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A rose among thorns.
The good news is an announcement that comes at the exact right time.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the expression, “A rose between two thorns” or “A rose among thorns.” It’s a polite way of pointing out how someone who possesses either beauty or virtue, or both, is regrettably caught between two or more who have neither. This turn of phrase is often used as a half-joking albeit half-serious compliment when a young lady is in a group of churlish young men. I can distinctly remember this remark being told to my brother and me on multiple occasions whenever we’d pose for a photo with our younger sister. Historically speaking, this idiom stretches back as far as fourth-century Rome, to the annals of ancient historian, Marcellinus, who once coined the phrase in order to point out how beauty can exist or co-exist even in harsh or adverse environments. At any rate, you could very well say “a rose among thorns” is the best way to condense the sprawling narrative of 1 Samuel 25.
This chapter relays a truly riveting story. One of the key ingredients that makes it so intriguing is the high regard it gives to the female character of Abigail, who is, to a large degree, the story’s central figure. Flanking her, in terms of storytelling, are the characters of Nabal and David. You know David: he’s the soon-to-be king of Israel who finds himself on the run from the incumbent King Saul. This particular narrative occurs during the season in which David was a fugitive of his own throne. Nabal is Abigail’s husband and he is not at all an upstanding fella. Just look at how he’s introduced:
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. 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)
Nabal is described as a vicious and materialistic man. We learn more about his property before we learn anything about his person, which speaks volumes about his character. Nabal’s identity is seemingly wrapped up in his stuff and in his powerful position in society. And, as we’ll soon learn, that’s all he really cares about. Compare that introduction with Abigail’s: “The name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was discerning and beautiful” (1 Sam. 25:3). While the husband is obstinate and intense, the wife is insightful and understanding. While Nabal is introduced by what he had, Abigail is introduced for who she was, “discerning and beautiful.” She, indeed, as Edward Bridge writes, “is set up to be the hero of the story and the master of the situation” (22–23). Through the direct actions of Abigail, we are shown one of the most powerful truths in all of Scripture.
With Saul still on the hunt and Samuel now deceased (1 Sam. 25:1), David and his men trek further south, traversing the desert of Paran near the Sinai Peninsula, which happens to be where the vile businessman Nabal runs his shepherding operation. David learns that it was time for “sheep shearing,” so he dispatches ten of his men to deliver a message to Nabal requesting provisions to be rationed to him and his men (1 Sam. 25:4–8). Sheep shearing, in many parts of Judea, had become a spring festival, of sorts, accompanied by feasting, drinking, and partying. David’s inquiry, then, is merely for Nabal to supply his men with food and drink out of his own abundance. What he’s asking for isn’t out of turn either since, as his message suggests (1 Sam. 25:7), they had taken it upon themselves to guard Nabal’s shepherds against unwanted intruders, allowing his pastoral enterprise to carry on without any infringement or interruption. David’s plea is for common decency to be shown to him and his men in return for safeguarding Nabal’s business ventures. And this is when we get the first true glimpse at how nasty Nabal could be:
When David’s young men came, they said all this to Nabal in the name of David, and then they waited. 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. 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. 25:9–11)
Nabal’s response is the epitome of disrespect. Karl Barth describes it as “the speech of an unusually self-opinionated and standoffish and intolerably priggish bourgeois” (205). Not only does he outright deny David’s request, Nabal proceeds to insult him and his men in the process. He slanders his pedigree, implying that David could very well be just another runaway slave causing a ruckus in the region. This, of course, is an absurd notion since the whole of Israel was well aware that King Saul was in hot pursuit of “David son of Jesse.” Nabal’s words ooze with vileness and vindictiveness; with a willful ignorance that’s downstream of a bloated self-concern. All this does is get David riled up (1 Sam. 25:12–13). As soon as he hears the report of Nabal’s reply, he readies himself and his men for war. It is telling that David’s first impulse when his honor is impugned is to retaliate. There’s no mistaking what those four hundred men armed to gills were going to do — it was going to be a massacre (1 Sam. 25:21–22). David was intent on settling this score how he saw fit.
