And David abode in the wilderness in strongholds, and remained in a mountain in the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God delivered him not into his hand.
If one ever stops to think about them closely, there can be something very disconcerting about the “maledictory” Psalms, that is, about those Psalms which cry out for judgment upon one’s enemies. This is particularly true because many of these Psalms were written by David, whom we usually think of either as a mild-mannered young man quietly caring for his sheep or as the great and prosperous king before whom all of the world bowed in submission. In either case it seems strange and almost improper that he should wish for evil to come to anyone. Forgotten is often the fact that many of these Psalms came neither from David’s youth nor from his later prosperity, but were written either during or about those anguished years in the hills of Judea, when he learned as few men ever do how wicked, faithless, and dishonest men can truly be. The wonder is not that, having tasted the dreadful bitterness of human treachery, he should cry to God for a judgment that is just; the wonder is that he through it all refused to take this judgment into his own hands but was satisfied to leave it with “him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.”
The territory into which David fled from the hatred of Saul was in the southern portion of the land of Judah. It was a wild and untamed land, with some fertile valleys in which one could easily live and prosper; but next to and around these valleys was wild, desolate hill country where only the wild animals could find a living. It was this wild hill country that made this land so difficult. Not only was it completely unproductive, but it provided shelter for marauding animals and robbers. Even more, it provided a ready means of entrance into the land for invading enemies. Under cover of the hills, they could penetrate deeply into the land, only to sally forth when they wished to plunder and then returning quickly again into the shelter of the hills before a defending army could be summoned. It was into this land that David with his four hundred men went and settled down.
The land was by every measure well suited to David’s purpose. It was the kind of land into which Saul and his army could not easily follow: in fact, it was even difficult for them to discover with any certainty exactly where David and his men were living at any particular time. There were innumerable caves of all sizes scattered throughout the hills in which David and his men could easily find shelter for any length of time they desired, while leaving themselves free to pick up and leave at an extremely short notice. At the same time, it gave to David and his men a service which they could fill, for the nation and the people to whom they were still loyal and whom they still loved. By living in the hills themselves, they were able to clean out and punish all those who used those hills as a means of escape after robbing and stealing; and, what was even more important, they were able to prevent in a large measure the forces of the enemies from using the cover of these hills as a route to invade the land.
Through it all though, there was one problem for which David could find no easy answer and which troubled him continually: that was the ever present need to supply his men with sufficient food for them to live. Being rugged men and used to hardship, they were able to do a great deal to supply their own needs. There were always the wild animals of the hills which could be hunted and undoubtedly were in great numbers; but these were not always sufficient, the terrain could make the catching of them very difficult, and by no means all of them were clean for eating under the ceremonial law. It was also possible for them to do some farming in isolated mountains valleys; but here again they could never be sure that they would still be around to reap their harvest. More inclined was David to look to the people of the territory to assist in supplying their needs. There was in his mind good reason for him to expect this of the people. With the coming of his men into the territory, the people who lived there for the first time obtained an effective defense against the many dangers which constantly threatened their lives. With David’s men constantly hunting in the hills the wild scavenger animals which constantly preyed upon their flocks were checked and held under control, the ruthless thieves that so often hid in the hills were driven out, and the invading enemies were prevented from falling upon them and doing them harm. It seemed but a small price to ask of the people who benefited directly from this to do their part in supporting the men who brought it about. But it did not work out that way, and once again David was to gain a hard lesson in how ungrateful and treacherous people can actually be.
One of the first and most bitter instances of this kind took place soon after David came down with his men to live in the hill country. He was just beginning to establish himself as a defender of the people when the Philistines made a foray into the land. It was not surprising. The time was the time of harvest when the grain was still on the threshing floor. It was a favorite season for invading armies to make a quick sweep through the land and run off with the fruits of a whole years labor in a matter of days. It was exactly the sort of situation which David had set for himself to prevent. But before he did anything of such great importance, there was one important check which had to be made. When Abiathar the priest had escaped the hands of Saul and come to live with him, he had brought along the holy ephod with the Urim and Thummim by which it was possible to consult with God on every important move. Thus he called Abiathar and asked of God, “Shall I go and smite these Philistines?” But the answer came almost as a surprise. His forces were so very small and unprepared in comparison with the armies of the Philistines that it seemed almost completely unreasonable that they should go to fight with them. The answer of God, however, was, “Go and smite the Philistines, and save Keilah,” and accordingly David went to his men and told them to prepare for the battle.
