The Flea Flees: Video sermon by Alistair Begg (Continuing study in 1 Samuel)
Speaker, Alistair Begg
The sermon was given on Sunday, August 16, 2020, at Parkside Church
Video, audio, and full transcript
After sparing Saul’s life a second time, David allowed fear to overturn his confidence in God’s protection. Rather than seeking refuge in the Lord, he escaped into enemy territory and out of Saul’s reach. His success was short-lived, however, as his lies to Achish, king of Gath, soon led to trouble. As Alistair Begg notes, David’s duplicitous activity reminds us that all men are fallible. We must keep our gaze fixed on Jesus, the one true King, in whom there is no deceit.
Well, I invite you to follow along as I read from 1 Samuel and from chapter 27. The heading in my Bible is “David Flees to the Philistines.”
“Then David said in his heart, ‘Now I shall perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than that I should escape to the land of the Philistines. Then Saul will despair of seeking me any[more] within the borders of Israel, and I shall escape out of his hand.’ So David arose and went over, he and the six hundred men who were with him, to Achish the son of Maoch, [the] king of Gath. And David lived with Achish at Gath, he and his men, every man with his household, and David with his two wives, Ahinoam of Jezreel, and Abigail of Carmel, Nabal’s widow. And when it was told Saul that David had fled to Gath, he no longer sought him.
“Then David said to Achish, ‘If I have found favor in your eyes, let a place be given me in one of the country towns, that I may dwell there. For why should your servant dwell in the royal city with you?’ So that day Achish gave him Ziklag. Therefore Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah to this day. And the number of the days that David lived in the country of the Philistines was a year and four months.
“Now David and his men went up and made raids against the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites, for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt. And David would strike the land and would leave neither man nor woman alive, but would take away the sheep, the oxen, the donkeys, the camels, and the garments, and come back to Achish. When Achish asked, ‘Where have you made a raid today?’ David would say, ‘Against the Negeb of Judah,’ or, ‘Against the Negeb of the Jerahmeelites,’ or, ‘Against the Negeb of the Kenites.’ And David would leave neither man nor woman alive to bring news to Gath, thinking, ‘lest they should tell about us and say, “So David has done.”’ Such was his custom all the while he lived in the country of the Philistines. And Achish trusted David, thinking, ‘He has made himself an utter stench to his people Israel; therefore he shall always be my servant.’
“In those days the Philistines gathered their forces for war, to fight against Israel. And Achish said to David, ‘Understand that you and your men are to go out with me in the army.’ David said to Achish, ‘Very well, you shall know what your servant can do.’ And Achish said to David, ‘Very well, I will make you my bodyguard for life.’”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
Well, gracious God, as we turn now to the Bible, it is in the confidence of which we have just sung that we turn to the pages of your Word, believing that by the Holy Spirit you come to illumine the Word and to open our minds and our hearts to receive its truth. And so we pray that beyond the voice of a mere man we may actually hear from you. Help us to this end, we pray, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
Well, we’re in chapter 27, and I think that some of you will have been reading ahead and are familiar with it. And if you have been doing so, then you, like me, may have found yourself saying, “I wonder if this experience that is described here in the life of David took place on a Monday. And I wonder, was it raining?” Now, I may be the only one that thought that or thinks in that way, and I may be the only one who immediately found myself rehearsing the words, “Talking to myself, and feeling old, sometimes I’d like to quit; nothing ever seems to fit,” or a subsequent verse: “What I’ve got they used to call the blues. Nothing[’s] really wrong, feeling like I don’t belong.” And then, of course, you know the song: “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.”
Now, it’s not just by a desire for an introduction that I refer to that. That is exactly the way my mind works. It’s not a testimony to the brilliance of my mind; it is an indication of the fact that I’ve listened to so many songs along the years. But as I read it and reread it, I said to myself, “How did David move from the confidence which pervades the end of chapter 26 and find himself in the midst of such despair at the beginning of chapter 27?” Back in verse 24 of the previous chapter, he’s talked about how the Lord delivered Saul into David’s hand. And then he’s gone on to say, “And I know that the Lord will be the one who delivers me from all my tribulation.” Back in 26, he’s anticipating that it will be Saul that perishes, and now, at the beginning of 27, he is the one who expects to perish by the hand of Saul. The end of 26, there is a benediction expressed by Saul himself; he says to David, “You will do many things and will succeed in them.” And that’s kind of the parting shot. Neither of them would have ever anticipated what was going to follow.
