When David was anointed king, he was between 14 and 17 according to scholars. By this time, he’s thirty years old, and he’s been on the run in Israel with his 600 Mighty Men that whole time. At last, in Chapter 27, David says he will “one day die at Saul’s hand.” That’s definitely not what God said: God said he would be king. But after 13-16 years of running, I can certainly understand that his hope deferred made his heart sick (Proverbs 13:12). He takes his Mighty Men and leaves Israel altogether, to go and dwell in the land of the Philistines. It’s not clear, but I suspect this wasn’t God’s will for him, based on what happens next.
David doesn’t go to just in any Philistine territory, either: he’s in Gath, Goliath’s hometown! King Achish of Gath recognizes him as the hero of whom the Israelites sang, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens thousands.” Yet for some reason, Achish trusts David implicitly, giving him and his Mighty Men their own city of Ziklag. From there, David takes his men on raids against the Amalekites and other surrounding enemies of Israel, carrying out God’s instruction to take the territory, as King Saul should have been doing. Yet whenever Achish asks him where he’s been, David tells him he was raiding the Negeb, part of Israel. So he lies, basically. This further convinces Achish that David is his man: the Israelites will never take him back now!
Two things happen as a result of this: first, David makes a lot of enemies among the surrounding nations, who want retribution for his raids and plunder against them. They also know the location of his home base of Ziklag. The second is that, when the Philistines march into battle against Israel, Achish wants David by his side. According to the text, David wants to go, too. Scripture almost never records a person’s motives or thoughts, though; only their actions and words. Knowing what we know of David, it seems extremely unlikely that he meant what he said. The other Philistine leaders refused to let David go into battle with them, though, lest he turn on them from within their own ranks. I’m sure they were right, and David would have done just that. There’s no way the anointed king would have slaughtered his own people!
So David and his men are sent back to Ziklag, which they had left unprotected, expecting to go to war. When they arrive, they find it in flames. The Amalekites took their opportunity for revenge, and ravaged the city.
Imagine how David and his men felt as they approached the city from a distance, and saw the smoke trailing up into the sky. When they carried out raids against their enemies, they left no survivors. Surely the men would have therefore assumed their families had all been slaughtered! No wonder the Mighty Men, who had been following David for over a decade and had little to show for it, turned on him at last. They spoke of stoning David, blaming him for their devastating loss—and maybe it was his fault! After all, were they supposed to be living among the Philistines? Were they supposed to have gone off to war with Achish, considering David earned their place there through deceit? I’m sure all these thoughts went through David’s head too. Had he irrevocably stepped outside the will of the Lord? Was there no going back?
David’s response to this crisis is truly incredible. He’s been on the run for 13-16 years, clinging to a promise that seems utterly impossible. He made some poor choices, with seemingly devastating consequences. Now, he’s lost everything, and the only men loyal to him have turned against him. But instead of despairing, he “encourages himself in the Lord.” There was no one else to encourage him; they all wanted to kill hiM! He had to do it himself. To dramatize this part, I put David’s own Psalm 61 in his mouth, since that apparently was written about Ziklag, and he may well have penned it during those moments.
Next, he calls for the ephod: a garment worn by the priest, also used to receive direction from the Lord. He then asked the Lord if he should take his men and pursue the Amalekites. The ephod could only give him a yes/no answer, and yet the scripture says that God told him, “pursue; you will recover all.” This must have been a word spoken directly to David’s spirit. I’d imagine it also occurred to David as he spoke to the Lord that there were no bodies at Ziklag, so they must have taken their families captive, rather than slaughtered them! Why? Presumably this was God’s favor and protection, since David and his men showed no such mercy to their enemies.
