While other books in the Old Testament deal with the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, such as Judges, this one, I Samuel, brings the comparison home in comparing the personal lives of Saul and David. There’s great dramatic tension in this history regrading the throne of Israel. Who will rule as king and how? In this power struggle we see real applications to our own lives in terms of the flesh and the spirit. "...the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish" (Gal. 5:17). I gleaned a lot reading Ray Stedman’s commentary 1 Samuel: The Death of the Flesh and also see Galatians Chapter Five as a kind of concise commentary on the book.
Samuel lived in a time of transition. He was the last of the judges and the first of the prophets. Stedman described the basic outline of the book: “The first seven chapters give us the life of Samuel. Chapters 8 through 15 present King Saul, the man of the flesh. Then in chapters 16 through 31, David, the man of faith, is eminent as an illustration of the mind set on the Spirit.”
Works vs. Fruit
Galatians 5 compares the “works of the flesh” with the “fruit of the Spirit.” This definition gives valuable insight. Works come from our human nature and efforts, while fruit comes from the spiritual growth that only God gives. Any kind of spiritual fruit comes through God’s word and it is interesting how Samuel, as a prophet, represents the voice of God in the book and how Hannah, his mother, gave birth through trusting in God’s word.
Hannah, his mother, means “favored” but it didn’t seem so at first. She was a barren and taunted by others because of this. This went on for years until Hannah decided to fully dedicate her child to God. Only then did God answer her prayer and give her a son (1.11). That was a great sacrifice and showed great self denial, giving up her only son. But this is when she became fruitful. We see this principle over and over in scripture; the grain of wheat must die before it bears fruit. (Jn 12.24)
Hannah’s song of praise highlights how a life lived in the flesh leads to pride and destruction but humility leads to strength in God: “Talk no more so exceeding proudly; let not arrogancy come out of your mouth: for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength.” (I Sam 2.3-4) Fleshly pride is described in Galatians 5 and as a hindrance to spiritual fruit: "Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.” (Gal 5.26) In this book we see how David remains humble respecting King Saul's authority, even though Saul attempts to kill him.
Dare to Discipline
Eli was the priest at the time, to whom Hannah dedicated her son. He was warned by God to discipline his two sons who frequently desecrated the holy tabernacle, but he failed to do so. As a result his sons died and he died as a blind old man on the same day. This picture illustrates the dynamics of the flesh/spirit struggle. If we simply try to rationalize actions of the flesh, we will become blind and desensitized and the result will be destruction. Eli had his two wayward sons and according to I John 2.16, we have at least three: “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.” We are to discipline our own habits by God’s grace, as Paul wrote: “No, I keep on discipline my body, making it serve me so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not somehow be disqualified.” (I Cor 9.27 ISV) These days modesty is out the window and it does take self discipline to train one’s eyes. Job is a good example for our day: "I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl. (Job 31.1 NIV) We are also to realize our greatest strength and advantage is simply in tapping into the Holy Spirit who dwells in us and is more powerful than the sin nature. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” (Rom 8.2)
The Appetites of the Flesh
Chapter 8 shows Israel’s sense of pride as a root problem. They wanted a king, despite Samuel’s warning: "He will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves and give them to his servants.“ (I Sam 8.14 NASB)Things pertaining to the flesh nature may seem pleasing at first, but, in reality, the lusts of the flesh cannot be satisfied (Ecc 1.8) and demand more and more in their destructive cycle (Rom. 8:6). One of the main motives they said was “That we also may be like all the nations.”(I Sam 8.20). Often we are tempted by the things of the world simply because of pride. We want to “fit in.” We may want the esteem the world has to offer more than God’s esteem.
Because they insisted on a king, God gave them one. When the new Saul is described, the qualities are all external, not internal: “He had a son whose name was Saul, a choice and handsome man, and there was not a more handsome person than he among the sons of Israel; from his shoulders and up he was taller than any of the people.” (I Sam 9.2) Later, Samuel chooses David for his internal qualities. The visible and invisible qualities of the flesh and spirit are contrasted. If we persist in praying for something against God’s will, He may just give it and we will have to live with the consequences of our choices. The appetites of the flesh will most likely leave you with a long and protracted stomach ache.
