Living on a Prayer — Part One
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Living on a Prayer — Part One

2 Samuel 16:1–12  (ID: 3521)

Forsaken and opposed by those closest to him, including his traitorous son Absalom, King David sought refuge in the wilderness. But evil pursued him. David was deceived by a trusted servant and then cursed by Shimei, a relative of Saul. As Alistair Begg explains, David understood Shimei’s cursing in light of Nathan’s prophecy that God would discipline David for his sin—though He would also never remove His steadfast love and mercy. God does not offer grace begrudgingly. Rather, it is freely given to all who come to Him in repentance and faith.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 and 2 Samuel, Volume 8

God’s Unshakable Kingdom 2 Samuel 13:1–20:26 Series ID: 109018

Sermon Transcript: Print

Let’s read together from 2 Samuel and from chapter 16. Two Samuel 16 and from verse 1:

“When David had passed a little beyond the summit, Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth met him, with a couple of donkeys saddled, bearing two hundred loaves of bread, a hundred bunches of raisins, a hundred of summer fruits, and a skin of wine. And the king said to Ziba, ‘Why have you brought these?’ Ziba answered, ‘The donkeys are for the king’s household to ride on, the bread and summer fruit for the young men to eat, and the wine for those who faint in the wilderness to drink.’ And the king said, ‘And where is your master’s son?’ Ziba said to the king, ‘Behold, he remains in Jerusalem, for he said, “Today the house of Israel will give me back the kingdom of my father.”’ Then the king said to Ziba, ‘Behold, all that belonged to Mephibosheth is now yours.’ And Ziba said, ‘I pay homage; let me ever find favor in your sight, my lord the king.’

“When King David came to Bahurim, there came out a man of the family of the house of Saul, whose name was Shimei, the son of Gera, and as he came he cursed continually. And he threw stones at David and at all the servants of King David, and all the people and all the mighty men were on his right hand and on his left. And Shimei said as he cursed, ‘Get out, get out, you man of blood, you worthless man! The Lord has avenged on you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned, and the Lord has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom. See, your evil is on you, for you are a man of blood.’

“Then Abishai the son of Zeruiah said to the king, ‘Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and take off his head.’ But the king said, ‘What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? If he is cursing because the Lord has said to him, “Curse David,” who then shall say, “Why have you done so?”’ And David said to Abishai and to all his servants, ‘Behold, my own son seeks my life; how much more now may this Benjaminite! Leave him alone, and let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will look on the wrong done to me, and that the Lord will repay me with good for his cursing today.’ So David and his men went on the road, while Shimei went along on the hillside opposite him and cursed as he went and threw stones at him and flung dust. And the king, and all the people who were with him, arrived weary at the Jordan. And there he refreshed himself.

“Now Absalom and all the people, the men of Israel, came to Jerusalem, and Ahithophel with him. And when Hushai the Archite, David’s friend, came to Absalom, Hushai said to Absalom, ‘Long live the king! Long live the king!’ And Absalom said to Hushai, ‘Is this your loyalty to your friend? Why did you not go with your friend?’ And Hushai said to Absalom, ‘No, for whom the Lord and [his] people and all the men of Israel have chosen, his I will be, and with him I will remain. And again, whom should I serve? Should it not be his son? As I have served your father, so I will serve you.’

“Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, ‘Give [me] your counsel. What shall we do?’ Ahithophel said to Absalom, ‘Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house, and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself a stench to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.’ So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof. And Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the word of God; so was all the counsel of Ahithophel esteemed, both by David and by Absalom.”


Well, a brief prayer before we look at this:

Come, gracious Holy Spirit, and quicken our minds by way of understanding. Guard and guide our thinking, and bring your Word to bear upon our lives, so that we might be drawn to Jesus and conformed to his very image. For we pray in his name. Amen.

