Which Way Around the Mulberry Trees?

Then the Philistines went up once again and deployed themselves in the Valley of Rephaim. Therefore David inquired of the Lord, and He said, “You shall not go up; circle around behind them, and come upon them in front of the mulberry trees. And it shall be, when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the mulberry trees, then you shall advance quickly. For then the Lord will go out before you to strike the camp of the Philistines.”  And David did so, as the Lord commanded him; and he drove back the Philistines from Geba as far as Gezer.

II Samuel 5:22-25

     The verse above was a puzzlement to me in the formative years of my Christian life, and still causes me to pause with wonder whenever I read it. In the midst of the majestic narrative of the rise of King David to the throne of Israel, the God of heaven and earth condescends to give detailed battle tactics to David, specifying where and how to lay his ambush, and even identifying the species of trees that will provide his cover. Quite opposite the Deist conception of an uninvolved God, here is a picture of the Lord occupied with the minutia of man’s movements and giving intimate directions along the way. The modern critic will surely find this all to be a naive depiction of God by the folklore of an ancient people, but for the believer who knows that God’s Word is trustworthy and true, it is still a difficult text. God was involved in the details of David’s life in a way that seems almost prosaic, and far different from our experience. It is one thing for God to thunder from the heights of Sinai, but quite another for Him to tell David which way to circle around the mulberry trees. Does a passage like this reveal the normal way that God guides His people about their affairs, and if not, what has changed?

     The Westminster Confession deals with this question up front, in the first paragraph of its first chapter, because it is so essential that we have a proper understanding of how God reveals Himself to us, and what our expectations should be regarding His guidance in the life of faith. The opening statement of the Confession says:

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

WCF 1.1

     This statement makes a necessary distinction between the various times and ways the Lord revealed Himself to the ancient church, which are now ceased, and His establishment of the Scriptures to be the final, objective, and authoritative revelation. The point that is rightly emphasized is that the latter is greater than the former. We may at times wish for the kind of personal and personalized guidance that David received when navigating the mulberry trees on the battlefield. We have equivalent questions in our lives, the kind of which there is no chapter and verse to turn to: What job should I take? Who should I marry? And so on. There are many today who believe that God still supplements Scripture with personalized revelation, but before we begin to envy the old ways, consider how much greater and more sufficient is the guidance of Scripture alone.

     First, the Scriptures better preserve and propagate the truth. The Bible is a constant guide for our understanding of God and His will. The Lord’s “sundry” and “divers” manners of revelation to the ancient church did not exactly preserve and propagate the truth as the completed Canon of Scripture does, in such a way that the whole church is blessed, and the truth of God is established in the world. It is our blessing and benefit that the revelation of God is not this way for you and that way for me, but something to which we can turn together and find unity in the truth.

     Secondly, the Scriptures offer a more sure establishment and comfort to the church against the sin and untruth of the world. The commitment of God’s Word to writing never leaves us wondering when God might speak, or what He might say. The establishment of the church and its comfort in this world do not depend on occasional, circumstantial, or private guidance, but on the sure foundation of an established Word to which we can all turn. This is a corporate blessing, as the Confession points out. You may at times be tempted to envy the private revelation that David and others received in the Old Testament, thinking that it would be better for you, but the truth is that it is not better for us. What is better for us is to be established and comforted together as a church, by the Word of God that applies to us all.

     These are but a few of the reasons why the gift of Scripture is a better blessing than the various ways of revelation in times past, which have now ceased. The Word of God is no less personal, for it is truly addressed to each member of the body of Christ. It is given to all of us, but also to each one of us. It may not tell you which way to take around the mulberry tree, but the truth it reveals is applicable to every circumstance of life wherein we need direction from the Lord. The fact that He directs all of us together through His Word leaves each one of us with the responsibility to pray, think, and pray some more about how to specifically apply His Word to our own circumstances, and there is always an application. Discovering this through the Word is one of the mounting pleasures of the Christian life, and it provides each of us with guidance that is fuller and richer than even David enjoyed. 

     In the woods behind my house where I hike from time to time, there is a mulberry tree along the path I often take. I will confess to having circled behind it a few times, with a knowing smile on my face. Call it a simple salute to David’s miraculous victory, and a gesture of thanks to God that His guidance is no less real in my life through His Word.                   

Professor of Old Testament Studies at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

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