Goliath's Sword in Righteous Hands: The Reformed Doctrine of Resistance to Tyrants.
By Pastor Richard Bacon
Copyright 1998 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

This article first appeared in The Christian Statesman, vol 141, no. 1 (January - February 1998) pp. 8-13. Reprinted here with Permission. To subscribe to the Christian Statesman, write National Reform Association P.O. Box 8741, Pittsburgh, PA 15221. Or Go To Their Web Site

The examination of a Reformed or Calvinistic doctrine of resistance to tyrants must begin and end with the clear statement that resistance of whatever kind is not the norm. Thus Calvin stated, "...with hearts inclined to reverence their rulers, the subjects should prove their obedience toward them, whether by obeying their proclamations, or by paying taxes, or by undertaking public offices and burdens which pertain to the common defense, or by executing other commands of theirs."[1]

Calvin even goes so far as to remind us that obedience to bad kings was sometimes required in the Scripture.[2] "But if you conclude... that service ought to be rendered only to just governors, you are reasoning foolishly. For husbands are also bound to their wives, and parents to their children, by mutual responsibility. Suppose parents and husbands depart from their duty... Shall either children be less obedient to their parents or wives to their husbands? They are still subject even to those who are wicked and undutiful."[3]

Yet in God’s providence the godly must admit that there are times when God would use a de jure magistrate to restrain or even overthrow a de facto magistrate. Thus young King Joash was hidden in the temple from wicked Queen Athaliah for six years. At the end of six years of wicked rule by Athaliah, the priest Jehoiada raised up King Joash. Queen Athaliah claimed that the act was treason, but it had the full blessing of God and his church officers.[4]

Though such instances are rare, resistance to existing government even to the point of assassination was not unknown in the Bible.[5] Still, far preferable to resistance by assassination is resistance by flight. Not only do we have the example in the New Testament of persecuted preachers fleeing Jerusalem in Acts chapter 8, one of the greatest Old Testament examples used this method of resistance at two key points in his life. This article will have space to deal with only one of them in detail

We will examine David’s activities in two lights: first, the occasion of his flight from Saul; and second, the lessons we might apply from his flight.

The occasion of David’s first flight was a clear and present danger to his life. Though it may be argued that David’s flight from Saul could be justified because 1 Samuel 13:14 removed de jure authority from Saul, the fact remains that David continued to acknowledge Saul as in some sense the "Lord’s anointed" as late as 1 Samuel 24:9-10 and 1 Samuel 26:9. We must look beyond a mere theoretical removing of God’s approval from Saul to find justification for David’s resistance and for the lessons we might learn from it.

Some American Evangelical Christians cite 1 Peter 2:13-14 as though every ordinance of man save those which bear directly on the preaching of the gospel must be obeyed (Acts 5:29).[6] Yet submitting to every ordinance of man must involve obeying a summons to appear. But flight is a resistance to the summons to appear. Flight, then according to such reasoning, must be a failure or refusal to submit to every ordinance of man. As Rutherford freely admits, "Flying from the tyranny of abused authority is a plain resisting of judgment."[7]

David’s behavior with respect to Saul, as well as his confession, were strictly godly (see Psalm 18:20-24). It was not the seeming removal of de jure authority from Saul in 1 Samuel 13:14, but his plot to kill David in 1 Samuel 19:1ff which forms the background for David’s justifiable flight. Saul’s desire, as it is reported to us in inspired Scripture, was "to slay David without a cause" (19:5). When Saul then laid aside his plan to slay David on that occasion, David demonstrated a willingness to appear before Saul "and he was in his presence, as in times past" (verse 7).

Saul’s promise was short-lived, however, and it became necessary once again for David to flee from Saul. "And Saul sought to smite David even to the wall with the javelin; but he slipped away out of Saul’s presence, and he smote the javelin into the wall: and David fled, and escaped that night." (verse 10). On this occasion we should note that David’s flight from Saul, predicated on information from two witnesses - Jonathan and Michal, was in order to save his life in the face of ungodly persecution. The point should not be overlooked that David had firsthand witnesses plus corroborating evidence in the form of Saul’s javelin. David did not simply flee to avoid prosecution for breaking a just and equitable law.

