Life may seem like a series of disconnected events, but behind the scenes, God is always working out His plan. When David made a reasonable request of a wealthy man named Nabal, he received a dismissive, selfish response. Enraged, David prepared to avenge himself, but the Lord intervened by means of a timely report from an unnamed young man. Examining God’s sovereign care through this incident’s characters and circumstances, Alistair Begg assures us that believers remain safe in the Father’s arms.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to 1 Samuel and to chapter 25. In our ongoing studies in the book of Samuel, we have reached the first verse of chapter 25. I’m going to read from the beginning to the end of the seventeenth verse.
1 Samuel 25 and from verse 1:
“Now Samuel died. And all Israel assembled and mourned for him, and they buried him in his house at Ramah.
“Then David rose and went down to the wilderness of Paran. And there was a man in Maon whose business was in Carmel. The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. He was shearing his sheep in Carmel. Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was discerning and beautiful, but the man was harsh and badly behaved; he was a Calebite. David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep. So David sent ten young men. And David said to the young men, ‘Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal and greet him in my name. And thus you shall greet him: “Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. I hear that you have shearers. Now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing all the time they were in Carmel. Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your eyes, for we come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.”’
“When David’s young men came, they said all this to Nabal in the name of David, and then they waited. And Nabal answered David’s servants, ‘Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants these days who are breaking away from their masters. Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers and give it to men who come from I do not know where?’ So David’s young men turned away and came back and told him all this. And David said to his men, ‘Every man strap on his sword!’ And every man of them strapped on his sword. David also strapped on his sword. And about four hundred men went up after David, while two hundred remained with the baggage.
“But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, ‘Behold, David sent messengers out of the wilderness to greet our master, and he railed at them. Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we did not miss anything when we were in the fields, as long as we went with them. They were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep. Now therefore know this and consider what you should do, for harm is determined against our master and against all his house, and he is such a worthless man that one cannot speak to him.’”
Amen. Thanks be to God for his Word.
Our God and Father, thank you that your Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. And so grant that it may shine on for us today, shine into us today, and that we might live in its truth. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, the life of David as we’ve been following it in these weeks, in these variety of circumstances, as he has moved essentially from wilderness to wilderness, may appear from our perspective to simply be a series of unconnected, disconnected events. But in actual fact, what we’re discovering and what comes across clearly in this chapter—in the entire chapter—is the fact that like all of God’s children, David is being schooled in the work of God in terms of providence, and that even though he is on the receiving end of all this opposition, he is actually safe in God’s care. And we’re discovering that God is always at work in a variety of circumstances and that God is always at work in a variety of lives. And many of us have had occasion to reflect in these days on how so much of it seems like a big jumble, like the back of a beautiful piece of needlework—which gave rise, of course, to the well-known poem of “The Weaver,” and that verse,
The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern he has planned.
And that is coming out in the story here of David and Saul.
Let’s try and make our way through these verses by considering first of all the context and the cast of characters. The context and the cast of characters.
The chapter begins by telling us that Samuel has died and that David has moved on; he “went down to the wilderness of Paran.” Now, I think it is impossible for us to fail to be struck by the fact that the obituary here that we’re given of Samuel is incredibly brief. We have been following Samuel from the very beginning of our studies. Many of us remember how delighted we were when he was born. We recall how, when he was just in his infancy, he was there under the priesthood of Eli, and how in chapter 3 the writer records, “And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” And we’ve seen that he was a prophet. He was a priest of God. He was a judge of the people. He was an anointer of kings.
And yet, in the middle of all of that, he knew sadness in his family. Remember the story of his sons? He experienced rejection by the people. God has to come to him and say, “It’s not actually you they’re rejecting, Samuel; they’re really rejecting me.” And we discovered also, all the way back, I think, to chapter 8, where we’re first introduced to the fact that he is an older man. In his old age, he actually accomplished more than he accomplished in his earlier years. And he has taken himself to his home in Ramah. David has been to visit him there, we saw. And it would appear that he’s pretty well settled down—settled down to follow the events of the kingdom, presumably waiting, wondering, “How will these things unfold?” After all, he had been there to anoint David as the king, and yet Saul continued to pursue him in this way. As the events unfold, we discovered back in chapter 24 that for the first time, Saul actually is prepared to admit that he knows that David is going to be the king.
