"And David said to Abigail, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, which sent thee this day to meet me: And blessed be thy advice, and blessed be thou, which hast kept me this day from coming to shed blood, and from avenging myself with mine own hand."--1 SAMUEL xxv. 32, 33.
The story of David and Nabal needs no explanation. It tells us of part of David's education--of a great lesson which he learnt--of a great lesson which we may learn. It is told with a dignity and a simplicity, with a grace and liveliness which makes itself understood at once, and carries its own lesson to any one who has a human heart in him.
"And there was a man in Maon, whose possessions were in Carmel"--the park grass upland with timber trees--not the northern Carmel where Elijah slew the prophets of Baal, but the southern one on the edge of the desert. "And the man was very great, and he had three thousand sheep, and a thousand goats: and he was shearing his sheep in Carmel. Now the name of the man was Nabal; and the name of his wife Abigail: and she was a woman of good understanding, and of a beautiful countenance: but the man was churlish and evil in his doings; and he was of the house of Caleb." Caleb was Joshua's friend, who had conquered all that land in Joshua's time. Nabal, therefore, had all the pride of a man of most ancient and noble family--and no shame to him if he had had a noble, courteous, and generous heart therewith, instead of being, as he was, a stupid and brutal person.
"And David heard in the wilderness that Nabal did shear his sheep. And David sent out ten young men, and David said unto the young men, Get you up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet him in my name: And thus shall ye say unto him that liveth in prosperity, Peace be to thee, and peace be to thine house, and peace be to all that thou hast. And now I have heard that thou hast shearers: now thy shepherds which were with us, we hurt them not, neither was there ought missing unto them, all the while they were in Carmel. Ask the young men, and they will show thee. Wherefore let the young men find favour in thine eyes: for we come in a good day: give, I pray thee, whatsoever cometh to thine hand unto thy servants, and unto thy son David. And when David's young men came, they spake to Nabal, according to all thee words of David, and ceased."
Nabal refuses; and in a way that shows, as his wife says of him, how well his name fits him--a fool is his name, and folly is with him. Insolently and brutally he refuses, as fools are wont to do. "And Nabal answered David's servants, and said, Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse? there be many servants now-a-days that break away every man from his master. Shall I then take my bread, and my water, and my flesh that I have killed for my shearers, and give it unto men whom I know not whence they be?"
"As slaves break away from their master." This was an intolerable insult. To taunt a free-born man, as David was, with having been a slave and a runaway. It is hard to conceive how Nabal dared to say such a thing of a fierce chieftain like David, with six hundred armed men at his back; but there is no saying what a fool will not do when the spirit of the Lord is gone from him, and his own fancy and passions lead him captive.
So David's young men came and told David. "And David said to his men, Gird every man on his sword. And they girded on every man his sword; and David also girded on his sword: and there went up after David about four hundred men; and two hundred abode by the stuff."
That is a grand passage--grand, because it is true to human nature, true to the determined, prompt, kingly character of David. He does not complain, bluster, curse over the insult as a weak man might have done. He has been deeply hurt, and he is too high-minded to talk about it. He will do, and not talk. A dark purpose settles itself instantly in his mind. Perhaps he is ashamed of it, and dare not speak of it, even to himself. But what it was he confessed afterwards to Abigail, that he purposed utterly to kill Nabal and all his people. David was wrong of course. But the Bible makes no secret of the wrong-doings of its heroes. It does not tell us that they were infallible and perfect. It tells us that they were men of like passions with ourselves, in order that by seeing how they conquered their passions we may conquer ours.
Meanwhile, Nabal's young men, his servants and slaves, see the danger, and go to Abigail. "One of the young men told Abigail, saying, Behold, David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master; and he railed on them. But the men were very good unto us, and we were not hurt, neither missed we any thing, as long as we were conversant with them, when we were in the fields: They were a wall unto us both by night and day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep. Now therefore know and consider what thou wilt do; for evil is determined against our master, and against all his household: for he is such a son of Belial, that a man cannot speak to him. Then Abigail made haste, and took two hundred loaves, and two bottles of wine, and five sheep ready dressed, and five measures of parched corn, and an hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs, and laid them on asses. And she said unto her servants, Go on before me; behold, I come after you. But she told not her husband Nabal."
And then follows the beautiful scene which has been the subject of many a noble picture. The fair lady kneeling before the terrible outlaw in the mountain woods, as she came down by the covert of the hill, and softening his fierce heart with her beauty and her eloquence and her prayers, and bringing him back to his true self--to forgiveness, generosity, and righteousness.
"And when Abigail saw David, she hasted, and lighted off the ass, and fell before David on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, and fell at his feet, and said, Upon me, my lord, let this iniquity be: and let thine handmaid, I pray thee, speak in thine audience, and hear the words of thine handmaid. Let not my lord, I pray thee, regard this man of Belial, even Nabal: for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him; but I, thine handmaid, saw not the young men of my lord, whom thou didst send. Now therefore, my lord, as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, seeing the Lord hath withholden thee from coming to shed blood, and from avenging thyself with thine own hand, now let thine enemies, and they that seek evil to my lord, be as Nabal. . . . I pray thee forgive the trespass of thine handmaid: for the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house; because my lord fighteth the battles of the Lord, and evil hath not been found in thee all thy days."
