Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his little book Lament for a Son, writes of the loss of his twenty-something boy to a fatal mountain-climbing accident. He asks:
What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief” (p. 34).
Were we to have accompanied David from Aphek to Ziklag in 1 Samuel 29-30, delivered from one trial only to encounter a fiercer one, perhaps no words would come in the face of such momentous grief. I can imagine David traveling the miles from Aphek thinking, how gracious of God to extricate me from having to go to war against my own people (see chapter 29)! But life is like this. Just when you think things can’t get worse, you suffer another staggering blow. David and his men return to Ziklag to discover nearly the worst – the city burnt to the ground and their families taken captive, destined, no doubt, for a future of slavery and abuse.
Their reaction is understandable in v. 4. Then David and the people who were with him raised their voices and wept until they had no more strength to weep. Even David mourned in grief, his wives taken by the marauding Amalekites. For him however, grief came in an even greater wave as v. 6 records. And David was greatly distressed, for the people spoke of stoning him, because all the people were bitter of soul, each for his sons and daughters.
On top of staggering loss for David comes devastating threat. His band of men pin the blame on him for the turn of events. Their bitterness of soul overflowed in making their leader the scapegoat for whatever reason. David can attest to the truth of Psalm 34:19 – Many are the afflictions of the righteous.
The good news in the midst of this horrifying text is that he can also testify to the truth of the remaining half of that verse. But the Lord delivers him out of them all. David models for us an important principle for responding to trials, even the worst of them.
In the throes of desperate circumstances the devoted intentionally make their way toward God in every respect.
And the first way to do that is to find your strength in God (1 Samuel 30: 1-6).
At the end of v. 6, Ziklag smoldering around him, family taken from him, embittered comrades preparing to stone him, what does the man do? But David strengthened himself in the Lord his God. He strengthened himself. The force of the Hebrew verb is reflexive. This is a choice he made. David takes an intentional direction. He moves toward God not from Him. He doesn’t blame God, he doesn’t rail on God, he doesn’t question God; he strengthens himself where? In the Lord his God (emphasis added). Yahweh is not just Israel’s covenant-keeping, faithful God; He is David’s God. This is David demonstrating the force of his words in Psalm 23:1 – The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want (emphasis added).
David possesses composure and takes courage in a way no one else on the scene at Ziklag seems prepared to do. He finds strength in God. Perhaps he remembered a former day in the Wilderness of Ziph, on the run from Saul, where he found strength in God, but not of his own accord. First Samuel 23:15-16 records:
15David saw that Saul had come out to seek his life. David was in the wilderness of Ziph at Horesh. 16And Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God. 17And he said to him, “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Saul my father also knows this.”
In the throes of those desperate straits, God sent him Jonathan, his fiercely loyal, covenant-bound friend. He helped fortify David’s weary hands. He had the right words in the suffering. You shall be king over Israel. He reminded him of the promise and decree of Yahweh. But here in 1 Samuel 30 there is no Jonathan. Deeper currents of spiritual commitment now course through the veins of David as he draws nearer the throne. On this occasion, though all desert him, he will find his strength in God alone. He will preach to himself the promises of God that do not fail. He will live and breathe the words of Psalm 73:25-28.
25Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. 28But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.
Andrew Bonar, Free Church of Scotland pastor, did just this in the face of stunning loss.
[He] wrote in his diary for October 15, 1864, of his grievous “wound”; Isabella, his wife of seventeen years, died, apparently of complications following childbirth. He wrote that on the day of her death he had, according to his custom, been meditating on a Scripture text between dinner and tea. On that day it had been Nahum 1:7 – “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (RSV). Bonar adds, “Little did I think how I would need it half an hour after (quoted in Dale Ralph Davis’ Looking on the Heart, p. 172).
Countless numbers of devoted saints through the centuries have turned to God in His word to find their strength in Him. They treasure His presence there. They calculate the certainty of His promises. They remember the virtues of His character. They come forth like Job in 13:15 – Though he slay me, I will hope in him. The way of the devoted in the throes of the desperate leads toward God in every respect. They find their strength in God.
Do you find yourself in the throes of desperate straits? Is there no Jonathan to strengthen your hand in God? Maybe the Lord would have you move toward Him in dependence upon Him alone for the strength only He can give.