January 27, 2021

A Refuge in the Wilderness

David, Chagall

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
A Refuge in the Wilderness

• • •

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
until the destroying storms pass by.
I cry to God Most High,
to God who fulfils his purpose for me.
He will send from heaven and save me,
he will put to shame those who trample on me.
God will send forth his steadfast love and his faithfulness.

• Psalm 57:1-3

• • •

I have a friend who can sympathize with David and his wilderness experiences. When his country was torn apart in civil war, my friend was forced to leave his home and survive on a trek through forests, desolate places, and dangerous check-points. He lost friends and members of his household. He had to fend for himself with regard to food and water and safe lodging. He eventually made his way to a refugee camp across the border where learned another language and did whatever he could to stay alive and provide for himself and his family. Through ingenuity, hard work, and faith, he demonstrated an initiative and ability that others noticed. He gained a sponsor and won a scholarship to come to the United States for an education. During his time here, he became convinced that God had called him to return to his homeland to serve Christ and his neighbors there.

My friend’s story is a remarkable account of God’s protection, guidance, wisdom, and faithfulness. For his part, my friend persevered in faith, sought and found help from others (and often found it from unlikely sources), and kept his eye on the goal of returning home.

That’s David’s story too. Even more impressively, his return home would mean a kingdom. But first he learned that God was his refuge in the wilderness.

Psalm 77, Chagall

It would not be fair to David (or to people like my refugee friend) to reduce this discussion to a list of “7 Lessons David Learned in the Wilderness,” as though we could dissect his experiences in a clinical, analytical fashion and extract disembodied “principles” that we might “apply to our lives.” Such moralizing sanitizes the brutal realities of the wilderness and sucks all the life out of these wonderful stories. These are narratives to be read, savored, contemplated, and re-lived in our imaginations.

For example…

What religious qualms might David have felt when he asked Ahimelech the priest for bread and discovered that only consecrated loaves were available? Did he struggle within himself or was the panic and hunger gnawing at his stomach so sharply that it overwhelmed any possible scruples he might have had?

When he appeared before Achish king of Gath and realized his perilous position, what possessed him to act the madman, scribbling on the doors and drenching his clothes with his own spittle? How bizarre did it feel to do something so humiliating? How fast did he run when he realized he had pulled the wool over the king’s eyes?

How many sleepless nights did David have after Abiathar came to him and told him Doeg had killed the priests at Nob? Did he start to shake; did the color drain from his face when he came face to face with the fact: “I have brought about the death of every person in your father’s household” (1Sam. 22:22)? How does one get free of something like that?

What disappointment he must have felt when he stuck his neck out to go to battle against the Philistines and bring deliverance to the city of Keilah. It seems he hoped he might find a refuge among its grateful inhabitants, only to learn that they were planning to sell him out to Saul. How devastating it must have been to be exiled from a place in which he hoped he might find safety; to return to roaming about the wilderness while the king kept after him day after day after day.

What a titanic struggle David must have had in his heart when Saul came wandering into the very cave where David was hiding, dropped his drawers, and squatted there to relieve himself. Helpless! You can’t get any more vulnerable than that! How is it that David didn’t fall down laughing right then and there at God’s sense of humor? And how could David not take advantage of that opportunity? How could he ignore the insistent urging of his friends — God has delivered him right into your hands, David! Let’s end this running and hiding and get rid of Saul once and for all! It certainly looked like an answer to prayer, a providential deliverance, a once-in-a-lifetime God-ordained moment. What was he thinking when he refused? What theological commitment made him stay his hand? How could he continue to think of Saul as “the Lord’s anointed”? How could he not justify seizing the throne through such an opportunity when he knew God had already promised it to him? How could he choose to continue to put not only his own life in danger, but also the lives of those who had joined him in his wilderness exile?

