Reflections on I Samuel 21 —
The myriad of religions in the world, from century-old Catholicism to the godless humanism so prevalent today, testify to the innate desire of man to justify himself…to be right, or righteous. Though there are many forms of religion, the qualification for righteousness in all religions is the same — be a good person, do the right things, follow the rules, and you’re considered a righteous person. Religion at its core is man’s attempt to be righteous. There is one fundamental flaw with the religious quest for righteousness — it is not at all what the God of the Universe is interested in. So at the end of time, many who devoted themselves to practicing religion will be completely disappointed when they meet God.
Thankfully, God gives us historical lessons like the one in I Samuel 21 to help us understand what He is looking for. Like cliff notes given by a professor before a quiz, God has given us hints of what He’s looking for. If we study them, they can help us pass the test.
In I Samuel 21, David and his followers were fleeing for their lives, the raging King Saul hot on their trail. They were starving and exhausted when they arrived at the town of Nob, where the tabernacle, God’s holy place, resided. They entered and asked for food. All that was available was the showbread, the sacred bread reserved by law for the servants of the temple. David and his men were not priests. They partook anyway, and were never reprimanded for this violation. How did he get away with that?
What strikes me is that other Israelites were rebuked and even died for similar violations (I Samuel 6:19 and 13:8-13). David knew the laws, better than most. In fact, I would suggest he loved God’s law. So it is all the more unusual he would choose to violate it, and even more unusual that we was not punished.
Jesus used this paradoxical account of David’s life to defend the actions of His disciples before the legalistic Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day (Matthew 12:1-7). David violated the law by eating the showbread, but Jesus called him “innocent”, and cited David’s actions at Nob to denounce the Pharisees’ criticism of His disciples. In this concise statement, Jesus was calling David righteous, forever turning upside down the Pharisees’ understanding of that term. I’m convinced the Pharisees are mentioned in the Bible so many times for one, inglorious reason–to be an example to Christians of what not to be. The Pharisees thought righteousness was all about following rules and avoiding sin. Jesus exposed their shallow understanding, stating that “something greater…is here.” Righteousness in God’s eyes goes beyond rule-following. It goes beyond sin-avoiding. It is something much greater. We need to understand what the Pharisees didn’t. What is the greater truth about righteousness hidden in the story of David at Nob?
Like two sides of a coin, there are two parts to righteousness, and Jesus gives us a clue to the first. Quoting His Father’s words in Hosea 6:6, He says, “I desire compassion and not a sacrifice.” Righteousness starts with compassion. God didn’t strike down David because He felt compassion for him. The Mighty God, the eternal, sovereign Lord of the universe, is mindful of our needs. David was oppressed, hungry, and weary. It is an amazing thing that God saw David’s need, ignored the law He had written, considered David’s situation, and provided for him. As David says in Psalm 8:4, “what is man, that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” Righteousness starts with God’s tender heart for people, whom He loves regardless of what the law requires. To paraphrase Paul, God demonstrated righteousness by going out of His way, even breaking a few rules (“passing over sins previously committed”) to save us (Romans 3:21-26).
The second part of righteousness involves us. Not what we do, but where our heart is. David’s heart was in close proximity to God’s. He says in Psalm 84:2, “My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord”. God searches for people whose heart is completely His (II Chronicle 16:9). He strengthens them. He approves them. The disciples, too, were approved though they broke the Sabbath because they were close to Jesus. God, in His righteousness, is compassionate to those who are close to Him.
So God calls David righteous, even though he broke the rules. He does so because He has compassion on people who love Him. In the same way, God calls the prostitute, Rahab, “justified” even though she lied (Joshua 2, James 2:25). She lied because she feared God, and God overlooked her dishonesty with mercy.
As David contemplated eating the sacred bread, his close proximity to God gave him assurance that God’s compassion would trump the illegal act he was about to commit. His faith in God’s compassion allowed David to live freely, without fear or fretting over past mistakes. He knew God so well, was so close to Him, he didn’t second-guess. He was not presumptuous…he was fearless.
And it’s amazing how quickly people can be restored to close proximity to God’s after straying away in sin. In no other instance was this more clear than after David committed two of the despicable sins of all time — plotting the murder of his good friend, Uriah, and taking his wife into an adulterous relationship. After he admitted his sin and cried out for God’s forgiveness (Psalm 51:1-12), the power of God’s forgiveness is evident. How quickly God collapses the gap between His heart and David’s once David fesses up! Beginning in Psalm 51:13, we see little trace of guilt in David’s words. I am struck at the audacity of David’s prayer. He seems confident in verses 13-18. Can you imagine having so much confidence, feeling so justified, after committing such a terrible sin? But that is the point. David, the lowest of sinners, understood, and appealed to, the great compassion of God. In the words of James 4:8, David had once again drawn near to God, and so God drew near to him.
At the end of the day, it’s those who desire to be close to the Lord and seek His mercy–irrespective of their ability to follow rules–that will be considered righteous. As David says in Psalm 147:11, “The Lord favors those who fear Him, those who wait for His lovingkindess.”
Let us therefore encourage each other to be in close proximity to God. He is our righteousness. We are righteous when we are close to Him. Too often we burden our brothers, putting too much emphasis on good habits and sin avoidance. Accountability, confession, denial of flesh, preventative measures are all good measures to keep us behaving properly. But keep the focus on the heart, not the actions. Righteousness has nothing to do with actions, but it has everything to do with your heart’s proximity to God’s. As Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches, he who abides in Me and I in him, he will bear much fruit…apart from Me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Proximity to God, clinging to His righteous compassion, yields the confidence the church so desperately needs.