When Saul entered into the cave where David was hiding with his men (see 1 Samuel 24:1–22), his men interpreted the event as a divine opportunity for revenge. In fact, they referenced a prophetic word virtually claiming that God was saying to kill Saul now. David faced a difficult decision that required real spiritual discernment. Was God really saying what David’s men claimed?
This story of David in the cave with Saul is relevant for present-day believers. Sometimes in our lives we may be in situations where a fellow Christian(s) claims to know God’s will for us. Some may even explicitly claim that they have a “word from God” for you to follow. Alternatively, many of us will be faced with a situation in our life that might be interpreted as a God-ordained sign that we should take a certain action.
In other words, two important issues are brought into relief here: situations where you must judge a “word” that a fellow believer may give you; and situations where you must interpret events and opportunities as to whether they are giving you divine direction to take certain actions.
1. Judging a “Prophetic Word”
As regards to judging a fellow believer’s “word from God” for you, it must first be recognized that no (prophetic) word would ever go against God’s explicit will as found in the Scriptures. For an extreme example, a word that encourages/commands one to commit adultery would obviously be unacceptable since adultery is barred in the Ten Commandments.
The New Testament urges believers to test prophetic words rather than simply obey them. Paul writes: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good; reject every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:19–22). Also see 1 Corinthians 14:29. The standard for testing is clearly Scripture as Paul asserts that Scripture is made for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Another important factor in judging a “prophetic word” is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:16; 1 John 5:6). Jesus told believers that the Spirit would “guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13; cf. 1 John 2:20). In the story of David and Saul in the cave, David’s response to the prophetic word was not in step with the witness of the Spirit, as his conscience pricked him following his cutting the corner of Saul’s robe (1 Samuel 24:5). The supposed prophecy David’s men spoke led him to do something that went against his convictions.
It is not always easy to distinguish between the spirit’s voice and our own selfish desires. In order to not be deceived by our own sinful hearts, it is important to examine our motives (to see if we are seeking our own interests or God’s) and reaffirm our willingness to submit to God’s will no matter what. When David felt convicted, he realized his selfish motives in the matter and submitted himself once again to God’s will. He affirmed that God had anointed Saul (1 Samuel 24:6) and put Saul into God’s hands rather than his own.
2. Discerning Divine Opportunities
On the other hand, many Christians regularly interpret the turn of events or opportunities presented as divine guidance to take a particular action. This often entails interpreting opportunities or what may otherwise appear to be coincidence as a sign confirming or disconfirming what one thinks the will of God is regarding a particular decision. For example, when I am given a new job opportunity, should I interpret this as God calling me to change careers or positions? Or could it be meant to confirm that I am a valuable or skilled employee? Or could it be there to confirm that I need to stay where I currently work? Should I necessarily draw out a divine message at all from the opportunity?
Living life and discerning God’s will takes wisdom and we are urged as Christians to be “making the most of every opportunity” (Ephesians 5:16). James 4:15 encourages Christians to be humble in our decisions and planning in life and say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” Apparently, we should not always expect certainty regarding which path to take or regarding which choice is clearly God’s will for us.
In the book of Esther, when the Jewish people were going to be annihilated by Haman, Esther’s uncle Mordecai urges Esther to act on their behalf but does not tell her with certainty that it is because God has ordained her to do so at this point. Instead he says, “who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14, emphasis added). This perspective expresses a biblical position on interpreting events and opportunities. It expresses some humility. It does not claim full knowledge of God’s will in the matter, but it does, in faith, suggest a divine possibility. As Christians, we must always remember to “test and approve what God’s will is” (Romans 12:2) and to live life with humility and faith (Romans 12:3).
— Paul S. Evans, adapted from his new book 1–2 Samuel (Story of God Bible Commentary)