How should we respond when God’s providence seems to contradict His promises? Afraid for his life, David ran from King Saul into Philistine territory, where he was recognized by the king of Gath’s servants. In a deliberate act of faith, David feigned insanity and trusted God with the outcome. His escape, explains Alistair Begg, rested not in his own ingenuity but in the Lord’s deliverance—the same deliverance that is available to all who flee to God for refuge.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn to 1 Samuel and to chapter 21, and I’ll read the chapter as you follow along, hopefully, in your Bible, wherever you are.
First Samuel and chapter 21:
“Then David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David, trembling, and said to him, ‘Why are you alone, and no one with you?’ And David said to Ahimelech the priest, ‘The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, “Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.” I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.’ And the priest answered David, ‘I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.’ And David answered the priest, ‘Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?’ So the priest gave him … holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.
“Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the Lord. His name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s herdsmen.
“Then David said to Ahimelech, ‘Then have you not here a spear or a sword at hand? For I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste.’ And the priest said, ‘The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you struck down in the Valley of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you will take that, take it, for there is none but that here.’ And David said, ‘There is none like that; give it to me.’
“And David rose and fled that day from Saul and went to Achish the king of Gath. And the servants of Achish said to him, ‘Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in dances, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands”?’
“And David took these words to heart and was much afraid of Achish the king of Gath. So he changed his behavior before them and pretended to be insane in their hands and made marks on the doors of the gate and let his spittle run down his beard. Then Achish said to his servants, ‘Behold, you see the man is mad. Why then have you brought him to me? Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to behave as a madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?’
“David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam.”
Thanks be to God for his Word. Amen.
Well, I invite you to turn again to 1 Samuel and to chapter 21. For some of you, this will be the beginning of a new adventure. For most of us, we are simply picking up our studies in 1 Samuel after an unintended pause of some fourteen weeks. If you have not been part of these studies, then I can guarantee that if you go to Truth For Life, then they will be able to give you the backup material that will last you for quite some while.
But here we are at 21:10. It’s some time since we were first introduced to David, to the youngest of Jesse’s sons. Back in 16:12, we are given a description of him as “ruddy” and one who “had beautiful eyes and [who] was handsome.” What has happened, of course, in the ensuing period of time is that Samuel has been dispatched by God to anoint David as the future king. And that is on account of the fact that Saul has been rejected by God as king. And you, if you have been studying with us, will perhaps remember that really tragic scene back in chapter 15 where the robe of Samuel is torn: “Samuel turned to go away”—15:27—“Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, ‘The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.’”
Now, few of us like to be told that there are people who are better than us. I’ve been watching some boys playing baseball. I think it’s baseball; I didn’t see how hard the ball was. But anyway… And some of them seemed to be very, very good, and some of them not so good. And those are the facts of the matter, and it’s not always easy to deal with—especially if you don’t come out top of the class. And what Saul discovers from the lips of Samuel is that there is someone else who is going to do a better job than he has done.
And then a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. And so the picture back there in 16 of this fresh-faced shepherd boy—the one who played the harp for Saul in order to help him when we was getting depressed and overwhelmed—is a very, very different picture that is given to us now at the end of the twenty-first chapter. And you could really say that those days of yore are really a fading memory.
And Saul could not handle his rejection, and he could not handle David’s rise to fame. And it surely didn’t help when a song began to make its way up the charts, as it were, in those days, when it reminded everybody every time it played or every time it was sung out in the community of the triumph of David and of his success. And so the women sang, and some danced to acknowledge the disparity between the success level of Saul and the amazing triumph of this fellow David. So it’s no surprise that in 18:9, after that, you have this enigmatic little sentence: “And Saul eyed [him] from that day on.”
Now, I resist the temptation to rewind the video, for your sake and for mine. It records David on the run. He eventually has to make a run for it—runs away to Samuel, runs to his friend Jonathan, runs to Ahimelech. You have the picture of him running all over the place, such is his desperation. And now, in these final verses of chapter 21, we find him still on the run.
It’s very straightforward what is recorded for us here. I’ve summarized it in this way in my notes: that we have a picture of him first fleeing from one enemy to another; and then, secondly, fearing as a result of his being recognized; and then, thirdly, faking insanity as a way of escape. So, fleeing, fearing, faking. Now, that’s to help me, if it helps you.
