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David had two opportunities to kill Saul but proved himself to be a spiritual man!
Chapter 24 opens with Saul returning from his pursuit of the Philistines and learning that David was in the wilderness of En-gedi. Taking three thousand of his choicest men, Saul again pursued David and caught up with him - but not in the manner in which he expected to come into proximity with David. Saul went into a cave to rest and, although we do not really know the location of this place, from Psalm 104:18 we can infer that it was a very high, remote spot, where wild goats would thrive, and where soldiers would not fare well in their pursuit of David. Saul was unaware that David and his men already occupied it and, while he was relieving himself, David's men were excitedly urging him to take advantage of the opportunity to do away with his foe. David's men recite a prophecy to David, which says (v43)
"Behold; I am about to give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you"
David's response is to secretly cut off the edge of Saul's robe - but his heart and conscience were so tender that even this act bothered him and (v61) he said, "The Lord forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the Lord's anointed." We can conclude that either David's men repeated a false prophecy, which should be rejected (cf. 1 Kings 22) or, second, this may be a prophecy related to some enemy other than Saul, and wrongly applied to Saul by David's men, or third, this prophecy is genuine and related to Saul, but wrongly interpreted and applied by David's men, for the vital part of the verse tells us "you shall do to him as it seems good to you". I am totally inclined towards the third option, for we notice a marked difference between a carnal and a spiritual man; the carnal man is always ready to take God's program into his own hands, or he will not want God's program to succeed if he is not included in the process. We remember Abram who took God's programme into his own hands in his relationship with Hagar (Genesis 16). David was a spiritual man who did not wish to intervene in any way with God's program, but would allow God to eliminate Saul in His own time. I believe this was a testing prophecy proving that God did, indeed, put Saul completely into David's hand - but David passed the test by doing what "seemed good to him" - which was to spare the Lord's anointed and have no blood-guilt on his hands. Saul, on the other hand, as a carnal man, wanted to make certain that God's programme did not succeed and He attempted to kill David even though he was aware of the fact that he was God's king chosen to be his successor.
Almost one hundred years later, when Solomon discovered that God was going to take the kingdom from him and leave his descendants with only two tribes, he endeavoured to make certain that God's program would not succeed by attempting to take the life of the man, Jeroboam, who God had chosen as his successor over the northern ten tribes (I Kings 11:29-40). Even Solomon, who began on such a high spiritual plateau, ended his days as a carnal man. David had not yet been tempted by such carnality and his tender heart was still turned to God and he would not touch His anointed servant. His conscience would not even allow Saul to have been in a life threatening position and so, as soon as Saul left the cave, David went outside and confronted Saul, saying (v9-121):
Wherefore hearest thou men's words, saying, Behold David seeketh thy hurt? Behold this day thine eyes have seen how that the Lord had delivered thee today into mine hand in the cave: and some bade me kill thee, but mine eye spared thee, and I said, I will not put forth mine hand against my lord, for he is the Lord's anointed. Moreover, my father, see, yea, for in that I cut off the skirt of thy robe, and kill thee not, 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. The Lord judge between me and thee, and the Lord avenge me of thee: but mine hand shall not be upon thee."
David reminds the king that men can be known by their fruits and, in the words of the ancient proverb, he quotes, "Out of the wicked comes forth wickedness" (v133). David has done nothing wicked towards Saul, and he assures Saul his hand will not be against him in the future (v13). He also reminds the king that his fears about David are exaggerated and he shows his humility by likening himself to a dead dog and to a single flea (v14). How can such a great man as Saul, with all his military might, have such fears about David?
David closes his argument by telling Saul that he has committed himself into God's care. He has left judgment and retribution to God. He looks to God for justice and for protection from Saul's attacks (v15) and, with this, David rests his case. Saul was clearly shocked to hear his name called out by David and, in his seriously sinful state, began to cry and, in his confused way, even admitted his mistake (v171):
And he said to David, Thou art more righteous than I, for thou hast rewarded me good, whereas I have rewarded thee evil. And thou hast shewed this day how that thou hast dealt well with me: forasmuch as when the Lord had delivered me into thine hand, thou killedst me not. For if a man find his enemy, will he let him go well away? wherefore the Lord reward thee good for that thou hast done unto me this day.
