A Reasoned Critique of “1Samuel 23: God’s Foreknowledge and Predestination vs. Man’s Freewill”

Recently I read a post written by Hadden Clark at Help Me Believe entitled, “1 Samuel 23: God’s Foreknowledge and Predestination vs. Man’s Freewill.” The title alone is what held my attention. I found it very interesting that 1Samuel 23 would be used as a pretext for speaking about God’s foreknowledge, predestination in comparison with man’s freewill. Normally, one refers to the more didactic references in Scripture, those texts that speak primarily on these specific issues, not a historical narrative. This is not to say that the biblical recounting of historical events never sheds light on these theological topics. They do. You don’t even have to leave the first book of the Bible to see these subjects addressed (God’s foreknowledge, plan contrasted with man’s free choices); Here are just a couple examples: Gen 20.6; 45.5-8; 50.20.

Although Mr. Clark and I have never had personal interaction with one another, we have followed each other’s blogs for some time. A comparison of some of our writings will reveal that we do differ in various areas theologically speaking, yet I believe we share common agreement on some truly foundational issues of the Christian faith (e.g. Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection, the Holy Bible as the Word of God, etc.). In short, we are professing believers in Jesus Christ, and therefore I would consider him a brother in the Lord despite any differences we may have. We both serve in Christian ministry, and use this blog platform as a means of communication to others.

For these reasons alone, I want to offer a fair and reasoned critique of what I believe to be errors in the aforementioned post on 1Samuel 23. If we are called to be loving to our enemies, how much more so fellow servants of the Lord? However, like the Bereans we need to carefully search the Scriptures to see whether or not the things being taught to us are true. Never to belittle or demean one another, but to spur us on to greater faithfulness in serving our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  As Christians, in particular as stewards of the Word of God, we must allow ourselves to be sharpened, enduring the loving rebuke of another, for we do not serve ourselves but God above.

My hope then is that this critique is faithful to this end, even if our disagreement on these issues remains sharp. This post will be, a thorough but no means exhaustive investigation into the passage in question and the claims being made of it, to see whether or not the interpretations Mr. Clark has offered to his readers is valid and warranted. The passage for our consideration is 1Samuel 23:1-14. I will post it here, but for those that have their own Bibles I would recommend that you carefully consider the text in question within the entire narrative in which it is written to have a better understanding of the overall flow.

‘It was reported to David: “Look, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah and raiding the threshing floors.” So David inquired of the Lord: “Should I launch an attack against these Philistines?” The Lord answered David, “Launch an attack against the Philistines and rescue Keilah.” But David’s men said to him, “Look, we’re afraid here in Judah; how much more if we go to Keilah against the Philistine forces!” Once again, David inquired of the Lord, and the Lord answered him: “Go at once to Keilah, for I will hand the Philistines over to you.”[1] Then David and his men went to Keilah, fought against the Philistines, drove their livestock away, and inflicted heavy losses on them. So David rescued the inhabitants of Keilah. Abiathar son of Ahimelech fled to David at Keilah, and he brought an ephod with him. When it was reported to Saul that David had gone to Keilah, he said, “God has handed him over to me, for he has trapped himself by entering a town with barred gates.” Then Saul summoned all the troops to go to war at Keilah and besiege David and his men. When David learned that Saul was plotting evil against him, he said to the priest Abiathar, “Bring the ephod.” Then David said, “Lord God of Israel, your servant has reliable information that Saul intends to come to Keilah and destroy the town because of me. Will the citizens of Keilah hand me over to him? Will Saul come down as your servant has heard? Lord God of Israel, please tell your servant.” The Lord answered, “He will come down.” Then David asked, “Will the citizens of Keilah hand me and my men over to Saul?” “They will,” the Lord responded. So David and his men, numbering about six hundred, left Keilah at once and moved from place to place. When it was reported to Saul that David had escaped from Keilah, he called off the expedition. David then stayed in the wilderness strongholds and in the hill country of the Wilderness of Ziph. Saul searched for him every day, but God did not hand David over to him.’ (1 Samuel 23.1-14, CSB).[2]

Observing the Text first

Anytime one comes to the text of Scripture (this is actually true of any written text) the primary responsibility of the reader is to be observant of the text. The historical-grammatical method of interpretation (hermeneutics: What does this mean?) requires that the reader pay special attention to the flow of thought, with an awareness of the historical setting and the people to whom the message was originally written (i.e. context). This is to be done before we move onto the interpretation step of the process, and then finally the application (How did it apply to them? How does it apply to me?). 

