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1 Samuel 22:6-23

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Pity the Fool


I remember once when I was little; I felt like my mom wasn’t paying attention to me. I was probably only 9 or 10. So I wrote on a little yellow sticky note. Nobody loves me, go away, and put it on my door. Then I slammed my door shut. I couldn’t articulate it then, but my note was not meant to send someone (my mom) away, but for her to feel bad for me and come and give me attention. I wanted her to show pity on me. My note was a form of self-pity meant to elicit a response, any response from anyone, but the response was for someone to feel sorry for me. A self-pity is a form of false humility. The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton called it Hellish humility. Self-pity pretends to be humble, but it is really a form of “wounded pride, wounded self-love, meant to elicit a response of flattery.
Saul, in our text, feels sorry for himself as he moans and complains to his troops that nobody loves him. He has discovered that his son aided and abetted David in escaping Saul’s death grip (Ch. 21), and no one told him that his son was in cahoots with him. Self-pity is hellish because it is a form of manipulation, and manipulation is a form of lying. Saul is trying to manipulate his troops into feeling sorry for him, thereby delivering the whereabouts of David, for he supposes they know. His little ruse worked, for there happened to be in among his troops an opportunist, someone looking for a way up in the world and willing to do whatever it takes to get there. This proved to be a dangerous combo. Saul’s self-pity leads to bad judgment and the treachery of Doeg’s massacre.
As an insidious form of pride, self-pity easily disguises itself as a virtue. What harm is there in airing my grievances? I mean, I am a victim here. So we get out our intersectional scorecard to determine just what our victim status is. But this is just an institutional form of self-pity. There may be legitimate wrongs that you have suffered, but self-pity is not the godly response to grief and pain. Instead, God calls us to contentment and humility. Both of which come from a settled faith in the sovereignty of God. They come from the knowledge that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6; 1 Pe. 5:5; from Pr. 3:34 grk.). Maybe you haven’t given into the woke victim mentality, but self-pity efficiently works its way into our lives in subtle ways. This story of Saul shows the disastrous consequences of unbridled self-pity. Since God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, we must cultivate humility and contentment.

It leads to bad judgment.

