Restraining Grace
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Restraining Grace

1 Samuel 25:18-44  (ID: 3439)

After protecting men in the wilderness that were not his own, David sent word to their master, Nabal, asking for provisions. Nabal, however, spurned David’s kindness and repaid evil for good. While David planned to avenge himself through bloodshed, God’s unseen hand was at work to prevent him from sinning. As Alistair Begg explains, the timely intervention of Nabal’s wife, Abigail, illustrates God’s restraining grace. Like David, we can rejoice and bless God for His providential grace in our lives.


Sermon Transcript:

Well, let me invite you to turn to 1 Samuel and to chapter 25, and we will read from the eighteenth verse. 1 Samuel 25:18:

“Then Abigail made haste and took two hundred loaves and two skins of wine and five sheep already prepared and five seahs of parched grain and a hundred clusters of raisins and two hundred cakes of figs, and laid them on donkeys. And she said to her young men, ‘Go on before me; behold, I come after you.’ But she did not tell her husband Nabal. And as she rode on the donkey and came down under cover of the mountain, behold, David and his men came down toward her, and she met them. Now David had said, ‘Surely in vain have I guarded all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him, and he has returned me evil for good. God do so to the enemies of David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him.’

“When Abigail saw David, she hurried and got down from the donkey and fell before David on her face and bowed to the ground. She fell at his feet and said, ‘On me alone, my lord, be the guilt. Please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. Let not my lord regard this worthless fellow, Nabal, for as his name is, so is he. Nabal is his name, and folly is with him. But I your servant did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent. Now then, my lord, as the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, because the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from saving with your own hand, now then let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be as Nabal. And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. Please forgive the trespass of your servant. For the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the Lord, and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. If men rise up to pursue you and … seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord your God. And the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling. And when the Lord has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you and has appointed you prince over Israel, my lord shall have no cause of grief or pangs of conscience for having shed blood without cause or for my lord working salvation himself. And when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.’

“And David said to Abigail, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand! For as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there had not been left to Nabal so much as one male.’ Then David received from her hand what she had brought him. And he said to her, ‘Go up in peace to your house. See, I have obeyed your voice, and I have granted your petition.’

“And Abigail came to Nabal, and behold, he was holding a feast in his house, like the feast of a king. And Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunk. So she told him nothing at all until the morning light. In the morning, when the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him, and he became as a stone. And about ten days later the Lord struck Nabal, and he died.

“When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, ‘Blessed be the Lord who has avenged the insult I received at the hand of Nabal, and has kept back his servant from wrongdoing. The Lord has returned the evil of Nabal on his own head.’ Then David sent and spoke to Abigail, to take her as his wife. When the servants of David came to Abigail at Carmel, they said to her, ‘David has sent us to you to take you to him as his wife.’ And she rose and bowed with her face to the ground and said, ‘Behold, your handmaid is a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.’ And Abigail hurried and rose and mounted a donkey, and her five young women attended her. She followed the messengers of David and became his wife.

Here, in the words of Abigail, the Lord through Abigail has restrained him once again.

“David also took Ahinoam of Jezreel, and both of them became his wives. Saul had given Michal his daughter, David’s wife, to Palti the son of Laish, who was of Gallim.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Father, as we turn to the Bible, make the Book live to us, Lord. Show us yourself in your Word. Show us ourselves, show us our Savior,[1] and speak, Lord, in the stillness of this day as we wait upon you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Well, we’re picking up our studies at the eighteenth verse, from which we read, and I encourage you to have your Bible open so that you can check and make sure that everything that I’m saying is actually in the Bible. This is quite a chunk of Scripture, and my purpose as of this moment is to see it through, but we will begin and see how well we do.

Perhaps a question to begin: Who is it that stopped David from rashly taking matters into his own hands and shedding blood? Well, the answer, of course, is that God did. And in light of the hymn that we have just sung, this is perfectly plain. But it is also equally true to acknowledge that although God was the one who restrained him, God did not act in a vacuum. And that is where we find this amazing encounter involving this young lady, Abigail, to whom we’ve been introduced as one who is both discerning and beautiful, and yet who at the same time is married to a man who is not so nice and tender as he ought to be.

She is clearly somebody who does not let the grass grow under her feet. Three times, if you check the text, you will see that she is in a hurry. First of all, here, she’s in a hurry to meet David; at the end of the chapter almost, she’s in a hurry to get married to David; and at one point in the middle of it all, she’s in a hurry to get down from her donkey.