If we fail to follow these steps precisely, then we invite the possibility of various errors entering into our interpretation and application of God’s Word. The biblical interpreter, regardless of their educational background (child to adult, general to advanced) is seeking to exegete what is before them. That is draw out (prefix—ex) what is in the written message, rather than read into the text our own ideas (eisegesis).[3]

Now, Mr. Clark having read the text states, “In the above passage God (fore)knows two things that do not come to pass…God’s foreknowledge doesn’t necessitate predestination. God knows things that don’t come to pass. If this messes up your theological construct, take it up with God” (par. 1, 3).

“The two things are:

  1. That Saul will come down.
  2. That the people of Keilah would turn David over to Saul.” (par 1).  

We will get to those two things a little later, but for now I do believe that it is prudent for the reader to know that this text does not speak about God’s foreknowledge or predestination.

The text does indirectly speak about what God (fore)knows, for David seeks God’s answer on how he should act in the circumstances that he faces, something that Mr. Clark recognizes in paragraph 2: “As a finite human being, David could not predict the future, not with any amount of certainty anyway. So David asks God, an all-knowing being, what will happen in the brief future. God answers him and David makes his next move based on what God revealed to him.”

What does the text reveal? We are introduced to three key players: God, David, and Saul. Well, we know who God is—the Creator and Redeemer of Israel, the God of the hosts of heaven and earth. Who is Saul? He is the current king of Israel. Who is David? He is the king that God has selected as a replacement of the tyrant currently serving. The text offers a comparison between these two men. One seeks the will of God before he acts, the other does not. One (David) views the Philistines as the true enemy of God and His people, the other (Saul) views God and David as the enemy.

You won’t get all of that from reading only 14 verses in the 23rd chapter of Samuel. However, in order to faithfully exegete what is going on in this passage you need to be willing to do some research. This is what makes preaching out of historical texts a little more difficult than other passages recorded in the Bible. More work is required by the student, but if we want to get beyond our traditions/assumptions/biases we must be willing to go the extra mile. The responsibility is not to win an argument, but to accurately represent the Lord above.

Who is Saul?

Saul was the man that the people wanted in rejection of God as their king. Israel wanted a king “like the rest of the nations” (1Sam 8.5, 19-20; 12.12-15), and though both Samuel and the Lord warned them of this course of action the people refuse to listen (1Sam 8.19). At first Saul appeared to be a godly man, but in the course of time his true heart was revealed (cf. Matt 7.17-19). He continually disobeyed God (1Sam 13.11-13; 15.19, 22-23) , even going so far as to have a monument of himself erected before the people (1Sam 15.12), and as a result God ripped the kingdom from Saul (1Sam 15.28) intent on giving the rule of Israel to a man “after his own heart, and the Lord has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you” (1Sam 13.14; cf. 12.14-15, 25).

Who is David?

The son of Jesse, a shepherd boy, whose outward appearance is not meant to impress the prophet Samuel, but is found to be one who had a mind to serve the Lord (1Sam 16.7). He was a faithful warrior (among other things), who fought relentlessly against the enemies of God—the Philistines. That the Philistines are the première enemy of the people of God, at this time, is abundantly clear from the outset of the book of Samuel. They are the ones that God desired His people to drive out of the land. The prince of His people was intended to fulfill this act (1Sam 9.16). Supposedly, this was why the Israelites wanted a king over them to begin with. However, Saul because of envy became twisted in his heart and hated David so much that he entertained the idea that the Philistines might be able to do his dirty work for him (cf. 1Sam 18.17).

