In the early 1980s a very wealthy Swiss couple started acting like mutual fools. It all began when the husband cancelled a vacation. The wife expressed her disappointment by pouring bicarbonate soda into her husband's fish tank, wiping out his collection of rare tropical fish. A long argument ensued. He grabbed a selection of his wife's diamond jewelry and threw it in the garbage disposal. She proceeded to fling his stereo equipment into their pool. He kicked a hole in her $250,000 Picasso. She was planning to sink his 38 foot yacht when their daughter finally called the police. The police said they couldn't do anything; it isn't illegal to destroy your own property. Finally, the family lawyer intervened and established a truce. It was the case of two fools in a downward spiral of hardheartedness, arrogance, and destruction.
This is not unlike a story from the Bible—the story of David and Nabal. Written nearly 3,000 years ago, this story is as relevant as today's newspaper. It's the story of two men who are acting like fools, filled with arrogance, bent on destruction, ready to descend into a spiral of bloodshed and vengeance. The main character in this story, a man named David, has been chosen by God to the next king of Israel. He is a man with a royal calling and a passionate heart. But in this story he's on the verge of losing it—losing his integrity, losing sight of his calling, and losing his heart to sin and violence. David is in danger of forgetting who he is and forgetting who God is. He wants to take matters into his own hands and ends up acting like a fool … until he gets a taste of redemption.
The Bible is one long story of God's great work to save us in Jesus Christ. Every one of us loves a good story. God has brought truth to our level. Stories arouse interest and intrigue and draw us into the tale. We begin to ask, "Where do I fit into this story? Are these characters like me? Where do they intersect with my life? What do they tell me about my spiritual journey? What do they tell me about God's grand story to save us and renew us in Jesus Christ?
Setting the scene
The beginning of our Scripture passage introduces the main characters and setting of our story. There are three main characters. First we have David, anointed to be the next king of Israel. God has chosen him, but the current king, Saul, hates him and wants him dead. Six times he tries to murder David. Six times David eludes Saul's jealous, murderous rage. David even has chances to kill Saul, but he instead shows mercy. He trusts God's timing and God's ways more than his own. As our story opens, David is living in the wilderness with a band of 600 armed men. The wilderness was a dangerous place filled with muggers and bandits, and David was in charge of protecting a man named Nabal's shepherds. He and his men form a neighborhood watch group, patrolling the streets to ward off the bandits and land pirates.
Then we have Nabal. The Hebrew word Nabal means "fool." This was probably a nickname, but it fits this man. The Bible defines a fool as someone who is unapproachable, unteachable, arrogant, selfish, and hard-hearted. In this story Nabal is described as churlish or hard. This hardness of heart becomes a major theme. We also know that Nabal is "very wealthy." He even has 3,000 sheep. In the culture of this story, farm animals were your savings account and your investments all rolled into one, so basically, Nabal is loaded.
Then there is Abigail, Nabal's wife. Abigail means "my father is joyous," which probably refers to Abigail's beauty. As we'll see, Nabal is seriously mismatched—he married out of his league. Abigail is a bit of an opportunist, but she is also smart, beautiful, winsome, gracious, and courageous, and it is through her that David, hell-bent on folly and bloodshed, receives a taste of redemption.
Act 1: David's request
So David is operating this neighborhood crime watch program free of charge. But he has 600 hungry soldiers who can't continue working for free, so he sends a committee of 10 guys—just the right amount to make a statement without overwhelming Nabal—who say, "Long life to you! Say, in case you didn't notice, our boss David has been helping you for the past months. Your shepherds haven't met any bandits, thanks to David. And now we hear that you're shearing the sheep and throwing a big feast, so please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find." It's all very polite and respectful, but David is definitely asking for a payback. He wants 600 Happy Meals—super-sized. The message is delivered to Nabal and they wait.
Act 2: Nabal's rude reply
Nabal gets the request from David's committee and oozes with contempt: "Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Who is this twit from who-knows-where with his band of riff-raff?" Nabal looks down on everyone. He sneers, "Why should I take my bread and water and give it to them?" David's men come back and report Nabal's condescending tirade, and David has heard enough. "Put on your swords!" he commands, and 400 men prepare to attack Nabal.
David is ticked off. As a matter of fact, Bible translators often try to hide just how angry David is. In verse 22, David mutters under his breath, "By morning, I [won't] leave alive one male of all who belong to [Nabal]." The King James is one of the few versions that accurately translates the Hebrew. The word for "males" in that verse literally reads "those that pisseth against the wall." It's a phrase used elsewhere in the Old Testament (see 1 Kings 14:10) when a village is going to be wiped out. Why do you need to know this? Because the Bible is a real book, shockingly raw and real, and it treats even its heroes with an earthy spirituality. We try so hard to be prim and proper, to come to God with all our Sunday best, to clean up our act and be decent and nice, and what does God do? He tells us a story of one of his favorite saints, a man after his own heart, who was so angry that he wanted to kill everyone who pisses against a wall. David is in danger of forgetting God and destroying his own soul.
Act 3: Enter Abigail
Nabal's servants know that Nabal has just offended a leader of 600 hungry Hell's Angels of the desert, so they go to Abigail and tell her the story. Why do they approach Abigail instead of Nabal? They explain that "[Nabal] is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him." Abigail swings into action. She's beautiful and she's smart. The same Hebrew phrase—"she lost no time"—is used four times to describe her. She's a woman of action. She loads donkeys brimming with food—wine and roasted lamb and fig cakes and raisin cakes—and prepares to bring it to the hungry and angry crowd.