Now, we have noticed that David, back in the previous chapter, had refused to take matters into his own hands. And yet here, in the opening section of chapter 25, he is ready now to seek to avenge himself. His attitude of response to what has been the revulsion of this man Nabal is an understandable response; the man responded in an evil way to the expressions of good. However, the action that he’s planning to take is not good.

And what we have in the balance of this chapter is essentially an amazing illustration of what we refer to as God’s restraining grace. Last week, we sang the verse that I like from “When All Thy Mercies, O My God,” and we recognized that David at this point in his life is not “in the slippery paths of youth.” He has moved on from there. But the verse really fits. You can choose the time era of your life: “When in the slippery paths of youth with [foolish] steps I ran”—and here’s the line—“[your hand] unseen conveyed me safe.”[2] The unseen hand of God, which is made clear to us as we work our way through the story.

David is prevented from following through on his rational outburst, a kind of rush of blood to his head, a hotheadedness; he’s prevented by the cool and pacifying tones of this discerning and beautiful woman. Now, presumably, the word of David’s ferocity has convinced her that the situation is grave, and her response to that is to, unlike her husband, proceed with a generous gift. And perhaps we can notice that she has a plan, and about this plan she says nothing to her husband. You can see that. Clearly, she knows him. He seems to be a stingy soul; he was concerned about David’s men being able to tap into his water source or really to have any access to any of his supplies. So, if he had seen what she was doing in loading down these donkeys, he would without question have been opposed to it.

And in an interesting fashion—and you’ll see it in the text—she says to the young men, “Go on before me; [and] behold, I [will] come after you.” If you want a cross-reference, let me give it to you. It’s in Genesis 32—it will repay your study—where Jacob operates on the very same basis in anticipation of linking up with his brother Esau.[3] And her plan has, if you like, a precedent.

Her posture when she finally meets David is very, very clear. She’s not on her high horse. She may be discerning and beautiful, but she does not approach David in that way. You’ll notice that she is very quickly off her donkey. She is immediately doing obeisance before David. Now, this is simply a mark of respect. For the ladies who are reading, don’t immediately take this as if somehow or another this is a token of subservience on the part of the female towards the male, because if you remember back in chapter 24, this is exactly the posture of David when he bowed before Saul.

God knows his own, and he keeps them in the bundle of his security.

So her plan is a good one, it’s a clear one; her posture is one of humility; and then her plea follows in verse 24: “She fell at his feet and said, ‘On me alone, my lord, be the guilt. Please let your servant speak in your ears.’” We won’t delay on that, but how else would she be able to be heard were it not for his ears? Clearly, this is an expression of the desire on the part of Abigail to make sure that David listens very carefully to what she has to say: “Let me be the one who bears the guilt.” I wonder, has she discovered that David and his men were planning only to kill the male population? And if so, it’s a pretty skillful move on her part, because if she takes all the guilt, then she may be able to divert the punishment.

She also says, “I don’t want you to pay any attention,” verse 25, “to my husband.” We’re not gonna pause and talk about this except to say that clearly, she and Nabal seem to be long past the benefit of any kind of seminar on Marriage Matters. They’re long past reading Lasting Love: How to Avoid Marital Failure. “No, don’t pay attention to him. Nabal is his name. It means ‘fool.’ It’s fool by name and fool by nature.” Quite striking. And Alter, in his quite helpful commentary, says, “It is hard to think of another instance in literature in which a wife so quickly and so devastatingly interposes distance between herself and her husband.”[4]

She’s quick to point out as well, in the balance of verse 25, that she was not there when this happened: “But I your servant did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent.” The inference, I think, is straightforward: “If I had been there and if I had seen this unfold, then you can be pretty sure that things would not have come out as they have.”

“Now then,” she says, verse 26, “my lord, as the Lord lives…” I found it difficult to read that; you probably picked it up as you were listening. Because you need to make sure that as you have the text in front of you, when she uses “my lord” here, she’s of course referring to David. And this is, again, a deferential way of speaking. And when she speaks of the Lord, you will notice that it is capitalized in your text: “Now then, my lord,” i.e., David, “as the Lord lives,” the God of Israel, “and as your soul lives”—interesting entry of that dimension of life that goes beyond the merely physical—and “because the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from saving with your own hand…”

Now, this is an interesting statement. Because it is in the past tense, you will notice: “The Lord has restrained you.” Well, actually, the Lord is, through Abigail, in the process of restraining him. But in actual fact, what she says there fits with what had previously happened in chapter 24. Because if David had done what the men said to him to do—“Now’s your chance, kill him!”—then things would have been very different. But he was restrained. And here, in the words of Abigail, the Lord through Abigail has restrained him once again.

