When I think of the wilderness, I envision a place where no one lives. It’s uninhabitable. Finding or growing resources to live would be nearly impossible and yet many are drawn to go there to explore and discover what it’s like. For our family, the closest experience we had to trekking in the wilderness were trips to the Badlands of North and South Dakota and some of the areas of the Southwest United States. We certainly could not have lived there but were fascinated by the landscape and the vegetation here and there that somehow found a way to survive.
Reading through the biblical stories gives us more than a few that include time spent in the wilderness. Most of us think of the long arduous trip of the children of Israel when they left Egypt for the Promised Land as one example. But there are many other notable ones as well including the time Jesus spent in the wilderness that we find in the New Testament. Sometimes the story highlights the theme of God leading someone or a group of people into the wilderness. Some might even have felt called there, but in the story of David we see a story of one who escaped to the wilderness when King Saul was hunting him down and seeking to kill him. By some accounts he spent the decade of his twenties in the wilderness.
“David didn’t start out in the wilderness, and he didn’t end up in the wilderness. But he did spend some highly significant years in the wilderness. Everybody – at least everybody who has anything to do with God – spends time in the wilderness, so it’s important to know what can take place there.”Eugene Peterson
The wilderness experience may not be an actual physical wilderness, but there are still wilderness experiences that we face during our life. These are times when we see no growth, feel a barrenness in relational or spiritual community, sense we have lost our direction on a path we had been so sure of, and more. Whatever the cause, we don’t feel we are getting replenished or renewed and discouragement can shadow our steps. Efforts to find the way out to a better path that can sustain us and provide us with growth and all we need seems to elude us.
Wilderness times are often ones of solitude and silence. We can believe no one is listening and our prayers and cries to the Lord are going into thin air with no response and yet, it is in just such times that we come to a greater knowledge of the truth about ourselves.
“When we’re in the wilderness, we aren’t in control, we have no assignment, no appointments to keep. Stay alert, stay alive – that’s it. When we are in the wilderness, we commonly feel our lives simplifying and deepening. Many people, after a few days in the wilderness (sometimes after only a few hours), feel themselves to be more themselves, uncluttered and spontaneous. Very often, even though otherwise unaccustomed to it, they say the name God. There’s something wonderfully attractive about the wilderness.
But there’s also something frightening about wilderness. The wild, while it’s breathtakingly beautiful, is also dangerously unpredictable…The wilderness has a hundred different ways to kill us.”Eugene Peterson
I wonder what the wilderness has been like in your life and how it has impacted and shaped you or sculpted away parts of you that were not really needed to live a full authentic life. Certainly, biblical stories remind us there are things in the wilderness that we learn nowhere else. It forces us to come face-to-face with the truth about ourselves, our life, and the mystery of God that we cannot control.
To spend time with David and his story means you will see some of the years and terrain that helped to shape his life. You’ll see him in the wilderness of Engedi (not unlike the badlands) and it will be there in a cave where he is hiding that King Saul will stop to relieve himself. David and his men will have every opportunity to kill the king, but they will not make that choice. Later in a place called Ziph, he will have another chance to kill the king and again he will not touch the man he knows was anointed by God to be king.
But it will be in the wilderness where David learns more of caring for the people he will one day serve as king. Not only will there be those traveling with him, but he will protect others who are trying to manage in the wilderness. He and his men will seek to protect the shepherds of the man named, Nabal, from the attacks of bandits or wild animals and when Nabal refuses to give them some food, David will be in a rage and set off to kill the man except that his wise wife, Abigail, will intervene and prevent him from this. That story is well worth revisiting and seeing the beauty, godliness, and protection she offers David and how she becomes his wife a bit later in the story.
The inspiration for his poetry and songs in Psalms are shaped by these years as well. Those wilderness years left their mark on David.
“What happens is that no matter what else David is doing, he’s basically dealing with God; and the more he deals with God, the more human he becomes – the more he becomes “David.” Holy is our best word to describe that life – the human aliveness that comes from dealing with God-Alive. We’re most human when we deal with God. Any other way of life leaves us less human, less ourselves.”Eugene Peterson
David learns what we will all come to learn in our journey with the Lord.
He is always with us.
“Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
to be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, you’re there!
If I go underground, you’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings
to the far western horizon,
You’d find me in a minute—
you’re already there waiting!
Then I said to myself, “Oh, he even sees me in the dark!
At night I’m immersed in the light!”
It’s a fact: darkness isn’t dark to you;
night and day, darkness and light, they’re all the same to you.”Psalm 139:7-12 (MSG)