I argue: that David was doing what he could to serve God in desperate circumstances. And in doing so, he continues to act as a type of Christ. In this story then, David is the king in exile with nowhere to lay his head. He is an alien king, a stranger to his own land – one already inaugurated as king, but whose kingship is not yet fully consummated. In this, he models the ministry of Christ, who also lived among us as an alien and exile, rejected by His own, and received by Gentiles.
David’s escape to Philistia in I Samuel 27 & 29 is one of the more perplexing episodes in David’s life. We can certainly understand his desperation as Saul continues to pursue David despite his having spared Saul’s life twice. But surely, we think, David had no cause to flee to Philistia, or worse, to serve these sworn enemies of Israel, going so far as to line up in the Philistine order of battle on the way to attack Israel (I Samuel 28:1-2; 29:1-2).
Indeed, the majority report is that these sixteen months in Philistia mark a grave backsliding on the part of David, a low point in his walk of faith. The general idea is that David is a flawed hero, and the Bible honestly reports his failures as well as his triumphs. This then is considered one of his great failures. The fact that the Bible honestly records the sins of its greatest heroes is certainly true. The question is whether the episode in I Samuel 27 and 29 constitutes one of these failures. In the contemporary Reformed world at least, it appears to be beyond question. Take, for example, this list of sermon titles on I Samuel 27 found on mongergism.org (some preached by heroes of mine):
- Crossing the Line
- Backsliding again!
- The eclipse of faith
- David’s Lapse into Unbelief
- The Frailty of the Man
- Faltering Faith & a Flight to Philistia
- Lying Your Way Out of Trouble
If this majority report is correct, then the lessons for us are obvious: namely, don’t backslide. Trust God to protect you and do not resort to your own wisdom. Don’t lie for selfish and fearful reasons. Well, obviously, these are all excellent admonitions. The question is whether they can be found in this text.
Rather, I argue for a minority report: that David was doing what he could to serve God in desperate circumstances. And in doing so, he continues to act as a type of Christ. In this story then, David is the king in exile with nowhere to lay his head. He is an alien king, a stranger to his own land – one already inaugurated as king, but whose kingship is not yet fully consummated. In this, he models the ministry of Christ, who also lived among us as an alien and exile, rejected by His own, and received by Gentiles.
Of course, this is not to argue that David was sinless in these chapters. But it does argue that we should read this text in a different way than as a warning against backsliding. Instead, I believe that it serves more as a positive example for us of man exercising faith in desperate times, and a pointer to great David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
I believe this minority reading of the text is correct for at least five reasons. Perhaps no one of these reasons is sufficient of itself to overturn the majority report, but taken together, I think they make a strong case that David was faithfully serving God throughout his time in Philistia. Here then are five reasons for this minority viewpoint:
1) The literary structure of I Samuel 21-29. There appears to be a clear structure to chapters 21-29 consisting of three literary triads, lining up approximately as follows:
21 David flees to the Philistines and tricks them
22 Saul sins by slaughtering the priests
23 David “rescued” by the Philistines who attack Saul
24 David spares Saul’s life
25 Abigail spares David from sinning
26 David spares Saul’s life
27 David flees to the Philistines and tricks them
28 Saul sins by consulting a medium
29 David “rescued” by the Philistines who attack Saul
At the very least, it is remarkable that David twice flees to the Philistines and tricks them both times. This is followed by the Philistines attacking Saul, which in effect serves to rescue David from Saul both times. Even more remarkable is how both of these episodes are interrupted by chapters 22 and 28, each describing Saul’s great sins and forfeiture of his kingly duty. In this, it is important to note that chapter 28 is out of chronological order, which does not occur until the night before Saul’s death. The author of I Samuel deliberately interrupts David’s story with this example of Saul’s faithlessness as king.
The purpose of this structure then appears obvious: to provide a contrast between Saul, the faithless king, and David, Israel’s true king since I Samuel 16. This is reinforced by the middle segment, chapters 24-26. This section serves as the climax of this period in David’s life, his great training to be a king of mercy through the sparing of Saul’s life, not once, but twice. But note that in between these two tests David passes so handily, he at first fails another similar test. In chapter 25, David is offended by a man named Nabal, and responds by strapping on his sword with the intent of killing him and every man in his household. David is becoming a tyrant like Saul, who just a few chapters earlier slaughtered the priests at Nob.
The difference is that God spoke to David through Abigail the Wise, and David listened to her in great humility and repentance. And so in the end, David passes this test as well and thus becomes a king of mercy rather than of vengeance. This is the great climax of David’s training as king in I Samuel. It would seem strange then that the second trip to Philistia amounts to a backsliding of faith, given the parallel to the earlier account in chapters 21-23. Is it spiritually possible? Yes. But I think the structure, along with the following arguments, suggests otherwise. The author is contrasting David with Saul in chapters 27-29, not comparing them as equally backslidden.
2) Psalm 56 may have been written during this episode. This is probably the weakest of the arguments, but still helps to set the tone of this period in David’s life. The title to Psalm 56 reads in part: A Mikhtam of David when the Philistines seized him in Gath. Now, this may well have occurred in David’s first venture in Philistia recorded in I Samuel 21. He is not actually seized in either account, so the word here may mean he was there against his will, forced there by Saul’s relentless pursuit. But if the argument about I Samuel’s structure above is correct, then both accounts serve as parallels with each other, describing David’s desperate plight. And both Psalm 56 and Psalm 34 bear this out. They are the poems of a man in distress, not a man cunning against his own people and surrendered to worldliness.
3) The text nowhere describes David’s actions as sinful. This may be the most compelling argument. It is true that narrative portions of Scripture do not always point out the obvious and that some sins speak for themselves. But is that the case here?
It is not as though the author of I and II Samuel is hesitant to point out David’s sins. In fact, David himself is not shy about confessing them! Just read Psalm 32 or 51. In I Samuel David has already admitted at least two great sins. One instance is in chapter 25 as mentioned above, when he was too ready to use the sword. The other is his failure to use the sword to protect the priests at Nob from Saul’s slaughter (I Samuel 22:22). And of course, there is the great sin with Bathsheba of II Samuel 11-12. In all these cases, once confronted with his failure, David quickly repents and admits his sins.
But nowhere does David or the narrator indicate that what David did in Philistia was wrong. And since he is arguably the ultimate type of Christ in the Old Testament, David should be given the benefit of the doubt as a man after God’s own heart (I Samuel 13:14), unless the text indicates otherwise.
4) It would undermine David’s quest to be recognized as king. Practically, if David did indeed plan to betray Israel, it is hard to imagine how he ever would ascend to the throne in Jerusalem. Imagine if Benedict Arnold returned from England to run against George Washington for president in 1792. It is unthinkable. So then, how could David win Israel over if in fact he became known as a traitor? No, David’s actions show what his true motives were, as we will see below.
5) Most importantly, the results of David’s venture reveal his true motives. Here we come to the heart of the argument. If David was faithfully following the LORD as best he could in this period of his life, one would expect to see good fruit. And that is exactly what the text goes out of its way to describe. Thus, a natural reading of this text should tell us that these good results are most likely a confirmation of David’s essentially good motives in his flight to Philistia. Of course, it is possible these good results come about despite David’s motives (cf., Romans 8:28) but in that case, one would expect the narrator to explain that clearly, as Joseph does in Genesis 50:20, for instance.
What are the results of David’s flight that appear to reveal his true motives? At least five surface in the text. We will take those up in Part II.
Chris Hutchinson is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Senior Pastor of Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Blacksburg, Va. This article is based on a sermon he preached there on June 21, 2015.