Well, “Do your friends despise, forsake you? Is there trouble anywhere?”[1] There is little doubt that David, having just read 2 Samuel 16, would have answered yes on both counts. He was in the midst of great trouble, and he was opposed by those who were supposed to have been his friends—particularly Ahithophel, whom we met last time, David’s counselor, whom you will recall had gone over onto Absalom’s side. And we shared the conjecture that given that Ahithophel was the grandfather of Bathsheba, that there may have been something of a personal agenda, something of an avengeance that emerged from his own heart and mind in doing what he did.

He is without question a traitor. He is, if you like, the Old Testament equivalent of Judas Iscariot. And in many ways, the incident here foreshadows all that takes place on the Mount of Olives a thousand years later. David, we have seen, has gone over the brook Kidron. He has ascended the Mount of Olives. The description of him is a sad one—he is weeping, he is barefooted, his head is covered as an expression of his mourning—and without question, the picture that we have of him there is a far cry from the pre-Bathsheba version.

But what we need to keep in mind—and it is of vital importance that we do so—is that he is still the king. He is the king. He is the Lord’s anointed. And therefore, when we consider what is taking place here in terms of rebellion towards him, it is not just some kind of interactive engagement between two people of an equal status. No, he is the one who has been set apart. He is the man after God’s own heart[2]—in other words, God’s heart was filled with David. And God has promised to David that there will come one who will sit on his throne forever and forever.[3] But then we read these chapters, and we say to ourselves, “Well, it appears at this juncture unlikely that David and his kingdom will survive.”

And we might say that he was “living on a prayer,” for all Bon Jovi fans. And that prayer is recorded for us—we saw it, I’m not making that up—back in 15:31: “And David said”—here’s the prayer that he’s living on—“‘O Lord, please turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.’” In other words, at this juncture in time, the future of his kingdom, from a human perspective—as we unfold this story, as we follow the line along—it is hanging on the answer to that prayer.

And if you will recall, Hushai appears on the scene—and we’ll meet him again later—Hushai appears on the scene, and David immediately recognizes that it is more than possible that the actions of Hushai will be the very answer to his prayer. And what he did was he sends him back to Jerusalem as a spy, and he has the straightforward objective of seeking to overturn or to defeat the counsel of Ahithophel.

Now, having read through the chapter, you know that part of the counsel of Ahithophel, we just saw, is really bad counsel. The next part of it will come at the beginning of chapter 17, and we have to wait until after 17:5 to discover how well that went. But for the time being, we mustn’t run ahead. We need to stay where we are.

What has been provided for us here by the storyteller is a series of encounters between individuals and the king. We saw him in his encounter with Ittai, and then with Abiathar, and then with Zadok. And now we are going to look at him throughout the day—and it will take us the day, I’m convinced—first of all, meeting him as deceived by Ziba, and then as cursed by Shimei, and then as supported by Hushai, and then as opposed by Ahithophel. That’s the framework that will take us into the evening hour.

Deceived by Ziba

But first of all, in these opening verses we find that he is here deceived by Ziba.

Now, you know Ziba, because we met him before. We were introduced to him way back in chapter 9, in the encounter with Mephibosheth, you remember, the son of Jonathan who was lame in his feet and needed somebody to care for him. Well, Ziba was given the job of caring for Mephibosheth. And in 9:10, the word that was given: “You and your sons and your servants”—this is Ziba and his sons and his servants—“shall till the land for [Mephibosheth] … shall bring in the produce, that your master’s grandson may have bread to eat. [And] Mephibosheth … shall always eat at my table.” That was David’s counsel to Ziba. That was what he was established to do.