And so she says to him, “Leave it, then, to the Lord. Leave it to the Lord to take care of your enemies. And he will take care of my foolish husband.” I think that is the whole emphasis that you find there in verse 28: “Please forgive the trespass. The Lord will surely do this for you.” “You have been restrained”—back up in 26, I mean, not 28—“and so, let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be as Nabal. Nabal is a foolish man. The fool comes to destruction. Let your enemies come to destruction too.” And then, still in her approach in 28, “Please forgive the trespass, and please receive this present; let the present that your servant has brought to you be given to the young men who follow you.”

Now, she makes this appeal on the strength of God’s plan for David. You see that there: “For the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house.” Now, if we ever make it into 2 Samuel—and I am not gonna make any promises in that regard, or threats, actually—we will discover that what she says here finds its fulfillment. And again, as a cross-reference, in chapter 7 of 2 Samuel you will find that the word of the Lord is as follows: “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.”[5] So what she says here is prophetic in its dimensions: “My lord, the Lord will make for you a sure house, because you, David, are fighting the battles of the Lord.”

Incidentally, let me just pause for a moment on this. How then does this find fulfillment? Because if it is taken forward from 1 Samuel into 2 Samuel, and there this notion about which we have sung, “And he shall reign forever, and his kingdom will never fail”—the promise that is here of a sure house is not ultimately found in the temple that Solomon built and which stood in Jerusalem, but it is ultimately found in a spiritual house—namely, the church—to which the temple of Solomon pointed. The temple of Solomon was a shadow. The reality was that which then is found in 1 Peter and in chapter 2 and in Paul in 2 Corinthians 6.[6] Again, you can read of it. And if you will pay attention to these things, then you will be helped.

What she’s actually saying is, “You can be sure about your dynasty. And at the same time, you may rest in this security which God provides.” Verse 29: “If men rise up to pursue you and … seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord your God.” It’s a wonderful phrase, isn’t it? “Bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord your God.” You take a little one, they bring them home from hospital, they always have them bound up—that red, white, and blue blanket and that little hat. And there, you want to make sure that they are secure, that they are bound up in the security of your provision.

What is this picture here? On the one hand, bound up in this bundle, and then the enemies being slung out from the hollow of a sling. Well, we sang it in “Stayed upon Jehovah,” didn’t we? “Hidden in the hollow of his blessed hand.”[7] That’s the one side: “This is for you, David, hidden in the hollow.” At that time, you’ll remember, when David went against Goliath, he had a pouch where he had placed these stones, one of which was used. Well, as I read a little more, I discovered that it wasn’t uncommon for shepherds to keep stones in their pouch as a way of counting the number of their sheep for which they were responsible. So they would have twenty stones in their pouch, and they’d say, “Now, there are twenty of them out here that I need to go and care for.”

Well, there you have this amazing thought: that God knows his own, that he keeps them in the bundle of his security. “Blessed is the man who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the ungodly or stand in the way of sinners,” and then at the end of the psalm, “But the wicked are not so.”[8] We are by nature wicked. We are by nature rebellious. Only when the Shepherd comes and seeks us out and adds us, as it were, to the pouch of his electing love may we know this.

Now she says in verse 30, “And when the Lord has done [according] to my lord … all the good that he has spoken concerning you,” notice, “and has appointed you prince over Israel…” Now, I wonder, do you find yourselves saying, “Where does she get all this stuff?” Was she in a Bible study with Samuel? Did she have a home Bible study in Ramah, and Samuel used to fill her in on the bits and pieces and the details? This is in keeping with what we’ve seen: that this notion of David as the anointed of God, as the prince of Israel, as the coming king, we find it popping up again and again en route to the throne—and here, on the lips of Abigail as well.

What, after all, is Abigail? Only a servant who came in the name of the Lord.

