You only need to turn on the TV or open a newspaper to see that the Middle East is currently a place of conflict. We see civil wars raging in Syria, Iraq and Libya, with much tragic loss of life. Sadly it seems some things never change. Because our Bible passage this morning, set nearly 3000 years ago, also describes a conflict in the Middle East. The kingdom of Israel was under attack from the Philistines, a formidable foe and a fierce opponent.
It seems that the Philistines could not stomach David on the throne of Israel. They could not cope with the idea of an Israelite kingdom on their eastern borders. No doubt the Philistine’s had much preferred the situation before David’s coronation. The situation when Israel was leaderless and divided. But as we read last week, God had brought David to the throne of Israel and given him the city of Jerusalem as its capital. The people of God were now united under God’s chosen king.
Verses 17-18 of today’s passage describe the Philistine’s military response to these developments. “When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over Israel, they went up in full force to search for him.” The massed ranks of the Philistine army were mobilized to attack David and his men. They assembled their forces at the Valley of Rephaim, fully armed and ready for battle. The Philistines were just a few miles south of Jerusalem, and looking for a fight.
So David had a decision to make. Should he go and fight his enemies or surrender? Should he resist the Philistine attack or capitulate?
Battles Christians face
Before we look at David’s response to the Philistine challenge, its worth recognizing that as Christians today we have our own battles to face. Thankfully not physical battles with real weapons, but moral and spiritual battles. The Bible is clear that every Christian faces opposition on three fronts. We face an unholy trinity of opponents – the world, the flesh, and the devil. Secular culture, our fallen nature and Satan the devil all conspire against Christians.
All three tempt us to sin. All three are working to weaken our faith in Christ, and all three are trying to divide the Church. The agenda of the world, the flesh and the devil isn’t so far removed from the ambitions of the Philistines in David’s day. They too wanted to destroy the faith, unity and holiness of God’s people.
My former vicar in Oxford, Vaughan Roberts, has written a great little book called “Battles Christians Face”. Let me read a few words from his introduction to the book: “Both experience and the Bible are clear that the Christian life is a battle. While we wait for Christ’s return, we must live in this fallen world, with all its sin and suffering. Throughout our lives we will have to fight against the world, the flesh and the devil. We are not immune from the effects of the fall; Christians will face sickness, loneliness, depression, unemployment and death like everyone else. We can also expect extra hardships because of our allegiance to Christ in a world that rejects him.”
Vaughan goes on to describe some of the common temptations and struggles that many Christians face today. His list includes battles against low self-esteem, depression or physical suffering. He also mentions the dangers of pride, lust or doubt. It may well be that you are here this morning and facing some of those battles at the moment. And even if not, we should realize that they will come in one form or another, at one time or another. Just as David had to decide how to respond to the Philistine threat, we need to be ready to respond to trials and temptation in our lives today.
So in the remainder of our time this morning, let’s look at David’s wise reaction to the Philistine aggression – and see what lessons we can learn for our personal battles today.
I wonder if you have heard about the “COBRA” Room in Downing Street or the “Situation Room” under the White House? Full of all the latest communication technology, the COBRA room and the Situation Room are secure locations where the Prime Minister and President hold key meetings at times of national crisis. Over recent years for example, I gather that these special rooms have been used to discuss disease outbreaks, to respond to terrorist attacks, and to coordinate military operations overseas.
Three thousand years ago it seems King David had his very own ‘situation room’. Verse 18 of our passage says David’s first reaction to the Philistine threat was to go “down to the stronghold”. David sought out a place of physical security – a stronghold where he could think clearly, assess his options and consult his advisers. But most importantly, verse 19 tells us David enquired of the LORD while he was there. David wisely sought out the one person with the knowledge and power to help him in the situation he faced.
We are told that David asked God two questions: “Shall I go and attack the Philistines?” and “Will you deliver them into my hands?” God’s reply was positive on both counts: ‘Go, for I will surely deliver the Philistines into your hands.’ David wisely takes God at his word, and engages the Philistines in battle. David had complete trust that God’s words were true, and total confidence that God had the power to deliver victory over his opponents.
And David’s faith was vindicated. Look with me at verse 20: “David went to Baal Perazim, and there he defeated the Philistines. He said, ‘As waters break out, the Lord has broken out against my enemies before me.’ So that place was called Baal Perazim” – a name which means ‘the LORD breaks out’.
We are not told exactly how the Lord helped the Israelite army, but their victory was clearly comprehensive. Verse 21 is especially important, because it reminds us that David’s battle against the Philistines was spiritual as well as military. It says: “The Philistines abandoned their idols… and David and his men carried them off.” The Philistines thought that their gods – statues made of wood and stone – were a match for David’s God. But the result of the battle showed them that Israel’s God was powerful and real. The Philistine’s impotent idols were no match for the power of the LORD.