And here we find him showing up on this occasion essentially with a picnic—a quite elaborate picnic, without any doubt. But this is not an unfamiliar scene. In fact, you know, David, when we are first introduced to him, was engaged in a similar responsibility. You remember all these times ago that his father said to him, “I want you to go to your brothers on the battlefield. I want you to strengthen them and to encourage them.” And he took with him an ephah of parched grain, ten loaves, and ten cheeses.[4] And now he’s on the receiving end of a similar kind of venture. He is beleaguered, he is weary, his folks are stressed out, he is running for his life, and here into his circle of influence comes Ziba—the provisions far greater than anything David ever took on that occasion. Donkeys—and the translation of “two” could also be “string,” “a string of donkeys.” It seems to me you would need a string of donkeys just to carry all of this stuff. Two would be hard pressed. And who was gonna get the job of sitting on them, or the privilege of sitting on them? Anyway, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a main thing. Donkeys, bread, raisins, summer fruit, and wine.

And in encountering this, David says to him, “Why have you brought these?” The answer that he gives is not really the answer to the question that David is asking. I sat with this for a long time. I went back… I often go back to the King James Version to see if it will help me, because often the way it translates something is not just as definitive. And in this case, I found that to be true. In the King James Version, the question is written as “What meanest thou by these?” “What meanest thou by these?”—which could, I suppose, be translated “What are you doing with these things?” or “What’s all this?” or, if you like, “What’s going on with this?” And I think the inference is probably that—the inference being simply: David knows, “You’re supposed to be looking after all this stuff. I gave you the job to till the land, to make sure that Mephibosheth had plenty to eat. I didn’t give you the privilege of deciding when and to whom you would like to give the material away.”

And there’s something about his gesture, a gesture of generosity, that doesn’t quite meld with the fact that his loyalty—his generosity is expressed here to David, but his loyalty lies with Saul. He is the servant of Saul. And this is where, again, you have to keep the whole story in mind when you’re reading this. Remember that Saul has been dethroned. David has been put in his place. But those battles had continued for a long time. He fought against those Philistines, because they were coming for him again and again. And that issue is not over. If it was a political issue, we’d say that all this material is appearing in the newspapers again and again.

And so, this strange little encounter with Ziba has to be set within the wider framework. And I wonder, isn’t that why David then says, “And where is your master’s son?” Now, you know, we know, that “son” is used quite elastically in the Old Testament narrative. It’s actually Saul’s grandson. It’s Jonathan’s son. “Where is your master’s son?” And “Ziba said to the king, ‘Behold, he remains in Jerusalem.’” True. “‘Today,’” he said, “‘the house of Israel will give me back the kingdom of my father.’” Not true. How do we know it’s not true? Well, because by the time we get to chapter 19, Mephibosheth will tell us that Ziba slandered him, threw him under the bus when he said this. For the time being, we have to read it as David is receiving it. He doesn’t know what we know, because he hasn’t read chapter 19, so to speak. All right?

Let us beware of making snap decisions when we’re not on our game, when life has turned against us, when we’re disheartened and we’re discouraged.

Therefore, he says, “Well, isn’t that quite fascinating. In other words, Mephibosheth has now decided that although I’ve done all these kind things for him—looked after him, let him eat at my table—that he has decided that he is hoping dearly that the kingdom will swing back to Saul.” So what has happened here is that Ziba has put words into the mouth of his father [sic]: “Today the house of Israel will give me back the kingdom of my father.” In other words, he says, “This is what Mephibosheth is saying.”

Now, that’s not what David wants to hear, and it’s certainly not what he expects, and he makes a snap decision. I find this one of the most interesting little pieces in all that I’ve read. And he said, “[Well then,] behold, all that belonged to Mephibosheth is now yours.” It’s quite amazing, isn’t it? I’m not sure I fully understand what’s going on here. David makes a snap decision. He has made some snap decisions in the past, but this is an interesting one. It’s almost as if he says to himself, “Goodness, the whole thing is coming in on me, coming down around me. Now I’ve even got Mephibosheth, to whom I’ve done so many good things, coming against me. Well, forget him! I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Ziba. You’ve come here. You’ve been very nice to me. You brought the donkeys and the fruit and everything. That’s very nice. I’ll tell you what, why don’t I give you just the whole—just give you the whole thing?” And Ziba says, “Well, I pay homage.” You bet your life he paid homage! What an amazing deal this is! He shows up with a cock-and-bull story, and he ends up running the whole program.