But the men were not so easily satisfied. Many of them were not trained fighting men, and whole thing looked rather completely impossible. Here they had come to this hill country to escape the army of Saul, and were they now supposed to go and fight against the larger and much better army of the Philistines. They told David this in so many words, saying, “Behold, we be afraid here in Judah; how much more then if we come to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines?”
To their reasoning David had no answer except that it had been commanded by God; and to satisfy them, he called Abiathar once again and repeated the former inquiry. Once again the answer came, “Arise, go down to Keilah; for I will deliver the Philistines into thine hand.”
There was now no question left, for the men knew that they were not to argue with the command of God. Quickly they went down to Keilah, and soon it was just as God had promised, the Philistines were driven back with a great slaughter and a great victory was accredited to David and his men.
At first it looked as though this was the answer to David’s problem. With enthusiasm the inhabitants of Keilah welcomed David and his men and invited them into the city to live with them. Here in the city, it seemed, they surely would be able to live a much more normal life than out in the wild hill country where they had been.
It was not long, however, before the news had gotten through to Saul that David was living in Keilah, and to him it was most welcome news. All the time that David was hiding in the hill country, he had found himself completely frustrated. It seemed that nothing really mattered in his life any more except that he should get rid of David; but what was he to do against a man who lived like a fox in the caves of the mountains. All of his experience left him completely unprepared for a situation like that. In fact, he had not even a very sure idea any more in what general area David was to be found. But as soon as he heard that David had taken up abode in a closed city with gates and walls, then he knew what he could do. Joyfully he exclaimed, “God hath delivered him into mind hand; for he is shut in, by entering into a town that hath gates and bars.” Yes, Saul had rationalized with his sin so long and become so hardened in it that he had actually convinced himself that what he wanted was really also the will of God.
It was not long before the call had gone out for the soldiers of Saul’s army to gather themselves together and prepare themselves to go down and lay seige upon the city. As it was though, news passed swiftly not only from Keilah to the rest of the nation, it came swiftly back again too. He understood immediately what Saul intended to do; but normally it was nothing special to fear. In a walled and defensed city such as Keilah, he and his four hundred men held a much stronger position over against the army of Saul than upon the open field of battle. Nevertheless, David was careful not to neglect his most important source of strength. Once again he called Abiathar the priest to him with the ephod to inquire of the Lord what he should do. To God he addressed this prayer, “O Lord; God of Israel, thy servant hath certainly heard that Saul seeketh to come to Keilah, to destroy the city for my sake. Will the men of Keilah deliver me up into I his hand? will Saul come down, as thy servant hath heard? O Lord God of Israel, I beseech thee, tell thy servant.” To the latter question the answer came quickly back, “He will come down.” This was to be expected. But when he repeated the former question and the answer came back, it must have driven deeply into David’s soul, for the answer was, “They will deliver thee up.”
One can just about imagine the pain with which these words came to David. Here was a city for which he and his men had risked their own lives against the strongest and most terrible enemy they had, the army of the Philistines. And the city had recognized this, expressing its gratitude and welcoming them into the city. But now he learned that treachery lurked within their hearts. Not that it was so much intentional. It was just that when the army of Saul appeared and they would be asked to suffer some in return for David’s sake, then they would weaken, they would lose courage and betray him to his enemy. But there was nothing that David could do about it now. To accuse the people would only bring a denial. The only thing left was to call his men to him; and, leaving the comfort of the city, return in sorrow to the uncertainties of life in the hills. This David did; but need we be surprised that reflecting back upon experiences such as this, he in latter years should pen such words as those of Psalm 55:12-14, Psalm 55:20-23.
“For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him:
But it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance.
We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company….
He hath put forth his hands against such as be at peace with him: he hath broken his covenant.
The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords.
Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and he shall sustain thee; he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved. But thou, O God, shall bring them down into the pit of destruction: bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days; but I will trust in thee.”