There are a lot of “characters” in the Bible. Most of them we know really well, like David, Joseph, Joshua, Moses, Peter, Paul, and so on. There are others, however, whom we don’t know so well. Such as Junia, Tamar, Obed, Perez, and whom this study will be on: Abigail.
There is a contrast between Abigail’s loyalty and her husband Nabal’s disloyalty to David in 1 Samuel 25. They are two unseemly characters in God’s narrative of the coming Messiah. Abigail seems an insignificant character at first, but there’s a lot more depth to her story.
At the end of this particular narrative, Abigail becomes David’s wife (and we also see David’s sin of acquiring multiple wives). Is this story told simply to disclose how Abigail became David’s wife? Or is it being told for some other reason? My conclusion is it’s being told to convey a larger message of faith and of God’s providence over His faithful.
To understand the context, let’s start at the beginning of the narrative. Observe the map above. David had just spared Saul’s life for the first time at an oasis called En Gedi (personal photo of the En Gedi oasis on the right).
Afterwards, he travels westward to Maon to deal with a man, Nabal, whose business is in Carmel. The question is: Why would David come out of hiding to deal with this man? There are two reasons.
The first is a mere conjecture. Prior to this, David spares Saul’s life at En Gedi and makes his case before him. Saul realises David is in the right, saying:
“You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the LORD put me into your hands. For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So, may the LORD reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.” (1 Samuel 24:17-20)
Then Saul leaves peaceably. So, Saul praises David for his integrity and mercy, and then openly admits he knows David will make a great king of Israel. Judging from Saul’s words, David had every reason to believe his life was no longer in danger! Of course, he finds this to be false in chapter 26. And again, this is mere conjecture on my part, but I believe it to be likely.
The second reason is what David himself says. Nabal was a rich man who had 3,000 sheep and 1,000 goats. David sent his messengers to Nabal to speak on his behalf, saying:
“Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have. I hear that you have shearers. Now, your shepherds have been with us, and we did them no harm, and they missed nothing all the time they were in Carmel. Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Therefore, let my young men find favour in your eyes, for we come on a feast day. Please give whatever you have at hand to your servants and to your son David.” (25:6-8)
David’s purpose for doing business with Nabal is simple: it’s sheep-shearing season. So, he sends his men to parley with Nabal that they may be given wool in payment of David’s protection over the shepherds Nabal sent to him.
Nabal, however, pretends he doesn’t know who David is and refuses to offer wool as payment for David’s protection. In response, David prepared 400 of his men to take Nabal’s life and every male in the house. This may seem like an overreaction—and it is—but keep in mind David was acting according to the customs of his day. When payment was refused a king, it was common cultural practice for the king to kill the man and wipe out his lineage. This does not excuse David’s reaction, but it does explain—at least culturally—why David acted the way he did that surprises our 21st century bias.
David expresses his anger, “Sure in vain have I guarded all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belonged to him, and he has returned me evil for good” (v. 21). In other words, “I have protected this man’s servants for no reason. And he insults me and refuses payment?” I would be angry too. Wouldn’t you?
Enter Abigail, a humble woman. It’s worth noting how God often used women in biblical times as an example of His mercy, wisdom, and providence in cultures that treated women as objects and second rate citizens. In response to Nabal’s foolishness, Abigail prepares “two hundred loaves and two skins of wine and five sheep… and five seahs [about 7 quarts/7.3 litres for one seah] of parched grain and a hundred clusters of raisins and two hundred cakes of figs” for David (v. 18). Abigail essentially prepared for David goods above and beyond what he asked for and what was owed him.
Afterwards, Abigail has a long dialogue with David (vv. 24-35). In her exchange with him, she confesses her complete loyalty, referring to David as her lord. By doing so, she is placing herself under his jurisdiction and judgement. She reveals to David that because Nabal’s name means “fool,” he should not deal with a fool. She says, “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” (v. 25). She’s basically saying, “His name means foolish because he’s a foolish man. So, because he’s foolish, he is not worth your time and trouble.”
In her words, Abigail reveals David’s error and confesses whom David is to become. She says, “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” (v. 26). In other words, David’s error was that he was going to take an innocent life, making him guilty of murder (“bloodguilt”) and taking salvation into his own hands rather than trusting God (quite a bold thing to say to your future king!). Then she reveres him by wishing his enemies to be as foolish as her husband.