Ziba is an opportunist, for sure. I wonder if Ziba’s not just a jealous person. Not easy, to do what Ziba was asked to do. Wouldn’t be difficult for Ziba to say, “You know what? I do everything around here. I run this program. I run the farm. My children are involved in it. And all for this guy, this invalid guy! All he does is he just shows up and eats all this stuff.” Wouldn’t be surprising. No, I think he’s an opportunist. I think he’s motivated entirely by self-interest.

And what I find most interesting is that David, who on previous occasions has been very, very meticulous in dealing with encounters like this… You can rehearse it for yourself. Way back in the first chapter of 2 Samuel, when he hears of the death of Saul—and we won’t delay on it now, but if you remember—he queries that fellow all the time. He asks a question, then he asks another question, and another question. He’s trying to find out what’s really going on. But in this instance, I guess he’s distressed. He’s discouraged. His judgment is off. He makes a snap decision, and he goes.

It’s not the point, but it is a point in passing. Let us beware of making snap decisions when we’re not on our game, when life has turned against us, when we’re disheartened and we’re discouraged. Don’t write important letters then. Don’t change your job. Don’t rearrange your relationships. Keep your head down. Trust God.

So then, from Ziba, who, having benefited from his deceit, then displays his homage. It’s kind of creepy, I think. All of that was taking place while David was “beyond the summit.” And now we pick up the story in verse 5, when “King David came to Bahurim.” Bahurim is not very far away, and we’ve been to Bahurim before. It would be a prize for anyone who could remember this—a very good prize—because I didn’t remember it myself. I just remembered Bahurim, but I didn’t remember what had happened there. And if you recall—you can find it on your own later—that was when David got Michal, his wife, back from Paltiel, because Saul, out of a sense of a grudging perspective towards David, gave Michal to this fellow Paltiel. And David shows up, and he says, “I want Michal back.” And there at Bahurim, Paltiel comes, and he arrives weeping—weeping along the way, as this lady that has been his partner and wife for these years is taken from him.[5]

Cursed by Shimei

Well, that was a sad scene, but it’s nothing compared to the scene that we have here. So now we have not simply David deceived by Ziba but now cursed by Shimei.

I think it’s fair to say that this gentleman Shimei is not pleased with things. Out of the abundance of his heart his mouth speaks. He’s an angry man, he’s filled with rage, and he curses continually. And his curses are an expression of his condemnation of David. “Get out,” he cries, “get out [of here], you man of blood, you worthless man!” Well, of course, the fact was that David was already out. He was out of Jerusalem. He had already crossed the river. He was on his way into the wilderness. And now this [antagonist] arrives and speaks in this way.

Now, let’s read again verse 8, what Shimei has to say to him: “The Lord has avenged on you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned, and the Lord has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom. [Your day is done, David.] See, your evil is on you, for you are a man of blood.” This is Peterson’s paraphrase of that same verse: “God has paid you back for all your dirty work in the family of Saul and for stealing his kingdom. God has given the kingdom to your son Absalom. Look at you now—ruined! And good riddance, you pathetic old man!” I think with a little liberty, that probably captures very well the kind of impact that is being made.

Now, as you read this, you will, I hope, recognize that although Shimei’s words here are half wrong, they are also half right. They are half wrong, first of all, because what he is saying is that David has evil upon him, that David is a worthless man, that David is a man of blood, as responsible for the deaths and the murders that had taken place in the house of Saul. Now, again, you have to read back in the story to stay with this. But you will remember that Joab and Abishai, who had another brother called Asahel, who, remember, took a spear in his belly when he was running behind his enemy—you will remember that those boys were involved in the subsequent murder of Abner. Saul died. Jonathan died. And the rumor at the time was that although David himself may not actually have stuck the dagger in, that he actually was behind all of this. And the accusation that is coming from this man is that that is actually true, that that is the case: “You opposed the house of Saul. You have blood on your hands in relationship to this. And as a result of that, God has decided that you are finished, old guy, and the future is now in the hands of your son Absalom.” So he’s half wrong.

