LCN Article
“Shear” Folly: Lessons from David, Nabal, and Abigail

May / June 2023

John Robinson

It might surprise you to know that, with the exception of Jesus Christ, no human being has more biblical text devoted to his life story than David the son of Jesse. Described as having a heart that sought to mirror God’s own (Acts 13:22), David provides example after example of love and obedience toward God, kindness toward his fellow man, and faith in the face of adversity.

But while we can learn much from David’s example, God also inspired accounts of those around him that can add a lot to our understanding. One such account took place shortly before David became Israel’s king, as the reign of Saul was nearing its end. Let’s dive into the story of David, Nabal, and Abigail, and see what one brief event in Israel’s tumultuous history can teach us about the time we’re living in right now.

“Then Samuel died; and the Israelites gathered together and lamented for him, and buried him at his home in Ramah” (1 Samuel 25:1). Samuel’s death was truly the end of an era for Israel, making way for a time of heated division. The nation was experiencing the reign of the first king in its history, and the latter half of King Saul’s reign had taken a very dark turn. After God rejected Saul because of his rebellious attitude, David was anointed to be the next king of Israel—but, in what probably seemed to be a puzzling move, God did not immediately remove Saul from Israel’s throne, leaving David as the heir apparent with no idea of when his kingship would begin.

Beginning with David’s defeat of Goliath and continuing with his military successes, Saul had become increasingly jealous and fearful of David, especially when he realized that he had been chosen to replace him and his house. Saul let his jealousy consume him and he spent the rest of his reign vainly attempting to capture and kill David. At the time of the account we’re reviewing, we find David essentially doing what King Saul had originally tasked him to do: As “David arose and went down to the Wilderness of Paran” (v. 1), he and his men patrolled the borders of Israel to protect the nation from invaders.

In 1 Samuel 25:2–3, we’ve been introduced to the three key figures in this story. Nabal was a very wealthy man and a descendant of Caleb who, as one of the two faithful spies who gave an accurate report of the Promised Land, was given his pick of that land once God brought Israel safely into it. The area Nabal resided in was known as “vineyard land” or “garden spot” and renowned for its lush vegetation. Nabal is described as harsh and evil, and the name Scripture gives him literally means fool, signaling the archetypical behavior that he represents. All Nabal could see, or all he was willing to see, was the way things currently were—he refused to imagine a world in which he was not a wealthy landowner with an attractive wife.

Abigail was Nabal’s wife, described as lovely and shown to be realistic about her husband’s nature. She is the only woman the Hebrew Scriptures specifically describe as having “good understanding” or “good insight.” As we’ll see, she represented those who feared God and who, by extension, understood that David would eventually be king.

Finally, David played the role of a fugitive on the run, destined to be king—and through this incident, he learned a powerful lesson about taking vengeance into his own hands. He is the subject of the central controversy in this account, and Nabal and Abigail represent the two most common attitudes in Israel during the time of Saul and David: There were those who just didn’t see how David would ever become king, and there were those who recognized that David was led by God and would therefore be king eventually.

David? Who’s That?

The drama begins in 1 Samuel 25:4–9, as David sends men to tell Nabal, “Peace be to you, peace to your house, and peace to all that you have! Now I have heard that you have shearers. Your shepherds were with us, and we did not hurt them, nor was there anything missing from them all the while they were in Carmel.” So Nabal would know that this was not a trick, David added, “Ask your young men, and they will tell you.” Then came David’s simple request: “Therefore let my young men find favor in your eyes, for we come on a feast day. Please give whatever comes to your hand to your servants and to your son David” (1 Samuel 25:6–9).

All David did was ask for some provisions from Nabal in exchange for the protection he had provided from the raiding Philistines. He was very courteous and unthreatening toward Nabal—and he emphasized that Nabal’s shepherds had dwelt peaceably with his men, who had taken nothing from them. He boosted his credibility by encouraging Nabal to ask his own men about it. Nabal was going to have a feast soon, which indicates his affluence—surely, he could share just a little of that abundance with David and his men.

Apparently not: “Nabal answered David’s servants, and said, ‘Who is David, and who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants nowadays who break away each one from his master. Shall I then take my bread and my water and my meat that I have killed for my shearers, and give it to men when I do not know where they are from?’” (1 Samuel 25:10–11).

Nabal basically responded, David who? He gave himself away, though, by his reference that David was the son of Jesse: He knew full well who David was. Then he emphasized that it was his bread, water, meat, and shearers, as if he alone were responsible for his success: Why should I give my stuff away to the riffraff? He had no realization that his material blessings were from God, and to add insult to injury, he also accused David of being a rogue servant in rebellion to his master.