David manages to convince four hundred of his six hundred men, so lately intent upon stoning him, to accompany him in his raid. Two hundred were too exhausted to go on. David didn’t know where the Amalekites had gone, but God provided direction in the form of one of their abandoned Egyptian slaves. They found him wandering in the desert, where he likely would have died of starvation if not for David and his men’s kindness. In return, the man agrees to lead them to the Amalekites’ camp. The men catch them unawares, reveling and rejoicing in their spoils. David and his four hundred men beat them for twenty-four hours straight until four hundred of the Amalekites escape and flee—the same number of men that David started with!This alone tells us David’s men were vastly outnumbered, yet it doesn't matter. God is with them. And just as God promised, they recovered all: wives, children, livestock, wealth. They even gathered some of the spoils that the Amalekites had taken from other raids, and David sent some of it to Israelite leaders as a gift, to reestablish the contacts he had lost during his time living with the Philistines.
Meanwhile, during the battle against the Philistines, both King Saul and his son Jonathan are killed. David doesn’t learn this until three days afterwards, when a messenger comes to tell him—carrying Saul’s crown.
The moment has come at long, long last. David is crowned king first of Judah (Saul’s other son Ishbosheth initially succeeds Saul in Israel). Then a few years later, David reunites the entire kingdom. In a period of just a few days, he goes from losing everything, on the verge of losing his life to the men sworn to protect and follow him, to being crowned king.
God can take an utterly impossible situation and turn it around in a moment.
This is the text of my retelling:
My soul weariness at times threatened to turn my heart bitter. But that, I could not allow.
It had been sixteen years since the day Samuel the prophet had anointed me king. I was a fourteen-year old dreamer then. Now at thirty, I felt as disillusioned as a man twice my age. I could scarcely remember the boy I once was. For most of those years, I had been on the run from King Saul, who ironically was so dear to me that I could not raise my hand against him. For one thing, he still held the position of the Lord’s anointed until the Lord saw fit to remove him, and that alone would have been enough to stay my hand. For another, he had been my father-in-law. Well did I recall the days when I had dreamt of his daughter Michal as the beautiful princess I had never yet seen. As a reward for defeating Goliath, she had become my bride. What a triumph my wedding day had been! One of the pinnacles of my young life, a symbol to me of all that the Lord had promised.
It had been years since I had even seen Michal. By now, I was sure she had been given away to another man.
Saul was also dear to me for the sake of his son, Jonathan. I loved Jonathan far more than any of my brothers by blood. Whatever souls are made of, his and mine were the same. I also owed him my life. Though Jonathan was next in line for the throne, he knew his father sought to kill me, and aided in my escape. He knew of the Lord’s calling on my life, and told me that he planned to give me his throne. He would be content to be second in command, he said! What a friend. Yet it had been many years since I had seen Jonathan, either. I wondered if we would even still recognize one another.
It wasn’t as if the Lord had completely abandoned me in all these years of running and hiding. He had given me my Mighty Men—my own personal army, six hundred in all. True, they were made up of the misfits and former criminals of Israel, the men who were poorly esteemed and therefore had no love for King Saul. They had followed me wherever I went all these years, and so far had nothing to show for their pains.
Finally in exhaustion and discouragement, I’d just gotten tired of never having a place to lay my head. If I stayed in one place in Israel, I feared that Saul would at last find and kill me. That wasn’t what Samuel had prophesied, but what if there were different kinds of prophesies—those that would be, and those that may be? What if my choices made a difference in whether or not the word came to pass?
I could not hope to ask Samuel about this, as word had reached me that he had died. And the truth was, I’d reached the end of my endurance, emotionally. I could not flee anymore within the borders of Israel. So, about a year and four months ago, I’d crossed Israel’s borders into Philistine country, and presented myself before Achish, king of Gath. The irony did not escape me: this was Goliath’s home country, the great warrior I had killed in my youth. King Achish was enormous, like all of the Philistines, but not as large as their champion had been. I shall never forget the confusion on Achish’s face when I presented myself to him, and he did the math, sizing me up.
“Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his tens thousands,” Achish had murmured to himself. This was the song the young women of Israel had sung in praise of me all those years ago: one of the inciting causes of Saul’s jealousy of me. The song had been sung far and wide, and apparently had even reached Gath. I bowed my head in acknowledgement.