Even in David’s flight from Saul’s ungodly persecution, however, he continued to seek out the possibility of reconciliation. "David... said before Jonathan, what have I done? What is mine iniquity? And what is my sin before thy father, that he seeketh my life" (1 Samuel 20:1)?

Another aspect of David’s flight was that it was not characterized by vengeance seeking. David did not use his flight as an opportunity to war against Saul, except defensively to preserve his own life. In fact, David pursued his calling of fighting the Philistines as much as possible — thus his deliverance of the village of Keilah. When Saul would have pursued David to Keilah, David simply departed the village.[8] In fact, David spread his skirt over the wilderness such that the people of the Paran wilderness regarded David’s army as a wall around them. "They were a wall unto us both by night and day, all the while we were with them keeping sheep" (1 Samuel 25:16).

Much of David’s trouble with Saul seems to have been based upon a smear campaign by certain men in Saul’s presence. David had already escaped an attack from Saul, yet there was still a group at Saul’s court which deliberately fomented trouble between Saul and David. "...and David said to Saul, wherefore hearest thou men’s words, saying, Behold David seeketh thy hurt" (1 Samuel 24:9). Some people are not happy unless they are keeping enmities stirred up.

Eventually David, unable to be reconciled with Saul, came to terms with Achish of Gath. Achish granted David the frontier town of Ziklag which became David’s new base of operations. David found that he could actually continue his calling of destroying God’s enemies more profitably appearing to fight for Achish (1 Samuel 27:8-12). Achish gained so much confidence in David that he would have taken him into the battle of Gilboa on the side of the Philistines had the Philistine warlords been willing to allow it.

Scripture does not gloss over the sins of the children of God, including David. When David was guilty of sin (e.g. adultery with Bathsheba, killing of Uriah, numbering of the people), Scripture plainly tells us so. Yet no sin is imputed to David in his flight from Saul. In fact, David was blessed by Ahimelech and given Goliath’s sword. David did not arm himself for the purpose of overthrowing Saul’s government or of usurping Saul’s throne. David had Goliath’s sword, but respecting Saul, it was strictly a defensive weapon.

The lessons for Christians today are as follows:

1. Flight is resistance and must be justified on the same basis as any other kind of resistance to authority.

2. Whether lesser threats justify flight, a threat to one’s life "without a cause" certainly does.

3. Flight does not justify the attempted overthrow of an existing government.

4. The threat must be verifiable and not simply a perceived threat.

5. The fugitive has some remaining responsibility to attempt reconciliation.

6. As much as possible the flight should also be accompanied by furthering one’s calling.

7. Though one may feign friendship with foreign powers he should not actively help them to subjugate his home country.

We see from David’s example that Paul’s statement in Romans 13:2 cannot be taken in an absolute sense. Clearly there is some point at which civil powers not only may be resisted but should be resisted as well. As James M. Willson stated in his exposition Civil Government, "For in truth, there are occasions when it is not merely lawful, but a matter of high and imperative duty, to resist authority."[9] In fact, we conclude with Willson that "The principal standard by which this institution [of civil government] is to be measured is the Word of God."[10]

1. Flight is resistance and must be justified on the same basis as any other kind of resistance to "the powers that be."

The point has been made that David did not base his resistance upon Samuel’s judgment against Saul in 1 Samuel 13:14, "Now thy kingdom shall not continue, ... because thou has not kept [that] which the Lord commanded thee." But neither was David’s resistance based on Samuel’s judgment in 1 Samuel 15:23, "Because thou [Saul] hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from [being] king."

It is certainly true that the prior narratives of Saul’s rebellion form the backdrop for David’s flight, but nowhere does David use these narratives as his justification for resisting Saul’s summons to appear. In fact, on the two occasions that were presented to David to assassinate Saul, David continued to refer to Saul as the "anointed of the Lord" (or Meshiach Yahveh). We must look beyond the statements of Samuel, then, to find the justification for David’s resistance to authority.

