We all are familiar with famous dictum that power corrupts…but how?
The 19th century historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.”
In 2017, The Atlantic published an article on how power affects our brains, citing a study from UC Berkeley, they said, “Subjects under the influence of power,…in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.”
This leads to what the articled dubs “hubris syndrome”, a malady that affects those who remain in a position of power for an extended period of time. The only remedy? Remember when you were powerless or feel powerless. The article goes on, “Insofar as it affects the way we think, power, Keltner reminded me, is not a post or a position but a mental state. Recount a time you did not feel powerful, his experiments suggest, and your brain can commune with reality. Recalling an early experience of powerlessness seems to work for some people—and experiences that were searing enough may provide a sort of permanent protection. An incredible study published in The Journal of Finance last February found that CEOs who as children had lived through a natural disaster that produced significant fatalities were much less risk-seeking than CEOs who hadn’t.”
The story of 1 Samuel in so many ways is a cautionary tale of what power can do to warp us, and how weakness can serve us. David has been estranged from power, been on the run, been the little guy—nevertheless, today we see how not even David is exempt from the lure of power on his life.
1 Now Samuel died. And all Israel assembled and mourned for him, and they buried him in his house at Ramah.
Then David rose and went down to the wilderness of Paran. 2 And there was a man in Maon whose business was in Carmel. The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. He was shearing his sheep in Carmel. 3 Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was discerning and beautiful, but the man was harsh and badly behaved; he was a Calebite. 4 David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep. 5 So David sent ten young men. And David said to the young men, “Go up to Carmel, and go to Nabal and greet him in my name. 6 And thus you shall greet him: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. 7 I hear that you have shearers. Now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing all the time they were in Carmel. 8 Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your eyes, for we come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.’”
9 When David’s young men came, they said all this to Nabal in the name of David, and then they waited. 10 And Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants these days who are breaking away from their masters. 11 Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers and give it to men who come from I do not know where?” 12 So David’s young men turned away and came back and told him all this. 13 And David said to his men, “Every man strap on his sword!” And every man of them strapped on his sword. David also strapped on his sword. And about four hundred men went up after David, while two hundred remained with the baggage.
14 But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, “Behold, David sent messengers out of the wilderness to greet our master, and he railed at them. 15 Yet the men were very good to us, and we suffered no harm, and we did not miss anything when we were in the fields, as long as we went with them. 16 They were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep. 17 Now therefore know this and consider what you should do, for harm is determined against our master and against all his house, and he is such a worthless man that one cannot speak to him.”
18 Then Abigail made haste and took two hundred loaves and two skins of wine and five sheep already prepared and five seahs of parched grain and a hundred clusters of raisins and two hundred cakes of figs, and laid them on donkeys. 19 And she said to her young men, “Go on before me; behold, I come after you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal. 20 And as she rode on the donkey and came down under cover of the mountain, behold, David and his men came down toward her, and she met them. 21 Now David had said, “Surely in vain have I guarded all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him, and he has returned me evil for good. 22 God do so to the enemies of David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him.”
- 1 Sam 25:1-22
A Greedy Fool
And there was a man in Maon whose business was in Carmel. The man was very rich; he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats. He was shearing his sheep in Carmel. 3 Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was discerning and beautiful, but the man was harsh and badly behaved; he was a Calebite. (1 Sam 25:2-3)
Right away we have a “Beauty and the Beast” pair with Nabal and Abigail. Nabal is a successful, wealthy businessman, but he is a brute, he is badly behaved (lit. doing evil), and he is harsh, a term used in association with King Saul (“roughly” in 1 Sam 20:10). If our children could draw a cartoon of what Nabal looked like, they might imagine him as a squat man with knuckles dragging in the dirt, slack jawed, maybe some drool hanging out his mouth. His name “Nabal” is likely not his real name, but a nickname, since the word “Nabal” in Hebrew means “fool”—doubtful that his parents gave him that name. His wife, Abigail, however, is the exact opposite. We are told she is discerning (lit. having good sense) and is beautiful, a term used in association with David (1 Sam 16:12). “Good sense” or “discretion” is used repeatedly in the book of Proverbs as a synonym for wisdom.
So we have two polar opposite characters, united together in what we can assume is a fairly unhappy marriage. But today is a special day: it is sheep shearing day! Like a harvest, the shearing of sheep represents both an enormous amount of work and a great celebration—the culmination of that work. So, it was common to throw a great feast when all the work was done to celebrate (cf. 2 Sam 13:23-26). David hears that Nabal is shearing his sheep, so he sends ten young men to Nabal to greet him in his name and then tells them:
And thus you shall greet him: ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. 7 I hear that you have shearers. Now your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing all the time they were in Carmel. 8 Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore let my young men find favor in your eyes, for we come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.’” (1 Sam 25:6-8)
David and his men are not intimidating Nabal (Nice sheep you have here, sure would be a shame if something bad happened to them…), this isn’t The Godfather. They are pointing to the service that they have rendered to Nabal. They have protected the herds and shepherds from wild animals and from thieves—a service that the servants of Nabal have recognized (1 Sam 25:14-17). Further, it is a feast day! And while we may assume that showing up unannounced to a feast and requesting food sounds impolite, it certainly wouldn’t be so to those living in an eastern culture—it would be impolite to turn someone away! Especially someone who has performed a great service for you and who has approached you with such respect and humility as these young men are now doing.
