A quick review of news headlines today shows conflict between police and demonstrators after a shooting, conflict between Taliban militants and Afghani police, conflict between and within political parties in the 2016 campaigns, and even conflict within families. As much as we may wish to resolve all conflicts, sometimes they can only be controlled. From presidents such as Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton who had “enemy lists” to average folks who can never forgive a slight, unresolved conflict is a major fixture in our lives. The Biblical story of David, Nabal, and Abigail (1 Samuel 25:2-38) provides good lessons on dealing with conflict. We will discover that controlling conflict requires three things:
- Restrained Response
- Rapid Reconciliation
- Right Revenge
David had been fleeing from King Saul for many years and was leading a large band of warriors in the rugged desert wilderness of Maon near the town of Carmel a few miles southeast of Hebron. The region was too dry for agriculture and had no industry or trade to speak of, so the economy was based on herding sheep and goats. In this lawless region outside of the core lands of Israel, David and his men supported themselves by protecting local ranchers and receiving food and money from those they guarded.
Nabal was a very wealthy local rancher but had a reputation for unjust dealings with others. He was intolerant of those he considered lesser than himself and may have been loyal to King Saul. David’s men had protected Nabal’s servants and lifestock for many months and so David sent 10 messengers to Nabal to request food and money. It is not clear if this was the first time that David’s men had protected Nabal’s holdings or if they had done so before. However, given the response of Nabal’s servant and wife, they knew something of David and his character.
David’s messengers approached the older man with great deference and respect, in keeping with custom, but Nabal scorned them and sent them away. Perhaps Nabal felt that King Saul would protect him, or perhaps he truly was so foolish that he did not fear the might of David’s band. Either way, David became furious and armed his men to destroy Nabal and every one of his men.
David faced a dilemma. If he failed to punish Nabal for refusing to support his protectors, other ranchers in the area would hear of it and refuse to support his men as well. Without food or money, and believing their leader to be weak, David’s men would have deserted. He probably would have been captured and executed by Saul. If he slaughtered Nabal and his men, however, David would have gained a reputation for cruelty. Local leaders and people who had tacitly supported David at the risk of angering King Saul may have shifted their allegiance to the king. The only possible arbiter in this matter was King Saul himself, but such an option was closed to David. He had to decide what to do himself.
Modern Christians often think of David as a nearly perfect man, with notable exceptions towards the end of his life. However, even in his youth, David was hot headed and impulsive. Throwing caution to the wind, he prepared his forces and vowed to exterminate Nabal and everything he had. The remarkable self-restraint that David had shown just a few months before, when he refused to kill Saul in the cave (1 Samuel 24), was gone.
When we feel injured, the hardest thing in the world is to restrain ourselves. Every fiber of our being wants to lash back at those who hurt us. Fear, anger, and resentment overrun the reason and grace that we know, deep inside ourselves, we should have. We feel justified in doing whatever we like.
A servant of Nabal saw the interaction between Nabal and the messengers and knew that David’s reaction would be swift and fierce. Knowing his master well enough to avoid him, this servant scurried to Nabal’s wife Abigail, a woman of beauty, intelligence, and discretion. He explained what had happened and urged her to act decisively and quickly. Abigail did, gathering enough food to feed an army and sending it to meet David’s men on the road. It would have taken the better part of a day to get the food, the donkeys to deliver it, and the servants to manage the transaction. Abigail had to do this with her own resources lest Nabal discover her circumvention, and quickly lest the bloodshed begin before she could stay it.
Most importantly, Abigail had to go personally to make amends for her husband’s actions. She approached David humbly and took complete responsibility for what had happened, even though she had done nothing wrong. In truth, Abigail was caught between two hot headed men, trying to keep both from doing stupid things that would bear bitter and enduring fruit. As the wife of a rich and powerful man, Abigail could have dismissed David and his threat as her husband did. She could have been too afraid of Nabal to act, too shallow to recognize the danger, or too vain to prostrate herself. But she was none of these.
Abigail made one other masterstroke. She knew that David was a servant of the Lord and that he would someday lead Israel. Such insight was phenomenal since Saul was king and David was a local brigand always a hair’s breadth from the grave. Abigail reminded David that God had used her to prevent him from shedding rivers of the blood of innocent men. A man after God’s own heart despite his temper, David realized the truth in her words, and relented. David controlled his anger and withdrew his sword, a task made easier by the fact that his men had been fed. It is remarkable how meeting physical needs allows for clearer thinking and acting.
Abigail is the real heroine of this story and we would do well to emulate her today. She received the report, believed it, and acted immediately. She overcame pride, took responsibility that was not hers, and humbled herself. She did not act like it was someone else’ problem, and she had the courage to do the right thing despite her foolish husband. Most importantly, she knew the Lord and knew His work.
Abigail’s action fixed the immediate problem but did not resolve the overall conflict between David and Nabal. She could not hide her actions forever since word would get back to Nabal through one of the servants. Wisely choosing her timing, Abigail revealed what had happened.
It is not clear if Nabal was terrified by what David could have done or furious at what Abigail did. Either way, he seems to have had either a heart attack or a stroke. An older man, Nabal probably had uncontrolled high blood pressure and atherosclerotic blood vessel disease. Ten days later, he died. Note that the writer, as well as Abigail and David, understood that the Lord struck Nabal dead. They may have realized that there was some natural cause behind Nabal’s death, but they looked behind the natural cause to see the One behind all natural causes.
The Bible says “vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord (Romans 12:19).” The conflict between David and Nabal was irreconcilable, and David was clearly wronged, but he gave up the opportunity to exact vengeance himself. Instead he trusted God do it. The Lord’s repayment to Nabal was just, timely, and carried none of the penalties that David would have brought on himself if he had killed Nabal. David also avoided the censure and loss of legitimacy that he would have received if he had killed scores of innocent people.
God judgment is not often this swift, or at least this visible, so we believe that He is letting evil go unpunished. The Lord is not. When someone hurts us, we want vengeance to have three characteristics:
- Clearly tied to their action. We want the offender and all the world to know that he or she is paying for what they did to us.
When we hurt someone else, on the other hand, we want to avoid vengeance entirely. If we have to face it, we usually want vengeance to have three different characteristics:
- Not make us feel bad about what we have done, and not be visible to others.
Our standards for revenge on others are vastly different than our standards for revenge on ourselves. We want to hit others when they do wrong, but we want others to hug us when we do wrong. Man handles vengeance so poorly that we as individuals need to leave it to the Lord.
Sometimes conflict cannot be resolved, it must be managed. We often don’t get the perfect reconciliation that we seek in our relationships, at least not on this side of the grave. The best we can do is control conflict. By restraining our initial response, by rapidly reconciling as much as we can, and by allowing right revenge, we can control our conflicts and minimize the damage that they cause. David, Abigail, and Nabal provide a timeless example.