6. David Strengthens Himself in the Lord (1 Samuel 29-2 Samuel 1)

Audio (29:48)

James J. Tissot, 'The Women of Ziklag Taken into Captivity'(1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'The Women of Ziklag Taken into Captivity' (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York. Larger image.

David, a fugitive from King Saul in exile among the Philistines, is perhaps 30 years old[128] when his protector, Achish, king of the Philistine city of Gath, calls up the military forces of all his vassals to fight against the Israelites. Up to this point, David has tried to be loyal to Saul, while at the same time pledging fealty to Achish (chapter 27). Now David faces a terrible dilemma.

"Achish said to David, 'You know, of course, that you and your men are to go out with me in the army.' David said to Achish, 'Very well, then you shall know what your servant can do. 'Achish said to David, 'Very well, I will make you my bodyguard for life.'" (28:1b-2)

Notice David's answer: "Then you shall know what your servant can do." David himself doesn't know what he will do, but he trusts the Lord to guide him. He gives Achish an ambiguous answer. Achish takes it as assent and full commitment to battle Israel. But David means it as a willingness to subvert the Philistine forces while within them, if need be. The die is cast. David's 600 men will join the massing armies of Philistia -- or will he?

Framing the Battle of Gilboa

Map: Philistines and Saul Assemble for Battle at Mt. Gilboa (1 Samuel 28-29)
Map: Philistines and Saul Assemble for Battle at Mt. Gilboa (1 Samuel 28-29). Larger map.

In the previous lesson we read,

 "The Philistines assembled, and came and encamped at Shunem. Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly." (28:4-5)

The place where this showdown battle takes place is north of the Philistine's core territory -- and north of Saul's capital. The Philistines begin to mass their troops in the Jezreel Valley for several reasons:

  1. Chariot advantage. The flat river valley was a much better place for the 3,000 Philistine chariots (13:5); the Israelites had no chariots. Chariots couldn't operate effectively in the hill country where Saul lived, so the Philistines chose the valley.
  2. Split Israel. If the Philistines win the battle they can seriously weaken Saul by splitting off the Israelite tribes south of the Valley of Jezreel (Ephraim, Ben­jamin, Judah, etc.) from those north of it, around the Sea of Galilee (East Manasseh, Asher, Naphtali). Saul is forced to fight on this ground or lose control over much of his kingdom.
  3. Opportunity for a decisive battle. If the Philistines can defeat Saul in this all-out battle, they can subdue Israel in the future and take over Judean towns in the Shepelah or low hills to the east of the coastal plain where the Philistines live. What is shaping up is not just a skirmish, but a major battle pitting the massed troops of the Philistine confederation and their vassals against the less organized, smaller, and poorly equipped force that Saul is able to put in the field. Add to this the fact that the Philistines have more advanced weaponry -- iron vs. bronze -- the battle can bring about Philistine dominance in the region for decades.[129]

Saul had no choice but to fight, but his odds of winning are poor. No wonder Saul is terrified!

David and His Men Are Sent Home (chapter 29)

"1 The Philistines gathered all their forces at Aphek, and Israel camped by the spring in Jezreel. 2 As the Philistine rulers marched with their units of hundreds and thousands, David and his men were marching at the rear with Achish." (29:1-2)

The Yarkon River is considered the northern extent of Philistine occupation.[130] Aphek, where the Philistine troops gather, is identified with Tell Ras el-'Ain about 10 miles east of present-day Tel Aviv, an area of springs providing the main source of the Yarkon River.

On the other hand, Saul's forces assemble near "the spring in Jezreel" (29:1b), probably the present 'Ain Jalud, just under the northern cliffs of Mount Gilboa, at the south edge of the Jezreel Valley. Dugan says, "A plentiful and beautiful spring of clear cold water rises in a rocky cave and flows out into a large pool, whence it drains off, in Nahr Jalud, down the valley past Beisan to the Jordan."[131] Where Saul's troops now camped, Gideon had camped with his troops centuries before as they prepared to fight the Midianites (Judges 7:1).