Perhaps it was the frustration of these kinds of inner conflicts that made David subject to temptation in his encounter with Nabal, the rich landowner who was shearing his sheep in Carmel. When David asked (demanded?) that Nabal provide for his sizable camp of refugees, Nabal refused, and David got mad. He strapped on his sword and set off with strong force to show Nabal who was boss. The man who wouldn’t strike the king was now about to make mincemeat of this inhospitable farmer. The one who had been running for his life but who refused to raise his sword against the powerful authorities who unjustly accused him was prepared to wage war over an insult from a redneck. If it had not been for Nabal’s wife Abigail, who appealed to David with wise perspective and counsel, this might have turned out badly for the fugitive and left him with blood on his hands for no good reason. He who had humbly left the judgment of Saul in God’s hands would have brought shame on himself for taking this matter into his own hands. The deadly snake of temptation can strike from under the rock pretty quickly in the wilderness.

These narratives are real and complex and intriguing. If we read them well, we will learn that we can’t simply draw lessons from the wilderness, we must encounter it. Only by cutting our own path through it will it do its work in us. Only the actual experience of clinging to the cliff while standing on a thin ledge can teach us what it feels like to be vulnerable, afraid, and needy. You can’t fake “hungry and thirsty,” it’s something you know or you don’t.

The temptation to draw abstract “lessons” from these stories reminds me what it must have been like for my friend who escaped his country’s civil war to try and communicate his experiences to comfortable suburban Americans in the U.S. The stories were fascinating, but there was no way most of us could relate to the sense of desperation, the abject fear, the emptiness in his stomach and heart on days when prospects looked hopeless. So we shook our heads and felt awe, then went and ate pie. Folks like King David and my friend learned to survive in the wilderness; we like ours reproduced in theme parks.

No, these stories will only shape us if we link them with the wilderness places in our own lives, where we feel the damp chill of the cave we’re hiding in and the anxiety of wondering where we might find bread for the next stage of our journey. Alone in the dark, trying to figure out who our true friends are and who who might betray us next — that’s when David becomes more than a Bible character to study or imitate. He’s our brother, our fellow fugitive, our wilderness companion, our reliable guide to the desolate places.

That’s what we need: one refugee showing the rest of us refugees where to find refuge.

But I will sing of your might;
I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.
For you have been a fortress for me
and a refuge on the day of my distress.
O my strength, I will sing praises to you,
for you, O God, are my fortress,
the God who shows me steadfast love.

• Psalm 59:16-17


  1. Did you change the post CM? I was trying to post to the one about Songs in the Wilderness about the Pslams. But this post is cool also!! Man I love this blog!! 😛

  2. Your friend’s refugee story makes my insomnia over impending unemployment seem petty and small……thanks.

  3. When you mention the bread in the temple it brings up the thought that David, along with a limited cast of other old testament figures, clearly saw then, where the Lord was going with grace; ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’. That seems to come out in the psalms and elsewhere with a distinct regard by these few characters of old for the spirit of the law along with a fairly brash disregard for the letter of the law. It actually makes sense that God was revealing His plan all along with all the prophecy of how and who concerning the Messiah. My guess is that David walked in modern day grace and freedom from the law, a man before his time.

  4. How easy it is to read God’s Word and especially the emotions, questions, doubts, fears? …that are between the words that often I pass over so lightly. This is why the Psalms (songs of the soul) are so very real. God knows our hearts so much more than we do …and so we experience lovingkindness more than we deserve, but God so abundantly gives overflowing the pain with the salve of love. Thank you for sharing … for we experience these daily just as the faithful have in the past

  5. I think this is one of my favorite Biblical meditations out of many good ones. It encourages me not to shrink away from hardships and challenges that I know I’m going to run into soon.

    “We can’t simply draw lessons from the wilderness, we must encounter it. Only by cutting our own path through it will it do its work in us.”

    Hear, hear. This is both thought-provoking and encouraging.

  6. David Cornwell says

    The great stories from the bible are not neatly and easily reduced to sets of principles, just as you say. When we read them, we need to feel them, and the more deeply that happens the better. I wonder what we would have thought of David had we known him?

    This is a very thought provoking piece. Thanks.

    • Good point! I mean, David was a hard core warrior. He killed Goliath at a tender young age and has engaged in warfare most of his life. Let’s not also forget his polygamist lifestyle.

      David lived in a world dominated by the law. Violence and coercion were the tools of the day. Back in those days, there was no real concept of “human rights.”

      This is partly why I don’t like it when pastors oftentimes deify biblical figures. If we met these guys in real life, we probably wouldn’t get along with them too well.

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