As we have seen, the Lord through David again confronted Saul with evidence such as could be seen and handled that the son of Jesse seeks not the king’s life to take it. As pricked in his conscience and as filled with carnal remorse, the king confessed, “I have sinned/’ But he was not truly penitent. As was pointed out, he was subdued and afraid and remorseful like the doomed in hell are subdued and afraid and remorseful. That Saul was not truly penitent, that at the core he now was harder than ever, is plain from the sequel of the narrative. He would have continued to seek after David, had the latter not removed to Gath. Such, as was explained, is the implication of the statement, “And it was told Saul that David was fled to Gath: and he sought no more after him.”
But what are we to think of David’s removal to the land of the Philistines? It is a doing that proceeds from unbelief; first, from the fear of his life that unbelief genders in him. “I will now perish one day at the hand of Saul,” says David in his heart. He imagines that sooner or later Saul will succeed in ridding the earth of him here in God’s country. David’s imagining is vain. As he well knows by this time, he has been appointed of God to the kingship. Hence, as the Lord has been a wall of defense to him in days gone by, so the Lord will preserve him in days to come right here in the borders of Israel. David cannot perish by the hand of Saul.
But David’s faith wavers. “There is not to me any good—there is to me no future—except I hastily escape to the land of the Philistines,” says he in his heart. But Philistia is the land of the dead. David need not immigrate to such a land to be saved of God from Saul’s wrath, as if the Lord were no longer willing or able to preserve him in the land of the living. The Philistines, being uncircumcised—uncircumcised in heart—are enemies of God’s people. And they are always actively hostile. They are always making war against God’s people or planning war as at this very juncture. To get along with such men David will have to pretend that he disowns his own brethren in the faith and makes war against them. And he will have to feign love of the ungodly. David does the one and also the other as well. Necessarily so, as friendship with the world is enmity against God. Besides all this, some time ago, through a prophet, David received of God the command to take up his residence not in a heathen land, but at home, in God’s country, definitely in the land of Judah (22:5). Now he disobeys this command under the constraint of the fear that there is no escape for him from Saul but in Philistia. David’s immigration to the land of the Philistines is a sin. The Lord frowns upon the doing. And, as we shall see, He does not fail to reveal his hot displeasure.
But it is not only fear of his life that sends him to Gath, but an unwillingness to endure the chastening of the Lord as well. What brings this out is the concluding words of his soliloquy. “And Saul will desist from me to seek me and I shall escape out of his hand,” says David in his heart. What he means is clear. His life in the land of his people, he tells himself, is insufferable. Wherever he betakes himself in the coasts of Israel, Saul is always hard on his trail seeking his life to take it. He wants to believe that it is more than the Lord is asking him to endure. Thus by his immigration to the land of the Philistines, he will benefit himself in two respects, so he reasons. First, he will free himself of the miseries of an existence that consists in being chased from one corner of the land of Israel to another by a mad king. Second, he will escape out of Saul’s hand. Such is David’s reasoning. It indicates an attempt on his part to justify his doing before the bar of conscience. But let us not in our criticism of this estimable servant of God underestimate the severity of his trials; and let us not fail to consider that patience in tribulations is a gift of Him—Christ Jesus—without whom God’s believing people can do nothing. The scriptures admonish the believers even to glory in tribulations. But who of himself is sufficient to these things.
David arises, so the text now states. His mind is made up, and he is ready for action. He passes over unto Achish, the son of Maoch, king of Gath—he, David, his two wives, Ahinoam and Abigail, and the six hundred men that were with him, every man with his household. David’s flight is reported to Saul. “And he sought no more again for him.”
David dwells with Achish at Gath, says the text. The notice is important as showing that David was well-received. He is a distinguished leader with a considerable armed band against whom Saul is known to make war. As the sequel reveals, Achish cherishes the hope that he has acquired in David a permanent friend and ally in the Philistines’ wars with the people of Israel.
