Precarious Places

“So Saul took three thousand able young men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats.” (1 Samuel 24:2, NIV)

A young man exiled from his own kingdom, hiding out on a cliff face. He remembers how his brothers had lorded over him, claiming that he was not their brother. They had sent him out with the sheep and a kind of lyre, and he had spent his younger years singing to heaven, roaming for the best grazing land. He remembers how he could not always keep the sheep from danger, but he could keep them from harm.

Then one day a prophet had given him great news, like something out of a fairy tale. David was to be king. But he would have to bide his time; such promises do not always spring fruit like magic; they have to be watered, nurtured, and awaited.

Now our exiled king is alone at the end of the world, sitting under the shady side of a rock. He holds his little instrument in his hand. He is looking now down the road for the man who hunts him, and now up the rock at a wild goat who walks the same crags.

He slinks down when he sees a silhouette moving towards the cliff. Too short to be a human. The distinctive jaunt gives the animal away: it is a lone hyena. He crouches lower and watches to see what the mountain goat will do. But it doesn’t seem to care about the hyena. The graceful animal turns towards him calmly. The hyena reaches the face, and the goat leaps straight up, the height of a man, and perches on a tiny outcropping in the rock. David is awestruck at this amazing animal.

The goat doesn’t even deem the danger worthy of looking down. He is in no danger; the hyena cannot navigate the cliff-face. And so the poet-king plucks a string on his lyre and conjures a tune:

For who is God save the Lord? or who is a rock save our God?
It is God who girds me with strength, and makes my way perfect.
He makes my feet like the feet of a mountain goat, and sets me in high places.
He enlarges my steps, so that my feet won’t slip.

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Hinds’ Feet in High Places

We were rock climbing with a group of tourists recently. Some of them had never seen rock climbing equipment like special shoes and harnesses. One asked me if the shoes actually helped. I explained that the rough material allows you to grab the rock, and the pointed toe allows you to wedge your foot onto very small footholds.

After a few hours of hot and dusty climbing, we were on the bus ride home. Most of us were knackered from the climb. As we ascended out of the hot valley, I looked to the left and saw a short cliff face, steeper and slicker than any I had climbed. At the top, a group of goats were poking around the cliff for grass. Further up the road I saw a goat-herder or two, common in this part of the world. Then, with a shock, I remembered that word from Habakkuk:

“God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.” (Hab. 3:19, ESV)

Now animal names in ancient Hebrew are not always precise. English versions use “deer” or “hind”; but Habakkuk was certainly paraphrasing the older words of King David, who lived among the mountain goats.1 I found that the word involved still means mountain goat in Arabic, and it must be the more ancient of the two meanings.

Amazingly, three thousand years later, the nature show Planet Earth shows the Nubian ibex, a type of wild goat, in Ein Gedi National Park in Israel—the very same oasis where David hid from Saul (1 Samuel 24:1). This leaves no doubt as to where David got his inspiration.

Mountain goats are found all over the world with awe-inspiring abilities. Many nature articles have been written about their unique feet, which have properties very similar to rock climbers’ shoes: rough pads for friction, and pointed toes for grabbing. Another key to rock climbing is having multiple points of contact. One wildlife biologist points out that North American mountain goats have toes that actually spread as they climb, giving them not four, but eight points of contact with the rock.2

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Habakkuk and David: Living Precariously

If Habakkuk was walking in a precarious place spiritually and financially, David was living for years in great physical danger and persecution. Saul, the anointed king, who had been rejected by God, was committed to killing David. But David couldn’t just kill the king. He had to return kindness to him, since God had also chosen him as king. David humbly trusted that God would change the situation in his own timing. At the time, though, the situation was very dim. Though God had spoken to David as a child, he was for a time disinherited, living in caves, with no earthly guarantee that he would ever be king.

“So Saul took three thousand able young men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats.” (1 Samuel 24:2, NIV)

David was a shepherd himself, so he knew sheep and domestic goats. As he was driven into the wilderness by Saul, he must have seen the ibex, or wild goat, and received this goat as a parable and a promise from God. His Creator God, who had equipped these goats to straddle cliffs which no man can climb, would enable David to make his home in the most precarious of places—a narrow ledge between a king’s death wish, and God’s anointing. God did equip him, and his song was part and parcel of this equipping. God birthed in him a desire to worship his Creator in the most perilous of places.

The Safest Place

Mountain goats have many predators, but their chief protection is to live in precarious places. Steep ascents keep these magnificent animals from their earth-bound enemies. Their strategy reminds me of Pippin’s words in The Two Towersmovie:

The closer we are to danger, the farther we are from harm.

If we want safety for our children, our disciples, our friends, and our congregations, the safest thing that we can do is involve them in the mission of God. It is the mission of God to reconcile that keeps us from withering into a religion that is merely “personal business.” It is the mission of God that keeps us exercising our faith on behalf of a fallen world, testing the might of our prayers for our neighbors, joined in the work that astonishes angels. The mission of God is the high cliff that no mocking enemy can reach.

Faith is a muscle that must be flexed and stretched regularly, or it will atrophy. David may have retreated from the physical battle with Saul, but he was advancing against his spiritual enemies. We either retreat into danger, or we advance into safety. And in the heat of battle, we always find that God has set a table for us, a place to recline and receive nourishment from our Savior.

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1 The Hebrew word in Psalm 18:33 is the feminine plural of אַיָּל, ayal (H355). Gesenius allows that this word could refer to deer, a large she-goat, or a gazelle; but David’s location as well as his analogies about strong footing make it seem likely that the אילוֹת (hinds) of Psalm 18 are identical with the יעלים (wild goats) in 1 Samuel 24:2. There is also a poetic parallel in Job 39:1. See Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, H352 (ram) and H355 (hind). Public domain.

2 Douglas Chadwick spent seven years studying mountain goats in the Rocky Mountains. See Douglas H. Chadwick, A Beast the Color of Winter: The Mountain Goat Observed. pp. 50-52.

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