And then, quite interestingly, chapter 25 immediately begins, “Now Samuel died.” I wonder, is there not some kind of direct link between these two things? That it was almost as though when Samuel realized that Saul now knew how this was going to be, he could, if you like, just draw his feet up on the bed and breathe his last. One day David would write,
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like [the] flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
And “Samuel died.” In English, his obituary is only twenty words: “Samuel died”; “Israel assembled”; Israel “mourned”; Samuel was “buried … in his house [in] Ramah.”
It’s quite salutary, isn’t it? If you think about those of significance in the church of Jesus Christ whose funerals we have either attended or prayed about and for—Ravi Zacharias, R. C. Sproul, Jim Packer, our own Derek Prime—and the list goes on and on, a reminder of the brevity of life, a reminder of the frailty of our existence, a reminder of the fact that God in his sovereign plan takes people never a day too soon and never a day late.
And that, of course, is often a cause for great distress, not least of all when people say, “Well, we were so dependent upon people like this. Samuel was a key. Samuel was the issue.” Samuel was very important, but he wasn’t the issue. And J. C. Ryle, commenting on this when in his day people were saying similarly when ministers of the church began to die, when a generation began to be taken away—and this is a wonderful quote from Ryle, one-time bishop of Liverpool:
Fear not for the church of Christ when ministers die, and saints are taken away. Christ can ever maintain his own cause. He will raise up better servants and brighter stars. The stars are all in his right hand. Leave off all anxious thought about the future. Cease to be cast down by the measures of statesmen, or the plots of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Christ will ever provide for his own church. Christ will take care that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’ All is going well, though our eyes may not see it. The kingdoms of this world shall yet become the kingdoms of our God, and of his Christ.
And “Samuel died.”
I wonder, did Saul attend the funeral? And David, we’re told, he “went down [into] the wilderness of Paran.” I wonder if that was his way of responding to the news: down there to ponder, down to think, down to mourn, down to wonder. For I think there is definitely a time gap between the end of verse 1 and the beginning of verse 2. Because in verse 2, we’re now in a different place. We’re in a familiar place, back in Maon. We looked at it and saw Saul in that context in 23. We also, way back in 15, may remind ourselves that it was in Carmel that Saul built a monument for himself, and we pondered just how wise or foolish that must have been.
And it is now in this context that we’re introduced to the other members of the cast. We are introduced to a man here by the name of Nabal who has about him hints of Saul himself. Notice the way in which we’re introduced to him. It’s interesting that it doesn’t lead with his name; it leads with what he has. Because what he has was really what he was all about; he was about his possessions: “There was a man in Maon. This man was very rich. This man’s name was Nabal. This man was harsh and badly behaved. This man had a wife whose name was Abigail, and she was bright and beautiful.”
And so the scene is set. The reader of the story is saying, “I wonder how this is all going to unfold.”
Well, with the scene set in verses 1–3, the action proceeds. Let me outline it as follows.
First of all, in verses 4–9, what we have here is a reasonable request. A reasonable request.
We’re told that David had heard about Nabal and about the fact that he was shearing his sheep. You see that there in verse 4. In actual fact, it’s hard to imagine that Nabal himself was shearing his sheep; after all, he had three thousand of them. I think if we’d met him, he would have said, “Oh, no, no, no, I don’t shear my sheep. If you come to the sheep shearing, you’ll find me, that I am normally entertaining in the corporate tent, but I have people that do the sheep shearing.”
Well, David sends ten of his young men. He gives them their speech. He tells them, “This is the way in which you should approach this situation, and this is how you should greet Nabal. Go to Carmel, go to Nabal, greet him in my name,” and leaving nothing, as it were, to chance, he says, “and let me tell you how you should greet him. And this is how you should speak to him.”