But it doesn’t take long before David requests Achish to allow him a freer position in the land. “If I have found grace in thine eyes, “are his words to the king, “let them give me a place in some town in the country, that I may dwell there: for why should thy servant dwell in the royal city with thee?” Thus he gives as the reason of his petition the impropriety of him, the servant, dwelling in the royal city with his lord and master. But what may be the real reason of his request? According to some David understands that Achish cannot be expected for long to bear the expense of the support of so many strangers in Gath. But even with a change of residence David still will be living more or less on the bounty of the Philistines. According to others, his real motive is “to be out of the way of observation, so as to play the part of Saul’s enemy without acting against him.” But this is just as unlikely, since after every military expedition against heathen tribes friendly to the Philistines and hostile to the people of Israel, David reports to Achish. It may be supposed that David’s real reason for wanting to dwell alone in this enemy territory is that he cannot endure living in the same city with Philistines. Their idols and idol temples are an eyesore to him. Their godless way of life vexes his righteous soul. So he is determined to get him and his band out of Gath. Achish immediately accedes. He gives him Ziklag that day. The text states that he gave him. It means that the city is a present from Achish to David. Accordingly, the text goes on to say, “wherefore Ziklag pertaineth unto the kings of Judah unto this day.” The city has a history back of it. It pertaineth first to Judah (), then to Simeon ( ), and was afterwards captured by the Philistines. To say that since that time the city remained uninhabited is not an idle conjecture. Certainly Achish would not give away a city inhabited to any appreciable extent by Philistines. That would only get him in trouble with his countrymen.
Once settled in Ziklag, David is faced with the vexing problem of the material support of himself and his large retinue. And as he has withdrawn from God’s country and assumed dependence on a heathen king, it is decidedly his problem, one of his own creation, with which he now also undertakes to deal in his own strength. South of Philistia and Judah lie the districts of the Geshurites (to be distinguished from the Aramean kingdom of Geshur,; and from the northern Geshurites near Hermon on the border of Bashan, ) the Gezrites (a tribe not elsewhere mentioned), and the Amalekites. Of the three tribes, the last mentioned, the Amalekites, “were inhabitants of the land, who inhabited it of old, “says the text. They are the original occupants. They had opposed Israel in the Exodus. On that account the Lord had sworn that He would “utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven,” ( sq.). As a tribe they are thus under the ban of God and doomed to extinction. Joshua had discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. Saul had smitten them “up to Shur, which is on the border of Egypt”. But each time they had recollected and settled here. Their old seats stretched into Arabia Petrea. Against these cursed tribes, who being nomads had large herds, David and his men make military expeditions from Ziklag. Doubtless he tries to persuade himself that he performs a good work, well-pleasing to God. He fight Amalekites, doesn’t he? But the work is not good. It is very useful, but not good. It has no ethical value. Walking, as he does, in disobedience, David’s heart is not right with God. Better than fighting Amalekites is obedience. Those raids from Ziklag are mere incursions for booty, at this time a dire necessity for David and his men. So he smites the land, and leaves neither man nor woman alive but takes away the sheep, and the oxen, and the asses, and the camels, and the apparel, and returns. Such is his custom in each raid of which there are several, as the time that he dwells in the country of the Philistines is a year and four months, says the text. But the Amalekites and the Philistines are friends. What if those raids were reported to Achish, king of Gath. How might not Achish react? David has thought of that. He saves “neither man nor woman alive, to bring tidings to Gath, saying, Lest they should tell on us, saying, So did David. But though dead men tell no tales, the difficulty is but half settled. The Philistines in the vicinity of Ziklag and particularly Achish will want to know how David comes into the possession of all those sheep and oxen and camels and asses and apparel. It is booty with which he returns. This is apparent. Whom is David plundering? What tribes of men? David has thought also of that. He has thought of everything. Returning from his expeditions, he goes to Gath, instead of going immediately to Ziklag, in order to