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Praying While Running

When you experience painful times of waiting follow David's example—run and pray.

Editor's Note: Throughout this document Dr. Jeffrey Arthurs has provided a running commentary on his sermon. It's an invaluable guide for how he constructed this sermon, but these notes also provide tips and principles for your future sermon preparation.


Let me provide an entrance into today's text, which is 1 Samuel 21 and 22, by asking this question: What do you do while you're waiting? Do you sit patiently? Do you fume? For some of you this is a not too distant memory. It's Sunday morning, after all. What do you do? Do you occupy yourself with useful things like reading or stretching? A few years ago I was waiting for my wife to pick me up at a street corner. We were going out for lunch, and I was waiting. I happened to have an umbrella in my hand at that time, so I was practicing my golf swing standing there at a corner. When I looked up a small group of admirers had gathered around. There's something about this activity, this experience of waiting which brings out the inner person. Sort of like putting a teabag into scalding hot water, it releases what is already present. What do you do while you're waiting, in particular, while you're waiting on God? The experience of waiting is difficult, but it is also a standard experience for followers of God. This is the experience that we see in our text today. David is waiting, waiting on God to fulfill his promise.

David receives God's promise.

Remember that David had been anointed as king. He was just a young man, but God had singled him out and chosen him. Samuel the prophet/priest came to him and anointed him with oil. It has run down over David's head making dark rivulets in his dark hair. David perhaps was kneeling at this anointing ceremony. When he looks up he sees the surprised face of his father and his brothers. He was the youngest in this family. They are surprised at this young man, this runt, who will now become the king of Israel. God had confirmed this anointing with that striking victory over Goliath. You know, Goliath, this biological and technological nightmare and little David. David is catapulted into national prominence. He joins King Saul's staff. You remember, on every radio station they were playing, "Saul has slain his thousands, and David has slain his ten thousands." It was the hit song of the day. So David has been anointed and confirmed. He's catapulted into prominence. But Saul was jealous of David, and he clutched his kingdom like a chimpanzee clutching an orange. Mine. Mine. Mine. David even received the confirmation from Saul's son Jonathan, who was supposed to be the next king. But Jonathan has said, "David, you are God's man. You are the anointed one, and I submit to you." Saul didn't like this. He curses his own son, takes a spear and hurls it at David. He tries to pin him to the wall.

The promise is delayed.

David goes on the run as he is waiting for God's promise. "What's going on, God? I mean, here I am the anointed." The scholars think this portion of the story, in 1 Samuel chapters 21-22 may occupy as much as ten years. What we're going to look at was maybe four, five, or six of those years. He is waiting and he is running from Saul. This is the experience that David is undergoing.

David starts out in Gibeah. That's where Saul had his headquarters, and that's where Saul threw the spear and David found out through Jonathan that a manhunt was on.

So David fled to Nob, just three miles away. Nob was a small town that was known as a priestly town, for many priests lived there. Maybe David fled to Nob because he might have been friendly with the priests. Samuel, the head priest, had anointed him, and maybe he knew some of the people there. In any case, he's on the run and he goes to Nob. There at Nob David went to Ahimelek the priest, who gave him leftover consecrated bread and the sword of Goliath. But a servant of Saul, Doeg, observed this. Ahimelek gives David the consecrated bread. This was called the showbread. It was twelve loaves for the twelve tribes of Israel that were put out on this table, every week. At the end of the week they would take the old bread away, and they would put fresh bread out, and then the priests would eat this showbread. It was just for the priests, part of their livelihood. And David said, "Hey, you guys got any food around here?" And the priest says, "Well, let me think. There's some of this showbread left." And there were five loaves, so he gave those to David. He also gave him the sword of Goliath. I don't know why they had the sword there. I guess they would keep it in the tabernacle, the Holy Place, perhaps as a relic, a sign God's great victories. In any case, Goliath's sword was there, and David said, "Yeah, give me that." But remember he is still on the run and waiting.

Next David flees to Gath, on the border of Philistia. Israel and Gath are enemies. David goes, I don't know why, to the enemies of Israel. Maybe he thought, "There's no place in all of Israel where I'm safe." He's running twenty-three miles away from Nob. The text reads, "That day David fled from Saul and went to Achish, king of Gath, but the servants of the king" convinced him that David was up to no good. So David acted like he was insane, so that Achish wouldn't want to keep him. David scribbles on the doors of the gates of the town. I don't know what he's carving, his initials or something. He lets the spittle run down in his beard, acting crazy. And the king says, "I don't have enough crazy people? Get him out of here." But what we're not told is that this is taking place over months or maybe even a year or two, here in Gath. David is on the run and waiting. "God, I thought I was your chosen one. Now I'm acting like a lunatic just to get out of here."

