Friends in the Wilderness

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David was the Golden Boy of ancient Israel.

Almost from the beginning, his life seemed charmed. 

Even though he was the eighth boy in a family of eight boys – in a culture in a which birth order was assumed to determine one’s prospects in life – it was he who was anointed to become the next king.  He achieved the ultimate public relations coup by defeating Goliath, taking down a giant while he was still a teenager.

Saul, the current king, took him into his army, where he became a great warrior.  He married the king’s daughter.  His fellow soldiers adored him.  People wrote songs about him.  His press clippings were uniformly positive, and people began to ponder a new reality show called The Real Rock Slingers of Jericho.

Then everything came undone. 

His boss, King Saul, became envious of his Teflon reputation and decided to destroy him.  In a few short weeks his wife, his job, his income, and his personal security were all snatched away.  Samuel, the mentor who had anointed him, died.  Though he had done nothing wrong and had supported Saul at every turn, David was forced to become a fugitive.

He had had everything.  Now he had nothing.  He fled for his life into the desolation of the Judean wilderness and hid in the cave of Adullam.  

Across the 66 Old Testament chapters that tell David’s long and fascinating story, there are at least 15 occasions in which he ends up in the wilderness.  One thing’s for sure: When you’re in the wilderness, you find out who your friends really are.

According to the first verse of I Samuel 22, members of David’s family joined him in the cave of Adullam.  Who else showed up?  Check out the next verse:  “All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their leader.  About 400 men were with him.”

Years ago I had the opportunity to help launch a new congregation.  God gathered a core group of wonderful people.  In addition, all the Presbyterian churches within driving distance of our little flock were urged to pass along some of their members to help move things forward.

Whom did they send?  All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented. 

As one commentator puts it, David was used to playing with the A team.  Now he was leading the practice squad. 

Nevertheless, many of those who joined David in the cave became his best friends and lifelong allies.  One of the remarkable stories from this time is reported in 2 Samuel 23:13-17:

“One day during harvest, the Three [a trio of David’s closest friends] joined David at the Cave of Adullam. A squad of Philistines had set up camp in the Valley of Rephaim. While David was holed up in the Cave, the Philistines had their base camp in Bethlehem. David had a sudden craving and said, “Would I ever like a drink of water from the well at the gate of Bethlehem!” So the Three penetrated the Philistine lines, drew water from the well at the gate of Bethlehem, and brought it back to David. But David wouldn’t drink it; he poured it out as an offering to God, saying, “There is no way, God, that I’ll drink this! This isn’t mere water, it’s their life-blood—they risked their very lives to bring it!” So David refused to drink it.  This is the sort of thing that the Three did.”

At first glance it appears that David is a singularly ungrateful guy.  His three friends might be forgiven for thinking, “Hey, we risk our lives to get you a special drink of water, and you dump it on the ground?”

But there’s a bit more going on here.

David had grown up in Bethlehem.  Now he’s far away from home, and light years away from the life he had imagined for himself.  In a wistful, nostalgic moment, he remembers what it was like to get a drink from his hometown well.  This is like remembering the lemon shakeups you enjoyed every summer at the State Fair.  “One of those would sure hit the spot right now.” 

It wasn’t a command.  It was more like a deep sigh.  He never imagined anyone taking him seriously.

But David’s three friends knew him well.  They loved him fiercely – fiercely enough to attempt a crazy stunt.  They would blow his mind.  They would fight their way past a military outpost to retrieve…what?  A treasure?  A family heirloom?  A secret weapon?

No, just a skin of water. 

But to David, it was priceless.  It represented the depth of their friendship.  To drink that water would have been cavalier, even callous.  But to transform it into a drink offering to the Lord was the highest possible way of saying, “Thank you.” 

The key to this story is that David’s friends had been close to him – close enough to hear him sigh

Psychologist Alan McGinnis points out that the key to great friendships isn’t complicated.  It’s not rocket science.  Choose to devote a lot of time to being with your friends

We cannot blunder our way into transforming friendships.  They don’t just happen.  A great many of us don’t think twice about investing hours upon hours trying to make money, or doing whatever it takes to craft the perfect yard or garden.  But we hesitate to invest in primary relationships, even though we suspect (rightly) that those relationships are essential to our happiness.

At any given moment, every one of us is in one of three places:  We’re either approaching the next wilderness, trying to survive the current wilderness, or healing from our most recent wilderness. 

But life’s most difficult stretches can be wonderful places if we’re surrounded by true friends.

You’ll definitely find out who your friends are when you go into the wilderness. 

And when they go there, you’ll have a chance like no other to demonstrate what true friendship is all about.