The Philistine march begins, but then reports of Israelites among the troops reach other generals in the Philistine confederation. Achish defends David and his record of loyalty, but the other Philistine leaders will have none of it. After all, with 600 men, David could do great damage behind Philistine lines once the battle begins. The generals aren't fooled:

"Send the man back, that he may return to the place you assigned him. He must not go with us into battle, or he will turn against us during the fighting. How better could he regain his master's favor than by taking the heads of our own men? Isn't this the David they sang about in their dances: 'Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands'?" (29:4b-5)

Now Achish faces the delicate task of explaining the situation to David without offending him. David appears hurt, but inwardly he is relieved. So in the morning, the Philistine armies advance toward the Jezreel Valley, while David and his men begin the long trek back to Ziklag, far south in the Negev desert. Somehow, the Lord has helped David out of a ticklish situation!

David and His Men Mourn the Raid on Ziklag (30:1-5)

It is a three-day, 50-mile journey from north of Aphek to Ziklag, and by the time they return home, David and his men are worn out.

But when they arrive, they find Ziklag destroyed with smoke arising from the ashes, perhaps in retaliation for the raids David had made on the Amalekites (27:8). The narrator explains:

"Now the Amalekites had raided the Negev and Ziklag. They had attacked Ziklag and burned it, and had taken captive the women and all who were in it, both young and old. They killed none of them, but carried them off as they went on their way." (30:1-2)

The exhausted warriors are beside themselves with exhaustion and grief.

"So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep." (30:4)

In our culture it is considered a sign of weakness for men to weep in public. But in the Middle East, men mourn just as openly as women. And David's men have lost everything that is dear to them.

The Men Blame David (30:6a)

Predictably, the men begin to blame David.

"David was greatly distressed[132] because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter[133] in spirit because of his sons and daughters." (30:6a)

"If David hadn't made us go north with our Philistine enemies, this wouldn't have happened," you can hear them say. "David should have insisted that we leave some of our men here to defend our families. It's his fault!" Some talked of stoning him.

It's pretty human to assign blame, even when it isn't warranted. We blame ourselves if a child is killed by a drunk driver for not keeping him closer to home -- even when the driver was clearly at fault. We blame others for events that impact us negatively, even if they couldn't have reasonably foreseen them. Politicians take credit for the jobs "they" have created, but they are also blamed for a downturn in the economy that they couldn't have reasonably prevented. Blame is natural, even if it's unfair. Nevertheless, it hurts when people blame you unjustly.

Strengthening Yourself in the Lord (30:6b)

One of my favorite verses in David's life is this one:

"But David found strength in the LORD his God." (30:6b, NIV)

Other translations are that he "strengthened himself" (NRSV) or "encouraged himself" (KJV) in the LORD his God. The verb is ḥāzaq, "be(come) strong, strengthen, prevail, harden, be courageous." The Hithpael stem of this word here is usually the reflexive idea, of "strengthening oneself."[134]

I can imagine David's 600 men weeping, cursing, blaming, and talking rebellion. But over at the side by himself is David. He sits in the dust with tears running down his face, but he is praying. He is singing quietly to himself and to the Lord. He cannot allow himself to become depressed and filled with hopelessness. He cannot allow himself to become defensive and react to his men's rebellious voices. He must connect with the Lord himself so that he can find strength to go on.

The Quaker tradition calls this "centering down," seeking to enter into a calm, quiet, reflective, receptive state.

Q1. (1 Samuel 30:1-6) Why do the men blame David? Why is the situation so explosive at this point. What does David do in the situation? What is David feeling? Why doesn't he act immediately?

David Strengthening Himself in the Psalms

Just how do you go about strengthening or encouraging yourself in the Lord when everything is crashing in upon you? Here are some examples from the Davidic Psalms of David doing this very thing. Take the time to read these passages, for in them you'll find the secrets of strengthening yourself:

"In my distress I called to the LORD;
I cried to my God for help." (Psalm 18:6a)

"The LORD is my light and my salvation -- whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life -- of whom shall I be afraid?
When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh,
when my enemies and my foes attack me,
they will stumble and fall." (Psalm 27:1-2)

"I will extol the LORD at all times;
his praise will always be on my lips.
 My soul will boast in the LORD;
let the afflicted hear and rejoice.
 Glorify the LORD with me;
let us exalt his name together.
I sought the LORD, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.
This poor man called, and the LORD heard him;
he saved him out of all his troubles." (Psalm 34:1-6)

"I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.
 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the LORD." (Psalm 40:1-3)