2. Whether or not lesser threats justify flight, a real threat to one’s life without a cause certainly justifies flight.

Significant to this understanding is the phrase "without a cause." Obviously someone who is summoned to appear before the magistrate to answer for a capital crime is required to appear. Otherwise we would have to conclude that those who are accused of the most heinous crimes in a society are the very ones who are also free to flee from giving an answer.

David’s life would have been threatened in an unlawful way had he obeyed the summons to appear before Saul. So too a Christian placed in a similar situation to David’s must remember the requirements of the sixth commandment. "The duties required in the sixth commandment are, ... avoiding all occasions, temptations and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any."[11]

3. Though flight is a justifiable remedy against the tyranny of existing governments, flight does not of itself justify the attempted overthrow of the existing government.

David did not attempt the overthrow of the existing order, even though it might be argued that at a military level David was a "lesser magistrate." David's response was not greater than the threat. A general rebellion against authority structures can be more harmful than the threat it is intended to answer. David’s six hundred man "militia" may have been perceived by Saul as a civil threat, but it was not in reality.

Further, not only does David’s example exclude the overthrow of an existing order, it also precludes seeking of personal vengeance. Many well-meant uprisings have been deprived of God’s blessing at just this point. It is one thing to preserve and defend one’s own life or the lives of others. It is quite another thing to march on the capital under force of arms. The Rising at Pentland in November 1666 is just such an attempt at revenge. It was born in frustration as much as justice and ended in ignominy and defeat.

4. The threat to one’s life without a cause must be verifiable and not simply a perceived threat.

David had witnesses close to Saul. Both Jonathan and Michal reported to David concerning Saul’s threats. Importantly, however, was the corroborating evidence — Saul’s actual attempt upon David’s life. "And Saul sought to smite David even to the wall with the javelin; but he slipped away out of Saul’s presence, and he smote the javelin into the wall: and David fled, and escaped that night." (1 Samuel 19:10)

Many today, whether from a general willingness to believe the worst or some other motive, are ready to turn against lawful authority based on little more than innuendo or rumor. Of course not every one of David’s band of six hundred had the same provocation David had, but David’s flight and then his gathering of the six hundred had its genesis in an overt act of the king and was testified to by witnesses. In fact, it is to David’s credit that he was slow to believe an evil report concerning Saul.

5. The fugitive has some remaining responsibility to attempt reconciliation with the magistrate.

It would have been easy enough for the dispute between David and Saul to become a sort of blood feud. David prevented such a feud from happening by being quick and available to reconcile. Jonathan worked a seeming reconciliation early, "and Saul hearkened unto the voice of Jonathan: and Saul sware, as the Lord liveth, he shall not be slain. And Jonathan called David, and Jonathan shewed him all those things. And Jonathan brought David to Saul, and he was in his presence, as in times past." (1 Samuel 19:6-7)

Further David seems to be motivated more from a desire to reconcile than merely from abject fear in the incidents at En-Gedi and again in the wilderness of Ziph. In the first instance David proclaimed, "know thou and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in my hand, and I have not sinned against thee; yet thou huntest my soul to take it." (1 Samuel 24:1lb) This seems even more salient in David’s comment to Abishai in the wilderness of Ziph. "As the Lord liveth, the Lord shall smite him; or his day shall come to die; or he shall descend into battle, and perish." (1 Samuel 26:10) A similar injunction is found just before Paul’s exposition on the civil magistrate in Romans.[12]

6. As much as possible the flight should be accompanied by furthering or pursuing one’s calling.

Whether we regard David’s calling as a warrior or whether we consider him a lesser magistrate, we find him pursuing his calling even while a refugee. Apparently David protected the ranchers in the wilderness of Paran against sheep and goat rustlers. He sent his men to one of the larger ranchers in the area to receive tribute — and even the rancher’s hired hands were able to admit regarding David’s armed band, "the men were very good unto us, we were not hurt, neither missed we anything, as long as we were conversant with them, when we were in the fields: They were a wall unto us both by night and day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep." (1 Samuel 25:15-16 cp v.2.)