Now, it is of the utmost importance that we do not underestimate Saul’s hatred of David. The extent of his hatred of David virtually knew no bounds. I’ve said I won’t do this, but we need to go back just into chapter 20 for a moment, where you realize that when envy, when jealousy, when hatred seizes somebody, it is volatile; it can come out in all kinds of ways and in dreadful times. Verse 30: “Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan.” Against his son! “And he said to him, ‘You son of a perverse, rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse’”—that’s David—“‘lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established.’” Do you see what he’s saying? He’s saying, “Look what you’re doing to yourself. You’re actually taking the side of this fellow. You’ve got no chance now ever of becoming king.” “‘Therefore send and bring him to me, [I’m going to kill him.]’ Then Jonathan answered Saul his father, ‘Why should he be put to death? What has he done?’” And here you go: “But Saul hurled his spear at him to strike him. So Jonathan knew that his father was determined to put David to death.”
That is the extent of the animosity. And therefore, it seems perfectly clear that David feared Saul more than he feared the Philistines. It’s vital that we grasp that; otherwise, this is really quite an unbelievable few verses. Kidner, in just a sentence, says, “To have fled from Saul to Gath of all places, the home town of Goliath, took the courage of despair.” I thought that was a wonderful phrase, “the courage of despair.” And so I said, “Well, that can be the title for our study.” And then I wrote it down, and I thought, “Well, people will say, ‘What does that mean?’” And then I said, “I’m not sure what it means myself.” So I changed it, and so I called it—our title for this morning is “How Crazy Is This!” It seems to fit more with me than “The Courage of Despair.”
So, he’s escaping—escaping from Saul. In order to do that, he needs to get out of Saul’s domain. So when you read that opening tenth verse there, “And David rose and fled that day from Saul,” it doesn’t mean that he was with Saul and that he just walked away from Saul or ran away from Saul. It means that Saul’s dominion extended over the realm in which David was living. And therefore, in order to escape from Saul, he needs to escape, he needs to get beyond his reach. So he does what seems to be the unthinkable, and that is, he heads down from the vantage point where he finds himself at the moment; down some twenty-five miles; down, possibly, right across the valley of Elah, where he had killed Goliath; and down to the coastal plain, where there were five cities of the Philistines. And he goes, remarkably, to the city of Goliath himself.
Now, clearly he had to be very, very afraid. Very afraid. He was very “much afraid,” it says in verse 12—very afraid to go and try and hide in a place where he was persona non grata. Think, for example, about the widows in Gath—all of those widows who had no husbands because of David and his triumph over Goliath and the ensuing skirmishes that followed and the tremendous loss of life. Think about some of the men who were still in Gath, presumably, smarting from the treatment that they had received—two hundred of them—back in chapter 18, when, you will remember, David was fulfilling the requirement—doing more than filling the requirement—to have the hand of Saul’s daughter Michal in marriage. And you remember we said on that evening when we studied it that we often say to one another, “I wish I had a video of this,” but of that incident, it was far better for us to consider it without the video.
Add to this fact the fact that he has taken with him Goliath’s sword. Goliath’s sword. That was where we left it fourteen weeks ago. David said, “Well, there’s none like that.” Surely there’s none like that, both in terms of its stature and the use to which it had been put. And I think, actually, that there is almost a humorous element in this. This is almost Shakespearean in the picture that we have: “And David rose and fled that day from Saul and went to Achish the king of Gath,” and he had with him Goliath’s sword. Are you kidding? I mean, it’s one thing for you to go to Gath, but why are you taking that big sword with you? People know what that is. David, the crazy part—your crazy part—doesn’t come until verse 13. But look what you’re doing now. This is like showing up in Columbus at an Ohio State game wearing a Michigan sweatshirt, or standing up in the Dog Pound and waving the Terrible Towel, or showing up at Ibrox wearing a Celtic jersey.
Now, what are we to do with this, and how do we handle this? The interpretation of Old Testament narrative is difficult at the best of times. And it is a wonderful thing when we realize that elsewhere in the Scriptures, we have material that allows us to make sure that we don’t go wrong by way of understanding and by way of application. If you’ve wondered why it is that we have already read today from Psalm 56 and from Psalm 34, the answer is to be found in what I’m saying. So, for example, if you’re able to turn to Psalm 56, you will notice that it has a heading: “To the choirmaster: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. A Miktam,” or a golden song, or a peculiarly wonderful song, “of David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.”