"As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while men say to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'
These things I remember as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go with the multitude,
leading the procession to the house of God,
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.
 Why are you downcast, O my soul?
 Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and  my God." (Psalm 42:1-6a)

"Be merciful to me, O God, for men hotly pursue me;
all day long they press their attack.
 My slanderers pursue me all day long;
many are attacking me in their pride.
 When I am afraid, I will trust in you.
 In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust;
I will not be afraid. What can mortal man do to me?" (Psalm 56:1-4)

"My soul finds rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken." (Psalm 62:1-2)

Q2. (1 Samuel 30:6) From the Psalms of David, how does David seem to strengthen himself in the Lord when things are going bad? What devotional exercises does he adopt? What is the focus of his faith?

David Pursues the Amalekites (30:7-17)

First, David spends some time before the Lord getting his strength restored and his faith renewed. His first task isn't to find out what to do next. It's to receive refreshing from the Lord after a big emotional and spiritual blow.

But, second, David considers what action he should take. Often, we'll run off half-cocked. But David inquires of the Lord via the Urim and Thummim in the high priest's ephod as he had done in the past when faced with a decision about what action to take (23:9).

"7 Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, 'Bring me the ephod.' Abiathar brought it to him, 8 and David inquired of the LORD, 'Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?'
'Pursue them,' he answered. 'You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue.'" (30:7-8)

Encouraged by the Lord, David and his army travel swiftly south to the Besor Ravine, about a dozen miles south of Ziklag.  The Wadi Besor (sometimes called Wadi Ghazzeh near its mouth) is the largest stream in the northern Negev desert, considered the southern boundary of Philistine territory.[135]

"David and the six hundred men with him came to the Besor Ravine, where some stayed behind, for two hundred men were too exhausted to cross the ravine. But David and four hundred men continued the pursuit." (30:9-10)

Here, the desert floor has been deeply eroded during the occasional flash floods in the Negev, so that crossing the wadi requires major effort. For about one third of David's men, it is too much. They are exhausted physically and emotionally, and just can't go on.

But David and the rest of his men travel without stop through the wilderness, trying to track the Amalekites, looking for signs of their passage. Finally, they find a half-dead Egyptian, and give him water and food to revive him. It turns out he had been with the Amalekites until he was left for dead. Now he leads David's men to the Amalekite camp.

Apparently, the Amalekites are a much larger group than the 400 with David, since the text tells us that only 400 young men escape on camels. Due to the element of initial surprise and the ferocity of David's men, most of the Amalekites are slaughtered, as the David's army "fought them from dusk until the evening of the next day" (30:17). The victory is so complete that the Amalekites are not mentioned as an opponent of Israel for 300 years.

David Divides the Plunder (30:18-25)

Best of all, David's men recover every one of their wives and children unharmed. Amazing! They also are entitled to plunder taken from Ziklag.

As leader, David gets the largest portion of plunder -- the flocks and herds obtained from the Amalekites' other raids in the Negev; of course, the flocks and herds from Ziklag are returned to their owners. David's men divide up the rest of the plunder, which probably consists of jewelry, clothing, and slaves from other raided settlements in the Negev.

Some don't want to share the plunder with the 200 they had left exhausted at the Besor Ravine. But David insists. He attributed the victory to the Lord. By this action, David unifies his troops -- even though he doesn't make them all happy.

"The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike." (30:24)

This policy became an established law in Israel.

David Sends Some of the Plunder to the Elders of Judah (30:26-31)

Notice what David does with his plunder. Instead of keeping it to enrich himself, he divides it up and sends it to the elders of the various cities and towns in Judah where he had roamed among during his fugitive sojourn.

"Here is a present for you from the plunder of the LORD's enemies." (30:26)

There were two purposes. First, to cement his friendship with them; David has his eye on the kingship. Second, to demonstrate that David hasn't participated with the Philistines in fighting against Saul, but has only fought against their common enemies. David is a shrewd man when it comes to politics.

The Philistines Kill Saul and His Sons (31:1-6)

In the meantime, up north in the Valley of Jezreel, the armies of Israel experience a crushing defeat at the hands of the Philistines. Once the Philistines attacked and the Israelites realized they couldn't win, they broke ranks and ran for their lives, but "many fell slain on Mount Gilboa" (31:1) -- including Saul and three of his sons: Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua.