The next thing he does is he runs to Adullam, about fifteen miles away from Gath. This is a very difficult time in David's life. He was actually living in a cave, "David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam." His father, brothers, and four hundred malcontents joined him to form the nucleus of a band of outlaws. His parents now are siding with him. They are no longer surprised, jealous, or put off. But now, because his parents are declaring their allegiance for David, they are in danger. So the next thing he does is take his parents all the way to Mizpah in Moab, more than sixty miles away. Once again David turns to the enemies of Israel, to the Moabites. He did have Moabite blood himself. He is the great-grandson of Ruth, who was a Moabitess. So maybe that's part of the reason he went there. But the text says, "From there David went to Mizpah in Moab and said to the king, 'Would you let my father and mother come and stay with you until I learn what God will do for me?'" So he left them with the king of Moab.

While his parents were there—remember this is taking years—he went to what the Bible calls "the stronghold." It doesn't name the place, but most people think this was probably Masada. Masada is an impregnable geological formation, and he probably lived there on the plateau of Masada. But the prophet Gad told him to leave that area and to go back to Judea, the land of Israel.

So we have him starting in Gibeah. He flees to Nob. He goes to Gath. He goes to the cave of Adullam. He takes his parents to Moab. He lives for a while probably in Masada. Then the prophet Gad tells him to go back to Judea. He goes to this place called "the forest of Hereth." "The prophet Gad said to David, 'Do not stay in the stronghold. Go into the land of Judah.' So David went to the forest of Hereth." And that is the running that takes place in chapters 21-22.

Meanwhile Saul is still after him. Saul heard that David and his men had been discovered. He said to his officials, "Listen, men of Benjamin! Why have you conspired against me? No one tells me when my son makes a covenant with the son of Jesse. None of you is concerned about me." But Doeg the Edomite said, "I saw the son of Jesse come to Ahimelek." Remember back with the showbread back in the town of the priests. Doeg was there and he saw everything. Then the king sent for the priests and his father's whole family. It was only a few miles away. It was easy to send from Gibeah to Nob. He ordered his soldiers to slaughter them. But all refused to carry out the order, all except Doeg. "That day Doeg killed eighty-five men who wore the linen ephod. He also put to the sword Nob, the town of the priests, with its men and women, its children and infants, its cattle, donkeys, and sheep." This is like a Nazi retribution on a small French town because they've discovered one underground member; he wipes out the whole town.

This is who David is fighting against and running from. And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear.

Only Abiathar escaped, who took the ephod and joined David. This mention of the ephod is significant because this was the vest garment on the chest that contained twelve precious stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel. And somehow they used this ephod for discerning the Lord's will. There is this piece of the priest's clothing called the Urim and the Thummim. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but they used that to divine the Lord's will. What the narrator is showing us is that God's presence, in the person of the priests with the ephod, is now being transferred to David. It is leaving Saul, but God is still with David. He is still confirming even as David is running and waiting.

David responds to this waiting season.

Well what is David's response to all of this? How does he react to this delay of ten years and two hundred miles roundtrip? Well, his response, like ours, is mixed. What I didn't tell you in part of this story is that he lies to Ahimelek. David says to Ahimelek, "I'm on the king's business. You got any extra food around here?" Maybe he was trying to protect Ahimelek, you know to keep complicity. The text doesn't say for sure, but we do know he lies to him. As I've mentioned, he seeks help among the Philistines in Gath. He cares for his parents. This is a positive thing, of course. But he cares for them by taking them to Moab of all places. Yet in the cave of Adullam he turns that cave into a sanctuary and worships God and honors God. A number of the psalms were written during these years of David's running. There superscriptions, introductions, to some of the psalms and this one, Psalm 57, says, "For the director of music. To the tune of 'Do Not Destroy.' A psalm of David. When he had fled from Saul into the cave." Here's what he said in the cave of Adullam. "Mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed."

"I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings." I used to always think the shadow of your wings was like an avian image, like a chicken protecting her chicks. I think, though, that what he's referring to is the Ark of the Covenant which had cherubim and their wings were spread over, that is shadowing the ark. I think what he's saying is here in this cave it's like I'm in the sanctuary with you, because you are everywhere, God. You are with me. "I take refuge in the shadow of your wings."

I cry out to God Most High, to God, who fulfills [his purpose] for me. He sends from heaven and saves me, rebuking those who hotly pursue me. God sends his love and his faithfulness. I am in the midst of lions; I lie among ravenous beasts—men whose teeth are spears and arrows whose tongues are sharp swords. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth. They spread a net for my feet—I was bowed down in distress. They dug a pit in my path—but they have fallen into it themselves. My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing and make music. Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn. I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.

And I'm suggesting that David's response to this most tedious, most soul-vexing, waiting and running, was mixed—like ours. We see a portrait of a man who's sort of panicking. We see a portrait of a man who is patient, calm, and trusting. We're not surprised that his response is mixed, because waiting is hard.

Waiting is difficult.