Picture the scene. Saul sits on a hill under a tree with his spear in his hand, and his troops all gathered around him. He has heard that David had escaped from Gibeah with the help of his son Jonathan. Self-pity gets the best of him, so he begins to complain. Poor me, nobody loves me. Will, the son of Jesse, make you rich? Will he give you land and good jobs? All of you have conspired against me. Nobody tells me my son is helping my enemy; nobody tells me that my son has helped David set an ambush for me. It’s hard to imagine what his troops must have been thinking.
Perhaps they are confused by the turn of events. One day David is a hero leading them in battle, the next, he is public enemy number 1. This kind of erratic leadership can be frustrating to work under, especially when it may not be apparent to his troops why David is on the outs. Saul’s jealousy of David’s accomplishments and the knowledge that God has selected David as the next king of Israel make Saul paranoid. For he certainly thinks that David is going to attack him. For he certainly feels that David is going to attack him. We have a different perspective and know that David is afraid of Saul and is working hard to keep his distance, having no such plans to attack Saul.
But low and behold, guess who is there gathered around Saul? Doeg, and he happens to be sly and eager enough to play the snitch. We will return to look at Doeg in a moment, but for now, we notice that he is willing to tell Saul what he saw. He fell into the trap of Saul’s self-pity.
Self-pity, as I mentioned, is an artfully disguised form of pride. John Piper says:
The reason self-pity does not look like pride is that it appears to be needy. But the need arises from a wounded ego and the desire of the self-pitying is not really for others to see them as helpless, but heroes. The need self-pity feels does not come from a sense of unworthiness, but from a sense of unrecognized worthiness. It is the response of unapplauded pride. When pride is not strong, it begins to worry about the future. In the heart of the proud, anxiety is to the future what self-pity is to the past. What did not go well in the past gives us a sense that we deserve better. But if we could not make things go our way in the past, we may not be able to in the future either. Instead of making the proud humble, this possibility makes them anxious.[1]
Saul wants everyone to feel sorry for him because his pride is wounded, so he uses self-pity to draw the sympathy of his troops. His plan works and draws in Doeg, who tells him that Ahimelech helped David by inquiring of the Lord and giving him provisions and a weapon. So Saul summons Ahimelech and the rest of the priests to find out more.
Saul accuses Ahimelech of conspiring against him. Ahimelech shows the confusion that is circling this whole situation. What Saul calls conspiring was to Ahimelech normal operations before Saul’s vendetta. One of the hallmarks of bad leadership is a constantly moving objective that no one can clearly define at any given time. Like in George Orwell’s 1984, they continually change whether they are at war with Eurasia and Eastasia was their enemy or vice-versa. David was Saul trusted advisor and a commander of his army. He had often been on missions for the king, and Ahimelech has often inquired of God for him. Ahimelech speaks truthfully when he maintains his innocence and claims he knew nothing of David’s doing.
Saul is not convinced. His bitter jealousy drives him towards judgment as he exclaims to Ahimelech, “You shall surely die, Ahimelech, you and all your father’s house.” Self-pity has blinded him to the truth and led him to make a disastrous decision. But as he calls for his troops to execute his judgment, no one steps forward. Instead, they wisely spot the faulty justice in Saul’s judgment and refuse to partake, especially since Saul has pronounced judgment against priests and a Levitical city.
How is that someone could make such a disastrous judgment, something so fragrantly vile? Self-pity. Saul has spent so much time rehearsing his victim status, how wrong it is that the kingdom has been given to another, and how wicked David must be for trying to steal the kingdom away from him. Self-pity, as a form of pride, does what all pride does. It keeps our eyes firmly fixed on “me.” Because pride’s focus is so fixed on the self, with pity driving the ship, the results are often bad judgments. Primarily this is because when our focus is on ourselves, and not where it should be, On God, we are prone to make our grievances the guide for our decision making, instead of the will of God.
There are two antidotes to self-pity and the bad judgment it engenders, humility and contentment. Both of these virtues go hand and hand together. Humility we might call “modest self-perception.” Humility is cultivated not by focusing on yourself and your situations but on God and his character. Pride exalts itself and is then humiliated by God; humility exalts God and is subsequently lifted up above its station. Humility is having a humble estimation of oneself; pride is having an exaggerated view of oneself.
Saul’s pride is masked as a virtue in his complaint of self-pity but is suffused with grand opinions of himself. Such that any that don’t align with his purposes should be killed, including priests. But one of the effects of pride is a blindness to pride. The self-pitying Saul can’t see that the most basic principle built into the warp and woof of life is that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
Perhaps the clearest example of this in scripture is the story of Hamon in Esther. If you recall the story, you might remember that Haman was an Amalekite who hated Jews. He especially hated Mordecai and wanted him dead. Mordecai refuses to bow down to Haman when he passes by on the streets, which incensed Haman. So he had the king make a law that permitted everyone to kill the Jews on one particular day. Also, at the encouragement of his wife and friends, he builds a fifty-foot tall gallow to hang Mordecai on. But just as he goes to ask the king for permission to do so, the king asks him what is to be done for a man that the king wishes to honor. Haman thought the king must be thinking of me(pride), so he suggests that the man should be clothed in the king’s clothes and paraded around in the streets with someone shouting, this is what the king does to the man in whom he delights. Waiting for the king to say this is to be done for him, he is stunned when the king enthusiastically tells him to do that for Mordecai, who earlier had spoiled an assassination plot. So Haman is utterly humiliated by having to exalt his enemy Mordecai through the streets. But worse than that, his scheme to have Mordecai is uncovered, and he ends up being hung on the gallow he erected for Mordecai.
Pride drove Haman to think more highly of himself than he should, making bad decision after bad decision. The story ends with God bringing him low, while the humble Mordecai is exalted. It’s impossible to humble without contentment.
Contentment is a “deep satisfaction with the will of God.” That means, of course, deep satisfaction in whatever situations you find yourself in. Are you poor, then you are satisfied with what God has given you, even if it’s not much. Are you sick, then you are satisfied with that trial, knowing that it comes from a heavenly father that loves. Contentment isn’t resignation to hopelessness. Contentment doesn’t mean you don’t try to attain a better situation. But there is a marked difference between the discontent person and the one who is content but striving to overcome the limitations of their situation.
For example, maybe God has you in a season of singleness. You don’t feel that God has given you the gift of celibacy, so you would like a spouse. But God has not directed you to the right one at the moment. You know the discontent person in this situation because they are always complaining about being single, or they might take the self-pity route and say, I’ve given up; there are no good men in the world left to marry. But the content person says, thank you, Lord, for this season of singleness, and direct my steps to the spouse you have called me to love.
Saul’s self-pity leads him to make a bad judgment to execute all the Priest of Nob. Maybe you are not feeling tempted to go murder a whole village, but your discontent over the situation might lead you to make similarly bad judgments. The quickest way out of that is to repent of your discontent and pride. Take your eyes off yourself and your situation, and look to God. Once you see him, you will begin to see yourself rightly, which leads to humility. And once you see and begin to understand that the situation you are in is tailor-made by a heavenly father who loves you and is busy behind the scenes working everything out for your good, you can find contentment in your situation.