Saul lifted up his voice, weeping, calling David his "son." We see again how David's humility made it so much easier for Saul to call David this after David had first called him his "father" in verse 11, and after David bowed down to him as a faithful servant to the king. It is obvious that David had Saul's life in his hands, and spared it. How unlike himself David is! Saul confesses that David is righteous, but he is not. He has done wickedly towards David, and yet David has done "good" towards him in response. David would not have let him go if he were his enemy, and thus he must be his friend and so Saul invokes God's blessings upon David. We hear clearly from the mouth of Saul that he certainly recognized at this moment, if not so clearly at other times, the future position of David (v201):
"And now, behold, I know well that thou shalt surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in thine hand."
We might ask why Saul did not repent and welcome David home? The answer can only be that he was now so thoroughly evil! He even asked, "Swear now therefore unto me by the Lord, that thou wilt not cut off my seed after me, and that thou wilt not destroy my name out of my father's house". David swore without any trace of guile and Saul returned home (24:22) while David and his men returned to the stronghold. We know that David had already sworn this same oath to Jonathan (20:15-16) but, by now, Saul appears unable to act rationally and we remember that he had committed his third tragic sin in the murder of the priests of Nob. David is probably hopeful that his troubles with Saul have ended, but he is no fool. Saul had "repented" before (cf. 19:1-7), but it did not last long. David will see what Saul's long-term response is by watching from a distance. The other side of this coin is that, by his future covert acts against the enemies of Israel, David is still serving Saul in a backhanded fashion. If there is any temptation for the people to turn to David and turn against Saul then David will keep his distance, staying out of the public eye so that Saul's popularity and position will not be undermined by anything David does.
The Ziphites were a traitorous group of ingrates and Chapter 26 reports that once again they attempted to ingratiate themselves with Saul by revealing where David was hiding. They had first reported David's whereabouts in 1 Samuel 23:193: Then Ziphites came up to Saul at Gibeah, saying, "Is David not hiding with us in the strongholds at Horesh, on the hill of Hachilah, which is on the south of Jeshimon?" The insane king, forgetting his earlier promise and the fact that he owed his life to David, set out after him again towards the hill of Hachilah, but David sent out spies who knew his movements and where he was encamped. While Saul, with Abner his commander-in-chief, was sleeping in the circle of the camp with the army men camped around them, David and Abishai crawled in commando-style through the underbrush down to Saul's camp. Abishai was the son of Zeruiah, David's sister and II Samuel 2:18 tells us that Zeruiah had three sons, Joab, Abishai, and Asahel. These three were valiant warriors to whom David often turned until tragedy struck later (ref. II Samuel 2:23) and Abner killed Asahel. Realizing that the Lord had once again put Saul within David's grasp, Abishai begged, "Let me smite him, I pray thee, with the spear even to the earth at once, and I will not smite him the second time" (v81). David forbade Abishai from killing Saul for essentially the same reasons he articulated in the cave in chapter 24. No one can lift his hand against the Lord's anointed without incurring guilt, as David made clear in verse 9: "Destroy him not. for who can stretch forth his hand against the Lord's anointed, and be guiltless?" Again we see the key to David's life, for he knew God would bring His programme to pass in His own time and so he would let God choose the means (v10-111):
As the Lord liveth, the Lord shall smite him; or his day shall come to die; or he shall descend into battle, and perish. The Lord forbid that I should stretch forth mine hand against the Lord's anointed.
David was inspired in his next choice of action, which would have a devastating effect on the morale of king Saul and his men, for he instructed Abishai to take the spear and the cruse of water from beside Saul as he slept. They then escaped unobserved to a hilltop, because the Lord had caused a deep sleep to fall on Saul and his men (v12). From a safe distance, David called out to Abner, Saul's commander-in-chief, and taunted him (v151): "Art not thou a valiant man?. . . wherefore then hast thou not kept thy lord the king? . . . As the Lord liveth, ye are worthy to die, because ye have not kept your master, the Lord's anointed. And now, see where the king's spear is, and the cruse of water that was at his bolster." There is a reason for David to cry out to the soldiers, and to Abner in particular. David indicts the entire group for not properly protecting their king and, for this, David insists that their failure should cost them their lives. As we read David's words to Abner and the others, we begin to grasp the reasons behind David's perplexing invasion of Saul's camp. David did not go down to Saul's camp frivolously, as a kind of spur of the moment prank. He had a plan which had worked out just as he had expected. When David asked for a volunteer, Abishai stepped forward, just as David had anticipated for we learn that Abishai was a mighty man of valour, as described in 2 Samuel 23:18-19, a man who had no qualms about taking the life of another. David took Abishai along with him, knowing full well that he would want to kill Saul when they reached him in his camp.