While all that bruhaha is going on, one of Nabal’s servants ducks out of the room and brings Abigail up to speed. We’re not told what inspired him to do so, but perhaps he knew that this situation was desperate for a more reasoned, rational response. Regardless, he tells her everything — how David had made a simple request and how Nabal had responded like a raving lunatic, for no apparent reason. “David sent messengers out of the wilderness to greet our master, and he railed at them,” reports the aid. “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. They were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep” (1 Sam. 25:14–16). This servant lays out all the facts and then suggests that Abigail “consider” a better course of action since her husband is “a worthless, no good louse” (1 Sam. 25:17).
Interestingly enough, Abigail doesn’t disagree with that assessment of her husband’s character. In fact, later on, she’ll employ the exact same language (1 Sam. 25:25). But after learning what’s been going on, and knowing that her husband has gotten himself into another sticky situation, she quickly springs into action, making arrangements for more than enough food to be delivered to David’s encampment (1 Sam. 25:18–20). While Nabal acted miserly, Abigail went “above and beyond.” She went out of her way, down to where David was, to shed some much-needed wisdom into an otherwise foolish episode. And this is when we get to the heart of the story. When Abigail is greeted by David and his men, she proceeds to deliver one of the most remarkable and resonant speeches ever recorded:
When Abigail saw David, she hurried and got down from the donkey and fell before David on her face and bowed to the ground. She fell at his feet and said, “On me alone, my lord, be the guilt. Please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. Let not my lord regard this worthless fellow, Nabal, for as his name is, so is he. Nabal is his name, and folly is with him. But I your servant did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent. Now then, my lord, as the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, because the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from saving with your own hand, now then let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be as Nabal. And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. Please forgive the trespass of your servant. For the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the Lord, and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. If men rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord your God. And the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling. And when the Lord has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you and has appointed you prince over Israel, my lord shall have no cause of grief or pangs of conscience for having shed blood without cause or for my lord working salvation himself. And when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.” (1 Sam. 25:23–31)
Abigail’s words are filled to the brim with pure grace. She makes no excuses for her husband’s actions. In fact, she uses a clever play on words to admit that Nabal has lived up to his name. The name “Nabal” literally means “fool.” Abigail, in effect, says to David that Nabal has “Nabaled” this whole thing by refusing to attend to the needs of his men, stoking retaliation. “Nabal is his name and folly is his game,” we might render her words. And even though she was unaware of it, Abigail assumes her husband’s foolish guilt as her own. “Blame me!” she says, going so far as to plead for David to forgive her for this offensive situation (1 Sam. 25:28). She insists that the fault be given to her for the whole debacle. But on top of that, Abigail proceeds to remind David who he was. Whatever she knew, she knew that David was anointed by Samuel — and, therefore, by God — which meant that his life was “bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the Lord.” She was in the presence of the Lord’s anointed. Although David knew that, his impulse to retaliate says otherwise.
The message of Abigail evidences uncanny wisdom and trust in the providence of God. She ascribes the fact that she’s talking to David at that moment not to fate but to the Lord’s divine ordination (1 Sam. 25:26), reminding the future king of Israel that he need not brandish the sword of his own justice. Rather, he ought to trust in the provision and promise of God’s sovereign timing (1 Sam. 25:30–31). These were, perhaps, the least likely words David expected from the wife of Nabal. As such, they resonate with David, so much so that he, likewise, sees her “chance encounter” as a gift of God’s providence. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,” he declares, “who sent you this day to meet me! Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand!” (1 Sam. 25:32–33). Abigail was the actor but God was the playwright. She wasn’t there by happenstance. It was the Lord who sent her to intervene, to prevent the “man after his own heart” from acting like a fool.