It Leads to Treachery

But Saul is not humble or content with his situation and, as it turns out, finds a welcome match in Doeg the Edomite. We came across him last week when David was in Nob.
1 Samuel 21:7 (ESV) — 7 Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the LORD. His name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s herdsmen.
As I mentioned, then it is not clear what it means that Doeg is “detained before the Lord.” But it does mean that Doeg is a proselyte. Foreigners were allowed to worship Israel’s God, but to do so meant that they had to become a part of the community. There is debate about what one had to do to become a Jew; some said you had to keep the law (Torah), offer the right sacrifices, keep the sabbath, and be circumcised. Whatever the reason for Doeg being at Nob, it’s bad news for David and even worse for Ahimelech and his family of priests.
After the rest of Saul’s troops refuse to get their hands dirty with Saul’s judgment against Ahimelech and Nob, Doeg, ever the opportunist, sees his moment to shine. He had already seized an opportunity to play to Saul’s self-pity by offering him the information about David’s meeting with Ahimelech, adding a few embellishments to his story to ensure Saul’s wrath against them. So now Saul turns again and finds in Doeg someone willing to do his dirty work.
He kills Ahimelech and 85 other priests, but he also devotes the whole city: “both man and woman, child and infant, ox, donkey, and sheep, he put to the sword.” Only one priest escapes, Abiathar. Doeg shows no compunction at the murder of the priests. He is what we call an opportunist. He sees an opportunity to advance himself, at least in the eyes of Saul, and he seizes it.
An opportunist uses every means necessary to advance themselves. They show an apparent lack of concern for anyone around them but are focused intently on accomplishing their goals. Doeg fits this description. The other troops weighed the cost of following Saul and were unwilling to execute his order to kill the priests. Now, this may be because they grew up within the covenant community and respected the priesthood, seeing them as their representatives before God. Doeg, being an Edomite, did not have this early training and so seemed to have no reverence for the priesthood.
Opportunists seem to be driven by discontent, strongly desiring to advance their position at any cost. There are two characteristics the discontent opportunist like Doeg has. A lack of discernment and a lack of restraint. Let’s look closely at these to understand better the nature of discontent and the difference between being an opportunist and a visionary.
A Lack of Discernment
Doeg shows a stunning lack of discernment, first in ratting out David and then in executing Saul’s judgment unthinkingly. Discernment most basically is the ability to know the truth from error. Discernment is “moral discrimination.” In many ways, we live in a post-truth culture with the statement of Pilate on many people’s lips “What is truth.” God is truth. The “concept of “truth” is grounded in the idea of dependability or reliability—a quality of being trustworthy that can be applied to speech, thought, intent, or legal testimony. It describes what is real, actual, valid, genuine, and correct in legal and ethical contexts.[2]” Discernment can choose between what is contrary to God and what is in accord with God. Discernment is a gift of the Spirit and is honed by attending to God in the ordinary means of grace. We learn what is true, good, and beautiful, what we call the transcendentals of being, by hearing what God calls true, good, and beautiful. We then sharpen our powers of discernment by choosing what is true, good, and beautiful over what is false, evil, and therefore ugly. Someone who has trained these powers of discernment we call wise. The author of Hebrews calls this maturity saying,
Hebrews 5:14 (ESV) — 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Doeg is not mature because he cannot discern between what is good, resisting tyranny and unjust sentences, from what is false, executing unjust sentences against Ahimelech and Nob. Doeg, lacking discernment and being discontent, sees obedience to Saul probably as a way to earn his favor and advance in his ranks. Not only did he lack the discernment to see the error in his actions, but he lacked the discernment to see that he was seeking to advance in the favor and ranks of the wrong person; a person who is, in fact, on the way down in the world, even if not apparent.
A Lack of Restraint