So, because of Abigail’s intervention, she prevented him from being guilty of having innocent blood on his hands. David acknowledges all this when he says to her:
“Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand! For as surely as the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there had not been left to Nabal so much as one male.” (vv. 33-34)
An exegetical note before we move on: The word translated as “salvation” is not being used as salvation as we think think of it today—that is, salvation from sins. The word being used is יָשַׁע (yasha), which can either mean “to save, deliver, assist.” To avoid theological confusion, I think it would be best to translate it “deliverance” since what it is referring to is the goods that are owed to David. So, David’s second error here is not that he was trying to take salvation (as we use the term) into his own hands, but that he was trying to deliver the goods owed to him by his own hands rather than trusting God to, as we’d say today, provide his daily bread.
Moving on, a second point with Abigail is that she knows who David is. She says, “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” (v. 28). First of all, Abigail knows she is addressing a man far above her station—a servant is addressing a king. So, she implores his forgiveness for her “trespass.” Secondly, she admits she knows David will be king.
This is also a foreshadowing of God’s promise to David through the prophet Nathan. She says, “For the LORD will certainly make my lord a sure house.” Similarly, later into David’s reign, Nathan prophesies:
“Moreover, the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” (2 Samuel 7:11-13, emphasis added)
When David made an inquiry to God to build Him a temple (a house), God’s answer was no. But God made the promise that David’s son—who would be Solomon—would build Him a house. He makes a further promise that the house of David would continue forever, which it does through his descendant, Jesus Christ.
Puns Are Holy
I’ve made a lot of points so far, but this leads me to my actual two main points. Before I get there, however, I want to address some wordplay in the next chapter, which covers David sparing Saul’s life a second time.
After David spares Saul’s life a second time, Saul confesses, “I have sinned. Return, my son David, for I will no more do you harm, because my life was precious in your eyes this day. Behold, I have acted foolishly, and have made a great mistake” (1 Samuel 26:21, emphasis added).
Hebrew often uses puns and other wordplay in the Old Testament historical narratives to imply deeper meaning, which we will see more later. The first time David spared Saul’s life, Saul does not say he acted foolishly. If you recall, Saul only admits David was more righteous than he.
This second time, after dealing with the foolish man Nabal whose name means “foolish,” David spares Saul’s life after Abigail’s intervention to spare her husbands life, also preventing David from acting foolishly, and Saul ironically admits his foolish behaviour.
This language is no accident; this is merely one of many other times the same word is used directly beside a side narrative. For example, the Hebrew historical narrative does the same thing in Genesis 37 and 38 with the word for “recognise,” connecting the irony between Joseph’s brothers in chapter 37 telling their father Jacob to recognise Joseph’s bloody cloak, and Tamar in chapter 38 (the side narrative) telling Judah (one of Joseph’s brothers who threw him into the cistern) to recognise the seal, cord, and staff he gave her when she was pretending to be a prostitute.
The Hebrew authors used “recognise” to show the irony between Judah’s actions and the word “foolish” to show the irony between David’s actions. Furthermore, it’s likely God used Abigail to spare the foolish Nabal’s life to encourage David to continue sparing Saul’s life since, after all, David cannot lift his hand upon the Lord’s anointed, as he confesses several times. Also, because God uses a lot of puns in the Hebrew historical narratives, puns are, therefore, holy.
The Typology of Abigail’s Faith
But I digress. Here are my two main points: The first is the typology of Abigail’s confession to David. A “type” is a theological term describing persons, things, and events in the Old Testament that foreshadow Christ or a thing related to Christ.
For example, Moses is a type of Christ in that his office of prophet foreshadowed the office of prophet Jesus would hold. This makes Jesus’ office as prophet the “antitype,” which is a person, thing, or event that fulfills the type. In this example, Jesus’ office as prophet fulfilled Moses’ office as prophet. (Note especially Moses’ words, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen”; Deuteronomy 18:15.)
Another example is the Great Flood as a type of Christ foreshadowing Christ’s institution of Baptism. On this, Peter says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this [the Flood], now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). In other words, as the Flood destroyed and condemned mankind, and God saved mankind through the one man Noah from the condemnation of the world, so in Baptism God now saves us through the one man Jesus Christ from the condemnation of the world (see Romans 6 for further understanding).
