Here is a poignant portion of David’s lament for King Saul and Jonathan after they were slain in battle with the Philistines:
“How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath,
Proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
Or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
The daughters of the uncircumcised will exult.”
2 Samuel 1:19-20
Gath and Ashkelon were, of course, two of the foremost cities of the Philistines. And David’s great hope was that the news of Saul’s demise would not reach them; that the enemies of the Lord would not have occasion to dance in the streets at the fall of the Israelite king.
Because that is what happens, isn’t it? When God’s people fall – and especially when they fall morally – the world gets to smile, and nod, and say ‘I told you so.’ And the name of our God is dragged through the mud. And the devil kicks off little parties in the streets. Even more so when it is “the mighty” who “have fallen” – when the well-known or well-positioned among us stumble into grievous sin. Sadly, even David himself would eventually fall in such a way as to give “occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme” (2 Samuel 12:14). And that’s just the way it is. When the mighty of God fall, the devil taps his foot and plays his fiddle, and the enemies of the cross do-si-do in perfect time!
So what can we do about it? A few thoughts:
1. We must not bestow leadership hastily (1 Timothy 5:22). Saul’s demise in the battle on Mount Gilboa was more than just a physical death in a failed military campaign. Saul fell slain on the mountain because of his rebellion against the Lord (1 Samuel 28:18-19). And, in one sense, he bears the guilt of that alone. It was Saul, and not his subjects, who chose to dishonor the Lord in the matter of the campaign against the Amalekites. And yet there is also a sense in which Saul should never have been in that position. Saul was king because the people (against God’s will) clamored for a king! The rejected God as king … and God gave them the sort of potentate that rebellious people deserve. And so Saul’s demise, and the occasion it gave the Philistines for dancing, must be partially laid at the feet of the people who were in such a hurry to have someone wear the king’s shoes in their midst.
And we must learn from that! American Christians are so often willing to hand spiritual influence and clout to certain pastors merely because they are excellent communicators; or to ‘Christian’ athletes, singers, and politicians simply because they have a talent that makes them marketable. How dumb can we get? If we, like the Israelites, place on pedestals people who have not gone through the paces to qualify as Christian leaders, we’re just asking for embarrassment and scandal. Better to have a more mundane (but God-approved) leader, than one who will count down the tempo for the devil’s barn dance.
2. We must insist that those who do lead us “pay close attention to [themselves] and to [their] teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16). The devil starts to play his fiddle, and the neighborhood dons its dancing shoes when any Christian falls into grievous sin – but especially when “the mighty have fallen”. And so we must be sure that those who are granted places of authority and honor in our midst are prayed for and held accountable to a higher standard.
3. We must practice church discipline (Matthew 18:15-18). It is far better if a Christian’s fall is made public (and first dealt with) by the church, than if it comes out through the grapevine or in the media. Sometimes sin is hidden well enough and long enough that the latter cannot be helped. But whenever the church discovers grievous sin in our midst, it ought to be we (and not the media or the rumor mill) who are proactively out in front of the story. And that means, incidentally, that we must be out in front of the less public sins, too … the little foxes that eventually set great fires in God’s vineyard. Carl Trueman has recently said that, if the church actually practiced church discipline within its ranks, our moral credibility in society would greatly increase. Amen, Dr. Trueman.
4. We must not go to court against other believers (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). There are some sins, as I said above, that must be dealt with publicly by means of church discipline. Sometimes there will even be a need for police intervention (e.g., in cases of abuse). But there are petty offenses – property disputes, marriage problems, and the like – over which our neighbors might be quick to resort to the civil courts, but which Paul says believers must sort out internally, with mediation from fellow Christians. To do otherwise; to carry our disputes in front of a court of law (filled with unbelievers) would be akin to a Jewish soldier walking into Gath and announcing that King Saul was dead … and kicking off a raucous pagan block party in the process.
Let’s not give Gath and Ashkelon reason to celebrate. The devil is good enough at leading the world’s jamborees without us giving him even more to sing about.