the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
THE MAN WAS CHURLISH
WE see Nabal on two occasions only. On the occasion of the sheep-shearing ten days before his marriage, and then on the occasion of the sheep-shearing ten days before his death. Had David been in the wilderness of Paran at that sunny sheep-shearing immediately before Nabal's marriage, and had he asked for the crumbs that fell from the bridegroom's table, David would have been set in the place of honour at the smiling sheep-master's right hand. All that happy time when their master went out to the sheep-folds, he said to the sheep-shearers, The Lord be with you. And they answered him, The Lord bless thee. The-Joy-of-her-father,-for that was the name of the sheep-master's beautiful bride,-was also the joy of her bridegroom, till he sent two hundred loaves of bread, and two bottles of wine, and five sheep ready dressed, and five measures of parched corn, and an hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs to Adullam, so that every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, ate and drank and said, Let the God of Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Rachel be the God of that great man in Maon and Abigail his bride. 'The Lord make the woman that is come into his house like Rachel, and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel.' And because of the blessing of all the poor and needy round about, and because of the beauty and the good understanding of Abigail, her husband was the happiest and the most open-handed man that day among all the men in Maon. And the man was very great, and he had three thousand sheep and a thousand goats, and he was shearing his sheep in Carmel.
The Bible has a way of its own of taking great leaps sometimes over long spaces of some men's lives. And thus it is that the next time we see Abigail's bridegroom we would not know him. And we are left of the sacred writer to compose the whole married life of Nabal and Abigail out of our own married lives. And the Bible, with great safety and great assurance, leaves us to do that. Because it knows that as face answers to face in water, so do betrothed, and married, and churlish lives in ancient Israel, answer to married and churlish lives among ourselves.
The second sheep-shearing scene is set before us in a chapter of great pictorial power. With quite extraordinary concentration and strength, Nabal and Abigail are made to stand out before us in their great pictorial chapter. Abigail is still a woman of a good understanding. But Matthew Henry says that her understanding was all little enough for her exercises in it, for the man was churlish and evil in his doings. Abigail to all appearances is the same woman she was at the first sheep-shearing, but her husband has sadly gone down. It was the season of the year when the most churlish of men were wont to melt for the moment into hospitality and self-enjoyment, and even Nabal held a feast in his house. David and his six hundred men were lying in exile in the adjoining wilderness. Persecuted and cast out as David and his men were, they never forgot that they were men of Israel; and up among the mountains, and out on the borders, they were a kind of volunteer protectors and patrolling police over the flocks and herds of men like Nabal. As a matter of fact, David had interposed again and again, and been a wall, as Nabal's shepherds themselves said, round them and their sheep against the sheep-stealing tribes. The starving exiles had looked for some reward for their work; but Nabal was Nabal. Till sheer famine made David send to Nabal's feast and ask a share of his hospitality to 'thy son David,' as he called himself in his courteous but bold message. But Nabal's softness of heart over his sheep-shearing was only skin-deep. 'Who is David,' Nabal snapped out, 'that I should share my feast with him and his vagabonds?' And no sooner did David hear Nabal's churlish and insulting answer than he said, and it was all he said, 'Gird ye on every man his sword.' But, as good providence would have it, Abigail had heard both of David's embassy and of her husband's churlish answer, and she lost not a moment. Sending on before her a present of meat and drink, she hastened after it, and met David and his four hundred men just in time. How Abigail behaved herself before the insulted and revengeful soldiers; with what tact and understanding she spake to David; and how she melted David and turned away his hot anger-all that we read in the matter and the manner of this sacred writer. And, then, in two verses of crowning strength of style we have Nabal's drunken debauch all night, and his sudden death of fear and hate and hardness of heart in the morning.