But Doeg, being discontent, also lacks restraint. It’s not clear if this is exactly what Saul had in mind or not, but Doeg goes above and beyond in his execution of Saul’s orders. He kills the priest and every living thing in the city, including women and children. This kind of execution we see in the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. It was a holy war, as everything was to be devoted to destruction, with nothing of that culture remaining. The irony is Saul had the kingdom stripped from him because he refused to follow GOd’s orders in executing this kind of complete judgment against the Amalekites when he spared king Agag and the best of the livestock. Now, without the permission of Yahweh, Saul has Doeg execute Holy war against the priestly city of Nob. Again the charterer of Saul is clear; he refuses to listen to God’s word, speedily following his own desires instead.
Difference between opportunist and visionary.
An opportunist takes a pragmatic approach to life clinging to an end justifies the means pragmatism. The visionary knows that ends and means must both be justified by God, who has created and fashioned them both. When discontent is thrown into the bunch, a pragmatic approach chooses wrong ends and uses whatever means necessary to get there. Doeg chose favor and advancement with Saul over the word of God and so justified the slaughter of Nob. Saul chose his kingdom as the end rather than God’s, and therefore justified the wholesale slaughter of a people not loyal to him, even if they are loyal to God. The visionary is content with the plans and purposes of God. He knows that there is only one ultimate end—the glory of God. Then he asks, does my proximate end,say advancement in Saul’s favor and ranks, coincide with that ultimate end? If the answer is no, as in the case, he should have stayed quiet and refused to execute Saul’s decree. But if it happens to coincide, then Doeg would still have to ask, do these means, the slaughter of Nob, line up with the ultimate end? The answer in this situation is again no!
The visionary is always trying to advance his position, but the difference is that he uses discernment to judge the proper means to lead to the right end. David was a visionary. He saw opportunities not for the advancement of himself and his goals but for the kingdom of God. He seizes the opportunity to put down a blaspheming enemy of God and deliver Israel from her enemies by killing Goliath. But as I pointed out when we looked at that story, David was concerned for the honor of God, which is a fitting end. Both the opportunist and the visionary seize opportunities for advancement, but they do it for different reasons, and they use means that fit with those reasons. The opportunist is driven by discontent, the visionary, by godly contentment.
Contentment is a deep satisfaction with the will of God. When you operate from contentment, you can stop and ask, does this bring glory to God? If I decide to tell Saul about David and Ahimelech, will this lead ultimately to God’s glory? If no, contentment would have driven him to be silent. Let’s imagine for a second that David is a rebel scoundrel. He is trying to lead a people astray within Israel to form his own kingdom, along with idols that he chooses. He conspires with Ahimelech and the priest of Nob, convincing them through bribery that he will make them priests in the new economy. If that were true, then David would be a traitor not to Saul per se but God himself. Doeg would have been entirely correct to seize this opportunity to destroy an enemy of God.


Providentially one priest, Abiathar, the son of Ahitub, escapes and flees to David. The decision of David to go to Ahimelech, which was ill-conceived, provisioned the death of all those people. Repeatably even leaders who are often very discerning can err. David knew that Doeg seeing him there with Ahimelech might lead to this outcome, and now his fears have come true. David’s bad decision may have occasioned this tragedy, but it was carried out through the self-pity of Saul and the treachery of Doeg. Rather than cultivating humility and contentment, pride drives Saul and Doeg to commit great treachery again the inhabitants of Nob. Humility and contentment are virtues we all want to have but spend little time getting. Pride comes naturally, but humility and contentment are hard-won, chiefly by taking our eyes off ourselves and fixing them on the author and finisher of our faith—Jesus Christ.
[1] Piper, John. 1995. Future Grace. Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers. Pg. 94-95. [2] Mangum, Douglas. 2014. “Truth.” In Lexham Theological Wordbook, edited by Douglas Mangum, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, and Rebekah Hurst. Lexham Bible Reference Series. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
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