Now, we’re helped in studying this Old Testament book so often by being able to go to the poetry, to the Psalms, to the songs that David wrote. And in the Eleventh Psalm, where David is confronted by a crisis, his friends are giving him advice. And he responds to that by saying, “In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to my soul, ‘Flee like a bird to [the] mountain’[?]” So all his friends are saying, “I think the best thing you can do is make a run for it,” and he says, “Well, why would you ever suggest that? Don’t you realize that the Lord is my refuge?” And now, here in this incident, we discover that he’s not even prepared to take his own medicine—that, in the picture of the previous chapter, the partridge has flown into the mountains; the flea has fled. In fact, I think I shall use that as the heading for the complete study: “The Flea Has Fled.” I think it drives home the peculiarity of what’s going on here.
It is a phenomenal collapse by any standards. It’s right up there with the story of Elijah after his victory with the prophets of Baal. You remember what a triumph that is, and then the news comes that he’s being pursued by Jezebel, and then what do we discover? Well, he’s sitting under a broom tree, and he is despairing of his life, and he’s assuming that he’s about to die. It’s scandalous. It’s the same kind of scandal that you find in the life of Peter, where he says quite presumptuously, and presumably in front of his friends, to Jesus, “Lord, I’m ready to go with you to prison and to death”—and then, within a matter of a very short time, in responding to a lady, he says, “Woman, I do not know who Jesus is.”
Now, it is really quite astonishing that one who has been chosen to be Israel’s king should, as Woodhouse points out, “have this skeleton in his closet.” And if you look at the text, you can see that it is there, and it is hard to deny. He has determined that the best thing he can do is escape. You’ll see that in verse 1: “I should escape.” Further down in the verse: “I shall escape.” And so, in verse 2 we’re told that he “went over”—he “went over” to the other side. Just even those two words convey, I think, more than geography, as we will see.
Now, one of the striking features that we should note immediately of the record that we have in the Bible is the way in which it presents all of its heroes—if we can refer to them in that way—not airbrushed but warts and all. And actually, it’s one of the verifying features, I think, of the authenticity of the Scriptures. If somebody was trying to make it up, they would try and clean it up. But it isn’t made up. It is a record of the people that God has chosen to use. He puts his treasure in old clay pots, and we can see that as we read our Bibles.
Now, to help us navigate the chapter, I just have three headings. First of all, to notice quite simply, in verses 1 to 4, the plan, or David’s plan. It is a clear plan, and as it turns out, it is a successful plan. He says, “What I’m going to do is I will escape, and all being well, Saul will stop looking for me.”
Now, on the previous occasion, driven by his fear of Saul— and this is back in chapter 21—he made a beeline for Gath, you will remember. And then, on that occasion, his fear of being discovered produced what we referred to then as a kind of an Academy Award–winning performance whereby he feigned madness and duped the king, Achish, in the process. Now here we are again, and once again, he is outwitting the king.
Now, as you read this, you find yourself saying—at least I do—“Well, I wonder, did Achish forget what happened?” Hard to believe. Or is he simply prepared to let bygones be bygones for the sake of the potential benefit that is now represented with the fighting force that on this occasion David is bringing to the matter? In verse 2: “So David arose and went over, he and the six hundred men who were with him.”
Now, the real question that is here is not about the execution of his plan but rather about the motivation. What is the underlying fear that caused David to take this approach? Now, we ought to be thinking along these lines, because we’re reading our Bibles, and we’re supposed to think, and we see the end of 26. Now, what we’re told is that “David said in his heart…” Now, that little phrase is important. In other words, he was ruminating with himself at the core of his being. This wasn’t just something that was bouncing around in his mind. No. You imagine him—at least I do—three o’clock in the morning, and he wakens up in his bed, and he says to himself, “You know, one of these days, Saul is bound to get me.” And then he says, “And you know, I’m responsible for so many people, not only the six hundred men but now their wives and their children”—probably a company of almost two or three thousand people, and they’re looking to him. That’s a burden!
And so, as he ponders in this way, he says, “You know, I think the very best thing for me to do is simply to escape. There is nothing better for me.” Really, David? Didn’t you read your own poem? Didn’t you read your own psalm, 62, where you began,
For [you] alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
You wrote that! So what is this about “There is nothing better than that I should escape”?
Well, you see, what he’s doing is he’s talking to himself, but he’s not talking sense to himself. People say you shouldn’t talk to yourself. Well, most people do talk to themselves—not necessarily out loud. But if you talk to yourself, it’s important that you talk sense to yourself. And what he’s doing here is he’s leaning on his own understanding. You remember in Proverbs 3, it doesn’t say, “Do not use your understanding”; it says, “Do not lean on your … understanding.” So he’s allowing the questions which press in upon him to overturn his conviction that God is sufficient rather than allowing the reality of God as his fortress and his security taking care of these overwhelming questions.
