David’s deceptive activity among the Philistines created a dilemma when he was conscripted to join the army assembled against Israel. But God did not abandon him to his sin. As Alistair Begg explains, David’s unforeseen deliverance by way of the Philistine commanders reveals the depths of God’s mercy and the mystery of His purposes. While David had been saved many times before, he ultimately needed to be saved from himself—and so do we.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Our reading this morning comes from 1 Samuel and chapter 29, and I invite you to turn there and follow along as I read from the first verse:
“Now the Philistines had gathered all their forces at Aphek. And the Israelites were encamped by the spring that is in Jezreel. As the lords of the Philistines were passing on by hundreds and by thousands, and David and his men were passing on in the rear with Achish, the commanders of the Philistines said, ‘What are these Hebrews doing here?’ And Achish said to the commanders of the Philistines, ‘Is this not David, the servant of Saul, king of Israel, who has been with me now for days and years, and since he deserted to me I have found no fault in him to this day.’ But the commanders of the Philistines were angry with him. And the commanders of the Philistines said to him, ‘Send the man back, that he may return to the place to which you have assigned him. He shall not go down with us to battle, lest in the battle he become an adversary to us. For how could this fellow reconcile himself to his lord? Would it not be with the heads of the men here? Is not this David, of whom they sing to one another in dances, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands”?’
“Then Achish called David and said to him, ‘As the Lord lives, you have been honest, and to me it seems right that you should mark out and in with me in the campaign. For I have found nothing wrong in you from the day of your coming to me to this day. Nevertheless, the lords do not approve of you. So go back now; and go peaceably, that you may not displease the lords of the Philistines.’ And David said to Achish, ‘But what have I done? What have you found in your servant from the day I entered your service until now, that I may not go and fight against the enemies of my lord the king?’ And Achish answered David and said, ‘I know that you are as blameless in my sight as an angel of God. Nevertheless, the commanders of the Philistines have said, “He shall not go up with us to the battle.” Now then rise early in the morning with the servants of your lord who came with you, and start early in the morning, and depart as soon as you have light.’ So David set out with his men early in the morning to return to the land of the Philistines. But the Philistines went up to Jezreel.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
We thank you, Father, that the Bible turns our gaze to the Lord Jesus Christ. And we pray that the Holy Spirit now will do just that and grant us understanding and faith and trust in the authority of your Word. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The final conversation that took place between Saul and David is recorded for us at the end of chapter 26. And David on that occasion declared to Saul that he was confident that God would deliver him from all of his troubles. He didn’t know all that awaited him, but he was confident in saying that. “Of course,” you say, “he was, because deliverance had been part and parcel of David’s life.” When he had got ready to take on the giant, he had been able to declare to Saul that God had delivered him from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, and therefore, David was confident that God would deliver him from the hand of the Philistine.
In keeping with that, in writing his songs, in writing his psalms, in Psalm 34, David wrote, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.” When that psalm was paraphrased by a hymn writer, verse 2 reads as follows:
Of his deliv’rance I will boast
Till all that are distressed
From my example comfort take
And charm their griefs to rest.
I don’t think there’s any doubt at all that David would have been prepared to affirm that by way of a paraphrase. “They will be able to look at me,” he might have said, “and on account of my deliverance, then they will be reduced in terms of their own personal fearfulness.”
Well, of course, and then an astonishing thing happens. And that is, as we saw in chapter 27, David has a fainting fit. David has a meltdown, we might say. And it is actually hard for us to believe, as we thought about it when we studied it, that what you have in chapter 27 is the same man who has just avowed this commitment to the delivering hand of God at the end of 26. And we saw how deliverance gave way essentially to depression, that his faith gave way to his fears, and that he has gone, then, to seek security actually in the company of the enemy. And you may remember there in chapter 27, where it just simply says of David, “[And] David arose and [he] went over.” And I think, as we said in passing, he went over in more ways than one.
And so it was that his actions, his activities, were all marked by deception. And that deception, which he conspired to put over on Achish, was reinforced by his destruction, as he destroyed any who might be able to spill the beans and let Achish know that he was being conned. He does such a tremendous job of it that by the time you get to the end of 27, Achish is absolutely convinced that David has burned his bridges; that what he has done—because this is what he has told Achish he’s done—will have so made him a stench in the nostrils of his own people that there would be no possibility of him being able to return, and certainly to assume the role of the king.