And so that is exactly what they do. And you will notice that they begin with the shalom in verse 6: “Peace be to you, … peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. I hear that you have shearers. [And] now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing all the time they were in Carmel.” So in other words, they don’t come with any sense of intimidation to this man. I suppose if there is any sense of that, it could just be in the hint that says, “You know, this is what we didn’t do. Compared to what we might have done, you might want to pay attention to it.” But I think we have to reach for that.
No, “Peace to you, peace to your folks, peace to everyone, and know this: that when we were looking after your shepherds, they came to no harm and they suffered no theft. And so, in light of that, show us favor.” “Show us favor”—because, after all, this is feast time. The sheep-shearing time was a time of great rejoicing; it was evidence of abundance and so on. “And here we come; we are representative of a larger crowd, and you are a man of plenty, and we are in need. And so, whatever you have at hand that you might give to us and give to your son David…” Notice that deferential expression there. David is a wise man; he’s not going to say, “Tell them that he’s dealing with the anointed king of Israel.” He says, “No, just let him know, and approach him in an appropriate way.” And “when David’s young men came,” verse 9, “they said all this to Nabal in the name of David, and then they waited.”
I like little sentences like that: “And then they waited.” I can just see them all standing there, looking at one another with a spirit of expectation, looking along the line, wondering. Actually, some commentators suggest that what David’s men had going was a kind of protection racket, and that they had been working the system, and now they were coming to collect what was due them. I think that that view seems more influenced by old gangster movies than it does by actually paying attention to the biblical narrative. And there they waited, presumably waiting to carry the stuff—ten of them in expectation of the fact that there would be plenty to take back. And so they stood. And then, of course, “Nabal answered.”
So, we have a reasonable request. And then, in verses 10 and 11, we have a selfish response. A selfish response.
It’s probably good at this point to note what we find elsewhere in the chapter, and that is that the name Nabal means “fool.” “Fool.” Just how he came to be known by that name is a matter of interest. I can’t imagine that his parents, when he was born, said, “Why don’t we call him ‘Fool’? I think that would be a good name. Let’s call him ‘Stupid.’” No, I don’t imagine that. Perhaps his name is a corruption of another similar-sounding word. Maybe it is a nickname. Maybe he earned this name. And as you can see in the text, he certainly lives up to it.
Now, he responds in a dismissive way there in verse 10: “Who is the son of Jesse? Who is David?” Now, I don’t think we should imagine that he doesn’t know who he is. What he’s really saying is, “Who does David think he is?”—which is, of course, ironic. It’s not who he thinks he is; it is who he is! He is the anointed king. He is the Lord’s anointed. And so Nabal despises him. Nabal is unwilling to show any kindness to him at all.
Now, all the way through our studies, as we’ve been looking at things, as it were, through the lens of David, we’ve also been looking telescopically beyond as little hints have come our way, as we’ve sensed, as we paused for a moment and said to ourselves, “Now, listen, this is the Lord’s anointed, and the Lord’s anointed has come to this ruffian of a character, and he is simply despised, and they show him no kindness at all.” You say, “Well, wasn’t that similarly what happened to the Anointed of the Lord—namely, Jesus himself—when he moved amongst people in his day?” You remember when he goes to his own hometown, and the people there in Nazareth, particularly the leadership, says, “Well, where is all this wisdom coming from? Where does he get all this stuff? How is it that he’s doing all these mighty works? We know his family.” And it says in Mark chapter 6, just simply, “They took offense at him.” And we’ve noted all the way through, and it’s good to remind ourselves, of the fact that people take offense at the Lord’s Anointed, at the Lord Jesus Christ, in a way that it would not be true of other religious leaders. Few people I know use “Muhammad” as a curse. But it’s the name of Jesus. And he despised him.
Well, he’s worth a lot, this Nabal, but he is a “worthless fellow.” He regards, verse 11, David as just being another runaway: “There are a lot of people who have run away from their masters,” he says, “and he’s just another one of them. And frankly, you folks that are here, the ten of you, are a bunch of renegades.” And so he makes it very, very clear in verse 11, he’s not about to take his hard-earned largesse and give it to this company of nobodies from nowhere.