And she conquers. The dark shadow passes off David's soul, and he is again the true, chivalrous, God-fearing David, who has never drawn sword yet in his own private quarrel, but has committed his cause to God who judgeth righteously, and will, if a man abide patiently in Him, make his righteousness as clear as the light, and his just-dealing as the noonday. Frankly he confesses his fault. "Blessed be thy advice, and blessed be thou which has kept me this day from coming to shed blood, and from avenging myself with mine own hand. For in very deed, as the Lord God of Israel liveth, which has kept me back from hurting thee, except thou hadst hasted and come to meet me, surely there had not a man been left unto Nabal by the morning light." Then follows the end. Abigail goes back to Nabal. Then the bully shows himself a coward. The very thought of the danger which he has escaped is too much for him. His heart died within him. "And Abigail came to Nabal; and behold, he held a feast in his house like the feast of a king; and Nabal's heart was merry within him, for he was very drunken: wherefore she told him nothing less or more until the morning light. But it came to pass in the morning, when the wine was gone out of Nabal, and his wife had told him these things, that his heart died within him, and he became as a stone. And it came to pass, about ten days after, that the Lord smote Nabal, that he died." One can imagine the picture for oneself. The rich churl sitting there in the midst of all his slaves and his wealth as one thunderstruck, helpless and speechless, till one of those mysterious attacks, which we still rightly call a stroke, and a visitation of God, ends him miserably. And when he is dead, Abigail becomes the wife of David, and shares his fortunes and his dangers in the wilderness.
Now, what may we learn from this story? Surely what David learnt--the unlawfulness of revenge. David was to be trained to be a perfect king by learning self-control, and therefore he has to learn that he must not punish in his own quarrel. If he must not lift up his hand against Saul, on the ground of loyalty, neither must he lift up his hand against Nabal, on the deeper ground of justice and humanity.
But from whom did David learn this? From himself. From his own heart and conscience, enlightened by the Spirit of God. Abigail gave him no commandment from God, in the common sense of the word. She only put David in mind of what he knew already. She appeals to his known nobleness of mind, and takes for granted that he will hear reason--takes for granted that he will do right--and so brought him to himself again. The Lord was withholding him, she says, from coming to shed blood, and avenging himself with his own hand. But that would have been of no avail had there not been something in David's own heart which answered to her words. For the Spirit of God had not left David; and it was the Spirit of God which gave him nobleness of heart--the Spirit of God which made him answer, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel who sent thee this day to meet me; and blessed be thy advice, and blessed be thou which hast kept me this day from shedding of blood."
Though Abigail did not pretend to bring a message from God, David felt that she had brought one. And she was in his eyes not merely a suppliant pleading for mercy, but a prophetess declaring to him a divine law which he dare not resist. "It has been said by them of old time," our blessed Lord tells us, "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth; thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy." This is the first natural law which a savage lays down for himself. There is a rude sense of justice in it, mixed up with the same brute instinct of revenge which makes the wild beast turn in rage upon the hunter who wounds him. But our Lord Jesus Christ brings in a higher and more spiritual law. Punishment is to be left to the magistrate, who punishes in God's name. And where the law cannot touch the wrongdoer, God, who is the author of law, can and will punish. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord." Yes! if punishment must be, then let God punish. Let man forgive. I say unto you, said our Lord, "Love your enemies. Do good to them that hate you--bless them that curse you--pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven, for He maketh His sun to shine upon the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust."
It is a hard lesson. But we must learn it. And we shall learn it, just as far as we are guided by the Spirit of God, who forms in us the likeness of Christ. And men are learning it more and more in Christian lands. Wherever Christ's gospel is truly and faithfully preached, the fashion, of revenge is dying out. There are countries still in Christendom in which men think nothing every day of stabbing and shooting the man who has injured them; and far, very far, from Christ and His Spirit must they be still. But we may have hope for them; for if we look at home, it was not so very many years ago that any Englishman, who considered himself a gentleman, was bound by public opinion to fight a duel for any slight insult. It was not so many years ago that among labouring men brutal quarrels and open fights were common, and almost daily occurrences. But now men are learning more and more to control their tempers and their tongues, and find it more and more easy, and more pleasant and more profitable, as our Lord forewarned them when He said, "Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." And Christ's easy yoke is the yoke of self-control, by which we bridle the passions which torment us. Christ's light burden is the burden and obligation laid on every one of us, to forgive others, even as God for Christ's sake has forgiven us. And the rest which shall come to our souls is the rest which David found, when he listened to the voice of God speaking by the lips of Abigail; the true and divine rest of heart and peace of mind--rest and peace from the inward storm of fretfulness, suspicion, jealousy, pride, wrath, revenge, which blackens the light of heaven to a man, and turns to gall and wormwood every blessing which God sends.
Ah! my friends, if ever that angry storm rises in our hearts, if ever we be tempted to avenge ourselves, and cast off the likeness of God for that of the savage, and return evil for evil,--may God send to us in that day some angel of His own, as He sent Abigail to David--an angel, though clothed in human flesh and blood, with a message of peace and wisdom. And if any such should speak to us words of peace and wisdom, soothing us and rebuking us at once, and appealing to those feelings in us which are really the most noble, just because they are the most gentle, then let us not turn away in pride, and wrap ourselves up in our own anger, but let us receive these words as the message of God--whether they come from the lips of a woman, or of a servant, or even of a little child, for if we resist them we surely resist God--who has also given to us His Holy Spirit for that very purpose, that we may hear His message when He speaks. It was the Spirit of God in David which made him feel that Abigail's message was divine. The Spirit of God, hidden for a while behind his dark passions, like the sun by clouds, shone out clear again, and filled all his soul with light, showing him his duty, and giving back peace and brightness to his mind.
God grant that whenever we are tried like David we may find that that Holy Spirit has not left us, but that even if a first storm of anger shall burst, it shall pass over quickly, and the day star arise in our hearts, and the Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon us, and give us peace.