Now, I hope that none of us immediately find ourselves taking the high ground and sitting in judgment on him. And in fact, how often, in these peculiar days in which we find ourselves, have we not been guilty of the very same approach—big affirmations of faith and conviction followed by almost an overwhelming sense of discouragement and perhaps defeat? It’s good to acknowledge these things about ourselves, because it’s true. Somebody gave me a quote from Spurgeon this week—one of my young colleagues—where Spurgeon says, “If any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be.”
So we’re not gonna think ill of David in this way. And we’re gonna learn to talk to ourselves—to talk truth to ourselves. That’s why we study the Bible. That’s why we’re studying this old book: because God speaks to us through his Word. We are transformed, we’re renewed, as the Scriptures take hold, learning then to resist the insinuations of the Evil One, to remind ourselves that our security doesn’t lie in our circumstances but in God’s providence and in God’s promises; reminding ourselves not to succumb to the notion that my identity is in my job or in my genes—either with a j or a g, whatever way you want—or in my looks or in my schools, but in the Lord, who has made me his own.
You see, David has actually forgotten his own poems. And the fact that his plan worked… Because it did work, as you’ll see in verse 4: “And when it was told Saul that David had fled to Gath, he no longer sought him.” Pragmatism cannot be allowed to dictate our understanding of the story.
So in 1–4 we have his plan. The motivation of it we need to ponder; the execution of it is clear. And then in verses 5–7, his place. His place. “If I have found favor in your eyes,” he says, “let a place be given [to] me.”
Now, what he’s actually doing here as the story unfolds, we will discover, is making sure that he can be out of the reach of Achish and the Philistines. He basically comes to him and he says, “You know, I think it probably would be better—there’s a large group of us—it’d be better for us to have a place of our own.” He is concerned that his geographical relocation will not prove a hindrance to what he really wants to accomplish. And it’s actually not difficult to see how Achish could reason along these lines too and say to himself, “Well, you know, since Saul and David are enemies, then the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And so, yeah, why don’t I do that for you?” And so what he’s actually doing now is he is hoodwinking the king. He did it in a far more dramatic way back in chapter 21. He had to, because of the pressure of the circumstances. But in this case, it’s a very, very fascinating approach that he takes. It’s not necessarily commendable, but it is quite unusually brilliant.
Now, we should remember that when Saul had been concerned about the whereabouts of David back in chapter 23, he had said to the Ziphites, whom you will recall, who were letting Saul know of David’s whereabouts—when he gave the directions to the Ziphites, he said to them, you know, “Be very careful, and do your homework on this,” “[because] it is told me that he is very cunning.” He’s very cunning. So add that to the Davidic résumé: he’s “ruddy,” he has “beautiful eyes,” he’s “handsome,” he’s brave, and he’s cunning.
Now, you can see how cunning he is. Look at this approach: “If I have found favor in your eyes…” Well, clearly he has already found favor in his eyes, or he wouldn’t be there. “Why should your servant dwell in the royal city with you?” “Your servant”? You’re now the servant of the Philistine king? No, this takes deference to the point of duplicity. “No,” he says, “it doesn’t really just seem sensible. It doesn’t seem right that I should be taking up place in the royal city. You’re the king, you know.”
Verse 6: “So that day Achish gave him Ziklag.” And that is how Ziklag became what it then became—namely, a city of the kings of Judah. If you go back and read for homework, you will discover that it was part of the cities that were there when the people came in to possess the land. Somehow or another, the Philistines got their noses into it, and by this point, it’s sufficiently under Philistine control that the king of the Philistines can designate it as a place for David to be. That in turn, in the providence of God, brings it back into the realm of Judah.
Now, what this actually did in practical terms was it placed David and his men beyond the border of Israel, in a position from which they could do some real damage to their enemies—and that they’re going to do. It also placed David outside the reach of the reconnaissance of Achish himself. The only way that Achish could know what was going on is if David informed him what was going on.
And what was going on? Well, the plan in 1–4, the place in which he settles in 5–7, and then his practice, or the practice that ensues. If you look at the eleventh verse, you will see in our text it says, “Such was his custom all the while he lived [there].” In the NIV, it says that was his “practice.” So if we had gone there in the year and four months when David and his troops were centered in Ziklag, what would we have discovered? Well, we would have discovered this: that he took action against all these people that are described for us in the eighth verse.