Saul, Mr. Flesh, was not big into worship. I Sam 14.35 reads “And Saul built an altar to the LORD; it was the first altar that he built to the LORD.” (NASB) David, on the other hand, worshipped God regularly. What is a fitting attitude towards worship? It seems like it’s a lifestyle issue, not Sunday only. "Offer your bodies as Living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, this is your spiritual act of worship." (Rom 12.1) As we give our lives to God as vessels of worship, it will help to give us victory over the flesh. As we worship, we are reminded of important truths, including the important point Jahaziel made to king Jehoshaphat “the battle is not yours, but God's.” (II Chron 20.15) Worship in itself is a means God uses for spiritual victory: “As they began to sing and praise, the LORD set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated.” (II Chron 20.20)
A Fight to the Death
Samuel 15.3 shows Saul’s last chance. “Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has.” When all is said and done, there can be no compromise between the flesh and the spirit. There are basically two alternatives, kill the flesh or the flesh will eventually kill you. This is a matter of appropriating what Christ has already done on the cross: “Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6.11). It’s a done deal but it has to be lived by faith: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me…” (Gal 2.20a KJV).
Saul blew it and didn’t obey God’s instructions. He rationalized. Sometimes we can rationalize and say to ourselves, “This sin is not so bad.” But God wants us to clean house: "Put off the old nature" with its ways of jealousy, perverseness, bitterness, envy, anger, intemperance, selfishness and all these things. (Co. 3:8). All the flesh, “all these things” that’s a tall order. We cannot fully obey God’s law in our own strength but must rely on the Holy Spirit.
New Man – Timeless Answer
In Chapter 16, after Saul’s failure to deal with his weaknesses, a new man is chosen to be king. This is God’s answer to the law and the flesh: “…put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Col 3.10. David is anointed as the next King of Israel, though he won’t reign as king for many years. "So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David.” (1 Sam 16:13) At the same time David received the power of the Holy Spirit, God allowed Saul to be harassed by an evil spirit. (I Sam 16.14)
Harassing, Instigating Spirits
In I Samuel, we see how Saul was afflicted by a demonic spirit. When David played a stringed instrument, the spirit departed (I Samuel 16:23). A Christian cannot be possessed by demonic spirits but can be harassed. There can be strong and irrational feelings of anxiety, fear and depression, but through prayer, especially with another belilever, these attacks are overcome. In March, David Wilkerson wrote about a vision he had, at this link, and he wrote "I feel the worship and prayer movement will become more necessary than we’ve considered. As the maddening comes, we’ll need Davids to play the harp and minister to the Lord in the midst of the chaos." Saul’s main problem was that he continued to sin without genuine repentance. But in the scriptures God allowed demonic spirits to harass those who were generally faithful as well, both physically and emotionally. Take Job: “So went Satan forth from the presence of the LORD, and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown.." (Job 2.7) Though called righteous, in the end Job "repented." (Job 42.6) There may have been a root of pride. Paul wrote: "And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure." (II Cor 12:7) Many believe he was referring to his poor eyesight as an affliction, but it's not clear. We really don't know specifically what he was referring to. The scriptures do state that we "wrestle...against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world..." (Eph 6.12). I have found in my life, when I have experienced a sense of anxiety, if I pray with someone, the cloud is lifted. If this happens to you, find a Christian friend to pray with or worship with. C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” shows how spirits may also instigate events in life by playing upon weaknesses in our flesh. This is shown in I Samuel 18:10-11 when Saul hurls a javelin at David.
Even as Saul lost God’s presence and was attacked by an enemy, David received God’s presence and took on a great enemy, Goliath. How did David defeat the giant enemy Goliath? Not with brute strength, but with the help of the Holy Spirit, by grace and faith and 5 smooth stones. Slings are graceful weapons. They don’t require any physical strength but do require harmony. Similarly, we don’t overcome the flesh by shear willpower but rather through our relationship with God and the filling of the Holy Spirit. The smooth stones were found in a brook, a symbol of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. – The victory is "not by might, nor by power but by your Spirit…" (Zec 4.6)
A Friend in Need…
It’s an old but true proverb “A friend in need is a friend in deed.” I Sam 18.3 shows how Jonathan and David made a covenant as friends. Then, when David came into hard times Jonathan stuck with him and supported him. When you are down, it’s hard to find a true friend. But it’s good to have some friends you can count on no matter what, the kind of friend Jonathan was to David. As a Christian guy, it’s great to have one or two guys you can share your personal struggles with and pray with. This may regard sexual temptations or any area of weakness. Some people refer to this as an accountability partner. This may entail regular meetings or phone calls or even internet services. There are now free services that will mail a report of your internet activity once a month to anyone you designate as a kind of safeguard against wandering eyes on the internet. Fee services include X3Watch and Accountable2You.
