And David rose and fled that day from Saul and went to Achish the king of Gath. And the servants of Achish said to him, “Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in dances, ‘Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands’?”
And David took these words to heart and was much afraid of Achish the king of Gath. So he changed his behavior before them and pretended to be insane in their hands and made marks on the doors of the gate and let his spittle run down his beard. Then Achish said to his servants, “Behold, you see the man is mad. Why then have you brought him to me? Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to behave as a madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?” – 1 Samuel 21:10-15 ESV
The question that should immediately come into your mind when reading these verses is, “What was David thinking?” There seems to be nothing rational or logical in his behavior. Why in the world would David, the very man who killed Goliath, who was from Gath, choose to seek refuge in Gath, and while carrying the sword that once belonged to Goliath? What kind of flawed logic did David use to think that he would be welcomed with open arms? After all, it was David who, in an act of over-achievement, killed 200 Philistines in order to obtain the 100 foreskins Saul had demanded as a dowry for his daughter, Michal. It was David who had served as a commander in Saul’s forces and had won great victories over the Philistines. So what would possess him to think they would provide him with refuge? From what we know of David’s faithfulness to God and his hatred of the enemies of God, it seems quite unlikely that David had gone to Gath to offer his services as a warrior to king Achish. In other words, David was not considering switching sides and fighting for the Philistines against his own people. So why did he go? The text does not tell us. We can only conjecture that David was desperate to get away from Saul and any troops that may be out to seek him. He knew that the last place Saul would look for him was in the land of the Philistines. But David didn’t think his strategy through all the way. He made a rash decision, under duress, and now found himself in a very dangerous spot.
The Philistines immediately recognized David. It’s interesting to note that they referred to David as “the king of the land” (1 Samuel 21:11 ESV). They had heard about the songs sung about David, that celebrated his military exploits and lauded him as greater than Saul. It is doubtful that they had heard about David’s anointing, but they most likely viewed David as the true leader of the Israelites. At the affair in the Valley of Elah, Goliath had challenged Saul and his men to send a champion to face him in hand-to-hand combat, but no one would step forward. Day after day he taunted them, but Saul remained in the background, afraid to take up the challenge and take on Goliath. At that moment, the Philistines most likely lost all respect for Saul as a king, and when David ended up slaying Goliath, they saw him as the true king of Israel. But whatever the case, they knew that the man standing before them was an enemy and a threat.
The text rather of matter-of-factly states, “And David took these words to heart and was much afraid of Achish the king of Gath” (1 Samuel 21:12 ESV). It was as if David woke up from a bad dream and realized the gravity of his situation. The stupidity of his decision to go to Gath suddenly dawned on him and he was “much afraid.” He was petrified, terrified, and mortified that he had ever come up with this doomed plan in the first place. So, finding himself in a jam, David resorted to deceit. Here was the man who had killed Goliath, defeated hundreds of Philistines in battle, slaughtered 200 Philistines just to pay the dowry for his wife, and who was carrying the sword of his Goliath in his hand, and yet he chose to feign madness rather than trust God and fight his enemies. David somehow forgot all about his anointing and the fact that God had been by his side during all the conflicts of his life. The young man who once shouted, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:27 ESV), and then took the life of Goliath with nothing more than a sling and a stone, was now so fearful in the face of his enemies, that he resorted to acting like a madman. The Message paraphrases verse 13 this way: “So right there, while they were looking at him, he pretended to go crazy, pounding his head on the city gate and foaming at the mouth, spit dripping from his beard.”
What a scene. What a sad situation for the future king of Israel to find himself in. This is the same David who would later write:
Blessed be the Lord, my rock,
who trains my hands for war,
and my fingers for battle;
he is my steadfast love and my fortress,
my stronghold and my deliverer,
my shield and he in whom I take refuge,
who subdues peoples under me. – Psalm 144:1-2 ESV
He trains my hands for war,
so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. – Psalm 18:34 ESV
This ill-timed, poorly conceived plan of David would be used by God to teach His young king-in-waiting an invaluable lesson in faith. David would learn, in the future, to place his trust in God rather than his own rash plans and flawed attempts at self-preservation. David would escape with his life, if not his dignity. He would not forget that day. In fact, he ended up penning the words of Psalm 34 as a result of this encounter with King Achish.
I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me.
He freed me from all my fears. – Psalm 34:4 NLT
In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened;
he saved me from all my troubles. – Psalm 34:6 NLT
The Lord hears his people when they call to him for help.
He rescues them from all their troubles. – Psalm 34:17 NLT
The righteous person faces many troubles,
but the Lord comes to the rescue each time.
For the Lord protects the bones of the righteous;
not one of them is broken! – Psalm 34:19-20 NLT
It is interesting to read these statements in light of what actually happened that day. There is no indication that God intervened. David didn’t take the sword of Goliath and slaughter King Achish and all his soldiers. There was no lightning bolt from heaven that struck down the Philistines and allowed David to walk away safe and secure. There is no mention of any miraculous intervention on God’s part. What really happened was that David resorted to acting like a madman, complete with drool dripping from his beard. Faced with the prospect of death, David had taken matters into his own hands and escaped with his life because he was willing to throw away any sense of pride or dignity he had. And yet, when looking back on that day, David saw his rescue as having come from God. In spite of his actions, God had rescued him. While he had run from the land of God to the land of the enemies of God had remained with him. Even at one of his worst moments, God had not abandoned him. Regardless of how badly David’s poor attempt at self-preservation had turned out, God is the one who rescued David from himself. And that is what God does for His own. God had said David would be the next king of Israel, and he would be. Even David, at his worst moment, couldn’t screw up God’s plan. He could make things harder on himself, but nothing he did would make it too hard for God to fulfill His divine plan for him. Even our bouts of temporary insanity cannot prevent the future fulfillment of God’s plans for us.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.