Now, one of the ancient commentators suggests that the military actions participated in here by David are actually justifiable—both understandable and justifiable. Says Matthew Henry, to whom I refer, it is because what David is actually doing is what God commanded to be done when the people entered into the promised land. We won’t delay on that, but you can read of it in the book of Numbers and in the book of Deuteronomy. And you’ve got these amazing passages—for example, in Deuteronomy chapter 7, where God gives clear commands: “Do not leave anything behind. Do not allow these people to exist. They will marry your daughters. They will destroy you with their pagan practices. They will raise up idols,” and so on. This is why: not because God is a vengeful God but because God is a holy God. And of course you know the story all the way through the judges, that they did very little in relationship to this.
Now David, in this situation, finds himself in a position, if you like, to do some cleanup. It’s important that we read the Bible in the context of the Bible. We read Deuteronomy 6 with great frequency: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and your strength.” And then you go into chapter 7, and you find out exactly what that meant. It meant that you can’t play fast and loose with sin. It meant that you cannot tolerate that which is opposed to God’s holiness. And so, in actual fact, David was not attacking the Philistines, but he was actually attacking people who were hostile both to Israel and to the Philistines.
Now, the implication of it is very straightforward, and it is taxing when you think about it, again, in terms of who’s doing this: he was attacking mutual enemies while pretending to be attacking his own people. That’s what we need to understand. What he’s actually doing is not what he says he’s doing.
Now, if then, according to Matthew Henry, he can be, if you like, exonerated in any way for his actions, there is no way that he can be excused for his lies. Because he flat-out lies. When Achish inquired about the raids—you’ll see it there; there’s almost a sort of naive simplicity to this character. Verse 10: “[And] when Achish asked, ‘Where have you made a raid today?’”—so, “Tell me about your most recent raids.” And he came back to him, and he said, “Well, I’ve been pillaging in the territories of the Negev of Judah, and the Negev of the Jerahmeelites, or the Negev of the Kenites.”
Now what he’s actually doing is he’s trying to make Achish think what Achish actually does think: that his attacks are being made on the interests of his own people—that he’s actually attacking Judah. And in order to make sure that that story doesn’t get out, he goes to great lengths, as you will see: “And David would leave neither man nor woman alive to bring [the] news to Gath, thinking, ‘lest they should tell about us and say, “[This is what David did.]”’” So I’m not sure about Matthew Henry’s analysis of it, the idea that it is justifiable because what he’s really doing is what God wanted him to do. I don’t know. I know this: that he’s telling lies, and that is a violation of God’s command.
Now, what then ensues, of course, is there for you to ponder in the text. David now finds himself trapped by his dishonesty. David now finds himself compromised by his own cunning—that he’s too clever for his own good. His plan: “I’m gonna get killed. I may as well go over there. It’s the best thing I could possibly do.” Saul buys it, so he doesn’t pursue him. “If I can get myself a place away from Gath, then I’ll be able to operate with great freedom, execute it.” And then he continues to follow his pattern, and so he ends up with a major problem. So, four Ps; the plan, the place, the practice, the problem.
His problem is just this: that he’s done such a fantastic job of conning Achish that he can’t get away from his own deal. He’s hoisted on his own petard—in the way, back in chapter 13, “Israel had become a stench to the Philistines,” and here Achish decides that David has now become “an utter stench” to his own people. “Achish trusted David.” Not because he was trustworthy! He trusted him, thinking, “He’s made himself a stench to his own people. Therefore, he will always be my servant.” In other words, he’s saying, “There’s no way he’s gonna go back now. It’d be impossible for him to go back.”
In other words, David has done such a tremendous job of fake news that he’s confronted with this real dilemma. Because Achish thinks now that he’s been down there kicking his own people. So when he puts his army together for the battle that is about to happen, David will be right there fighting with the Philistines. If he then refuses to go and fight with the Philistines, then Achish will no doubt realize that he’s been conned, and David will probably lose his head.
Now, that’s why you go into the first two verses of 28—because you have to. Because it gives the context of this. The Philistines were gathering their forces for war to fight against Israel. So this year and four months that has ensued has been a year and four months in which David, in isolation from his own people, has created the impression in the mind of the Philistine king that he’s actually on his side—but he’s not on his side. And so Achish decides that he’s going to give him a significant position. He “said to David, ‘Understand that you and your men are to go out with me in the army.’ [And] David said to Achish”—quite cunning response, clever response—“‘Very well, you shall know what your servant can do.’” He doesn’t tell him what he’s gonna do, ’cause he doesn’t actually know what he’s gonna do. ’Cause he’s stuck! “If I go, I’m a dead man. If I stay, I’m a dead man. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” So his ambiguity is an indication of his duplicity.