Act 4: Abigail's winsome speech
In verse 20, Abigail and David are heading towards one another. Try to picture this scene: 400 armed, hungry, insulted, angry men with swords drawn, ready to murder every man on Nabal's ranch are approaching an unarmed woman riding on a donkey. I hope you can feel the suspense and drama. She's really part of the enemy. David could kill her on the spot. Abigail is a woman of great courage; she is also a woman of winsomeness. Notice her speech, beginning in verse 24: "My lord, let the blame be on me alone. Please let your servant speak to you; hear what your servant has to say." This is the key to the entire passage. Nabal does not listen to anyone; that is the way of a fool. David is acting like a fool, but will he listen to what Abigail has to say. Will he hear what God has to say through Abigail? That is the key question. Will David be a fool?
Her speech is a masterpiece of persuasion. It is winsome, charming, and ultimately disarming. Notice what she tells David in verses 28-31. First, she tells him, "David, remember God gave you a promise—your house will endure [see 2 Samuel 7:16]. God called you, David, to fight his battles [compare this with what the people in Samuel's day wanted—a king to "fight our battles"—see 1 Samuel 8:20]. Live up to your calling, David." Then she says: "David, you are held tightly in God's hands. But your enemies will be hurled aside as a stone is thrown from a sling." When was the last time we saw a stone hurling from a sling? When David killed the huge warrior, Goliath. Abigail challenges David to remember that the God who had begun a good work in him wasn't finished yet (Philippians 1:6). God was working "according to his purposes" (Ephesians 1:19). She says, "Don't forget that, David, because when you come to be king—not if but when, because God has chosen you—then you don't want all this bloodshed on your record." It's a bold speech from an unarmed woman surrounded by 400 armed and dangerous warriors. She basically tells David: Look, there's one fool in this story—my husband. Isn't one fool enough? I think God expects more from you, David.
Act 5: David listens.
Will David listen to Abigail? Or will he refuse to listen and, like Nabal, live like a fool? Seven times in her speech Abigail uses the Lord's name, reminding David of God—his destiny and calling for David, his promises to David, his choice of David, his perfect timing for David's life. So will David listen to God through this surprising source: an unarmed woman in the middle of an armed uprising? In verse 32, David says, "Praise be to the Lord," and in verse 34, David states that if Abigail had not intervened, every male would have been dead. Finally he says, "I have heard your words." Literally translated that means "I have listened to your voice, and I will obey your words." David listens. His heart softens.
Act 6: Nabal croaks.
Abigail walks back to the house, and her husband Nabal is wasted with booze, so she waits until the next day to tell him about the close call. When he does hear the whole story of David's near-raid on the ranch, he has a stroke on the spot: "His heart failed him and he became like a stone." He never recovers, and ten days later God strikes him dead.
All the stories in the Bible draw us in, inviting us to ask good questions like, How does this story intersect with my life? Am I a fool? Where am I on the spiritual journey? Where am I being offered a taste of redemption? I said this is a story of two fools brimming with arrogance, bent on destruction, descending into bloodshed. In a way, they are both offered wisdom and redemption. One takes the path of redemption, and the other continues his life of folly and hard-heartedness. There are so many forces that will drag us into foolish living. Here are some good questions to ask ourselves if we desire to live in wisdom:
Do I remember my calling? David was a called person. Back in chapter 16, God gave him a promise: You will be the next king. David was anointed. All throughout his wilderness travels he remembered his calling, but in this story he's on the verge of forgetting who he is and what God has called him to be. Abigail comes and reminds him of his calling. If you are a follower of Jesus, you have a calling. We looked at one angle of that calling in a passage from the New Testament (see Ephesians 1:3-7). We must remember who we are in Christ.
Am I teachable person? Remember what the servants said about Nabal: "He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him." The Bible tells us there is one sure way to spot a fool: he or she is unteachable and uncorrectable. They refuse criticism and correction and instead bristle, get defensive, and deflect criticism back on you. Proverbs 9:5-9 reads: "Fools say, 'Who are you to tell me how to live my life?'" That was David's initial response; he has a bruised ego. It's not really about God; it's all about David. When someone confronts us, this will be our biggest temptation: to focus on our fragile, bruised, wounded ego, not the glory of God. That's the main thing that separates David from Nabal. Both are angry, both are intense, both of them are descending into destruction; but David listens and Nabal doesn't. David is willing to be corrected—and not only that, but he is willing to be corrected from a surprising source: Abigail, an unarmed woman in the midst of a male-dominated, violent culture. We will stay stuck in certain areas of our Christian life until we receive and even ask for correction, especially advice and correction that comes from surprising sources.
Am I redeemable? Ultimately, the Bible is not written as just a self-help book or self-improvement story. The Bible is a redemption story. Something or someone comes from the outside and offers to redeem us. In a sense, before God, all of us are like Nabal and David. The Bible says that not only are we fools, but we are "enemies of God" (Romans 5:6-11). We are bent on destruction. We may not be out to murder an entire ranch, we may not be a fool like Nabal, but our hearts are pre-disposed to wander away from God. Our life is on the wrong track. We need help. We need someone to come and put us back on the right track, someone to save us from ourselves. That is the story of Gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ.
The most important question to ask is not, Have I acted foolishly in the past? The most important question to consider this morning is, Am I open to God's grace? He can and he will redeem all of our foolishness, if we let him. Christ is ready and willing—will you let him?
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.