Not only did David protect the local populace from marauding nomads who might steal their cattle, he also later used Ziklag as the base of operations to fight against the enemies of Israel. "And David and his men went up, and invaded the Geshurites, and the Gezires, and the Amalekites: for those [nations were] of old the inhabitants of the land, as thou goest to Shur, even unto the land of Egypt. And David smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive, and took away the sheep, and the oxen, and the asses, and the camels, and the apparel, and returned, and came to Achish." (1 Samuel 27:8-9)

This is not a justification for every refugee to take the law into his own hands. We must remember that David’s calling at that time of his life was no longer tending his father’s sheep. He was a military hero with an unbroken string of victories, beginning with his victory over Goliath in 1 Samuel chapter seventeen. Thus when David followed his God-given vocation it took the form of fighting against Israel’s enemies and keeping safe the citizens of Israel in their several callings. It would be a terrible wresting of Scripture to attempt to use David’s flight in order to justify armed rebellion. This brings us to the seventh and final principle we may learn from David’s flight.

7. Though one may feign friendship with foreign powers, he should not actively help them to subjugate his home country.

David defended himself and his cohort from Saul’s aggressive attempts to kill them. But when David had the opportunity to overthrow Saul, usurp his authority and end his life, he chose not to do so. David "stayed his servants ... and suffered them not to rise against Saul." (1 Samuel 24:7) David explained to Saul, "[some] bade me kill thee: but mine eye spared thee.... Know thou and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in mine hand, and I have not sinned against thee; yet thou huntest my soul to take it." (vv. 10-11)

Though David had opportunity to kill Saul, he made a conscious moral decision not to do so. Though he could have ended the persecution against him with the same knife he used to cut Saul’s skirt, he determined merely to "cut off the skirt of Saul’s robe privily." (v. 4) It was clear throughout David’s fugitive years that he meant no harm to the established order.

Later, when Aschish gave David the border town Ziklag, David could have used his position to raid Judah. Instead he used Ziklag as a base of operations to attack Israel’s enemies. Achish, in fact, seemed inclined to believe that David would "make a road" against Judah. David very handily managed to situate himself in the rear of the Philistines for the battle of Gilboa. Had the lords of the Philistines allowed him to remain there as Achish suggested, the battle of Gilboa could have turned out quite differently.

David did not make himself the enemy of the people of Israel nor of the existing order. Nor is a Christian today free to make himself an enemy of his country. Whatever organizations one may wish to join in order to add his voice to existing protests against unjust government, it seems out of keeping both with David’s example and with the admonition of Paul in Romans Chapter thirteen to attempt the overthrow of an existing government.[13]

So Christians today undoubtedly see the injustices round about them in American society and others as well. Yet we do not wish to make ourselves a part of the problem. We should not add to the chaos of living apart from God's law. Rather, we are called upon in this day as David was in his to resist tyranny and bad government by lawful means. We should not be involving ourselves with groups which call for the overthrow of the existing order; we should not be motivated by vengeance; we should continue as much as possible to remain true in our callings and to glorify God by keeping his commandments.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion ,IV.xx.23

[2] Institutes, IV.xx.26-29

[3] Ibid. IV.xx.29

[4] 2 Chron 22:10-23:21

[5] We might also instance Ehud and Eglon in Judges 3

[6] 1 Peter 2:13-14, "Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well." Acts 5:29, "Then Peter and the [other] apostles answered and said, we ought to obey God rather than men."

[7] Samuel Rutherford, Lex, Rex or The Law and The Prince, (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Pub. 1982 reprint of 1644), p. 159a.

[8] 1 Samuel 23:13

[9] James M Willson, Civil Government. (Phila.: Wm. S. Young, 1853), pp. 35-36.

[10] ibid. p. 48.

[11] WLC 135

[12] "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thrist, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good." Romans 12:19-21.

[13] Of course this does not preclude an indigenous population throwing off a colonial power, such as Israel and the Midianites. Nor does it preclude the restoration of a de jure magistrate against a usurper, such as Absalom or Athaliah.