“When the Lord has done this, then,” she says, verse 31, “your conscience will be clear. Your hands will be clean. And you will be able to go to bed at night knowing that you have not tried to work salvation for yourself, that you have not taken matters into your own hands.” This is so wonderful, isn’t it? The restraining grace of God. If he had gone with his initial response, all of these men, Nabal included, would all have been dealt with ruthlessly. This encounter would never have taken place. Why has it not taken place? Because of the restraining grace of God. Who restrained him? God did. No, Abigail did. No, Abigail did. No, God did. This is concurrence. She did, God did, both one hundred percent engaged in the process. Don’t allow mystery to overturn your confidence.

And then, reminding us that she has some measure of self-interest, just a sentence at the end of 31: “And when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.” “And don’t forget me,” she says. Does it make you think of the scene at Calvary? “And Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”[9] And, of course, remember what an encounter that was today. And in the same way: “Remember me.” She surely had no inkling of how quickly her plea would be answered.

Well, let’s push on and see if we can’t get to the end.

That speech is amazing. David could not fail to be impressed by both the eloquence, the wisdom, the persuasiveness of it, the absolute skill of it. It’s a lesson, actually, in how to approach somebody in a context along those lines. But he does not, interestingly, commend her initiative, nor does he commend her person. And in 32–35, what we have is, if you like, David’s apprehension of God’s restraining grace, his understanding of what has happened in this encounter. And so you will notice: What, after all, is Abigail? Only a servant who came in the name of the Lord.

Under the providence of God, the trains run. Under the promises of the God, the hospital visits emerge, the blood tests are returned, the children are born, life ensues.

And so, he sees Abigail. Clearly, he sees her, as we’re about to discover. But he sees beyond her: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, [you] who have kept me this day…” But I thought it was God? Yes. “You, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand!” Here we go: “For as surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has restrained me from hurting you…” But if he was only gonna kill the males, how would he be hurting her? Presumably by bringing her into widowhood—although that could be a sidebar on its own.

You’ll notice he says, “And timing was everything”: “Unless you had hurried and come to meet me…” Oh, if she had gone off and had a week of vacation to try and come up with a good plan, well, things would have gone in a very different direction. “If you hadn’t hurried and come to meet me, truly, by the morning, I’m gonna tell you, there’d be no males left in your population at all. If you hadn’t hurried, if you hadn’t come, if you hadn’t left at the exact moment when you left, then you would never have been on that place in the mountain, under the cover of the mountain, when we came round the mountain. You’ll be coming around the mountain when you come.” That’s it! Under the providence of God, the trains run. Under the promises of the God, the hospital visits emerge, the blood tests are returned, the children are born, life ensues. “You hurried. You came to meet me. It was crucial.”

Now, then it says, “Then David received from her hand what she had brought him.” Now, I know that I am perverse in my thinking, but I sometimes tell my grandchildren, you know, that certain creatures talk to each other. Well, I think they probably do; we just don’t know what they’re saying. But from the beginning of this, I’ve been thinking about the donkeys. All week I’ve been thinking about the donkeys! And I imagine the donkeys talking to one another. We won’t go back and see what was loaded on them, but it was quite a bit, and pretty heavy, and all the time of the speech they’ve been standing there, and all the time of the response of David they’ve been standing there. And when he says, “Now, let me have that present you brought me,” one of the donkeys looks at his friend, says, “Finally! Finally! We can offload this.”

David was a king tempted to act like a fool, and Nabal is a fool pretending to be a king.

“I listened,” he said. “I obeyed your voice. Now go in peace.” Now, that ought to make you think back to his initial approach. Do you remember what he told his ten boys to say when they went up? “Peace … peace … peace.”[10] Now he says, “You go in peace. Go back to your house in peace.”

Well, she goes back to her house, but then in 36 we have the description of the death of Nabal. She arrives home to find her foolish husband pretending to be a king. It’s really a tragic picture here, isn’t it? Repeated again and again in that famous poem here in America of Richard Cory, made more famous by, I would say, Paul Simon in his song:

They say that Richard Cory
Own[ed] one half of this whole town;
With political connections
He [spread] his wealth around.

That’s the kind of thing that you have here.

The papers print his picture
Almost every[where] he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera,
Richard Cory at a show,

And the rumor of his parties
And the orgies on his yachts,
[Oh], he [surely] must be happy
With everything he’s got.[11]

And David was a king tempted to act like a fool, and Nabal is a fool pretending to be a king.

