Which Way Around the Mulberry Trees?

We may at times wish for the kind of personal and personalized guidance that David received when navigating the mulberry trees on the battlefield.

God was involved in the details of David’s life in a way that seems almost prosaic, and far different from our experience. It is one thing for God to thunder from the heights of Sinai, but quite another for Him to tell David which way to circle around the mulberry trees. Does a passage like this reveal the normal way that God guides His people about their affairs, and if not, what has changed?

 

Then the Philistines went up once again and deployed themselves in the Valley of Rephaim. Therefore David inquired of the Lord, and He said, “You shall not go up; circle around behind them, and come upon them in front of the mulberry trees. And it shall be, when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the mulberry trees, then you shall advance quickly. For then the Lord will go out before you to strike the camp of the Philistines.”  And David did so, as the Lord commanded him; and he drove back the Philistines from Geba as far as Gezer.

II Samuel 5:22-25

The verse above was a puzzlement to me in the formative years of my Christian life, and still causes me to pause with wonder whenever I read it. In the midst of the majestic narrative of the rise of King David to the throne of Israel, the God of heaven and earth condescends to give detailed battle tactics to David, specifying where and how to lay his ambush, and even identifying the species of trees that will provide his cover. Quite opposite the Deist conception of an uninvolved God, here is a picture of the Lord occupied with the minutia of man’s movements and giving intimate directions along the way. The modern critic will surely find this all to be a naive depiction of God by the folklore of an ancient people, but for the believer who knows that God’s Word is trustworthy and true, it is still a difficult text. God was involved in the details of David’s life in a way that seems almost prosaic, and far different from our experience. It is one thing for God to thunder from the heights of Sinai, but quite another for Him to tell David which way to circle around the mulberry trees. Does a passage like this reveal the normal way that God guides His people about their affairs, and if not, what has changed?

The Westminster Confession deals with this question up front, in the first paragraph of its first chapter, because it is so essential that we have a proper understanding of how God reveals Himself to us, and what our expectations should be regarding His guidance in the life of faith. The opening statement of the Confession says:

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. WCF 1.1

 

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