January 27, 2021

The King in the Wilderness

David and the Angel, Chagall

“David may be headed for a throne, but here he is still an empty-handed fugitive.”

• Walter Brueggemann
First and Second Samuel: Interpretation Commentary

• • •

Another classic collection of “wilderness” stories in the Bible tells about David fleeing from King Saul (1Samuel 21-26). These are adventure tales of the highest level, filled with drama, tension, intrigue, and surprises. The characters involved are complex and fascinating, the events riveting.

These narratives shape our understanding, not only of David, but also of the Son of David, Jesus himself. The trajectories of both stories reinforce that suffering comes before triumph, humility before honor, abasement before exaltation. The last shall be first. The poor becomes rich. The lowly are lifted to the throne. The “Great Reversal” brought about by Jesus has a forerunner in the story of David. These events were anticipated and celebrated by Samuel’s mother Hannah in her version of the Magnificat hymn, recorded in 1Samuel 2:

Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honour.

Before David takes the throne in Jerusalem, he must hide in the wilderness. This he does, not by willing choice or because of divine chastisement, but because he was running for his life from his enemies. He did not seek the wilderness, he fled into it. His was the wilderness of suffering, unjust accusation, enmity, threat, and grave danger. The various desolate places he found turned out to be sites where David found refuge, learned to pray, made connections with others who had been marginalized by unjust powers, and where he even joined forces with other enemies on occasion in order to survive. David’s was the fugitive wilderness.

Sometimes the wilderness is thrust upon us as the only likely place we can survive.

David before Saul, Chagall

Here is an overview of the narratives in 1Samuel 21-26:

  • David and the Sanctuary at Nob (21-2): David flees Saul and goes to the sanctuary for bread for his men. The priest Ahimelech provides their needs, but one of Saul’s men, Doeg, sees this. David then flees to Gath, where he acts like a madman before the king in order to save his life. He then flees to the cave of Adullam, where he gathers followers. From there he goes to Moab where he finds refuge for his family, until a prophet warns him to flee into the forests of Judah. Meanwhile, Saul is furious, thinking that his servants are protecting David. Doeg steps up and offers to exact vengeance on the priests at Nob who gave David help. Saul says the word and Doeg oversees the killing of 85 priests along with many in the city. One priest, Abiathar, escapes and reports to David.
  • David in the Wilderness (23): David fights against the Philistines, rescuing the city of Keilah. But Abiathar warns him that the city will turn him over to Saul, so he flees into the wilderness. “David remained in the strongholds in the wilderness, in the hill country of the Wilderness of Ziph. Saul sought him every day, but the Lord did not give him into his hand” (1Sam 23:14). The chase is at full strength in this chapter, as David meets for the last time with Jonathan, has several close escapes, and ends up in the southern wilderness of Engedi.
  • David Spares Saul’s Life (24): In vivid detail, the author tells how David had the chance to kill Saul his pursuer in a cave, where the king had stopped to relieve himself. In dramatic speeches, David appeals his innocence to Saul, and Saul admits David is the better man, and will most certainly take the throne.
  • David and Abigail (25): After the great prophet Samuel died, David, on the move again, comes upon the property of a wealthy man named Nabal. When Nabal refuses him hospitality, David at first seeks revenge. However, Nabal’s wife Abigail appeals to David and he changes his mind. Later, when Nabal dies, Abigail becomes one of David’s wives.
  • David Spares Saul’s Life Again (26): In a scene parallel to the story in ch. 24, David and his men come upon Saul’s encampment and David once more has opportunity to kill the king while he sleeps. But he refuses, and in divine speeches we hear David again appealing for vindication while Saul admits his folly. In the end, “David went on his way, and Saul returned to his place” (1Sam. 26:25). The next section tells us David subsequently escaped to the land of the Philistines, where he lived and fought until the day of Saul’s death (1Sam. 31)

This week, we will spend some time thinking about David’s wilderness experiences.

As you ponder these stories, you might also want to look at Psalms 52-59. These psalms bear inscriptions that link them to David’s wilderness narratives. It is in this group of Psalms, for example, that we read David’s poignant cry:

And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
I would lodge in the wilderness;
I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
from the raging wind and tempest.’

(Psalm 55:6-8, NRSV)


  1. “Abasement before exaltation” – I like the way you put that.

    I like to preach abasement. I like to write about abasement. I like to extol the virtues of abasement. But I don’t actually like to actually be abased. I’d prefer to leave that experience to the misfortunate few who have no choice otherwise.

    It’s good to be reminded that some people have actually chosen to live this way, on purpose.

    • Yes, until we live this to one degree or another, what we have to expound on is so much drivel. You can tell a preacher who has taken a proper beating from life – humility is the hallmark.

  2. Eugene Peterson has a great chapter in his book “Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians” about David in the wilderness. It is a good book about David overall, but the chapter discussing the wilderness is especially good. I recommend it to anyone.

  3. David Cornwell says

    I love the writings and perspective of Walter Brueggemann (although I’ll admit I haven’t read enough of him).

    This is such a wonderful story of a human being touched by God for a special purpose. The story never permits us to lose sight of his flawed humanity, yet was used of God in unimaginable ways. Good stuff.

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