But Nabal’s response is typical of his name:
10 And Nabal answered David’s servants, “Who is David? Who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants these days who are breaking away from their masters. 11 Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers and give it to men who come from I do not know where?” (1 Sam 25:10-11)
Nabal’s response is as rude as it is foolish. He asks: Who does David think he is? He isn’t asking this because he doesn’t know David—everyone knows who David is. Especially given the recent scandals with Saul. Yet, he likens David to a nobody, a runaway slave showing up to beg for food. Notice the emphasis on “I” and “my” in verse 11: “Shall I take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers and give it to men who come from I do not know where?” Despite being wealthy and having a superabundance, Nabal views everything as his own. He is like the rich fool in Jesus’ parable who lays up treasures for himself but isn’t rich towards God (Luke 12:16-21). What’s the purpose of wealth?, the rich fool thinks, Heaping up more wealth! But what does God say to that man? “Fool.”
John exhorts us: “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17). God’s love doesn’t abide in Nabal. Why? Because he is a fool. We tend to assume that the word “fool” means something akin to a simpleton, a naïve youngster who doesn’t understand how the world works, or someone with a low IQ. But in the Bible the “fool” is something much more serious than that. It does not merely refer to someone who lacks intelligence or street-smarts, but to someone who is morally corrupt and self-centered. We can get a better picture of the kind of fool Nabal is by seeing how the term is used elsewhere in the Bible:
- “The nabal says in his heart, “There is no God.”” (Ps 14:1; cf. Ps 53:2). So, either literal or practical atheism, a life lived without any sense that there is a God who stands over you as Lord and King.
- “Thus says the Lord GOD, Woe to the nabal prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!” (Ez 13:3). A fool is someone who doesn’t care for what God said, at least not as much as they care about what they think, what their gut tells them. But they’ll happily use God’s name as a cover for what they already want.
- “For the nabal speaks folly, and his heart is busy with iniquity, to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink,” (Isa 32:6). That sounds just like what Nabal is doing here, does it not? He does not care about other people, his mouth speaks folly, and he insults the anointed king. A fool is a selfish person.
Derek Kidner, in his classic commentary on the book of Proverbs writes that being a fool refers to, “a man’s chosen outlook, rather than his mental equipment.” So, being a fool isn’t inevitable, it isn’t something that we have no choice in. There are a lot of factors that go into someone being a fool: who their friends are, whether or not their parents disciplined them, whether or not they willing to listen to people who disagree with them, how they respond to authority, etc. But the central issue is this: Do they fear God? “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction,” (Prov 1:7). If you are wondering: how would I know if I am a fool? First off, if you are willing to take that question seriously, you most likely are not one. Secondly, you can ask yourself: do I have a healthy fear of the Lord?
Nabal is a greedy fool. But, Nabal isn’t the only fool in our story.
An Angry Fool
David’s men return and tell him of Nabal’s response, and then we are told:
“And David said to his men, “Every man strap on his sword!” And every man of them strapped on his sword. David also strapped on his sword. And about four hundred men went up after David, while two hundred remained with the baggage…. Now David had said, “Surely in vain have I guarded all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him, and he has returned me evil for good. (1 Sam 25:13, 21)
David explodes in anger at the insult that has just been delivered him. David had spoken “Peace…peace…peace” to Nabal in vs. 6, but now in vs. 13 we hear “Sword…sword…sword.” He has given Nabal good, and then been repaid with evil—so he is ready to meet blow for blow. If peace isn’t what you want, then a sword it shall be. What a surprising reversal from the way we saw David exercise self-restraint just one chapter ago! David had settled in his mind that he must not strike the Lord’s anointed, but here? When there is even a smaller offense? David takes 400 men to go slaughter Nabal’s entire household. If we shore up our reserves of self-control towards one temptation, Satan will shift tactics and come another way. We can’t presume on yesterday’s obedience to face today’s temptations. David responded honorably in the cave in chapter 24 by sparing Saul, by trusting God, but here he is taken off guard and responds with a murderous rage.
He vows, “God do so to the enemies of David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him.”” (1 Sam 25:22).
Now, who does that sound like? That sounds just like Saul! Remember back in chapter fourteen, where Saul makes a rash vow concerning the destruction of his enemies (1 Sam 14:24, 44) and in chapter 22 where Saul slaughters an entire city. David’s anger, David’s pride, David’s ego have turned him into the very enemy who is seeking his life.
The offense that Nabal has given David is real and it genuinely is a humiliating slap in the face of the king. Yet, David’s anger now turns him into…a fool himself. He is about to kill an entire household, a wildly disproportionate response, all because…he has been offended?
“A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back,” (Prov 29:11).