It seems the Philistines were ‘gluttons for punishment’, however, because they came back for a second fight. Verse 22 says: “Once more the Philistines came up and spread out in the Valley of Rephaim”. As so often in life, David’s struggles didn’t disappear overnight. He needed the Lord’s help once again.
But this time the Lord’s advice was different. Because verses 23 and 24 tell us God said to David: “ ‘Do not go straight up, but circle round behind the Philistines and attack them in front of the poplar trees. As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the poplar trees, move quickly, because that will mean the Lord has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army.’
The Lord was commanding David to follow different tactics, an ambush against the Philistine army rather than a direct assault. But once again the Lord would be with him, and once again David trusted and obeyed God’s Words. We are told the consequences of David’s obedience in verse 25: “David did as the Lord commanded him, and he struck down the Philistines all the way from Gibeon to Gezer.” Because David had listened to the Lord, he was able to defeat the Philistines and drive them from his kingdom altogether. The battle was over and the war was won.
Lessons to learn
Thankfully there are no Philistine armies marching across the plains of Essex this morning, and no foreign navy is sailing up the Thames towards Gidea Park! But what lessons can Christians learn from David for our own spiritual and moral battles today. As we struggle against sin and suffering, what help can we derive from David’s example?
Firstly, we must seek the Lord’s guidance for the battles that lie before us. Just as David consulted the Lord when the Philistines appeared over the horizon, we should seek God’s guidance ahead of times of temptation and trouble. We don’t know exactly how David heard God’s voice in our passage today. We are not told how God’s word came to the king. But Christians today can be totally sure where God’s Word can be heard. Wonderfully, we don’t need to go to a stronghold, a situation room or a COBRA bunker to hear God’s voice today. We just need to open our Bibles!
The New Testament promises us that the Bible is a God-given sword that can equip us for every battle we may face. It can instruct us and encourage us as we face our own personal struggles and temptations:
- For example, our materialistic society often attacks our self-esteem, saying we are only worth as much as the money we earn, the career we have or the house we own. But the Bible reminds us that we are made in the image of God, and children of a Heavenly Father.
- Our secular society also promotes lust and promiscuity. It loves films like “50 Shades of Grey” and tells us to follow our feelings and just ‘go with the flow’. But God’s Word tells us that sex is meant for marriage, and commands us to use our bodies for Christ’s service, not for selfish indulgence.
- If Satan whispers in our ear that we are worthless and sinful, the Scriptures counter by telling us that Christ loved us enough to be crucified for our forgiveness. The Scriptures disarm the devil by assuring us that God’s grace can cancel out any guilt we may have.
- When physical suffering tempts us to despair, God’s Word promises us help to persevere, and it points us to that great day when our bodies will be made new.
- And finally, if our minds ever descend into doubt, and we fear that our faith is untrue, then the Bible also comes to our aid. It reminds us of the facts upon which Christian faith rests, and makes us more certain of the hope that we have.
So as we take to the battlefield in our own lives, we should do what David did. We should enquire of the Lord by reading his Word. By listening carefully to the commands, encouragement and promises he gives us in the Bible. Like David, it is then our responsibility to trust and obey what we’ve heard.
But God did not leave David alone on the battlefield, and he won’t leave us isolated in the battles we face either. The Lord acted powerfully to help David fight, and he is a powerful ally in the ethical and spiritual fights we face today. If we prayerfully ask for God’s help, his Spirit will give us the weapons we need to fend off our enemies.
For example, the New Testament tells us that God’s Spirit can give us the self-control we need to resist temptation, the perseverance we need to endure suffering, and the faith we need to fend off doubts. All we need to do is ask for God’s help in prayer. Before and during times of trial, turn to the Lord as David did, asking for his power to overcome our weakness. We don’t need twenty-first century technology to communicate with our Commander-in-Chief – just prayer!
The war is already won
As I finish this morning, I hope we have learnt lessons from David’s battles. Lessons about the importance of God’s Word and God’s Spirit in the battles we face. We need to read the Bible and pray, then trust and obey.
I want to leave us with one last word of encouragement. If we are Christians the battles we face are only final skirmishes in a war that is already won. Just as Israel benefitted from the victory of king David, every Christian shares in the victory of king Jesus. By his life, death and resurrection he has already conquered the devil, paid the penalty for sin and defeated death. If we have faith in him we will one day share in all the spoils of his victory. If our faith is in Jesus, we are on the winning side!