And as we’re reading that, we find ourselves saying, “Yes, this is quite remarkable. I wonder how he’s going to extricate himself. Did he still, at this point, believe that God would deliver him?” And if we assume that he did, as we must, then how was he going to deliver him?
Well, then you remember that the narrator paused at that point, at the beginning of chapter 28, and he left us wondering. And in our last study, we were given essentially the dark night of the soul in the life of Saul. And as he collapses and ends up as a sorry sight with little in view except his ultimate demise, then the narrator—and only then—brings us back to the action.
And what is done here in terms of storytelling is quite masterful, if one might say so. And that is that the spotlight is swinging between a focus on David and then a focus on Saul. And so, we have just, in chapter 28, seen all that has transpired with Saul and the witch of En-Dor, and now, here we are once again. In one sense, we’re not only back at where we were at the beginning of 28, but we’re actually back almost at the beginning of the story. Because when you read 29:1, “Now the Philistines had gathered all their forces at Aphek,” you will discover, if you care to, to go all the way back to 4:1, that is exactly what is being described there: this constant battle with the Philistines. And what makes it so alarming is that David and his men are part and parcel of the force that is being amassed in order to crush the people of David, the people of God. That’s what verse 2 is telling us: “As the lords of the Philistines were passing on by hundreds and by thousands, and David and his men were passing on in the rear with Achish…”
Now, the story is pretty straightforward, and I’m attempting to summarize it under three headings: first of all, to consider David’s unprovoked dilemma; and then to look at what is an unforeseen deliverance; and then finally, and just, I think, in a word or two, to say something concerning his unheralded departure.
What we have here as it is outlined for us is a mess of David’s own making. Back in 27, you remember, it began, “Then David said in his heart, ‘Now I shall perish one day by the hand of Saul.’” So on the one hand, he says, “The Lord is in charge of my great deliverance,” and then immediately, “I’m going to perish at the hand of Saul.” He talked to himself, but he talked nonsense to himself—this idea of “saying in his heart,” ruminating on things. Our thoughts really matter, don’t they? Because our thoughts give rise to actions. From my childhood I was always taught this, in another level: “Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.” So the way in which David thinks controls the way in which David acts.
I found myself reflecting on Laurel and Hardy as I kept reading this again and again, and particularly the classic phrase “And that’s another fine mess!” or “Another nice mess you’ve got me into!” But of course, David has no one to say that to except himself. It was Laurel to Hardy, I think, or the one to the other, I don’t remember. But for David it is a soliloquy, as he looks around on the men that he has given leadership to, this motley crew that are all part and parcel of his entourage, with wives and children, in the context of the alien king. And he said to himself, “How in the world did I get here?” He’s between a rock and a hard place, as we say.
And the reason is because he established a pattern. And he established a pattern of deception. It “was his custom,” back at the end of 27—it “was his custom all the while he lived in the country of the Philistines.” He just kept doing it again and again. It became ingrained in him. The Scottish poet Sir Walter Scott: “O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” He probably thought, “You know, I can slip this by. It won’t matter too much in the end.”
Now, what we discover in this, of course, under this heading, that it is an unprovoked dilemma, is that David’s biggest problem is David. That ought not to be a surprise to any of us. David is handsome. He’s gifted. He’s brave. He’s brave enough to fight a giant. But he’s still a man with a nature like ours—which is, of course, what James says of Elijah in James chapter 5. He was just a man, and he was a man like you and me.
In our elders’ meetings, we’re reading a book by Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God. It’s essentially a wonderful explanation of the doctrine of sanctification. And in our meeting time before last, I think each of us was struck when we came to a paragraph which begins as follows: “It is always a shock to our pride when we discover that we are sinners—and not merely people who occasionally sin.” “A shock to our pride when we discover that we are sinners—and not merely people who occasionally sin”; that sin is not simply some kind of infrequent aberration, but that although we have been saved from sin’s penalty, and although one day we will be saved from sin’s presence, we are daily in need of being saved from sin’s power.
And so it is that when we take up our Bibles, when we look into the mirror of God’s Word, we are so often dismayed by what we see. We understand, we echo, Paul’s words in Romans 7, when he’s talking about “The good I want to do I don’t do, and the bad I don’t want to do I end up doing.” In other words, we understand how you get from 27 into 28. “Oh, what a wretched person I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Now, of course, we know the only answer is that Jesus delivers us from the body of death, so that we are simultaneously righteous in his sight and at the same time sinners in ourselves.
