Deception, brutality, joining the ranks of the wicked - we do not associate these actions with following the Lord. Jesus said, "By their fruit you will recognize them" (Matthew 7:15-23). Surely this is a list of fruit hanging from a bad tree, not a tree planted by streams of living water whose delight is in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2-3). We would not ordinarily join such contemptible behavior with "A man after God's own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14). But in chapter 27 of 1 Samuel, we do. (see for yourself by reading 1 Samuel 27)
In 1 Samuel 27 David could be accused of committing excessive brutality against Israel's enemies, lying to a Philistine ruler, and escaping his homeland in search of comfort. God's people should not imitate or condone any of these activities. But to file this chapter away as another example of how the Sovereign God uses seriously flawed individuals would be to miss a significant part of the story. Focusing on David's imperfections could cause us to miss his incredible trust in the Lord's promises and unrelenting zeal to see God's will accomplished. David was following the Lord... imperfectly!
Here are the clues pointing to David's imperfect pursuit of God's glory. First, David inhabited Ziklag, a Philistine city south of Gath. The author indicates that this is not a minor detail: "Therefore Ziklag has belonged to the kings of Judah to this day" (1 Samuel 27:5-6). David did not just claim a new city for God's people; he took a city that God's people failed to capture 200 years earlier. It appears that the tribes of Judah and Simeon did not obey the Lord because the inhabitants of the plains around Ziklag had superior military equipment (see Joshua 19:1-6 and Judges 1:17, 19 and decide for yourself). Second, David did not attack random nations but those who held pieces of The Promised Land that the tribes of Israel did not claim according to God's command (see Joshua 13:1-7). Finally, David attacked the Amalekites, the group Saul preserved in an act of rebellion against God (see 1 Samuel 15:2-3, 18-19).
So how does David observe the Lord's commands in this interesting chapter? David, while in exile in enemy territory, attempted to carry out the Lord's commands that his ancestors failed to keep. Through Moses and Joshua, Israel was to take possession of the land. If they obeyed, God promised to demonstrate his greatness through them (Deuteronomy 4:5-7). Even before Moses, God promised Abraham that through Abraham's seed He would make a nation that would bless the nations of the world (Genesis 12:1-3). David trusted this promise and used Ziklag as his home base to see it through.
David was a bad sinner but he was also a man after God's own heart. He made many mistakes but his love for God's commands was unmistakable. On Sunday after service a person compared David to the church. He said the church seeks to trust and obey the Lord but it does not always get it right. What a wonderful observation! Realizing this is what helps us stick together. Recognizing our imperfect love for the Lord allows us to give one another countless second chances when we mess up. And in doing so we represent the character of God who gives us countless second chances at the cross!