“Yes my lord, that was me.”
“But you are so small!” he exclaimed, and I had the impression he had not meant to say it aloud. I laughed, and then he laughed. Suddenly we were friends.
“You would be surprised what this ‘small' man can do with a sword, my lord. Not to mention a sling. You know that story, I trust.”
“I see now why you needed the sling! You would not have been able to reach Goliath with a sword!” It was an exaggeration, but I let the king enjoy his mirth at my expense. I needed him in a good mood.
When he had finished, I said, “Be that as it may, you have heard the stories. I offer my sword to my lord to fight against his enemies, both mine and those of my six hundred fighting men with me.”
Achish shook his head, confused, but remarkably unsuspicious. “Why should Israel’s great hero offer his sword to me?”
I was prepared for this question. I had expected it, and I had the best possible answer. I sighed. “Because King Saul has been trying to kill me for the last fifteen years, and I am tired of fleeing from him in Israel. I do not think he will continue to seek me here, in the land of his enemies.”
“Kill you! One of his best warriors?” Achish exclaimed. “Why should he do such a foolish thing?”
“Jealousy makes a man do strange things, my lord.”
“Ah,” Achish’s expression cleared with understanding. “The song.”
I let him think that was all. I did not tell him I had been anointed king in his stead all those years ago. That was a secret that would not serve me well in the country of Israel’s enemies.
Achish not only allowed me to remain within the Philistine borders, but gave to me and to my men the country town called Ziklag. It was the first home base I and my men had known in over a decade. From there, we went out on raids against Israel’s enemies in neighboring territories, doing what the Lord had told King Saul to do: taking the land back from the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites. We brought the spoils back with us to Ziklag. Whenever Achish asked what we had been doing, I would always tell him we had raided the Negeb. Why this convinced the king of my loyalty to him, why he never asked any questions, I never knew. Perhaps the Lord gave me favor in his eyes.
Unfortunately, Achish’s trust in me ran so deep that he called upon me and my men to fight with him against Israel. I had suspected that day might come eventually, but it meant the end of our respite. Achish, who had accidentally become a friend of sorts, would know my true loyalties when I and my men began to fight against him for Israel, from among his own ranks. Where would we go then? Having carried out raids against enemies in surrounding nations, we could hardly seek refuge there. Achish would become my enemy. Saul was still trying to kill me, so returning to Israel was less than ideal. But what choice did I have?
My men assembled with the Philistine army at Aphek at dusk, to march upon the Israelite army in Jezreel come daybreak. My heart ached with homesickness as we approached. I wondered if any of the soldiers I had known in my youth would be among them. I wondered if Jonathan would be there. Of course he would; he was a man of valor, and would never be content to sit home while the armies of Israel went to war. He would be on the front lines. I would fight by his side, if I could. I only hoped I would not be called upon to kill my friend Achish.
The Philistine commanders stared at my men and me with narrowed eyes. I saw them approach Achish, and I knew what they were saying. “What are these Hebrews doing here?” Achish would defend me, as I knew from his posture that he was doing even as I watched from a distance. “I have found no fault in him to this day!” he would be saying. The commanders’ response looked angry. “He shall not go down with us to battle, lest in the battle he become an adversary to us!” This I imagined, for this was the truth. Shortly, Achish withdrew from his commanders and approached me, his posture telling me what he had to say before I heard his words.
“As the Lord lives, you have been honest, and to me it seems right that you should march out and in with me in the campaign. For I have found nothing wrong in you from the day of your coming to me to this day. Nevertheless, the lords do not approve of you. So go back now; and go peaceably, that you may not displease the lords of the Philistines.”
A great weight lifted from my heart, though it mingled with sadness that my vision of fighting for Israel again, side by side with Jonathan, would not come true. Channeling these mixed emotions, I replied, “But what have I done? What have you found in your servant from the day I entered your service until now, that I may not go and fight against the enemies of my lord the king?”