Saul is wounded by Philistine archers. Realizing that he will be tortured and humiliated if captured, Saul asks his armor-bearer to kill him. But when the armor-bearer refuses, Saul falls on his sword and his armor-bearer follows suit. The narrator concludes:

"So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day." (30:6)

Map: The Battle of Gilboa (1 Samuel 28, 31). Larger map.

But the battle doesn't affect only the Israelite army. All the residents of the area flee as well, and the Philistines come and occupy these once-Israelite towns. The battle is a rout and changes the map of the areas now controlled by the Philistines. Israel is divided north from south, and greatly weakened.

The Bodies of Saul and His Sons Are Buried (31:8-13)

The next day, the Philistines find Saul's body, gleefully cut off his head, and spread the word to all the Philistine towns. His armor is displayed in a heathen temple and his sons' bodies are dishonored by fastening them to the wall of the city of Beth Shan,[136] "the easternmost of the line of old Canaanite fortress cities across the country from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, which the Israelites had not conquered" (Joshua 17:11-13).[137]

"Valiant men" from the Israelite city of Jabesh Gilead,[138] about 10 miles south, remove the bodies from the wall, and take them home. Then they burn the bodies, bury the bones in honor under a tamarisk tree, and fast for seven days of mourning for their fallen king. It is a sad day in Israel!

David Hears of Saul's Death (2 Samuel 1:1-16)

On the third day after David and his men return to Ziklag after their victory over the Amalekites, a messenger arrives with the news of Saul's and Jonathan's deaths. David asks the circumstances. The messenger explains how the wounded Saul had asked him to finish him off.

"So I stood over him and killed him, because I knew that after he had fallen he could not survive. And I took the crown that was on his head and the band on his arm and have brought them here to my lord." (2 Samuel 1:10)

The messenger probably expects a reward for his mercy killing and for bringing David the crown. But he badly misjudges David's reaction. Instead of rejoicing, David instinctively mourns:

"Then David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the LORD and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword." (1:11-12)

David asks the Amalekite,

"'Why were you not afraid to lift your hand to destroy the LORD's anointed.' Then David called one of his men and said, 'Go, strike him down!' So he struck him down, and he died. For David had said to him, 'Your blood be on your own head. Your own mouth testified against you when you said, "I killed the LORD's anointed."'" (1:14-16)

Even when Saul had acted unrighteously, David would not slay him, even though twice he could have. That this opportunist would take killing Saul upon himself was an abomination to David! Being an Amalekite probably doesn't help, since David has just finished slaying hundreds of Amalekites whom he considers to be the "enemies of God's people." Probably the Amalekite is lying. He probably merely stripped the body and then brought the crown to David seeking a reward. Oops.

David's Lament for Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:17-27)

Take a few moments to read the amazing psalm that David wrote in honor of Saul and Jonathan. Note how gracious he is even to Saul, who had sought to kill him. He looks beyond Saul's dark and troubled side to Saul's greatness as a king and warrior in Israel.

"17 David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, 18 and ordered that the men of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):

'19 Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights.
How the mighty have fallen!
20 Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.

21 O mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain,
nor fields that yield offerings [of grain].
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of Saul -- no longer rubbed with oil.

22 From the blood of the slain,
from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.

23 Saul and Jonathan -- in life they were loved and gracious,
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.

24 O daughters of Israel, weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
25 How the mighty have fallen in battle!

Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
 26 I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.

27 How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished!" (2 Samuel 1:19-27)

This psalm is an excellent example of the "lament genre" of Hebrew poetry.[139] There's a book in the Bible named "Lamentations." There are examples of lamentations in Anglo Saxon poetry. But in our present day, the closest lament literature we find is in country songs!

Lamenting in faith is an important art that we Christians need to reclaim, for we have hope after death, unlike the people around us.

Saul's Epitaph (1 Chronicles 10:13-14)

David's epitaph is gracious, but the Chronicler's epitaph on Saul's life and legacy speaks of the judgment of the Lord against him:

"Saul died because he was unfaithful to the LORD; he did not keep the word of the LORD and even consulted a medium for guidance, and did not inquire of the LORD. So the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse." (1 Chronicles 10:13-14)

I wonder what will be your epitaph and mine. Have we been faithful to the Lord? Have we repented where we have sinned? It really doesn't matter how you start your Christian life. Because God is merciful and gracious, and Jesus died for your sins, you are forgiven. And it's how you finish your life that counts regarding your rewards. Finish well, my dear friend!