'Nabal was of the house of Caleb.' But there is a Latin proverb to this effect, that to be the son of a good father is the shame of a bad son. Now, Caleb was a good father. Caleb was a large-hearted, hopeful, God-serving man. And Caleb and his house held their large estates in the land of Israel on that tenure. The family property was a witness to their father's great services in a dark day in Israel. Caleb lived to a green old age, crowned with all the love and honour that Nabal had by this time wholly lost. By his birth Nabal had come into great possessions in Carmel; and, as if to make him a man like his father-as if to keep his heart soft and full of love to God and man,-God had added to all that a wife who shines high up among the household saints of the house of Israel. But, all the time, Caleb and Abigail, great inheritance and great dowry, happy home, and all, there was a 'stone of obstination' in Nabal's heart that nothing could melt or remove, till his whole heart was turned to stone and he died.
'Our master flew at David's messengers,' reported the young man to Abigail. 'He railed on them,' as we excellently read it in the text. He snarled and snapped at them, as Josephus so graphically has it. You see the man. You know the man. Your young men know the man. Your wife knows the man. Your children know the man, 'Who is David? And who is the son of Jesse? There be many servants nowadays that break away every man from his master.' It is a glass, this chapter, in which we all see our churlish selves to the life. Who is he? we demand, with all the contempt and scorn we can call up out of our contemptuous and scornful hearts. Who is he to speak to me and to treat me in that way? And we go on to put the worst construction upon him, and upon his family, and upon his friends. A parcel of vagabonds! snarled out Nabal. And how much of our own speaking and writing about people we do not like is exactly like that churlish outbreak of Nabal. And what mischief Nabal's tongue and pen work among us also! Nothing roots our wicked hearts deeper into our whole life and character than a snarling tongue or a railing pen let loose. And nothing puts David and his men into a more wicked and murderous temper than to be railed at as Nabal railed. Do not do it. Do not listen to it. Do not read it. It is the death of your heart to speak it and to hear it. When you speak it your conversation is in hell; and when you write or read it, it is the literature of hell. It kindles hell in him who is railed at, and it spreads, and it feeds hell in him who writes it, or reads it, or speaks it. Nabal's railing tongue kindled such an outburst of murderous hate in David and in his men that, another half hour and it would have been put out in Nabal's blood.
'The man was churlish,' says this shorthand writer, giving us Nabal's whole character in a single word. That is to say, Nabal had allowed and indulged himself in his snarling, snappish ways till he was known in his own house, among his shepherds, and all round about, as Nabal the churl. 'A devil at home' is one of the sure marks of Thomas Shepard's 'evangelical hypocrite. He shines like an angel in the church. Christ and mercy are never out of his mouth. He is much to be heard on closing with Christ. He is raised up to heaven with liberty and joy on Sabbath, and especially on communion days. But he is a devil at home.' Whereas we find that 'hyperbole of sin,' Lancelot Andrewes, on his knees night and day, 'to be kind to mine own.' And you will remember that other portrait of the same family in John Bunyan. Obstinate also gave a great sheep-shearing feast before his marriage. And his bride also led her bridegroom to church and market in a silken bridle-for a time. But time passes, and there passes away with time all the hospitality, humility, pliability, and sweetness of the churlish and obstinate man. It is not that he has ceased to love his wife and his children. It is not that. But there is this in all genuine and inbred churlishness and obstinacy, that, after a time, it comes out worst beside those we love best. A man will be affable, accessible, entertaining, the best of company, and the very soul of it abroad, and, then, the instant he turns the latch-key in his own door, Nabal himself was not worse, he sinks back into such an utter boorishness, and mulishness, and doggedness. He swallows his meal in silence, and then he sits all night with a cloud on his brow. He is silent to no children but his own; he is a bear to nobody but his own wife. Nothing pleases him; nothing in his own house is to his mind. And all the time it is not that he does not pray to love his own, like Andrewes; but there is a law of obstinacy in his heart that still makes him a devil at home. And then hear Christiana: 'That which troubleth me most is my churlish carriages to my husband when he was in his distress. I am that woman that was so hard-hearted. And so guilt took hold of my mind, and would have drawn me to the pond.' Yes, constant fault-finding; constant correction, and that before strangers; gloomy looks; rough words and manners; all blame and no praise-with these things we are all driving one another to the brink of the pond every day.
