To the Israelite villagers the Philistine raid was an unmitigated disaster. No one recorded the toll in lives lost and crops pillaged when ‘the Philistines invaded [spread themselves upon] the land’. Yet the losses inflicted on livelihoods, homes and families are not hard to imagine. The Philistines frequently violated territorial boundaries and robbed threshing-floors. So serious was this latest incursion that news of it was conveyed to King Saul without delay (1 Samuel 17:1; 23:1, 27).
Where was Saul? He was at an outpost called Maon, but he responded to the news by leaving post-haste to meet the invaders (1 Samuel 23:24; 23:28). What was the outcome? It is an open question whether Saul caught up with the enemy. All that Scripture records is that Saul later ‘returned from following the Philistines’ (1 Samuel 24:1). Maybe they avoided conflict with him by returning to their own strongholds. At any rate, it seems that full-scale war was avoided and the event was reduced on the ‘diplomatic Richter scale’ to the level of a ‘border incursion’; reduced, that is, unless it was your home and loved ones who had been robbed or killed in the outrage.
The need for humility
Was this incursion just another example of man’s inhumanity to man, just a little more human misery to be lamented and then forgotten in the wake of fresh tragedies? How do we cope today with the continuous stream of bad news that arrives from every quarter? In a world where ‘all is vanity’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2), does not the futility of it all become unbearable, as we hear of one disaster after another? Wars, bombs, epidemics, playground murders, earthquakes, riots; tragedies natural and human, unplanned and deliberate, avoidable and unavoidable. Each new horrific tale is so full of heartbreak that it is sometimes hard to cope emotionally. And what about those who have had to experience these things, including, perhaps, some readers of this newspaper?
One vital thing to remember as we grapple with these issues is that all enquiries as to the reason for, and meaning of, such events must be conducted with deep humility. ‘God is greater than man’ and ‘giveth not account of any of his matters’ (Job 33:12-13). These words apply not just to the afflictions of Job but to every situation. Within all and any suffering, there are causes and purposes which God alone can unravel, and that he may not do in this life (Ecclesiastes 3; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
How would a godly Israelite amongst those villagers have reacted to the Philistine raids? He might have asked the question, ‘Why has God allowed this to happen to me?’ Just imagine that this same villager managed, in a future day, to talk to Saul’s successor, King David. David might have told him of his own greatest crisis before he became king. He had been in the very wilderness of Maon, where Saul had gone to hunt him down. David’s whereabouts had been betrayed to Saul by the Ziphites, and now David was cornered. Only a mountain, ‘the rock of divisions’, stood between the two (1 Samuel 23:19, 28). David was surely a dead man.
Then, amazingly, David saw Saul’s troops retire into the distance, having failed to press home their advantage. What had happened? Saul had received news of a Philistine invasion and, against all odds, David was saved (1 Samuel 23:27-28). The great God of historical events had shown himself to be the loving God of personal providence. The villager would realise, with growing wonder, that his own personal tragedy was somehow bound up with David’s deliverance. His loss was the gain of God’s anointed king, his suffering subserved the ultimate good of God’s covenant people.
Praying in faith
If the villager had listened further to David’s testimony, he would have realised also that David had not been totally surprised by the dramatic turn of events. He had already come to a deep and settled conviction that somehow God would save him. How do we know? On being betrayed by the Ziphites, David had prayed (Psalm 54 – heading). This psalm shows that God not only heard his prayer, but also gave him assurance to that effect. ‘Save me, O God, by thy name, and judge me by thy strength … I will praise thy name … for he hath delivered me out of all trouble and mine eye hath seen his desire upon mine enemies’ (Psalm 54:1,6-7). David had been given the prayer of faith; God would keep him safe.
Jesus taught, ‘What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them’ (Mark 11:24). Again, the apostle Paul directs us: ‘Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:6-7). In Revelation 8 it is the prayers of the saints, mingled with the merits of Jesus Christ, which cause certain judgements to be unleashed upon the earth.
These diverse Scriptures all tell us that there is a real, though admittedly mysterious, linkage between the prayers of the saints on earth and the events of providence and history. God rules over the kingdoms of men, and he ‘worketh all things after the counsel of his own will’ (Ephesians 1:11). Yet prayer is not pointless. It accomplishes great things within the sovereign purposes of God. The believer is not the helpless victim of fate, but is encouraged to pray to God for help, encouragement, deliverance, sustenance and peace.
According to his purpose
Some well-meaning Christians try to ‘exonerate’ God when human tragedies occur. Such happenings, they say, are not God’s doing. But in seeking to defend God from the anger of the ungodly, they imply that he is as helpless as we are in the face of world events. Such a ‘God’ is not the God of the Bible. It is important that we do not deny God’s sovereignty when faced with human suffering. God takes no delight in inflicting suffering upon mankind (Lamentations 3:33) and he has no sympathy with man’s sin which produces so much pain (James 1:13). Yet he causes even tragedies like Philistine raids to bring about his ‘bright designs’ and work his sovereign will (Isaiah 45:10-11). There is no greater demonstration of this truth than the death of Christ.
Was it not Satan’s ‘masterstroke’ to put Jesus on the cross? Was it not exactly this that gave wicked hands their greatest satisfaction as Jews and Romans together crucified Jesus Christ? Yes, indeed! But, beyond all the conspiracies of man, we know that Jesus was only delivered to the cross because it was ‘the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23). The staggering fact is that all the events of history are unerringly designed for the growth of the kingdom of God. Jesus is ‘head over all things to the church’ (Ephesians 1:22). All personal and communal events, good or bad, are the scaffolding upon which God builds his church. In the life of the believer it is an unshakeable verity that ‘all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
(William Cowper 1731-1800)
But what if that believing villager had had no opportunity to discover how the face of his Lord was smiling upon his own particular tragedy? What about all the other unresolved questions and mysteries, arising from the woes that affect mankind, especially believers? The answer to these questions is that those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ will, when they get to heaven, find out all that they need to know. ‘God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain’, wrote William Cowper, who himself knew tragedy and fear. ‘Heaven will make amends for all’. They will be amends enough, in that blessed place, when ‘the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed [us] and shall lead [us] unto fountains of living waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from [our] eyes’ (Revelation 7:17).