Compare that with David, who though on the run from Saul, believed it wise and necessary to deal with the Philistines. This is why he is found inquiring of the Lord, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?” (1Sam 23.2). In spite of the dangerous situation he is already in—Saul is hunting him like a criminal to put him to death—David’s concern is not primarily on his own welfare, but the welfare of others (namely, God: “Lord what would you have me to do?” and His people). Notice that Saul does not even consider going to Keilah until he thinks that David might be easy prey, but the moment he learns that this is not the case he calls off his campaign against him (1Sam 23.7-8, 13b).

What is important to know?

Clark says that “What is important to note here [1Sam 23.1-14] is that God knew two things that didn’t happen…[Therefore] God’s foreknowledge doesn’t necessitate predestination” (par 3). Other than having an axe to grind against something he obviously disagrees with very strongly (predestination vs. man’s freewill), I’m not sure I see the leap of logic here? I will deal with this presuppositional thought a little later, but as readers of the text we need to ask “is that what is really being revealed here?” Is that really what’s important? God wants us to know that He knew something that didn’t come to pass, therefore He’s showing us that His foreknowledge doesn’t necessitate predestination?

What is important to note here is that we are offered the comparison between two key men in Israel’s history. One man is said to be a man after God’s own heart, the other is shown to be a hater of God in every way. Allow me to clarify that statement. To be a man after God’s own heart, means to be one who desires to be obedient to the will of God. David desires to know God’s Word, what God has revealed on a matter, so that he might not stray from the path that God has prescribed as righteous and good (cf. 37.31; 40.8; ff. Psa 119.11).

However, Saul has demonstrated repeatedly that he hates God, and is hostile to His instruction (cf. Rom 8.7-8). How so? Look back one chapter and you will see what I mean, although, I believe it ought to be pretty plain in the 23rd chapter as well. Saul put to death “eighty-five persons who wore the linen ephod” (1Sam 22.18). He killed God’s priests, and he was still seeking to kill a man that he knew was God’s anointed (again compare with David; 1Sam 24.6, 10; 26.9, 11).

In 1Sam 23 we see two men with different starting points. One starts his reasoning with God’s revealed Word, the other with his own darkened mind.[4] Clark is right that David inquired of the Lord to know what he did not, but Clark is wrong that this is somehow a demonstration of freewill as the title of his post suggests. Nor does this text deal specifically with the doctrines of God’s foreknowledge or predestination as Clark attempts to convey to his readers.

Clark is right that God “knows [all] possible events” (par. 4; italics in original), for nothing is possible without God (cf. Matt 19.26). God is the author of all possibility, but this is because He has already determined the end from the beginning (Isa 46.10). We do not live in a universe of chance, random, accidents. For if this were the case then God could not “work together for good…all things” for His people who love Him (Rom 8.28).

Now Clark uses this idea that God knows all possible events, even what could happen as a way to suggest that what truly determined the outcome was David’s free will: “So what determines the outcome? God’s knowledge, or predestination? What does the text say? “So David and his men…left.” [Therefore] David determined the outcome” (par 5, 6; italics added). The argument presented here is a bit sketchy, and misleading. It also wrongly assumes that because David freely made a choice that God did not beforehand already predetermine that choice. You cannot argue against that “possibility” because of silence, for the very same reason you cannot logically argue for it. Arguments of silence prove nothing, because they say nothing either positively or negatively.  

Certainly, David freely chose the action he was going to take, but this action of choice was directly tied to the knowledge that God had divulged to His servant. David was dependent upon God for the right course of action, and David dependently chose to go in a direction that honored the Lord. This is a key point we need to consider when coming to such historical texts. David does not demonstrate an autonomous form of freedom—I will decide to do whatever I so chose without any influence whatsoever—but rather a form of dependent freedom. He is exercising his will in accordance with God’s will. David demonstrated what Saul did not, humble obedience.