In I Sam 18.10-11 we see Saul’s demonically inspired rage against David. He tries to kill him with a Javelin and it seems there are no rules. This is so true for us today, that Satan wants to destroy us and he doesn’t play by any rules. He will try seduction and he will try a full on assault. By chapter 20, David has realized it’s a life and death matter and he needs to flee. He becomes a fugitive. It is realistic for us also to consider that our battle with Satan and the flesh is in reality a life and death matter, it’s serious. And our victory also lies in the fact that we are to consider ourselves strangers and pilgrims on this earth, not ashamed of this reality, but gladly confessing it. (Heb 11.13) This does not mean we are to run from Satan, but that we are separated from the pattern of this world, which is bad soul food. “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul.” (I pet 2.11)
Thomas A Kempis referred to this idea: “If thou wilt persevere in grace as though ougtest, and grow therein, consider thyself as a banished man, and a pilgrim on the earth…He that seeketh anything but else but God only, and the salvation of his soul, shall find nothing but tribulation and sorrow. Neither can he remain long in peace, who does not seek to be the least, and subject unto all.” (Imitation of Christ, pg 52) This radical delineation between the flesh and the spirit is mentioned in Romans 8:6 which states "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace."
Jesus is Everything and Always
Chapters 21-22 show David’s desperation to survive. He becomes more and more fearful, weak and hungry. He ends up lying to the Israelite priest Ahimelech in order to cop some bread from the holy tabernacle. The priest doesn’t cross examine him but meets his needs. Similarly, God will meet us where we are at and nurture us. He’s not out to condemn us but always wants us to come to Him, no matter what sorry shape we may be in. Jesus said “I am the bread of life.” (Jn 6.35) and all our needs are met in Him, anytime and anywhere.
Wrong Meditations and Wrong Actions
The Psalms are filled with right meditations, but here’s an example of a wrong one. Without praying about it, David feels fear and goes into enemy territory. “And David arose, and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath.” (I Sam 21.10) Then in 21.11, it shows how the servants of Achish mocked David. As he meditates on their words, he’s filled with more fear: “And David laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath.” (I Sam 21.12)
David then keeps the words of the enemy in his heart, not the words of God, as spoken through the prophet Samuel, thus he’s filled with fear. Nevertheless, God is faithful in His promises to preserve him. Phillippians 1.6 says “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” We are to have confidence that God will preserve us and complete the work of sanctification that He has begun in us. However, when David chose wrong meditations, wrong actions followed: “And he changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard.” (21.13) In a sense, he’s acting. But in another sense, it’s a pretty good image of the reality of the flesh nature when gone to extremes. Have you come to the place in your own life where you can say “In my flesh…dwells no good thing!” (Rom 7.18) or do you still believe there are redeeming qualities in your flesh nature? Is there still room for boasting in any aspect of yourself or anything in the world? “But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal 6:14 NASB)
We have a choice as believers as to which will rule, the flesh or the spirit. According to Jesus, this is a daily decision: “And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9.23) If we live only after the flesh, it will bring self destruction and spiritual barrenness, as portrayed by Saul’s life and unusual death in the last chapter.
David lived on the run for a total of about 10 years learning and growing in his walk with the Lord. He lived in the wilderness through times when there was no human support or comfort. “But David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.” (I Sam 30.6) In summary, that’s a key point, it’s not about rules, it’s about relationship. “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” (Gal 5.16) It's reassuring to know God's love for us in unconditional and not based on our performance. Even when we are victorious in our lives, it's all by His grace. “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” (Mat 19.26)