Achish replied to me, “I know that you are as blameless in my sight as an angel of God. Nevertheless, the commanders of the Philistines have said, ‘He shall not go up with us to the battle.’ Now then rise early in the morning with the servants of your lord who came with you, and start early in the morning, and depart as soon as you have light.”
I told my men the will of the king, to the general relief of all. They did not mind betraying Achish in battle, but they had not cared for the prospect of losing Ziklag. Nor did I. I roused the men and we set off back to Ziklag again at first light, before the battle between Israel and the Philistines began. My heart broke as we left, and I wrestled with sadness and despair and anger on the three days’ journey from Jezreel back to Ziklag. When would I be allowed to return to my homeland, the nation I loved more than my own life’s blood, the nation I had been anointed to rule? I was now thirty years old, and I had been anointed at fourteen! How much longer? Had I somehow already missed my opportunity? When I came to the land of the Philistines, even though I had remained loyal to Israel throughout, had I stepped irrevocably outside the will of the Lord? Would He not tell me? Would He say nothing?
I was still in this dark mood when we came to Ziklag, longing to pour out my heart to Abigail, my wise and clever wife who always seemed to know what to say and do. But as soon as the city came into view, I stopped abruptly. So did all six hundred of my men.
The smoke of the city’s remains trailed up to the sky.
I fell to my knees and let out a wail of grief. All around me, my men did the same, shouting and weeping. Some ran on ahead to inspect the decimated city close up, but we found exactly what we knew we’d find: there was nothing, and no one left.
“You did this,” snarled one of my men at last, extending a shaking finger at me, cold fury in his eyes. Then he raised his voice to his fellows. “This is David’s doing! He led the raids against the Amalekites, and this is their retribution! He left our city and our wives and our children defenseless while we went off to fight a duplicitous war! This is what we get in return for years of loyalty to him! Let’s kill him! Stone him, it’s no more than he deserves!”
I recoiled in shock, but could not muster the strength to reply. I hid my face, despair threatening to crush me from the inside. The mighty man’s declaration met with grumbles of agreement, but without any real animosity behind them. They did not hate me, I knew; not truly. They were bitter in soul at the loss of their wives and their children, and wanted someone to blame. No doubt, I was to blame: I was the one who made all the decisions that had led us to this place. Perhaps I did deserve to die. Perhaps it would be better if I died; then all my struggles in this miserable world would be over.
No. The word rose up on the inside of me unbidden, like a beacon of hope. It did not come from me, but it stopped my destructive thoughts in their downward spiral. No. The Lord was good. His promises still stood, no matter how impossible things looked. I would encourage myself in the Lord; I would not allow myself to despair.
“Hear my cry, O God,” I whispered, “listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! For you, O God, have heard my vows; you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name. Prolong the life of the king; may his years endure to all generations! May he be enthroned forever before God; appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him! So will I ever sing praises to your name, as I perform my vows day after day.”
I felt steadier when I had finished praying. Then, suddenly, it occurred to me how strange it was that there were no bodies. That meant the Amalekites had taken our wives and children alive. Why had they done so? In our raids against our enemies, we had left no survivors. All was not lost; those we loved yet lived, though among our enemies, and surely our livestock and wealth too had been plundered, but not destroyed!
I knew what I had to do next. I called to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, and said, “Bring me the ephod.” He brought me the garment worn by the priest, used in both worship and in seeking the will of the Lord. I sought direction now. Beneath the breastplate, I removed Urim and Thummim, flat stones with markings upon them. Then I prayed to the Lord, “Shall I pursue after this band? Shall I overtake them?” The stones themselves were capable of only yes or no answers. They now said yes, but I heard in my spirit, “Pursue, for you shall surely overtake and shall surely rescue.” I closed my eyes. Relief flooded me, as if the raid were already complete. This mourning would not last. It would be turned to joy!
I stood and announced to my men, “The Lord has told me to pursue the Amalekites. We shall overtake them and rescue our families!” I announced. “Come, we have no time to lose!”