Now you see, David has been saved from Saul, but actually, here he needs to be saved from himself. People sometime ask me, “Who’s the person who has given you the most trouble in thirty-seven years at Parkside Church?” I answer immediately: “Me.” Me! There’s no question about that. That’s not false modesty. And if you want to check with my wife, she would concur immediately. No, David has been saved from lions, bears, Saul’s armies, everything. But he needs to be saved from himself. And so do you and I.
I think this is the last time I’ll quote this, but it’s good:
When in the heedless paths of youth
With slippery steps I ran,
Your hand unseen conveyed me safe,
And led me up to man.
That’s true! And it’s true for David.
So, it is an unprovoked dilemma.
And then we notice this unforeseen deliverance. Who would have thought that the way in which he would be relieved of the predicament would be by the agency of those who were his enemy?
Now, the commanders in verse 3 are asking the obviously right question. When they realize that David is in a kind of pole position here with the rear guard and in the presence of the king himself, they said, “What are these Hebrews doing here?” And I think the inference in that is disparaging: “What are these Hebrews doing here? I mean, this is ridiculous!” It’s certainly incongruous, given the fact that the Philistine army is preparing to overturn Israel: “We’re amassing our troops in order that we might go and destroy Israel,” and Achish says, “And I’ve got here David, the prince of Israel, and six hundred of his men, and they’re going to be in my division here as we go out.”
Now, the fact is, of course, that there is something about Achish here that is gullible in the extreme—that his naiveté is not even attractive, I don’t think. He was conned quite amazingly by David’s award-winning performance when he pretended that he was actually, you know, a madman. That’s all the way back in chapter 21, remember: he pretended to be insane. And in that condition, Achish either was too preoccupied to worry about it or he was actually swallowed by it. But anyway, he was convinced.
And once again you will notice that he is convinced that having David with him is actually a good idea; that he is absolutely certain that David, having done what he’s done—which, of course, he lied about, remember. He thinks that what David has been doing is hammering his own people in these raids. But, of course, he wasn’t!
And now there’s no way back for David. It’s perfectly fine that he’s here. His allegiance has shifted. You will notice he uses the very word, doesn’t he? Deserter. He’s the deserter. “David, the servant of Saul, [the] king of Israel”—I’m surprised that he even uses that terminology; you would think that would be a red rag to a bull— “who has been with me now for days and years…” Well, we know that he was only there for sixteen months, so this is an exaggeration as well. “And since he deserted to me I have found no fault in him to this day.” In other words, Achish says David is the real deal.
But this only infuriates the commanders. And they are “angry” with Achish, verse 4, and they have reason to be angry, because they would recollect the fact that there was precedence for Hebrews getting up to their tricks. We’re not gonna backtrack all the way, but I’ll remind you of it. Back in chapter 14, when Jonathan defeats the Philistines, you’ll remember that in that context there, the Hebrews pull a very clever stunt, and as a result of that, the Philistines were defeated. Well, these commanders said, “We’re not gonna go for that again.”
And furthermore, this song that they keep playing, as it were, on the radio keeps coming up again and again. It’s amazing the power of a song, isn’t it—the fact that it comes up on each occasion? When Saul first heard it, it infuriated him, because he realized the disparity between the accolades that were coming to David and those that would accrue to him. And then, later on, again it comes up: “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Well, they’re not mentioning that because they care about what it means to Saul. They care about what it means to them. The song was about how many Philistines got killed. That was what it was about! Therefore, they say, it is very hard to imagine how David would be able to reconcile himself to Saul. It just doesn’t seem right, they said. The only way that he would be able to reconcile himself to Saul would be by producing a few heads of the men here.
Now, we mentioned it in passing back in 28:2, and it was relevant then, and it applies now. In 28:2, I think pointed out that when Achish appoints David as his bodyguard, what he actually says in the original text is “I will make you the guarder of my head.” “You will guard my head”—that’s it—“so that I remain intact.” You have a similar picture with the spear of Saul at the head of Saul, ready to defend him. What an irony, of course, that somebody who had taken off the most famous head of the most famous giant would then be made the head-keeper, as it were, of the king of the Philistines. And these fellows understand that. They say, “You’ve gotta be crazy if you think he’s gonna watch over your head. The only way in which Saul will know that he hasn’t capitulated is if he takes off a few of our heads. Isn’t this David the one…?”