Look at it. She never told him when she left. That was a good plan. She couldn’t tell him when she came back because his “heart was merry within him” with drink. Matthew Henry says, “There is not a surer sign that a man has but little wisdom, nor a surer way to ruin the little he has, than [by] drinking to excess.”[12] Nabal: very rich, very drunk, very dead. What an obituary. In the light of dawn, when the wine has out of him, when he’s no longer propped up by the anesthetic, he either has a heart attack or a stroke or something; he’s a dead man. And in about ten days, the Lord has taken him home.

Well, it ends, 39 to the end, with David being vindicated and then subsequently married. Just a word on this.

As the Lord’s anointed, he had been reviled by Nabal. When Abigail had told Nabal of that, told them about these things, presumably he realized that it wasn’t just man-to-man in the reviling that he had done but that he had only insulted the very anointed of God, the king. And if I dare suggest that anybody even remembers all the way back to Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2, where at one point in [1] Samuel 2:10, “The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven.” Back in verse 3: “Talk no more so very proudly.” Nabal, don’t talk like that. “Let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.”

God restrains in every circumstance. Were it not for the restraining grace of God, we would find ourselves living in Dante’s Inferno.

See, what happened was, the Lord kept back David while returning the evil that Nabal did David on his own head. It’s a reminder, isn’t it? Runs all the way through the Bible: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man sows, that he will also reap.”[13]

Oh, well, you say, “Yeah, but don’t stop yet, because what about these marriages?” Well, I knew you would ask. We can say a couple of things—first of all, that multiple marriages, or polygamy, was never part of God’s plan in the institution of marriage. Years ago I asked my good Old Testament scholar friend Alec Motyer about this, and the only thing he said to me was that he felt that this was tolerated by God in order that mankind may look on these circumstances and realize that in every instance that you find it in the Scriptures, it is the story of jealousy, the story of conflict, and the story of chaos. In other words, it is recorded to show us what a mess inevitably we make of things when we choose to step beyond the boundaries of God’s perfect plan.

So, this is all about the restraining grace of God. Does God restrain in other circumstances? God restrains in every circumstance. Were it not for the restraining grace of God, we would find ourselves living in Dante’s Inferno. Were it not for the fact that God in his mercy restrains the animosity and the hatred and the vileness of mankind in rebellion against him, then it is unthinkable.

Jonathan Edwards—and with this I will stop—Edwards works wonderfully on this in his second volume and in chapter 6, if you go looking for it. And this is what he says:

God’s work in the restraint that he exercises over a wicked world, is a glorious work. God’s holding the reins [on] the [corruption] of a wicked world, and setting [boundaries] to their wickedness, is a more glorious work, than his ruling the raging of the sea, and setting bounds to its proud waves …. In hell, God lets the wickedness of wicked spirits have the reins, to rage without restraint; and it would be in a great measure upon earth as it is in hell, did not God restrain the wickedness of the world.[14]

“Oh,” says David, “if you hadn’t just come at the right moment!” Don’t we all have stories like that in our lives? We look back on it, and we said, “Man, wow!” And we realize,

When in the slippery paths of youth
With foolish steps I ran,
Your hand unseen conveyed me up
And brought me safe to man.[15]

We thank God for his restraining grace.

“O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is [your] name in all the earth!”[16] We worship you, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Jacob. And we thank you that as we see the unfolding story here of the way in which you protected your anointed one, we realize that he, “great David’s greater Son,”[17] was protected by your amazing provision and brought even safely through all that hell could throw against him in order that he might reign forever and ever, and in order that we might find our only security and our only safety in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.


[1] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943).

[2] Joseph Addison, “When All Thy Mercies, O My God” (1712).

[3] See Genesis 32:3–5.

[4] Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York: Norton, 1999), 156.

[5] 2 Samuel 7:16 (ESV).

[6] See 1 Peter 2:1–8; 2 Corinthians 6:14–18.

[7] Frances R. Havergal, “Like a River Glorious” (1876).

[8] See Psalm 1:1, 4.

[9] Luke 23:42 (paraphrased).

[10] 1 Samuel 25:6 (ESV).

[11] Paul Simon, “Richard Cory” (1965).

[12] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (1706), https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/1-samuel/25.html.

[13] Galatians 6:7 (paraphrased).

[14] Jonathan Edwards, “Men Naturally Are God’s Enemies,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards (1834; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1976), 2:137.

[15] Addison, “When All Thy Mercies.” Lyrics lightly altered.

[16] Psalm 8:1 (KJV).

[17] James Montgomery, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” (1821).

Copyright © 2020, 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.