And just when we’re itching to find out how this will be resolved, the story writer presses pause and says, “Now Samuel had died, and all Israel…” Yeah, well, wait, wait a minute! That’s like you’re watching a sporting event, and all of a sudden they break in with a weather forecast or something—you know, when it goes across the bottom of the screen, beep beep beep. No, forget that right now! But of course, if it is that important, then it is important that this material is broken into by this material. And that’s what the writer is saying here: “You think David’s got a problem? Wait till you see Saul’s problem.” So he breaks away from this—creating suspense, if you like stories—so that you have to say, “I have to read on now and find out what happens.” You’re gonna have to wait till chapter 29. And so we will, with a visit to 28 in the interim.
Lessons in the Silences
So let me end by noticing just this, what you will have detected already: there is no mention of God in this chapter. There is no seeking of God. There is no sense in which David is relying on anything other than himself. The chapter ought to strike us as puzzling, disturbing, ought to cause us at least to wonder how David, as a ruthless liar, could possibly be the one upon whom God set his heart as to be his king.
Ralph Davis, in just a sentence or two, helps us out. He says, “The Bible does not claim that God’s servants are dipped in Clorox so they will be infallibly sin-free and attractive to [us].” David was brilliant, he was brave, he was beautiful, but he was capable of deceit. He was capable of self-promotion. So not only are we confronted by the fact that the chapter contains no mention of God, but we’re also caused to reflect upon the fact that the way this story is recounted for us, it resists every attempt to make David an example of virtue.
Now, that will come as a striking notion to some of us. Because the way in which we read the Bible, not least of all the Old Testament stories, is we read it in terms of the heroes: “Daniel was a great fellow. You should be great. David was terrific. You should be like David,” and so on. “Esther is a model person,” and so on, and we go through the thing. There is no question that there are lessons to be learned from them. But none of them ever are the hero of the story.
Eventually, you see, we’ll discover that not only was Achish foolish to put his trust in David, but we are definitely wrong if we make David the hero of the story. Because the story of the kings of Israel will one day end like a dangling conversation. Down through the corridors of time, the searchlight, if you like, scans the horizon, waiting for the one who is the embodiment of the King, settling on an evening there in a village in Bethlehem, where the wise men come asking the question, “Where is he who is born the king of the Jews?” The spotlight fastening on the crowds in Jerusalem, testifying to the one of whom the prophet wrote, “Behold, your king is coming to you … humble and mounted on a donkey.”
What is the point? Well, the point is pretty simple, and it’s straightforward, and I hope we can grasp it together. The very fact that David is, in this chapter, a reminder to us of his fallibility and his inability and his own sinfulness is in order that we would not fasten on him but that we would be reminded that Jesus is the only King, that Jesus is the only one that we can trust to tell us the truth. And that is why we say to one another in our song, “Come now, come bow before him now with reverence and with fear.”
Yeah, chapter 27, a kind of godless chapter. Not a good chapter in the story of David’s life. Not the worst chapter in David’s life, as we will see. But we learn lessons in the silences and in the absences, because that’s the way God has given us the Bible.
Father, thank you that the Word of God repays our attention, our investigation, and the submission of our hearts and minds to its truth. We are struck by the duplicity, the hostility, the fearfulness, just the collapse of David in this chapter. But then we’re aware of that in our own lives. We know what it is to go from a big end on a Thursday to a real disaster on a Friday, to make great professions to other people and then, in the silence of our own hearts, to crumble, to end up looking like a broken deck chair. Lord, thank you that Jesus is the King. He is the one who is the truth. He is the one who speaks truth to us. He is the one that we can trust. And in his name we pray. Amen.
 Roger Nichols and Paul Williams, “Rainy Days and Mondays” (1971).
 1 Samuel 26:25 (ESV).
 Psalm 11:1 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 26:20.
 See 1 Kings 18:20–19:8.
 Luke 22:33 (paraphrased).
 Luke 22:57 (paraphrased).
 John Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader, Preaching the Word, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 498.
 See 2 Corinthians 4:7.
 Psalm 62:5–6 (ESV).
 Proverbs 3:5 (ESV).
 Charles Spurgeon, “David Dancing before the Ark Because of His Election,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 34, no. 2031, 367.
 1 Samuel 23:22 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 16:12 (ESV).
 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (1706), https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/1-samuel/27.html.
 Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 13:4 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 28:3 (ESV).
 Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart (1988; repr., Fearn: Christian Focus, 2000), 232.
 Matthew 2:2 (paraphrased).
 Zechariah 9:9 (ESV).
 David J. Evans “Be Still, For the Presence of the Lord” (1986). Lyrics lightly altered.
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.