Well, Achish, then, has had a little bit of sense knocked into him. And so… And he’s a somewhat weak king, I think. His leadership does not appeal. Achish then “called David,” verse 6, and he said to him, “As the Lord lives, you have been honest, and to me it seems right that you should march out and in with me in the campaign. I hold you in high esteem. I found nothing wrong with you. But I got a problem: the lords, they do not approve of you.”
Well, isn’t it quite interesting, too, that he uses that little phrase, “as the Lord lives”? “As Yahweh lives.” He was a pagan! We’ve seen all of the activities of the Philistines thus far. Remember Dagon. Remember the toppling of that thing. He’s either just ingratiating himself with David, or he’s actually, perhaps as a result of the influence of David, begun even to consider the impact of Yahweh. What is striking, I think, is the fact that in the space of 11 verses, the only time that Yahweh is mentioned is when it comes on the lips of the Philistine king. David doesn’t mention him. David actually hasn’t been mentioning him for a while. No, because, you see, he’d been relying on his own insight. There has been no checking with the Urim. There has been no seeking of the prophet. There has been no determining what God wants. No, no. David said in his heart, “Saul will kill me”—talk to himself, nonsense to himself. And the rest follows.
Now, David had done such a good job of deceiving Achish that Achish could find no fault in him. John Woodhouse gives us a very wonderful little insight when he says, “In another sense altogether there was no evil in David,” because he “had been ‘honest’ to his obligations to Saul and [to] Israel, even while” he was “deceiving Achish.” Now, you say, “Well, I have to think about that.” Well, of course you should think about that! Because again, back at the end of 26, we had that emphasis: “The Lord rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness.” And in this peculiar drama, although he was deceiving Achish, he was actually still acting righteously in relationship to his own people.
Now, you would have expected—I would have expected—that when the word is given to him in verse 7, “So go back now; and go peaceably, that you may not displease the lords of the Philistines,” you would think David goes, “Beautiful! I didn’t know how I was gonna resolve this. This is better than I could have hoped for. I can just… You mean I can just leave?” Achish would have said, “Yeah, I’d like you to go quietly and swiftly.” But he doesn’t do that!
Now, we’re not going to delay on this, and you can ponder it on your own. David responds with one of his favorite questions: “What have I done?” “What have I done?” You remember the first time that came, when his brother said, “What did you come down here for? Why did you come? Just to see the battle?” And David says, “What have I done?” On another two occasions, he asks the very same question: “What have I done?” And in both cases, it is a protestation of his innocence.
But what’s happening here? That’s the question. Not quite the $64,000 question, but it’s up there: “What have you found in your servant from the day I entered your service until now, that I may not go and fight against the enemies of my lord the king?” Are you crazy, David? You just got the chance to walk, and now you’re protesting this? Is he feigning this commitment in order that he might just rub Achish’s nose in the embarrassment of it all? Or, when he talks about fighting “against the enemies of my lord the king,” is Saul the lord and king that he has in mind? In which case, the Philistines are the enemies.
Now, we remember, Saul has told his people, he said, “You better be careful with this guy David, because he is very cunning.” And frankly, he is so cunning that it is difficult for us, as readers even now, to determine what he’s up to.
You see, the question was, first of all, “What are these Hebrews doing here?” The question then comes from the lips of David, “And what is it that I have done?” Because remember, he had said to Achish, when Achish says, “I am going to include you with my troops and make you my guard” and so on, he said, “Well, you’ll see. You’ll see what your servant will do.” He wanted to know himself what he was going to do. What are the Hebrews doing? What is David doing? The more important question is, what is God doing? What is God doing?
When you read this, you understand the way that this is the unfolding drama of God’s purposes not only for the kingly rule of Israel but for his ultimate plan for all of time in all of the world in the one who is the ultimate King. You realize that God is not and never is a bystander in an unfolding drama like this, any more than he is a bystander looking over COVID-19. “Who has known the mind of the Lord …?” “What man shows him … counsel?” Isaiah 40. “For your thoughts are not my thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord”—Isaiah 55.
Now, we actually know, because we’ve read 28, that God’s plan is that Israel will be given into the hands of the Philistines. Look at verse 28:19: “Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons [will] be [dead].” That was the word from Samuel. We know that. David doesn’t know that. David wasn’t there.
So Achish claims that his hands are tied. Despite his testimony to David’s goodness, “I’m going to have to side with my commanders,” he says. And so, quite amazingly, deliverance comes by way of the enemy.