David, you see, was just as much at risk for acting like a “Nabal” as Nabal. David’s hand was on the hilt of his sword. He was ready to retaliate. God, however, interrupts his revenge tour by sending Abigail at “just the right time.” “Abigail’s intervention,” Dale Ralph Davis astutely notes, “kept David from walking in Saul’s sandals, kept him from turning Nabal’s Carmel into another Nob (see 1 Samuel 22:11-19)” (259). After David relents (1 Sam. 25:34–35), Abigail returns home only to find her husband reveling in the decadence befitting a king (1 Sam. 25:36). He’s partying and carousing, completely oblivious to the fact that he owes his head to the quick-witted-ness of his wise wife. When she finally tells a hungover Nabal what she did to save his neck the next morning, his reaction says it all:
When the wine had gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him, and he became as a stone. And about ten days later the Lord struck Nabal, and he died. (1 Sam. 25:37–38)
Some choose to interpret this metaphorically. When Nabal learned about his wife’s extravagant gift to David’s men, “his heart died,” that is, he sunk into a paralyzing depression. Others argue that when he heard this news he suffered a stroke and sunk into a coma from which he never woke up. Either way, the point is the same: Nabal was so overcome with grief both by the fact that his own wife had undermined his show of authority and that she had taken such a prodigal gift out of his stockpile of assets that he leaves this story much like one of his possessions, wasting away and expiring. “Ironically, his staunch refusal to give caused him to lose everything,” notes Kenneth Mulzac (51).
What’s the takeaway of this story? In one sense, we can understand these events through the eyes of David. It’s no accident that this story of “almost retaliation” is sandwiched between two accounts of sheer mercy. In chapters 24 and 26, though given the prime opportunity to execute revenge on his sworn enemy, King Saul, David spares him, making his course of action throughout chapter 25 so obviously reckless. The promised king of Israel is, then, sufficiently humanized and humiliated, shown to be susceptible to all the faults and failures and foibles of every other sinner. What’s more, though, this story is also a beautiful reminder of how God’s grace sometimes looks like “restraint” (1 Sam. 25:26, 33–34, 39). There are times when the Lord mercifully prevents us from doing something we’re intent on doing, and this is grace, too. But, in a truer sense, since this narrative hinges on the words and actions of Abigail, she deserves the utmost attention.
Abigail’s wisdom and grace are a marvel to behold, like a rose among thorns, you might say. She responds to her husband’s foolish railing and to David’s foolish haste with a word of substitution. She takes her husband’s guilt as her own, securing his pardon by putting her own life on the line in order to make things right, in order to bring about reconciliation. In this story, wrath, justified though it may be, is disarmed by a word of intervening grace that comes at “just the right time,” which is exactly how it works in the gospel, too. “For while we were still weak,” Paul says, “at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6, emphasis added). “When the right time came,” he continues elsewhere, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children” (Gal. 4:4–5 NLT). The good news, you see, is an announcement that comes at the exact right time. It’s the glad tidings of God’s gracious intervention for a world full of good-for-nothing sinners and “Nabals” like you and me through the incarnation of his Son who takes all our foolish guilt and sin as his own.
Jesus is the true and better Abigail who comes into a realm full of foolish, selfish sinners and assumes the blame for something he did not do. God in Christ says, in effect, the same thing that Abigail says: “Blame me. The fault is mine.” And even though he “knew no sin,” he willingly becomes sin for us “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Grace comes for every foolish, self-absorbed sinner, for every “Nabal,” and announces that there is one who has already taken it upon himself to shoulder all of our wrongdoing, paying the price for it through the sacrifice of himself. This is what the Christ of God has done for you. He pleads your case before the Father and buys your forgiveness with his own blood. Jesus, then, is the ultimate “rose among thorns,” the “rose of Sharon” (Song 2:1) that blooms in this world of “thorns and thistles” in order to demonstrate God’s redemptive resolve.
Karl Barth, “On 1 Samuel 25: David and Abigail,” Thy Word is Truth: Barth on Scripture, edited by George Hunsinger (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012).
Edward J. Bridge, “Desperation to a Desperado: Abigail’s Request to David in 1 Samuel 25,” Australian Biblical Review 63 (2015): 14–28.
Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, Focus on the Bible Commentary Series (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2021).
Kenneth D. Mulzac, “The Role of Abigail in 1 Samuel 25,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 41.1 (2003): 45–53.