Under continued pressure from Saul, David is forced to leave Judah and take refuge with Achish, who was the king of Gath. He had complained in the previous chapter that certain men were trying to force him to serve other gods (1 Sam. 26:19) which he was unwilling to do. He was willing, however, to look like he was changing sides. During this time, David was playing a high-stakes double game.
“And David said in his heart, I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul: there is nothing better for me than that I should speedily escape into the land of the Philistines; and Saul shall despair of me, to seek me any more in any coast of Israel: so shall I escape out of his hand . . .” (1 Sam. 27:1-12).
Summary of the Text
David said that if the situation continued unchanged, he would eventually be killed by Saul. This was not unbelief, but rather a knowledge of contingencies. If this, then that—knowing the final end result does not change the intermediate contingencies. As a result, David decided to take refuge with the Philistines (v. 1). When he sought refuge in Gath, it is likely that he negotiated this with Achish beforehand. Given that a couple thousand people were likely involved (the wives and families of 600 men), he probably didn’t just show up one day (vv. 2-3). The plan worked; Saul stopped hunting for him (v. 4). After a bit, David asked Achish to give him a town to live in (v. 5), and the king responded by granting him Ziklag. This is how Ziklag came to be a town in Judah (v. 6). This exile of David’s lasted for sixteen months (v. 7).
David began to raid three groups, enemies common to the Israelites and Philistines both (v. 8). One of the groups was the Amalekites, against whom God had required Saul to wage total war. But this was not “holy war,” or the ban, because David would bring back livestock. But he would kill all the adults, lest someone talk (v. 9). The other two groups were Geshurites and the Gezrites. The first group was mentioned in Josh. 13:2 as one still needing to be displaced, but we know nothing about the latter group. David would tell Achish that he had raided Israelites or their allies (v. 10), and he would leave no grown survivors (v. 11). Achish concluded that David had made himself utterly obnoxious to Israel, and that he would therefore remain the servant of Achish forever (v. 12). Achish thought that David had burned all his boats.
Ziklag was a town that had been given to the tribe of Simeon (Josh. 19:5; 1 Chron. 4:30), and in Joshua 15:31, it is numbered among the towns of Judah. The town was about 25 miles southeast of Gath, which gave David the liberty of movement he needed.
Achish would of course have known about Saul’s pursuit of David, but would have had no reason whatever for suspecting David’s dogged loyalty to Saul. And David saw no reason why he should correct this assumption that Achish had naturally come to. Achish may have been a throne name and, if so, this may not have been the same king that David fooled with his pretended madness in chapter 21. After this exile of David’s, Israel had a curious relationship with Gath, which of course had been Goliath’s home town. After David became king, he was allied with Gath. When certain prophetic passages condemn the Philistines, the city of Gath is not mentioned in them (Amos 1:6-8; Zechariah 9; 2 Sam. 6:10). David was the kind of man who inspired loyalty everywhere he went, and a number of men followed him from Gath (2 Sam. 15:18). And Achish at one point takes an oath in the name of YHWH, which means that it is at least possible that he became a convert (2 Sam. 29:6,9).
The Grave of Exile
David, the future king of Israel, has to leave Israel first. Saul wants to kill him, but God intends to kill him a different way—a way that leads back to life. This is God’s way of doing things. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but had to go down to Egypt first—out of Egypt God called His Son (Hos. 11:1). The fact that Jesus was the antitype of this kind of “exile and return” sheds light on all the types found in the Old Testament. Jacob had to leave the land he was to inherit, and then come back with his family. Joseph was sold into exile in Egypt, and was so invested in this pattern of promise that he saw to it that his bones were returned from exile (Heb. 11:22). All of Israel was taken into exile in Babylon, and Nehemiah and Ezra led the return. And in the first part of 1 Samuel, we saw that the ark of the covenant went into exile among the Philistines, just like David here, and was then brought back. As a true king over Israel, how could David not have to spend time in exile?
The Day of Odd Beginnings
We are taught in Scripture not to despise the day of small beginnings (Zech. 4:10). But if we are close readers of the scriptural narrative, we must also master the art of not despising the day of odd beginnings.
David was strong enough as a leader to be able to handle grumbling in the camp. But do you think that any of the men who had urged David to kill Saul in the cave had occasion to say privately that “if the king had only listened to us . . .” Do you think Abishai thought that the move to Ziklag vindicated David’s refusal to take Saul’s life when the two of them had the clear opportunity? I have urged you many times to “read the story you are in,” but part of this task is understanding the role of contrary readings. Other people are trying to get you to read differently. They point to the very things that you think are lining up with Scripture, and buttressing your faith, and they point to those very same things as refutations. Running around the countryside in mortal danger, declining God’s opportunities offered up on a silver platter, having to go into exile in Gath, and then taking up residence in Ziklag. I mean, Ziklag? Really?
But the center of the new Israel, the center of Israel’s glorious period of monarchy, was right there in Ziklag. Do not despise the day of odd beginnings . . . but only if it is a God beginning.