Was there any truth to Nabal’s accusation? Absolutely not. Just one chapter earlier, David had what many would have seen as a golden opportunity to be rid of King Saul forever, finding him alone and vulnerable in a cave. But it was an opportunity David refused to take, and he instead turned it into proof of his loyalty to God and to God’s anointed king, saying to Saul, “Let the Lord judge between you and me, and let the Lord avenge me on you. But my hand shall not be against you” (1 Samuel 24:9–12).

Certainly, Nabal had the right to withhold his prosperity from David, though it clearly wasn’t the godly or even sensible thing to do. But David was not in rebellion against Saul, and had in fact repeatedly passed up opportunities to take matters into his own hands. Nabal should have known this—but, a little like Saul, he profited from the system, taking his prosperity completely for granted and being selfish.

Nabal acted out of “shear” folly in more ways than one. For starters, he was just being rude, which is never a good idea. Also, even if he didn’t accept any obligation to help David and his men, it’s clearly a bad idea to unnecessarily provoke someone who could potentially turn into a capable adversary. Perhaps most importantly, Nabal couldn’t seem to determine the times or seasons—he was completely out of touch with God’s plans, namely that David would become the king of Israel and there would be serious changes to the sociopolitical landscape as a result.

“So David’s young men turned on their heels and went back; and they came and told him all these words. Then David said to his men, ‘Every man gird on his sword.’ So every man girded on his sword, and David also girded on his sword. And about four hundred men went with David, and two hundred stayed with the supplies” (1 Samuel 25:12–13).

Enter Abigail

With David on the warpath, what did Nabal’s “kids” do? Naturally, they ran to “Mom.” 1 Samuel 25:14–17 tells us, “Now one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, saying, ‘Look, David sent messengers from the wilderness to greet our master; and he reviled them…. Now therefore, know and consider what you will do, for harm is determined against our master and against all his household. For he is such a scoundrel that one cannot speak to him.’”

The young men of Nabal described their master’s tone as one of reviling, which is not only insulting, but also conveys the idea of scornful contempt. Nabal made clear that, in his eyes, David and his men were worthless riffraff in rebellion to their masters. This was especially foolish of him, and his young men knew it, having seen with their own eyes that David’s men were well armed, battle hardened, and in no way a group anyone should want to revile.

 Abigail didn’t let fear paralyze her. “Then Abigail made haste and took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five sheep already dressed, five seahs of roasted grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs, and loaded them on donkeys. And she said to her servants, ‘Go on before me; see, I am coming after you.’ But she did not tell her husband Nabal” (1 Samuel 25:18–19). When you consider that Nabal had 3,000 sheep, five really wasn’t much—we see that it would have been extremely easy for Nabal to simply have given David what he had requested, and it would have cost him very little.

With this, we’re shown the wisdom of Abigail; she sprang into action, knowing that only she was in a position to do anything about this threat to Nabal’s household, and she was realistic enough to know that telling Nabal would be a bad idea. But Nabal? All he was doing was living up to his name. Not only was he foolish toward God for failing to recognize or acknowledge David’s bright future—he did not even act with worldly shrewdness. If he had, he would at least have recognized the foolishness of reviling a well-armed man of war with a large contingent of hungry warriors. Even Nabal’s young men were well aware of the danger they were in, as they demonstrated by taking their well-founded concerns to Abigail.

Abigail to the Rescue

And they were right to do so, because Abigail quickly grasped the situation and danger that had come upon the entire household of Nabal, and she bravely met David and his men on the road. “Now David had said, ‘Surely in vain I have protected all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that belongs to him. And he has repaid me evil for good. May God do so, and more also, to the enemies of David, if I leave one male of all who belong to him by morning light’” (1 Samuel 25:21–22).

The narrative leaves no doubt as to David’s true intentions: Unless someone changed his mind, there was going to be a massacre. It’s interesting to consider that Abigail may have had good reason to suspect that her own life, as a woman, was likely to be spared, even if she did nothing; in fact, David only vowed to kill all the males in Nabal’s household. But Abigail did a lot more than nothing. Upon seeing David, she prostrated herself in front of him with the following words:

On me, my lord, on me let this iniquity be! And please let your maidservant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your maidservant. Please, let not my lord regard this scoundrel Nabal. For as his name is, so is he: Nabal is his name, and folly is with him! But I, your maidservant, did not see the young men of my lord whom you sent. Now therefore, my lord, as the Lord lives and as your soul lives, since the Lord has held you back from coming to bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hand, now then, let your enemies and those who seek harm for my lord be as Nabal. And now this present which your maidservant has brought to my lord, let it be given to the young men who follow my lord (1 Samuel 25:24–27).