So, what was going on in his mind? Now, think about it. He’s on the run, and all of this—and more besides, presumably—is caught up in his thinking as he writes: “Be gracious to me, O God,” verse 1,
for man tramples on me;
all day long an attacker oppresses me;
my enemies trample on me all day long,
for many attack me proudly.
All day long they injure my cause;
all their thoughts are against me for evil.
They stir up strife, they lurk;
they watch my steps,
as they have waited for my life.
Now, when you take that psalm and then you turn back here to verse 11, you realize that his fleeing was literally from one enemy to another. And, if you like, he picks his poison, and he says, “I’d rather take my chances with the Philistines than allow Saul to get ahold of me.”
So, from fleeing to fearing. And you see there in verse 12: “And David took these words to heart and was [very] much afraid.” What has happened? Well, we’re told in verse 11. His fearing is as a result of being recognized.
Now, I ask you: Did he really think he could mingle in the city of Gath incognito? No doubt he looked different from his day in the sun when he took on Goliath. And certainly I don’t imagine that he decided… I don’t know what he did with his sword; it’s a question for the ages, really. But I don’t imagine that he walks into Gath waving the sword around his head. I mean, that really would be crazy. But whatever hopes of anonymity he might have cherished, they are almost immediately dashed when the servants of Achish recognize him, about whom the song was written: “And the servants of Achish said to him, ‘Is not this David the king of the land?’” “Isn’t he the one that they sing about and dance: ‘Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’?”
What hope did he have for anonymity? James Taylor, one of my favorites, has a wonderful song with the lines “Fortune and fame’s such a curious game; perfect strangers [they] call you by name.” And that’s exactly what has happened to him here. He thought he could run down there and be safe. And the people are saying, “Isn’t this the one who is the king of the land?”
Now, one of the things that we’ve noticed—I hope that we have noticed—as we’ve been going through is that, in a quite remarkable way, every so often, you have from an unlikely source a statement, and in that statement, the person or the persons say actually more than they even know they’re saying. And I think this is one of the cases. And I think, actually, when you take from the secret anointing of David by Samuel, and then down that line, and then that strange encounter, that wonderful encounter, where Jonathan takes off his coat and he gives it to David—what’s happening is that the writer is just building, building, building this picture of who David is and all that David will become. And now, even people who are his enemies have a sense of this.
Now, “the king of the land” was not a formal title in any way at all. But it was a statement that was enough to strike fear into Achish and fear into David himself. You see, it would have been one thing for him to have gone into Gath as an exile or as a refugee. And maybe he was hoping to do that. But the word is now out on the street that he’s this fellow who is very famous from whence he’s come, and we’re referring to him as “the king of the land.”
Now, think about this for a moment. That was the problem that caused him to flee to Gath. Right? That the people were saying this very thing; they were singing this song: “David’s really the main man.” Saul couldn’t handle it. When David says to Ahimelech earlier, “The reason that I don’t have my stuff with me is because I’m on the king’s business,” there’s quite an irony in that statement, insofar as the king’s business—namely, King Saul—was to kill David! So, it is because the word is on the street that he’s actually the incumbent king that he runs away to Gath, and now, in Gath, it is the same story that causes him the same problem. And so, when he realized that they were singing the song and what the people were saying in reference to it, he “took these words to heart and was [very] much afraid.”
Now, Saul had been hoping in earlier circumstances that the Philistines would kill David. I resist the temptation to go back, but it’s in chapter 18. You can see there how he sets things up in such a way that he’s hoping that, sort of inadvertently, David will be wiped out. David has managed to dodge all of that, but how is he going to escape now, here?
Interestingly, this is the only place in 1 and 2 Samuel in which we are told that David was afraid of threats against him. There is another place in 2 Samuel where it speaks of him being afraid, but he’s “afraid of the Lord.” This is the only instance in which he declares this.
If you look again at Psalm 56, we can be helped in this, and rehearsing verses 3 and 4: he says to himself,
When I am afraid,
I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can flesh do to me?