Abigail’s faith in David—more so her faith in God through David—is the type of confession Gentiles were to make in Christ. Paul comments on this, saying:
For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised [the Jews] to show God’s faithfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs [their forefathers], and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy… And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in Him will the Gentiles hope.” (Romans 15:8-8, 12)
Paul was quoting from Isaiah 11:1, 10. Abigail’s faith in David exemplifies the faith we have in Christ, the root of Jesse. (Jesus is called the root of Jesse—David’s father—because Christ is in the bloodline of David, the tribe of Judah.) Thus, David as king is a type of Christ, and Christ is the antitype of David’s kingship. God promised David his house would continue forever, and so it does through Christ. Abigail confessed this faith, and so today we confess the same faith. The house of Christ the son of David shall endure forever, and we as living stones make up the house of God (1 Peter 2:5).
So, my first point is that as Abigail expressed faith in who David is as her king and lord, we express similar faith in the antitype of David’s kingship, Jesus Christ, as our King and our Lord—the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
My second point is God’s providence over His faithful. David sought Nabal’s death as recompense for disloyalty to his king. Abigail prevented David from doing this foolish act that belongs to God alone. Just ten days after David and Abigail’s exchange, God strikes Nabal dead, and David praises Him (25:38-39). As I read this account, I found myself reading it over and over again because I couldn’t understand why it was necessary to take Nabal’s life. After all, his only crime was refusing payment for David’s protection. Certainly that’s not grounds for death? False. It is.
Let me explain. Whilst Abigail was pleading for her husband’s life, Nabal was feasting like a king and getting drunk (v. 36). He had no concern he had offended the future king of Israel. Verse 37 gives a colourful way of describing Nabal’s recovery from the prior night’s festivities, “when the wine had gone out of Nabal.”
As we saw earlier, Hebrew uses wordplay every now and then to imply deeper meaning. In Hebrew, Nabal is only three letters (נבל), which the word for “wineskin” or “storage jar” has those same three consonantal root letters. The difference between the two are the vowels given for each—נָבָל (Nabal, meaning foolish), and נֵבֶל (nēbel) for “wineskin” or “jar.” In short, the Hebrew writer made a pun, in which Nabal is being compared to a wineskin. In other words, he is being compared to his bladder.
And there is even more wordplay with Nabal’s name! Solomon writes a proverb later, “under three things the earth trembles; under four it cannot bear up: a slave when he becomes king, and a fool when he is filled with food” (Proverbs 30:21-22). As David’s son, perhaps Solomon was told this story growing up, thus using Nabal’s name as a pun once more. Not exactly a reputation you want to leave behind for yourself.
The way Nabal’s death is described is also interesting: “his heart died within him, and he became as a stone” (v. 38). It’s speculated he had a heart attack and died 10 days later from it. We cannot know for sure, but it should be obvious. Nabal’s heart was also hardened against God. Just as Pharaoh hardened his heart against God and suffered the consequences, so Nabal’s hardening of his heart reaped the consequence of his death. In his hardened heart, he suffered a heart attack, possibly from heart disease (judging from his feasting activities, he may have been severely overweight).
In the face of this, we need to remember we all deserve death, “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Every lie, lust, and sin is punishable by death. The worst sin of all is unbelief—the hardening of the heart.
We must also remember Job’s confession, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). In other words, God as Creator has the authority to give and take away. He has given us life, and He can take it away just as easily. Thus, Job praises God, which He deserves.
Yet the Romans verse continues, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23, I believe, is the best summary of the distinction between Law and Gospel. We deserve death because of our sins—our rebellion and alienation against God—but God is faithful to His promise of eternal life by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
So, whether we like it or not, as a sinner whose heart was hardened against God, Nabal deserved death. When God takes Nabal’s life, David praises God not for killing Nabal, but for saving him from committing an evil deed. He says, “Blessed be the LORD who has avenged the insult I received at the hand of Nabal, and has kept back His servant from wrongdoing” (v. 39, emphasis added). God avenged David, but He also saved David from committing an evil deed through the wise counsel of Abigail. This is what I mean by God’s providence. God avenges His people and provides the needs of His children.
So, what have we learnt from Abigail’s example? Her story points us to Christ. The faith she confessed in who David is, is the same faith all Gentile Christians are to make in who Christ is. As Abigail confessed her faith in David’s kingship and lordship, so we confess the same faith in the Kingship and Lordship of Jesus Christ. By such a confession, we place ourselves under Christ’s jurisdiction and judgement, who judges blameless before God and calls us to sanctified (holy) living for the sake of our neighbour.
Abigail had faith David would become a sure house, whose house endures forever through our Lord Jesus Christ. As our King, Jesus provides for us through ordinary means for our daily needs, and He also provides protection from the wicked and our own wickedness as King.