Some might be tempted to be critical of Abigail here, accusing her of being disrespectful to her husband—but consider that the narrative as a whole paints Nabal as a greedy, selfish fool who can’t be reasoned with, and shows Abigail as a realistic, understanding person. And consider, too, that Abigail isn’t simply sharing observations about her husband with just anyone. She is literally trying to save his life from those on their way to slaughter him and all the males of his household.

With that mission driving her, Abigail wisely presented herself as a character witness who could confirm, as Nabal’s wife, that he was a foolish man who was not worth David’s mission of vengeance. She also insightfully invoked the name of God in her pleading, essentially telling David, God wouldn’t want you to seek vengeance for yourself, especially not on such a foolish, unworthy man. And to top it all off, she did far more than make a compelling and emotional case, she gave David exactly what he requested, in generous measure.

The Key to the Story

Had Abigail simply stopped here, it’s possible David would have relented. But Abigail continued with the most important part of her plea:

Please forgive the trespass of your maidservant. For the Lord will certainly make for my lord an enduring house, because my lord fights the battles of the Lord, and evil is not found in you throughout your days. Yet a man has risen to pursue you and seek your life, but the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living with the Lord your God; and the lives of your enemies He shall sling out, as from the pocket of a sling. And it shall come to pass, when the Lord has done for my lord according to all the good that He has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you ruler over Israel, that this will be no grief to you, nor offense of heart to my lord, either that you have shed blood without cause, or that my lord has avenged himself. But when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your maidservant (vv. 28–31).

Abigail’s speech shows that she understood and acknowledged that David fought the battles of the Eternal God. While noting that David’s life was preserved by God Himself, Abigail also made a clear reference to David’s God-given victory over Goliath—proving that, unlike her husband, she was very willing to acknowledge David’s fame and exploits.

Most importantly, she recognized that, no matter what conditions may have looked like at the time, David was the anointed of God—protected by God and used by God—and he would become the king of Israel. The key to the story, and the key difference between Abigail and Nabal, is that Abigail believed what would later be written in Psalm 89: “I have found My servant David; with My holy oil I have anointed him, with whom My hand shall be established; also My arm shall strengthen him. The enemy shall not outwit him, nor the son of wickedness afflict him. I will beat down his foes before his face, and plague those who hate him” (vv. 20–23).

Vengeance in God’s Hands

Abigail’s wisdom, insight, and recognition of God’s long-term plans not only saved Nabal—at least temporarily—and her household, but also prevented David from taking vengeance into his own hands, which, as he acknowledged, he would have regretted. He told Abigail, “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! And blessed is your advice and blessed are you, because you have kept me this day from coming to bloodshed and from avenging myself with my own hand.” He gladly accepted her humble gift, and bade her, “Go up in peace to your house. See, I have heeded your voice and respected your person” (1 Samuel 25:32–35).

Meanwhile, entirely unaware that his wife had just saved him from a nasty death, Nabal was holding a feast fit for a king and essentially drinking himself into a stupor (v. 36). By doing so, not honoring David as God’s anointed, Nabal proved that he did not believe that God’s promises would come to pass. It’s hard to be more foolish than that.

Having treated God’s chosen ruler shamefully, Nabal was punished accordingly: “So it was, in the morning, when the wine had gone from Nabal, and his wife had told him these things, that his heart died within him, and he became like a stone. Then it happened, after about ten days, that the Lord struck Nabal, and he died” (1 Samuel 25:37–38). It’s very important to note that it is God—not David, not sickness, and not old age—who strikes Nabal down. God judges Nabal and condemns him to death. Nabal was “weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life,” and God’s judgment comes on him unexpectedly, as Luke 21:34–36 warns us.

Abigail, however, was richly rewarded for taking God’s promises seriously and acting on them: “So when David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has pleaded the cause of my reproach from the hand of Nabal, and has kept His servant from evil! For the Lord has returned the wickedness of Nabal on his own head.’ And David sent and proposed to Abigail, to take her as his wife” (v. 39).

The Anointed King Is Coming

Nabal lived prosperously as his property was guarded and protected by the future king of Israel—but he was unthankful, greedy, and foolish. In his hubris, Nabal reviled the future king of Israel. Can we apply the lesson of his attitude to our time now, at the end of the age?

We most certainly can.

Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder), that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior, knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.” For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men (2 Peter 3:1–7).

We live in a time when the kings, the nobles, and the merchants of the earth have concluded either that God doesn’t exist, or that He doesn’t care what they do—or, at the very least, won’t do anything about it. But their rebellion is “shear” folly. They will soon find out, just as Nabal did, that there is a well-armed King who will appear on the scene—but this King will rule over all the earth, and will ride out with His army to enact vengeance on the wicked who, in their sheer folly, believe they are untouchable.

Let’s be like Abigail, recognizing this fact and embracing this soon-coming reality, having complete trust that what God has promised, He will bring to pass.