But he’s also half right. Because evil has fallen on David. David is a man of blood. The word that had come from Nathan the prophet to him was “I will raise up evil against you out of your own house.”[6] That’s 12:11. And David knew that, because the word of God had been spoken to him. So this man says to him, “You know, evil is upon you”—meaning the accusations regarding the house of Saul. David recognizes, “You’re wrong on that. But you’re actually right. Because evil has fallen upon me. You’re wrong in saying that my worthlessness lies in what I did to the house of Saul, but you’re right. Because on that afternoon, in that incident that began on the roof, that was the action of a worthless man engaged in a worthless endeavor to create a worthless end.”

Now, David then, as he hears what this man is saying, is processing it along these lines. As he’s thinking about it, Abishai comes up with his own plan: “Why don’t we just do what I’m good at doing? Everybody has a gift in life,” he would have said, you know. “We are the sons of Zeruiah. We could take care of this in a minute. You don’t have to listen to this nonsense from this guy! Let me take his head off.” Dale Ralph Davis says a wonderful little sentence where he says, “Abishai proposes this because he has observed that people without heads do not curse.”[7] Which is pretty good, right?

So, the condemnation comes from the lips of Shimei, the proposed solution comes from the mouth of Abishai, and the word of correction comes from David. At first he says, “Why are you sons of Zeruiah always interfering, always getting in the way? What am I supposed to do with you?” “What have I to do with you?” he says there in 10. You sense something of the frustration, again, of the great King who a thousand years later has to turn to his disciples and says, “Oh dear, oh dear. Have I been so long with you and still you don’t understand? This is not the way the kingdom comes in. We’re not going to see this achieved by taking people’s heads off.” So instead of retaliating, David says, “What we need to recognize is the distinct possibility that the Lord is speaking to me through Shimei.” In other words, “Although he’s half wrong, I recognize that he’s half right.”

And if I may sort of paraphrase it to help us along, I imagine him saying, sort of, “Think about this.” In fact, it’s in the text; you will see it there, verse 11. “Think about this. My own son is seeking to kill me. So why would this be a surprise? If Absalom wants me dead, old crazy Shimei here, and his stones and his curses, are nothing in comparison to that.” And what has actually happened here simply is this: that what Shimei implied—which was that David had been guilty of these blood offenses against the house of Saul—what Shimei implied and what David heard were two different things. He accused him of something that he didn’t do, and it simply reinforced in David’s mind the reality of what he did do.

“You’re a worthless man!”

“I’m the king chosen by God. But that was a worthless act by a worthless man on what proved to be a worthless afternoon.”

“Your hands are full of blood!”

“I never touched any of those people. I wasn’t responsible for the death of Saul. Ah, but I was responsible for the death of Uriah.”

Shimei’s motives were wrong. His accusations were wrong. And yet God reveals his purpose and his plan to David through an unlikely source.

The curses were part of the consequences of David’s iniquity. But he recognizes that God is not only able, but he is also willing, to look at his guilt and return good.

Now here—and we will stop here—but here we are, at a very important piece of this entire puzzle. Because now we are once again dealing with the intersection between the sovereign purpose of God and the responsibility of man; the reality, the mystery of the way in which that which is ill, that which is evil, in the hand of God may be brought to good. I wrote in my notes a little verse from a hymn. I don’t know what the hymn is. You’ve heard me quote it before, but I just instinctively scribbled it down. I said to myself, “Ill” —or wrong, or evil—“Ill that he blesses” (that is, God blesses),

Ill that he blesses is our good
And unblest good is ill;
And all is right that seems most wrong,
If it be his sweet will.[8]

Think of it in terms of Joseph with his brothers, the same issue. He says to them, “Hey, you intended it for evil, but God intended it for good.”[9] It was evil. It was jealousy. It was spite. It was hatred. It was vindictiveness. It was all of that. And for that God was not responsible one piece. And yet here, once again, you see the same thing. Verse 12, listen to this from the lips of David: “It may be that the Lord will look on the wrong done to me”—or it actually could mean “look on the wrong done by me”—“and that the Lord will repay me with good for his cursing today.”