Okay, now do you get this? “I was very much afraid.” You know, I tell people this all the time: when they tell me, “Well, I’m not afraid of this, I’m not afraid of that,” I say, “Well, I wish I was you. I really do. Because I am.” So, for example, you know, when we sing those lines, “I will not fear that final day,” I never sing that. I sing, “And though I fear that final day.” That’s just to be honest. Death is the last enemy to be destroyed. Death is not natural. Death is God’s punishment for sin. We ought to recoil from it. Surely we trust in God, but nevertheless, in the true essence of our humanity, we recoil from it.
So what is David doing here? Well, you see, he’s taking himself in hand, isn’t he? “I was very much afraid. When I took these words to heart, I realized what was going on; I was very much afraid.” But here in the Fifty-sixth Psalm, we learn what he did. You see, faith here—faith on David’s part in response to his fear—is a deliberate act. It’s not a feeling. It’s not a feeling. It’s a deliberate act in defiance of his own emotional state: “I will trust and not be afraid. I am horribly afraid.” What are we going to do?
You see, this is not The King and I, for those of you who are of a certain vintage. This is not Anna in The King and I—you know, “Whenever I am afraid, I whistle a happy tune”:
While shivering in my shoes,
I strike a careless pose
And whistle a happy tune,
And no one ever knows
[I am] afraid.
The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell,
For when I fool the people,
I … fool myself as well!
That, my friends, has got nothing to do with the reality of a God-enabled faith such as is displayed in the extremity of the circumstances of David right here.
You see, the real issue is an issue that strikes us all, and it is simply this: when the providences of God appear to run counter to his promises, so that the unfolding story of my life seems to run up against what God has promised. And that’s going to be the experience of everybody that lives the Christian life. And, if you like, what we discover, and will discover finally at the end—and this is dangerous territory for me—but I think that the providences of God and the promises of God meet in a kind of contrapuntal motion, thereby making beautiful music out of that which seems to be discordant.
It’s really Romans 8, isn’t it? “What shall we say, then, in response to this?” Look at this. What shall we say? Well, we’ll say what David says: “I’m gonna trust in God.” “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
Now, I’m greatly helped by this on a number of fronts, and I hope you might be too. It certainly will reward your further thought. But in verse 13, and in light of what we’ve just looked at in 56—right? So he’s very much afraid. Faith on his part is a defiant response to his own emotional state. And then what does he do in verse 13? Well, I’m so glad that it doesn’t say, “So David said, ‘Oh well. God’ll do something. Oh well. We’ll just wait and see what God does.’” It always sounds very wonderful, very pious. No, there’s no hint of that in this, is there? There’s no hint of the “let go and let God.” There’s no more of a “let go and let God” here than there was when big Goliath came up against him—when he was towered over by this giant, and presumably his knees, if you could have heard them under all the clamor of everything else going on, they would have made quite a racket as they knocked together. But he trusted God, but he doesn’t say, “Okay, God, go ahead and kill Goliath.” No, not at all.
Well, we come, finally: fleeing from one enemy to another; fearing as a result of his being recognized; and then he decides how he’s going to handle this. “So he changed his behavior before them.” He fakes insanity as a way of escape. Is there no limit to David, this ruddy-faced, handsome, lovely-eyes boy, shepherd boy, unlikely choice out of all the sons of Jesse—this soldier boy who takes on the giant? And now we’re introduced to him as a thespian. And his ability as an actor is enough to convince Achish that he’s crazy. I say to you again: How crazy is this!
You see, he was “in their hands.” Notice that little phrase there in verse 13: he was “in their hands.” In other words, he was in custody. And again, when you take the Psalms, the poems that he’s written, and set them in line with this, you realize that if we got the impression back in verse 10 that he went into town and went to have supper with the king and so on, then I think we’ve gone wrong. When it says that he “went to Achish,” it probably means that he left the jurisdiction and the realm of Saul’s influence and went into the realm of Achish’s influence. But as a result of the recognition, the servants of the king have taken him into their hands. And you will notice down in verse 14 that this makes sense, then, of the king’s question, “Why then have you brought him to me?” If he was there, they wouldn’t be bringing him. Anyway, it’s not a huge thing. It’s not a main and a plain thing.
But he changes his behavior, and he gives a command performance, pretending to be crazy—starts banging his head on the doors, scratching graffiti, drooling on his beard. An indignity to the beard was considered in his day an intolerable insult and certainly would have given no indication of normality.