Did you notice the “mys” there as I tried to read it, in verse 11? “Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers…?” You see, man in his folly doesn’t realize that every breath that he breathes, every benefit that we enjoy, is from the hand of God. “My, my, my, my…”
Then, in verses 12 and 13, we have—following the response, the selfish response, of Nabal—we have a fierce reaction on the part of David himself. And verses 12 and 13 should be read in concurrence with verses 21 and 22. We didn’t read them, but you can allow your eye to look on to them.
David said to his men when the report came back, “Every man strap on his sword!” I don’t think it’s hard to imagine that as they made their way back, the ten of them, they might have been saying to one another, “I don’t think I’d want to be the one to tell him how it happened,” and eventually, the facts are made available to him. And David reacts ferociously, doesn’t he? There seems to be just no pause between the report and the reaction. They turned away, they came back, they told him all this, and David said, “Let’s go. Strap on your sword.” In other words, it is the antithesis of the warning that is given by James in his letter, whereby the servant is God is to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
Now, if you look at verse 21: “Now David had said…” It doesn’t say, “David said at that point.” It says that “David had said.” And I imagine that he had said it right here, when he gives instruction about what they’re going to do to this character. What had he said? “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 [yet] 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 [still standing].”
Well, this is actually moral outrage, isn’t it? The thing that strikes David is that this man “has returned … evil for good.” In the previous chapter, 24, you remember that David has returned good to Saul despite Saul’s evil extended to David. But, having done the right thing in chapter 24 by restraining himself from his impulses, now he is setting out to do the wrong thing in chapter 25. And actually, the language that is used in verse 22 is graphic language, which our modern translations have kind of decided that these are days in which we can’t handle it, but you can find it in the King James Version if you want to go and look for it. “I’ve gotta kill the whole lot of them,” he says to himself. “Every one of them.”
Now, remember, back in chapter 24, he chooses not to grab what is only God’s to give. But now here, in a moment, he’s ready to avenge himself rather than to leave matters in the Lord’s hands. Instead of overcoming evil with good, he is apparently about to be overcome by evil. Quite a shift, isn’t it? You remember verse 6? “Peace … peace … peace.” And now verse 13: “Sword … sword … sword.”
Now, let’s not forget who is doing this, who is saying this. This is the very one upon whom God has set his heart to make him king. This is the Lord’s servant. Question: How can he speak so unadvisedly? How can he move from 24 into 25? How can he move from “peace” to “sword” with hardly a gap in between? How can he plan on carrying out such an atrocity? Four hundred men, all with their swords; two hundred left behind. It’s not difficult to figure out what they had planned. His ferocious reaction is the precursor to an atrocity.
Well, I thought about it quite a lot this week. I found it very challenging. Because it is surely a good time to remind ourselves that the best of men are men at best; that there has only ever been one perfect man—namely, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Matthew Henry, in an earlier era, poses the question well: “What are the best of men, when God leaves them to themselves, to try [and test] them, that they may know what is in their hearts?” There’s the question! What are the best of men when God says, “Okay, let me try you and test you, let me see what is in your heart”? And what is apparently in the heart of David, immediately, is vengeance. Success in 24 is no guarantee of success in 25.
Incidentally, when we sang our hymn, “When All Thy Mercies,” I asked particularly that that strange verse would be part of our hymnody:
When in the slippery paths of youth
With heedless steps I ran,
Your arm unseen conveyed me safe
And led me up to man.
That is my testimony, probably yours too. How did we ever make it to today, in all those slippery paths of youthful endeavor and foolishness and stupidity? Oh, “when all thy mercies, O my God…”
But here’s the thing: youth is a long time in the background now. And my doctor told me, “The thing you have to worry about now, Alistair, is the danger of falling.” I remember being struck by it: “But I don’t trip and fall.” “Oh, but you may!” “Oh.” Successful in the slippery paths of youth. The older we get, the greater the danger of falling. Success in 24, and an incumbent failure in 25.
Well, of course, it is not to be, and mercifully. Because in verses 14–17 we have a timely report. It’s timely in the sense that if it had come a lot later, it would not have been of any use at all; the matter would have been settled.