'And it came to pass in the morning, when the wine was gone out of Nabal, and his wife had told him all these things, that his heart died within him, and he became as a stone.' Nabal died of a stone in his heart. Nabal died of pride and rage. Nabal died of a strange disease-indebtedness to his wife. Nabal would rather have died of David's sword than have been saved from David's sword by the understanding and the interposition and the intercession of his wife. Nabal died rather than admit that he had played the fool through all that sheep-shearing time. Had Nabal kissed Abigail that morning; had he kissed her hand; had he kissed her feet; he would have been living to this day; and when he died like a shock of corn fully ripe, all Israel would have mourned that they had lost him, and David would have sung a psalm over him that we would have put upon the tombstones of all our magnanimous and much-lamented men. As it was, it became a proverb in Israel to ask when a madman, or a man possessed with a devil, or a man who took his own life, died, Died he as Nabal died? Take care, O churlish husband! Take care, O man with a heart of stone beginning in thy bosom. For Satan is fast entering into thee. Take care.
But, now, can such churlishness be cured? Can it really be cured? some of you who have that cruel stone for long spreading in your hearts will ask me. Yes, it can, if it is taken in time, and if it is treated in the right way. And the first thing in the cure is to admit and accept the disease. It is to say, I am Nabal. Had Nabal taken it to heart how it would end, as soon as he felt the tenderness, and the honourableness, and the nobleness, and the manliness of his betrothal and bridegroom days beginning to wear off his heart and his life; had he been man enough, and man of God enough, and husband enough to watch and know the stopping of his heart and the creeping-on coldness of his heart to God and man, and especially to Abigail; and had he confessed to himself his fears how all that would end, it would all have ended the entire opposite of how it did end. Had he been thankful also. Had he practised himself in going back upon Caleb and the inheritance he had got because of Caleb; had he taken his flocks and his herds, and all that he had, every sheep-shearing time, again from the hand of God; had he every night and every morning taken Abigail in all her understanding and all her beauty again from the hand of God; and had he prevented David's petition and sent him a share of the sheep-shearing feast before he asked for it-by all that, Nabal would have made himself a new heart, and he would have come down to us in as good a report as any of the elders of Israel. Kick, then, the dog out of your heart. Hammer the stone out of your heart, and you will get back the days of your first sheep-shearing; you will get back your bride, and your own tender, hopeful, noble, manful heart. But the one, the only real and sure cure for all our New Testament Nabals is that supreme antidote and counter-poison to all churlishness, the cross of Christ. Whatever we start with, we always end with the cross of Christ. Try it, for it cures everything, and especially churlishness and all its bad effects. It cures churlishness in Nabal; and impatience, and weariness, and despair of life in Abigail; and anger and revenge in David. Come near to the cross, both Nabal, and David, and Abigail, and look and hear. Hear those churlish men as they pass by and wag their heads, and rail at David's Son cast out upon the cross from among men, while, all the time, He dies to save and bless them. Great Example! Great Refuge and Great Strength to us all! The Butt, the Jest, the Scoff, the Flout of all who pass by! We come to Thee. We need Thee. We have no cure for our hearts, and no pardon for our hearts but Thee. Churls, and churls' victims, we come to Thee. Railing and railed at, we come to Thee. Nabal, and David, and Abigail, and the shepherds, and the soldiers, we all come to Thee. We hang by our hands and our feet and our hearts beside Thee. We forgive all those who revile us, and buffet us, and despitefully use us beside Thee. We die, and are buried, and rise again, and sit beside Thee. Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous. Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Nabal'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​n/nabal.html. 1901.