make report to Achish of his movements and to share with him the spoil. The king invariably asks, “against whom have ye went up today?” To which David replies, “Against the south of Judah, and against the south of the Jerah-meelites, and against the south of the Kenites,” Jerahmeel was the firstborn of Hezron ( ). His posterity—the Jerahmeelites—are one of the three great families of Judah who dwell on the southernmost border of Judah. The Kenites are under the protection of Judah. In it is said of them, “in rocks thou hast put thy rest,” meaning that they dwell in the rocks and caves south of Palestine. These tribes and those first mentioned—the Geshurites, Gezrites, and the Amalekites—dwell near one another in the district that borders on the south country of Judah and stretches between the hill country of Judah and the Arabian desert ( ). The close proximity of all the tribes mentioned makes possible David’s deception. That he practices deception, that he has recourse to trickery and lies with Achish is clear. His language to Achish is ambiguous, equivocal. “Against the south of Judah can mean: against the southern portion of the tribe of Judah. It can also mean: against tribes that dwell to the south of Judah, the Jeshurites, and the Amalekites. The gullible Achish takes David to mean that he plunders the tribe of Judah, the Kenites, and the Jerahmeelites. And he has a right. For David makes no mention of the heathen tribes actually attacked, it being his purpose to deceive. The sacred writer holds David responsible. “And Achish believed David,” is his statement. Mark you, he believes David. What he believes originates not with him but is communicated to his mind by David, to wit, that he makes war against his own brethren. And the jubilant Achish concludes, “He hath made his people utterly to abhor him; therefore he shall be my servant forever.” Says the narrator, “So did David and so was his manner all the while he dwelt in the country of the Philistines.” David is guilty of open lying and denial of his people during all this time. Doubtless, he tries to justify himself by saying that his equivocal language is an allowable stratagem of war and that it is a heathen, an enemy of God and His people, whom he tricks. But he soon finds out that, in the words of one writer, “God weighs those who will belong to him in the scales of His sanctuary, in which there is, among others, as weight-stone, the indestructible word: Thou shalt not bear false witness.”
It comes to pass that the Philistines gather their armies together for warfare to fight with Israel. It is a general war of all the Philistine princes against Israel that is contemplated in which even David, posing as a Philistine vassal-prince, and feigning love of the Philistines and hatred of his brethren, is requested or rather commanded to take part by Achish, his royal master and benefactor. “And Achish said unto David, Know thou assuredly, that thou shalt go out with me to battle, thou and thy men.” Achish is emphatic. To reproduce the sense of the original text, we must translate, “I want thee to understand by all means that thou, yea, even thou indeed, shalt go out with me to battle, thou and thy men.” It is vigorous language, indicating that Achish means to avail himself of the opportunity afforded him by the impending war to put David’s loyalty to a test. David’s reply seems to say that the test will be endured. Says he to Achish, “Surely, thou shalt know what thy servant can do.” Achish takes the ambiguous answer as a promise of the action that he requires. Elated, he names David “the keeper of his head”, the captain of his body-guard, forever.
David now finds himself under the painful necessity of going into battle with Philistines against his own brethren. Why did he not avoid being drawn into this predicament by returning to the land of his people while there was still opportunity? What had prevented him from rejoining his people? His fear of Paul or an inability to get him out of Philistia or both? Or did he voluntarily remain because he welcomed going into battle with Philistines not against his own brethren surely but against these Philistines? Or is this hour to him a dreadful one, and is he silently and fervently praying to be delivered out of it? We can only conjecture. David’s residence in Philistia, his conduct toward Achish during the period of this residence, his intercourse with this royal heathen, forms a strange and perplexing story. One thing is certain. If forced into the battle that is pending, David is not going to fight his own people. He was never more in earnest than, with a view to combating Philistines in this war, if need be, he says to Achish, “Surely, thou shalt know what thy servant can do”. David’s heart is still with his people as much as ever. Of this, as we shall presently see, all the Philistine princes are deeply convinced,—all but Achish.