I read recently about a product, a toy that's being made in the United States, and it's marketed in Great Britain. The name of the toy is "Invisible Jim." There actually is not an Invisible Jim. All you get is a box. On the box it says things like "realistic fake hair" and "as not seen on TV." And I'm told it's selling well in Great Britain, Invisible Jim, "camouflaged suit sold separately." Clever marketing, an attractive box, an empty box.

I wonder if David and if you and I feel like sometimes we're worshiping invisible Jesus. Waiting is hard. It's very difficult. Put that tea bag in the hot water. It's trying, it's scalding, and it reveals. Waiting is very difficult.

Earthquakes in China and hurricanes in Louisiana reveal that, "All creation groans and travails." We have his promise that one day a new heaven and a new earth are coming. But now we wait. Our bodies decay. I don't know if you're old enough to feel that, but these bodies wear out. Paul said they're being dismantled like a tent flapping in the breeze. There goes another piece. We have his word that one day we will be clothed with immortality. No more crying. No more dying. But now we wait.

Evil surrounds us, seen in acts of terror and African children with AIDS. Being lied about, being cheated on. The evil is not out there only, all those bad people, but it struggles in you as well. Don't you long for deliverance yourself? What did Keith Green sing in the 1970s? "What can be done for an old heart like mine?" What did Paul say? "The good I want to do I don't do. The evil I don't want to do I find myself doing. Who will deliver me?" And we're waiting. It's very difficult. So the question is, "What should we do while waiting?"

While you're waiting, run and pray.

David is not alone in this. He's something of a paradigm for us. His experience is the universal experience of followers of God. What do we do? I think there are a number of possible answers to that. But let me suggest that we do as David did, namely, run and pray. Now don't run to the pagans like he did, but it is perfectly acceptable to run, to use human intervention, intuition, and will. If Saul is after you, get out of there. But don't think that you can achieve complete victory by the strength of your own arm, the swiftness of your own feet. Pray, trust him, and cry out to him. See if you can't find strength in your own waiting for deliverance. Run and pray.

Second pray, in particular the kind of prayer that I have in mind, the kind of prayer that David models for us in this ten-year period is called lament. About twenty-two of his psalms were written during these years, and most of them are what we call lament. Lament is wrestling with God, groaning to God, and crying out to him. And that's what we see in David. Counselor and psychologist Dan Allender says that, "A lament is truly asking, seeking, and knocking to comprehend the heart of God. A lament involves the energy to search, not to shut down the quest for truth. It is a passion to ask rather than rant and rave with already reached conclusions." Now lament uses the language of pain, anger, and confusion, and moves toward God. I'm suggesting that when you're running—and there are people in this room that are running—pray, and particularly you may find strength, you may find a help for your soul in lament.

Let me show you some of these laments that David penned for us during these years.

Psalm 56, the superscription says "For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the Philistines had seized him in Gath." Remember he had to scribble on the doorposts and act insane. They had seized him, and here's what he wrote.

Be merciful to me, O God,
for men hotly pursue me.
All day long they press their attack.
My slanderers pursue me all day long;
Many are attacking me in their pride.
When I am afraid, I will trust in you,
In God, whose word I praise—
In God I trust and I will not be afraid.

Psalm 59 begins, "For the director of music. A psalm of David. When Saul had sent men to watch David's house in order to kill him."

See how they lie in wait for me!
Fierce men conspire against me
for no offense of sin of mine, O Lord.
I have done no wrong, yet they are ready to attack me.
Arise to help me; look on my plight!
Help me, O God.

While you're waiting communicate with him. Don't go underground with your pain and your doubts. Talk about it with God. A lament is the energy, it is the type of prayer which asks, seeks, and knocks. It uses the language of pain, anger, despair, and moves toward God rather than away from him.

Psalm 63 says "A psalm of David when he was in the desert of Judah." Maybe it was composed in that rocky area or maybe at the stronghold in Masada.

O God, you are my God.
Earnestly I seek you.
My soul thirsts for you.
My body longs for you
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.

Psalm 142, the superscription says "A psalm of David when he was in the cave. A prayer."

Listen to my cry,
for I am in desperate need.
Rescue me from those who pursue me,
for they are too strong for me.
Set me free from my prison,
that I may praise your name.


So pray while you're running. And perhaps run while you're praying. And maybe you will find your way in this most difficult time, trusting God. Maybe you'll find it is a bit easier if you realize that trusting him does not necessarily mean happy, bubbly, effervescent prayer. Praise the Lord. Everything's good. No, lament, speak to him out of the fullness of your heart. That's what we see in David, who clung to God his Savior even while running.

God has promised to deliver his people. And we hold him to that promise, even when the promise is slow in coming. So while you're running, pray.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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Sermon Outline:


I. David receives God's promise.

II. The promise is delayed.

III. David responds to this waiting season.

IV. Waiting is difficult.

V. While you're waiting, run and pray.