8:28 that God does cause all things to work together for good to those who love Him. He is always investing in our spiritual education so we can become more faithful and effective servants of His. And our part in that process is to repent and then rely on Him to make things right.
As I was working on this passage, it struck me how relevant it is to all of us. There are a lot of very bright, talented and well-educated people here who have been dealt a really good hand in life. A major temptation we’ll always face — individually and collectively as a church — will be to rely on ourselves, our resources and our technology with no thought of God’s grace or the Holy Spirit’s power. But that’s a road that, in time, leads to ruin. Instead, let’s ask ourselves some penetrating questions and come up with some honest answers.
Where are we at today? Are we relying on the Holy Spirit or simply trying to manage life on our own? Where are we as a church? Are we God-dependent or selfreliant? Are we resistant to Christ’s call or humbly repentant wherever and whenever necessary?
Let’s never forget that self-reliance leads to ruin as it did with Saul but repentant reliance on the Lord leads to redemption as it did with David. May we all be more and more like Israel’s second — and greatest king — in our attitudes and actions and thereby win with God as well as at the game of life.