Q3. (2 Samuel 1:19-27; 1 Chronicles 10:13-14) David is gracious in his memorial psalm. How does he remember Saul's life? How does the Chronicler remember Saul's life? How do you think God evaluates Saul's life? What do we learn from this?

Lessons for Disciples

In this lesson, we've seen God's hand at work in David's life. Some lessons for disciples include:

  1. We must learn to strengthen ourselves in the Lord when our lives seem like they're falling apart. There are many examples of how to do this in David's Psalms.
  2. When we can, we should share the Lord's bounty with others, even with those who may not deserve it.
  3. We need to learn to die well so that our epitaph brings glory to the Lord, rather than disgrace.
Life of David, Discipleship Lessons in 1 and 2 Samuel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

This lesson has taken us to both the highs and lows of emotions. We observe David honoring the Lord both in defeat and in victory. In the wilderness, David has been faithful, but his wilderness experience is nearly over. In the next lesson we'll see his rise to the throne of all Israel.


Father, thank you that in the times that we are utterly shattered, you are with us. We ask you to help us to learn to strengthen ourselves in you, so that instead of just reacting,  we make wise decisions about the future. Teach us to live well with you in the wilderness so that we might see your grace in the days to come. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the LORD his God." (1 Samuel 30:6)

"The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All will share alike." (1 Samuel 30:24)

"How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women. How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished!" (2 Samuel 1:25-27)

[128] 1 Samuel 5:4. For more on David's ages at different points, see Appendix 4: A Chronology of David's Life.

[129] Bright says, "The Philistine tactics are intelligible. The route into Esdraelon [that is, the Jezreel Valley] was in their control, and along it they might count on the support of Sea Peoples and Canaanite city-states allied with them. Furthermore, it offered terrain upon which their chariots could maneuver (2 Samuel 1:6), together with the possibility of cutting Saul off from the Galilean tribes to the north. Why Saul let himself be drawn into battle at such a place is less obvious" (John Bright, History of Israel, p. 194).

[130] J.F. Prewitt, "Aphek," ISBE 1:150; Tsumura, 1 Samuel, pp. 188-189.

[131] Quote from R.P. Dugan, "Harod," ISBE 2:618. See also Arthur E. Cundall and Leon Morris, Judges-Ruth: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Series; Inter-Varsity Press, 1968), p. 109.

[132] "Distressed" (NIV, KJV), "in great danger" (NRSV) is yāṣar, "bind, be narrow, be in distress" (TWOT #1973). I think the author is talking about David's internal distress, rather than an outward danger from his men here.

[133] The phrase "bitter in spirit" (NIV, NRSV), "soul ... was grieved" (KJV) uses the verb mārar, "to be bitter, embitter." It is interesting to note that the Hebrews expressed tragic, unpleasant experiences in terms of the sense of taste, the bitter (Victor P. Hamilton, mārar, TWOT #1248).

[134] Carl Philip Weber, ḥāzaq, TWOT #636.

[135] This is the first major wadi southwest of Tell esh-Sheri1ah (which may be ancient Ziklag). Tsumura, 1 Samuel, pp. 639-640. Modern Israeli maps identify it as Habesor, or "the Besor." J.F. Prewitt, "Besor Brook," ISBE 1:463.

[136] Beth Shan is a city located where the Jezreel Valley joins the Jordan Valley. The area contains numerous springs and wells, with rich soil, and intense summer heat. The ancient city is identified with the site of Tell el-Husn, about 650 feet north of modern Beit Shan (A. F. Rainey, "Beth-Shean," ISBE 1:475-476).

[137] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 171.

[138] Jabesh-Gilead was in the territory of the half-tribe of Manasseh and lies along the Wadi Yabis (Jabesh) (F.E. Young, "Jabesh-Gilead," ISBE 3:946).

[139] Laments begin with a complaint, but often conclude with praise. Examples of laments include: Psalm 3, 7, 13, 25, 22, 42, 43, 44, 51, 74, 79, 80 and many others. Within a lament you may find several of the following elements: (a) invocation, (2) plea to God for help, (3) complaints, (4) confession of sin or assertion of innocence, (5) curse of enemies (imprecation), (6) confidence in God's response, and (7) hymn or blessing.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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