David calls out to Saul's soldiers who are there to arrest David, who has been represented as a dangerous outlaw who is determined to gain the throne by killing Saul. Regardless of the truth they are Saul's secret servicemen and David informs them they have failed their most important duty - that of protecting their king. David claims a would-be killer successfully penetrated their defences and reached their king, fully intending to do him harm. Only because David stopped him (i.e. Abishai) is the king still breathing and, of course, while David did not approach Saul to kill him, this was surely Abishai's intention. The only reason Abishai did not kill King Saul was that David stopped him. If any doubted an enemy had come this close to Saul they only had to look for the king's spear and water jug. We can imagine the dismay, especially for Abner, when they looked at the ground, inches from Saul's head, and see the hole where the head of the spear has been and the missing water jug, and perhaps footprints leading to the spear and back. David invites Saul's security force to send a man up to him to retrieve the missing items for David has made his point.
In truth, David saved the king's life. As commander-in-chief of Saul's forces, Abner is responsible for this serious breach of security which endangered the life of the king. Abner is the man in charge. It was on his watch, so to speak, that Saul's life was endangered and it was Abner who lay next to the king, within easy reach of the one who would have killed the king. Abner is the most renowned soldier in Saul's army. This incident would put a terrible blemish on his record but, much worse than this, failure to protect the king was a crime punishable by death. In this instance, not only Abner, but every one of the 3,000 soldiers is guilty of a most unpardonable sin.4
Awakened by the noise, Saul recognized David's voice. David addressed him directly, once more declaring that he was innocent of any evil intentions towards Saul his king. Once again Saul shouted back (v213): "I have sinned. Return, my son David, for I will not harm you again because my life was precious in your sight this day. Behold, I have played the fool and have committed a serious error."
David knew better than to trust Saul, the sin-filled insane monarch, and gave instructions that Saul should send one of his young men to fetch the king's spear before declaring (v23-243):
"The Lord will repay each man for his righteousness and his faithfulness; for the Lord delivered you into my hand today, but I refused to stretch out my hand against the Lord's anointed. Now behold, as your life was highly valued in my sight this day, so may my life be highly valued in the sight of the Lord, and may He deliver me from all distress."
Saul was once again forced to concede the superior behaviour of David (v253): "Then Saul said to David, 'Blessed are you, my son David; you will both accomplish much and surely prevail.'"
David did not use Saul's spear against him, but Saul got the point. Saul recognised his own sin in his dealings with David and, because David regards Saul's life as precious, Saul promised to regard David's life as precious. Saul confessed that he had sinned, and that in his sin, he had been guilty of the very serious error to which David refers. When David invited one of Saul's young men to come over and take back Saul's spear we should recognise that the spear was a symbol of authority in the ancient world and David does not presume to keep the symbol of authority that still belongs to Saul. Davis and Whitcomb5 comment: "The spear was the symbol of authority in place of the scepter. This is the reason that the spear ('javelin' - A. V.) was at hand in the royal court of Saul (cf. 1 Sam. 18:8ff.; 19:9). This traditional sign of authority still exists among some bedouin Arabs today. A spear stuck in the ground outside the entrance distinguishes the tent of a sheik."
So David went on his way, and Saul returned to his place. In chapter 24, David was conscience-smitten because he had cut off a portion of Saul's robe. While David did many things right in dealing with Saul in chapter 24, we notice that he failed to consistently apply the same principles in his dealings with Nabal in chapter 25. It is only after he was gently rebuked by Abigail that David left vengeance to God and gave up his plan to execute Nabal, along with all his male servants. In chapter 26 we find David in circumstances similar to those in chapter 24 and it appears that God gave him another chance to strike a powerful blow at the physical and spiritual moral of Saul and his men. He has also gained many witnesses to his own spiritual and moral fibre, fighting men who would surely have quietly discussed the truth about this strange "adversary," despite their own embarrassment. The differences between the two chapters show us how well David did the second time around having matured considerably in the interim period.
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