Meanwhile the Philistines gather together all their armies to Aphek in Issachar. In divisions of hundreds and thousands, at the head of their division “the princes of the Philistines” march on to Jezreel. Here in the north they advance with their whole force in order to bring about a decisive battle in the plain with the Israelites. Their advance to Jezreel compels Saul to lead his whole force thither. The Philistines having begun their march, Achish finds himself with David in the rearguard. Catching sight of David and his men, the Philistine princes are amazed. “What, these Hebrews?” say they to Achish, meaning, “What do they here? Achish observes that David is servant of Saul, king of Israel, thus reminding them of his enmity with Saul; that he already has been allied with him a long time against Saul; that in all this time he found no fault in him, saw nothing in him to awaken suspicions of treachery. At hearing Achish argue for the retention of the Hebrews in his division, the wrath of the Philistine lords kindle. They command Achish to order David to return to the place that was appointed him, and not to allow him to go down with them into battle, lest in the battle he be an adversary unto them. For wherewith should he reconcile himself with his master but with the heads of Philistines. They are not forgetful of David’s military skill and bravery. They recall the defeat he inflicted upon their Goliath. For they say, “Is not this David, of whom they sang one to another in dances, saying, Saul slew his thousands and David his ten thousands?”
Achish is compelled to yield to the demand of his comrades. His is now the painful task—painful to him—to communicate the decision to David. Calling David, he tells him the sad news. David must blame the Philistine lords. If Achish had his way, it would not happen. For he believes in David, and his confidence in him is implicit. Using the name of Jehovah even, he affirms under an oath that “thou hast been upright, and thy going out and thy coming in with me in the host is good in my sight, “meaning to say that it would be good to have David with him in the pending battle. “For”, says Achish, “I have not found evil in thee since the day of thy coming unto me unto this day: nevertheless, the lords favor thee not. Wherefore now return and go in peace, that thou displease not the lords of the Philistines.” For, Achish means to say, what will the lords do to David, if he disobeys their voice ? Doubtless they will slay him and his whole company. And Achish will be out a faithful servant, a good friend, and a brave ally.
Achish’s attachment for David is great. He loves this Hebrew. He would not fain lose him. It is not a wonder. David poses as a Philistine prince. He has done Achish only good. After every military expedition against what Achish believed to be Hebrews he divided with Achish the booty. David refrained from spoiling Philistines. In this point of view he merits Achish’s trust in him. But Achish is not a good man. He is a heathen, an uncircumcised of heart. And he loves as do the uncircumcised. He loves those who love him and none other. Yet, how the man can appreciate uprightness in people especially if they be his servants and hate with him God’s people and are willing to help him in his warfare with them.
David must persist in equivocating. There is no turning back for him now. “But what have I done?” he asks in feigned amazement. And “what has thou found in thy servant so long as I have been before thee unto this day, that I may not go fight against the enemies of my lord?” David involves himself in another open lie, be it that in his own consciousness “my lord the king” is Saul and “the enemies of my lord” the Philistines. For David has all along unto this moment been posing as servant,, friend, and ally of Achish, and therefore the latter has the right to take David to mean that he is greatly disappointed at being prohibited from going into battle with Achish to fight against Israelites. There is also the question whether David is actually disappointed at not being able to avail himself of the opportunity to go down into battle with the Philistines to help his own brethren against this adversary, or whether he leans far backward to conceal his great joy at being freed of the necessity of going down into battle with Philistines. Here, too, we can only conjecture. What pleads for the former view is that it must be exceedingly painful for a man of David’s disposition to sit still with his brethren in the faith involved in bloody combat with Philistines.
As can be expected, David’s reply incites Achish to even greater extravagance in his laudation of what he considers to be David’s virtues. Says he now to David, “I know that thou art good in my sight, as an angel of God—as an angel. Think on that—notwithstanding the princes of the Philistines have said, He shall not go with us to battle.” He wants David to understand by all means that the fault lies exclusively with these lords. As it can spell only disaster for Achish and his excellent servant, David, to refuse to submit to the will of the lords, his last counsel to David is, “Wherefore now rise up early in the morning with the servants of thy lord (that is, of Saul) that are with thee: and as soon as ye be up early in the morning, and have light, depart.”
“So David and his men rose up early to depart in the morning, to return unto the land of the Philistines.” Doubtless David had wanted to help his brethren in that war, thinking that he would be doing a good work whereby to reconcile himself not with Saul, as the Philistines imagined, but with the Lord. But the Lord does not want him in that battle for more than one reason. David must first repent of his sin before he again is “meet for the Master’s use”. So the Lord sentences him to inactivity until he repents.