Now, the key player, as we’re going to see in the balance of the chapter, is Abigail herself. But as we see in this little section, her actions are prompted by the initiative of one of the young men: “But one of the young men…” Who was he? “One of the young men.” This is all we have. We can see that he had insight, that he took initiative, and that as a result, he had influence. But he was just “one of the young men”—one of a vast company who, as per George Eliot, “lived faithfully … hidden [lives], and rest in unvisited tombs.”
So much of the story of the Bible, particularly the narrative of the Old Testament, is filled with these characters, male and female: “And there was a young man, and a young man here, and a young woman there.” Wonderful! Should be a great encouragement to us. And there was a young lady, caught up in a Syrian raid, taken off into exile, into servitude in the home of Naaman, who got swallowed up by leprosy, remember. And who was it that was bold enough to suggest to her mistress, Naaman’s wife, that her master Naaman should go and see Elisha? It was this young girl, whose name we do not have. The vast majority of us will not even be a footnote in history. If we think that Samuel’s obituary was short, wait till it’s ours, unless inflated by ego.
Now, what are we to say of this young man? Well, his intervention was of crucial importance. He explains to Abigail that the men were actually very good—that it’s true what they reported, that there was no harm, that there was no theft. In fact, he takes it up a notch, and he says in verse 16, “They actually did provide protection for us”: “They were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep.” And he explains, “The reason I’m telling you this, Abigail, is because your husband is worthless.” Not very nice! “But he’s such a worthless man, there’s no point in even going to him and speaking to him.” And so he urges her to consider what action she ought to take: “Now therefore know this and consider what you should do, for harm is determined against our master … against … his house.” And verse 18: “Then Abigail made haste.”
Now, the balance of the story is fantastic, and I urge you to read it on, and we will come back to it, but we must leave it here. Next time, when we come back, God willing, we will consider God’s restraining grace.
But as we end, let’s remind ourselves of what we’re doing: we’re studying the Bible. Studying the Bible. You say, “Well, there’s nothing brilliant about that observation.” But I wonder, were you reading this morning, as I was, in Acts and in chapter 13, in the M’Cheyne Bible readings? I was struck by the fact that Paul and his companions, when they arrive in Pisidia in Antioch, they go into the synagogue, they sit down, and “after … reading from the Law and the Prophets…” In other words, they read the Bible!
And that’s what we’re doing. Everything that has been written down before, says Paul, is for our instruction, to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, to bring us encouragement with a view to endurance, so that we might be able to see beyond our present trials and our present difficulties and find hope—a hope that is the promise of a reality not yet experienced and is found in Jesus himself. So we continue. Because the Word of God does the work of God by the Spirit of God as God continues to speak through what God himself has spoken.
Father, thank you for your Word. Thank you that we can study it, that we can apply our minds to it, that we can ask for the help of the Holy Spirit so that in this ancient narrative we might not only see ourselves but that we might see Christ himself, and that in seeing him we might bow to him. Thank you that your Word is all that you say it is, and that man may not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 See Psalm 119:105.
 Grant Colfax Tuller, “The Weaver.”
 1 Samuel 3:19 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 8:2–3.
 See 1 Samuel 8:4–7.
 See 1 Samuel 8:1.
 See 1 Samuel 19:18.
 See 1 Samuel 16:13.
 See 1 Samuel 24:20.
 Psalm 103:15–16 (ESV).
 J. C. Ryle, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots (Peabody, MI: Hendrickson, 2007), 283.
 See 1 Samuel 23:24–25.
 See 1 Samuel 15:12.
 See Mark 6:1–3.
 Mark 6:3 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 25:25 (ESV).
 See James 1:19.
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (1706), https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/1-samuel/25.html.
 Joseph Addison, “When All Thy Mercies, O My God” (1712). Language modernized.
 George Eliot, “Finale,” in Middlemarch (1871–72).
 See 2 Kings 5:2–3.
 See Acts 13:15 (ESV).
 See Romans 15:4.
 See Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4.
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.