The reception of this announcement was mixed. Some received it with immediate relief, as I had. Some cursed me for my optimism. Some merely watched me with hopelessness and exhaustion. But at last I persuaded all six hundred of them to arm themselves once again, and follow me.
It became apparent, though, that two hundred of my company were too exhausted to participate in the raid, heartsick as well as weary. I know from too much experience that the former can be far worse than the latter. A crushed spirit who can bear? Quite frankly, I did not want their negativity in our company anyway, as the mood was infectious. I was more than happy to leave them behind at the brook Besor. The four hundred remaining men and I rode on in the general direction of where the raiding band of Amalekites was likely to be. Truth be told, I did not know exactly where I was going, and hoped the Lord would give me a sign.
It came, in a surprising form: a dark-skinned, weak, and half starved man, wandering alone in open country. He was some distance away from us, but I called my men to halt, and to bring him to me. I had compassion on him, and before we spoke, I ordered him to be given bread and water from our stores. When he ate this hungrily, I encouraged the men to find him something more: a cake of figs, and two clusters of raisins.
When he had eaten and was satisfied, his eyes brightened and his whole countenance changed. At last, I asked him, “To whom do you belong? And where are you from?”
The man answered, “I am a young man of Egypt, servant to an Amalekite, and my master left me behind because I fell sick three days ago. We had made a raid against the Negeb of the Cherethites and against that which belongs to Judah and against the Negeb of Caleb, and we burned Ziklag with fire.”
There was a murmuring ripple through my men at this information. My heart leapt within me with fierce joy: this mistreated man was the Lord’s provision for us!
“Will you take me down to this band?” I asked him.
A brief look of trepidation flitted across the man’s features, but then it cleared. Had we not already proven ourselves kinder than the master he left? “Swear to me by God that you will not kill me or deliver me into the hands of my master, and I will take you down to this band.”
“Do this for us, and after that your life shall be your own,” I swore. “We shall even send you on your way with a portion of the spoils.”
So the servant led us where we needed to go, right to the heart of the Amalekite camp. We found them unawares, eating and drinking and dancing in celebration of their great spoils from the Philistines and from Judah. No doubt they expected no one to pursue them, as the battle between the Philistines and Israel still raged on. Had we not been sent away by Achish, we too would still have been at war.
Alas for them! My men, revived and incensed at the sight, attacked and struck down the Amalekites from twilight that day until the evening of the next. Of the entire company of them, only four hundred escaped on mounted camels—the same number of my entire avenging army.
When the fighting was done, I sought among the women and children we had rescued for my two wives, Abigail and Ahinoam. All around us, my exhausted and filthy men reunited with their families with shouts and tears. Best of all, not a single thing was missing that the Amalekites had taken, whether small or great, sons or daughters, spoil or anything that had been taken. We recovered all. We even took flocks and herds that had not belonged to us, driving them before us on our return journey to the brook Besor where we left the other two hundred men. Some of the four hundred who had come with me grumbled and begrudged their brothers their portion of the spoils, but I rebuked them for this.
“The Lord has preserved us and given into our hand the band that came against us. Who would listen to you in this matter? For as his share is who goes down into the battle, so shall his share be who stays by the baggage. They shall share alike.” I was in a generous mood, and besides, I did not wish to alienate one third of my men, nor to encourage favoritism. We were a family, and we would act like one.
When we returned to our burned and ruined city, I sent portions of the spoil to the elders of Judah, saying, “Here is a present for you from the spoil of the enemies of the Lord.” It was a way for me to reestablish contact with the men of my country, from whom I had been estranged during the long years of my flight. Some of the spoil had originally been theirs, too, according to the Egyptian servant, whom we had also sent away a wealthy man.
In the following two days, the men set about rebuilding Ziklag, though I did not join them. I knew in my heart that I would not be here long enough, though I did not know why.
On the third day after our return, I had my answer. I saw a messenger running toward me, his clothes torn and dirty. I froze, as if my heart had turned to stone. He carried with him a crown and an armlet.
He carried a crown.