So there you have it. And “then Achish said to his servants, ‘Behold, you see [this] man is mad.’” It’s just like Polonius in Hamlet, where Polonius comes to Hamlet’s mother, and he says, “Your noble son is mad. ‘Mad’ call I it, for, to define madness, what is ’t but to be nothing else but mad?” Well, that’s what the king says here. “It’s pretty obvious,” he says. “He’s mad. Why did you bring him here?” And then presumably at a dig to the folks who brought him in—or maybe a reference to his family, I don’t know—“Why did you bring him here? Don’t you think I have enough crazy people to put up with without adding another? Get him out of here. Get him out! I don’t want him in my house.”
Now, as we draw this to a close, notice that this is a strange deliverance. But it is a deliverance. The ultimate explanation of what happens in this incident does not lie in David’s ingenuity, cunning as he was. But once again, his poems provide the answer—the thirteenth verse of 56: “You have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling.” In other words, he doesn’t congratulate himself. He doesn’t make a run for the cave of Adullam saying, “You know what? I’m really a lot better than people understand. I can do it all. I can kill giants. I can shepherd sheep. I can act the crazy man. I’m really pretty good. No wonder you’re going to make me the king.” No: “You have delivered my soul from death. You have delivered my feet from falling.”
Psalm 34 drives it home for us—especially, again, the title. Psalm 34, the title: “Of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech,” which is another name for Achish—as “he changed his behavior before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” And what does he tell us? He said, “Well, let me explain to you what happened: I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and he delivered me from all my fears. You know, those who look to him are radiant; their faces will never be covered in shame. I’m the poor man that cried, and the Lord heard him, saved him. You know, the fact is, the angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him and delivers them.”
I imagine him in the cave—to which we will come next time—I imagine him sitting with the company, the group that now was beginning to gather around him, and saying, “You know, through all the changing scenes of life, in sorrow and in joy…” And then saying to them, “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and [come] let us exalt his name together!”
You see, because set within the big panorama of the story of Scripture, what the opponents of David were doing was setting themselves—in terms of Psalm 2—setting themselves “against the Lord and against his Anointed.” David was the Lord’s anointed. That is the significance of it all. And David in that circumstance was distressed, and he was persecuted, but he was not forsaken. I leave it to you to follow the line out, to realize that one day, a King would come—the King, who would be subjected, as David was, to hatred and to cruelty. And this King would be forsaken—and he would be forsaken in order that those who trust in him might be forgiven. And to come right up to date, Jesus, our King, is still opposed, and he’s still despised, and yet he offers to those of us who will humble ourselves a deliverance we don’t deserve.
It seems that the overwhelming tide was against David. The numbers that would amass against him were large. The numbers that were going to be drawn to him and side with him were small. It’s the story of the church. The numbers that oppose Jesus as King, they’re large. Who is on the Lord’s side?
Let me ask you; with this I close:
Who is on the Lord’s side? Who will serve the King?
Who will be his helpers, other lives to bring?
Who will leave the world’s side? Who will face the foe?
Who is on the Lord’s side? [And] who for him will go?
That’s the question. That’s the question. Tomorrow, into work. Tomorrow, into play, back into the rough-and-tumble of life. Are you able to say, “By your call of mercy, by your grace divine, we are on the Lord’s side—Savior, we are thine”?
O gracious God, we pray that your Word will find a resting place in our hearts and lives, and that you will enable us by the help of the Holy Spirit to live out the wonder of your salvation: that you are the God who rescues, the God who redeems, the God who restores. Salvation belongs to you alone. And in Christ we trust. Amen.
 Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72: An Introduction and Commentary on Books I and II of the Psalms, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (1973; repr., Leicester, UK; Inter-Varsity, 1977), 202.
 See 1 Samuel 18:27.
 James Taylor, “That’s Why I’m Here” (1985).
 2 Samuel 6:9 (ESV).
 Jonny Robinson, Rich Thompson, Michael Farren, and Dustin Smith, “All My Ways Are Known to You” (2016). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Richard Rodgers, “I Whistle a Happy Tune” (1951).
 Romans 8:31 (paraphrased).
 Romans 8:31 (KJV).
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2
 Psalm 34:4–7 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 34:3 (ESV)
 See Psalm 2:2.
 Frances R. Havergal, “Who Is on the Lord’s Side?” (1877). Language modernized.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.