Consider the flip side of this argument. Could David had freely chosen to go to Keilah, after being told that Saul would kill him? Could Saul have decided to go to Keilah without desiring to kill David? If that were his original intention, could he have then changed his own mind after arriving? Let’s go farther back. Is it possible that Saul could have been faithful to the Word of God being obedient, and therefore saved the kingdom for him and his son’s, rather than have it turned over to David?

Well that raises all sorts of problems that are not often considered by those who wish to elevate creaturely freedom to a position of our Creator’s freedom.

Genesis 49.10 records the prophecy of Israel (Jacob) in that “the scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (ESV).[5] Now this speaks not only of David, but of Christ of whom David was a type/shadow. How then could David have ever been the type or shadow of Christ Jesus to come, if the plan of God is determined by the freedom of man? Is history in flux until man decides what he is going to do?

The fact of the matter is this…

David obeyed God and submitted to the Lord’s instruction, not because David was the determiner of his actions in an absolute sense, but rather David’s heart was a changed heart that desired to seek the Lord and follow His will above his own. The text before us speaks nothing about predestination or freewill in a direct way, such “teachings” must be read into the text for they cannot be drawn out of it. Just because God says this will happen if you do this, does not then follow that you have the ability to do the thing He has just spoken or that God ever intended for that possibility to take place.

Would David had died if he went to Keilah at the hands of Saul? Yes, but David would never go to Keilah. First because that was not God’s plan for David (cf. Prov 16.9; 20.24). Second, because David’s heart was not like his adversary Saul—against God—for his heart desired to be enslaved to the will of God.

If we are going to argue against predestination or election (foreknowledge) or man’s inability to exercise free-will, as defined by many well-meaning Christians today, then we need to deal with those texts that teach specifically on those points (e.g. John 1.12-13; 6.37-44; 8.31-Rom 3.10-23; 8.28-30; 9. 10-20; 1Cor 1.27-29; Eph 1.3-11, etc.). Rather than, looking for a loop hole in texts that say nothing of what we may insinuate. 1Sam 23 says nothing about these things, but it is our understanding of the rest of Scripture that guide our theological interpretations[6] of the actions of people in the past, recorded in the Bible.


[1] What about the freedom of the Philistines here, for God surely infringes upon their freedom? Why do we often find Christians glazing over the fact that God shows a special love for His people throughout history over and above those who are not His people. The Lord constantly overruled the supposed freewill of other people in order to bring special privilege to His own. Does God not have this right with His creation? “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another dishonorable use?” (Rom 9.21).

[2] This is an exact quote from Mr. Clark’s post. I chose to keep the translation that he used to be as perfectly fair as possible, although I did look to other translations of the text to have a more rounded meaning of what was intended. Even if you do not have an expertise in the original biblical languages, it is beneficial to compare several English translations to notice any variations that the translating committee may have taken for their particular text. This is something that I recommend to my own congregation.

[3] For example, our bodies sometimes due to infection excrete fluids; specifically known as pus. What comes out (excretes) is what was inside. When we exegete the Bible we are wanted to draw out what is in the word, not what is in our minds.

[4] In case the reader is confused how I can make this connection, you need only turn to Deut 28.28 where God reveals that continual covenantal unfaithfulness—i.e. disobedience—will result in Him cursing (negative sanction) the ability to properly think/reason. This is not limited to members within God’s covenantal community, but all covenant breakers in Adam as seen in Daniel 4.16; Ecclesiastes 9.3.

[5] Notice that it is God’s intention all along, long before Saul or David that the line of Judah is to be established as the royal line in anticipation of Jesus to come. Every decision up to this point, although one might argue they were made freely was already predetermined to eliminate any straying from the Sovereign plan of God. For an example of this sort of predetermined activity by God in conjunction with the free choices see Acts 4:24-28.

[6] Scripture ought to lay the foundation for our theology, apologetics, anthropology, philosophy, etc., if we are to be consistent as men and women of God.  


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