Now, if you stand far enough back from it, you realize what’s happening here: that the very same Philistines who will finally remove Saul—and that’s in chapter 31—the very same Philistines who will finally remove Saul are the ones who are unwittingly rescuing David from his dilemma. Surely “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.”
Well, that brings us finally and just briefly to David’s unheralded departure: “Go back now; … go [back] peaceably,” verse 7. Verse 10: “Now … rise early in the morning with the servants of your lord.” Isn’t that an interesting phrase? Who is this lord? “The servants of your lord who came with you. Start early in the morning. Depart when the sun comes up.” It’s a new day dawning.
In all of the deception, David again still had done nothing to compromise his righteousness and his faithfulness towards Saul and Israel. And it may be that he had actually in mind how it would be possible for him, in such a strategic position at the rear end of this army, to seek then to become the catalyst to turn and defeat the Philistines—which, of course, would be contrary to the will of God, wouldn’t it? Because we know that in 28:19. The Philistines are going to win. Ah! “The [heart of the king] is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.”
And we’re not going to pause on this, but if you squeeze your eyes together, as it were, or if you take up your biblical telescope and look through it and look into the future, you may find yourself saying, “This reminds me of something that happened later.” Here we have a weak-willed king affirming David’s innocence. And fast-forward, and there you have a weak-willed Pilate declaring of the King, “I find no fault in him.”
We have a little plaque in our home that somebody gave to us. It’s a quote, I think, from Erasmus. It goes like this: “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” The ways of God are inscrutable; they’re beyond our searching. And when in your leisure hours you review this, as I hope we will, you may find yourself looking back on chapters in your own life when, perhaps like David, you began to talk to yourself, and you talked nonsense to yourself, and you made foolish choices, and you found yourself trapped.
And how marvelous is it that God chooses to use even those who are opposed to us in order to bring about resolution; that the mercy of God is phenomenal; that when, like David, I have made a mess, and it is a mess of my own doing, I find that I have a heavenly Father who does not abandon his children; that he doesn’t treat me as my sins deserve; that when I make a royal hash of things, it doesn’t exhaust his kindness, nor does it evaporate his mercy. The fact is that David needs saved from himself, and so do you and I. And we are not strong enough to escape from the hand that holds us fast, because God, our heavenly Father, is committed to keeping us kept.
George Herbert, in the sixteenth century, in one of his paraphrases of the Twenty-Third Psalm, has this stanza:
Or if I stray, [God] doth convert,
And bring my mind in frame,
And all this not for my desert,
But for His holy name.
Well, may God use his Word in each of our lives.
Father, we bless you that as we pause in the middle of our days, as we stand at the threshold of another week, that your Word is our chart and compass, so that o’er life’s troubling sea, ’mid the mists and the rocks and the quicksands, it guides us, O Christ, to thee. Thank you that although our sins are many, your mercy is greater. And we bless you in Christ’s name. Amen.
 See 1 Samuel 17:37.
 Psalm 34:7 (ESV).
 Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady, “Psalm 34,” New Version of the Psalms of David (1696).
 1 Samuel 27:2 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 27:11.
 See 1 Samuel 27:12.
 1 Samuel 27:1 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 27:11 (ESV).
 Sir Walter Scott, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field, canto 6, lines 332–33 (1808).
 See James 5:17.
 Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2016), 199.
 Romans 7:19 (paraphrased).
 Romans 7:24 (paraphrased).
 Joseph Addison, “When All Thy Mercies, O My God” (1712). Lyrics lightly altered.
 See 1 Samuel 21:13–15.
 See 1 Samuel 14:1–23.
 See 1 Samuel 18:7–8.
 See 1 Samuel 26:7.
 See 1 Samuel 5:1–5.
 John Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader, Preaching the Word, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 524.
 1 Samuel 26:23 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 17:28–29 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Samuel 20:1; 26:18.
 1 Samuel 23:22 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 28:1–2 (paraphrased).
 Romans 11:34 (ESV).
 Isaiah 40:13 (ESV).
 Isaiah 55:8 (paraphrased).
 William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).
 Proverbs 21:1 (ESV).
 John 19:4 (KJV).
 See Romans 11:33.
 George Herbert, “The God of Love My Shepherd Is,” in The Temple (1633).
 William Walsham How, “O Word of God Incarnate” (1867).
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.