“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense,” (Prov 19:11)
Have you ever done something you regretted because you were angry?
Anger itself isn’t inherently sinful, which is why we are commanded to “be angry, and do not sin” in Eph 4:26 (cf. Ps 4:4). Anger is a powerful thing and it can be used for good, but most of the time it used for bad. It is like a lunar rocket strapped to the top of your car. You can use it, but you better make sure you have the coordinates punched in correctly, or you are going to wind up somewhere you had no intention of going, real fast. So most of the Bible’s teaching on anger encourages us to restrain our anger:
“Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city,” (Prov 16:32).
David is mighty, David can take a city, he has a sword in his hand, he has power—but he cannot restrain himself, so he is a fool.
Anger is what arises in us when something we love is threatened. So, if you love your reputation, and it is maligned; if you love your free time, and it is taken; if you love being in control, and control is taken from you—then you snap. A coil of emotional energy is released, and you try to reclaim what was lost, or at least punish those who took it from you. David’s reputation is tarnished, and he can only see red. Anger is like the home security system on your heart there to alert you when something you love is in danger. And it also can serve as an idol-detector.
The book of 1 Samuel is a cautionary tale of what the idol of power can do to people. How it can warp you. It can even warp a man as righteous as David. If you are thinking to yourself, “I don’t think I have a problem with letting power get to my head,” then a good diagnostic question is: How do I respond when people under my authority disrespect me? If our children mouth off at us or if our employees slander us—it’s normal to feel disappointed or frustrated. And the problem should be addressed. But if our first response is sinful anger, “How dare you!?”—whether that is lava hot or icy cold in how it displays itself–then that is a good indicator that power has become an idol in our life.
How do hold back anger? How do you rule over your spirit? You can’t just clamp down on your anger with tactics, you can’t even just “love things less.” Even if you are able to stop caring so much about your performance review or how tidy the house is, nature abhors a vacuum, and something else will take its place in your affections. So what must you do? You must love God more. He must become bigger and grander and more important to you.
A Faithful Servant
Who is the hero in this story? Well, there are actually two—neither of them are David. One of them, of course, is the beautiful and wise Abigail who—unlike David and Nabal—has good sense (Prov 19:11). We will look more at her response next week, but who is the other hero? It is the unnamed servant who approaches Abigail and warns her (1 Sam 25:14-17). We don’t even know this person’s name, but he exhibits great courage in approaching Abigail and speaking truthfully. He tells Abigail of Nabal’s belligerent attitude towards David’s men; of the kind service that David and his men provided for them; and of the coming destruction unless someone intervenes.
Without this person, Abigail would have never known that David was coming and never would have been able to intervene, and David would have performed a serious sin, a Saul-like sin.
While the figures of the Bible can serve as helpful models for us in godliness—we can learn much from David and Moses and Abraham—the reality is that they all fall short. They all are sinners and at some point they all fail. Every hero just has clay feet, every role model will let you down at some point.
All except one. Jesus Christ is the photo-negative of every failed leader, and the 3-dimensional, full-color fulfillment of every good leader we find.
Jesus isn’t like Nabal. He isn’t a fool. In fact, He is the very wisdom of God in whom all treasure of knowledge and wisdom are found. He isn’t a self-centered miser who treats all of His belongings as being solely for Himself. No, despite being the richest being in existence, He is also the most generous—freely showering on us every good and perfect gift, but even more than that giving His very life. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich,” (2 Cor 8:9).
Jesus isn’t like David. He doesn’t fly off the handle, He doesn’t snap, He doesn’t punch holes in the wall or berate you or do things He later regrets. He doesn’t have a short wick. He is the God who says: I am slow to anger, abounding in grace, compassion, and steadfast love. Could you imagine if Jesus reacted to you the way David does to Nabal every time you offended Him?
Jesus is the truer and better faithful servant. The one who had no beauty that we should desire him, one who came from a nobody-town and lived most of his life with a nobody-job, and when he spoke up and began teaching, the leaders said: Who are you? But He wasn’t a nobody. He was the Son of God, the Prince of Heaven, God in the flesh. He is the one who has all power, yet, He doesn’t use it to exploit, and it doesn’t make him calloused and indifferent to those under Him. He is tender and sympathetic. He goes down to them! He made Himself into a lowly servant, and taught His disciples that greatness was found in obscurity and service. And like the faithful servant here who pleads with One who has power to intervene and save life, Jesus intervenes on our behalf with the Father to save us.
You see, not only is Jesus patient with you, but He also is willing to stand in the place your sins to keep you from experiencing the right anger of God. And this is no wrath of sinful, petulant man, this isn’t the weak wrath of sin that is mixed with vanity and pride—this is the pure, unalloyed, holy wrath of perfectly just God who has been slow to anger, but who will judge sin—something far, far more terrible. And Jesus stands in to deliver you—you, foolish, angry, selfish, you.
This is the key to loving God more—you see how He loves you.
This is the key to not being warped by power—you realize that you are saved by grace alone, not by your own power or goodness.