You see, even in the midst of all of this, David had a deep-seated confidence in a God of amazing grace. This is amazing grace. Because he still knows that that word that came from the lip of Nathan to him, “God has put away your sin,”[10] was an expression of the unguessable grace and mercy of God. That’s why I read from Spurgeon there. Isn’t it fantastic? “His mercy is so great that [he] forgives great sins to great sinners, after great lengths of time, and … gives great [privileges] and great [favors].”[11] That’s who God is, you see. And if that is the only thing that you take from this morning, take that. The curses were a response, were part of the consequences of his iniquity. But David recognizes that God is not only able, but he is also willing, to look at his guilt and return good.

One of my friends helped me much with this. I precis his words, ’cause I can’t quote them in their fullness. Here we have a word of special hope to Christians—to Christians—who believe that we have made a royal curse of our lives.[12] We’re not talking about unbelievers. David was a believer. David was the friend of God. David was the choice of God. He made a royal curse of his life. Therefore, despite the fact that you and I may have ignored his standards, we may have denied his Word, we may have rejected his commands, we may have suffered and suffered miserably as a result…

You say, “Yes, but I repented, and I’m forgiven.” Yes, I know you say that. But I talk with you. Some who have repented and forgiven have now decided that God’s perspective on you is only some kind of grudging toleration—that you have been removed from the team, that you now are destined to live the balance of your Christian life in the kind of junkyard of Christian experience. But that is not so. That can’t be so, as long as God is God. Because he is a God, as David tells us, who does not treat us as our sins deserve—that he puts them “as far [from us] as the east is from the west,”[13] that he buries them in the sea of his forgetfulness.[14]

Listen, believer. Listen, Christian person who has succumbed to the devil’s lie: “I did this. I did that. I did the next thing. I made a hash of the whole business.” Just tell the Evil One, “Go back to hell where you belong. Because I take my stand in the unguessable grace of God”—the God who, despite the fact that David was in this sorry predicament… We will see him this evening, weary as he finds himself there in the company of all these people. It looks like a funeral procession. And yet it is to him and through him that the Christ will be born in Bethlehem and that the nations will hear the voice of the words of the Lord.

It’s fantastic, you know. “Where sin runs deep, your grace is more. Where grace is found[, that’s] where you are.”[15] Do you believe that? Oh, I hope you do. I hope I do. I want to.

Just some silence.

God our Father, look upon us in your mercy. Shower your grace upon us. Come to hearts that are dispirited and distressed, tempted to make snap decisions, deceived, disappointed. Restore to us the joy of our salvation, we pray.[16] For your Son’s sake. Amen.

[1] Joseph Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (1855). Lyrics lightly altered.

[2] See 1 Samuel 13:14.

[3] See 2 Samuel 7:13.

[4] See 1 Samuel 17:17–18.

[5] See 2 Samuel 3:12–16.

[6] 2 Samuel 12:11 (ESV).

[7] Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity, Focus on the Bible (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus, 2018), 203.

[8] Frederick W. Faber, “I Worship Thee, Sweet Will of God” (1849).

[9] Genesis 50:20 (paraphrased).

[10] 2 Samuel 12:13 (paraphrased).

[11] Charles H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, revised and updated by Alistair Begg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), August 17 morning reading.

[12] Davis, 2 Samuel, 205.

[13] Psalm 103:12 (ESV).

[14] See Micah 7:19

[15] Matt Maher, Kristian Stanfill, Christy Nockels, Jesse Reeves, Daniel Carson, “Lord, I Need You” (2011).

[16] See Psalm 51:12.

Copyright © 2024, 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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.