Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(1Samuel 26:1-25) The Ziphites again Betray David to Saul—David surprises Saul asleep in his Camp, but once more Spares his Life, simply taking away the royal Spear and a Cruse of Water—Saul is again Moved by David’s Nobleness.
And the Ziphites came unto Saul to Gibeah, saying, Doth not David hide himself in the hill of Hachilah, which is before Jeshimon?(1) The Ziphites came unto Saul.—There is grave difficulty connected with the recital contained in this chapter. Is it another account of the incident told in 1 Samuel 24, 26 by a different narrator? This is the opinion of some modern expositors of weight: for instance, Ewald and the Bishop of Bath and Wells in the Speaker’s Commentary. The question at issue is as follows:—We have in this First Book of Samuel, in 1 Samuel 23, 24, 26, two recitals of David sparing his great adversary’s life, at first sight under very similar circumstances. For instance: in both these occurrences (1) it is the same people, the Ziphites, who call Saul’s attention to David’s presence in their neighbourhood; (2) in both, Saul comes from Gibeah with the same number of men, 3,000; (3) the general bearing of the incident is identical in both—viz., the persuasions of David’s followers to induce their leader to take Saul’s life when in his power resisted by the noble-minded chieftain; the taking of something personal by David from the sleeping king, as a proof that the royal life had been in his hands; the sequel, which describes the heartfelt temporary repentance of Saul for the past. But here the resemblance ends. The circumstances of the night raid by David and his companions into the camp of the sleeping Saul are, when examined closely, so entirely different from the circumstances of the midday siesta of Saul in the En-gedi cavern, where David and his band were dwelling, that it is really impossible to assume that they are versions of one and the same incident. We conclude, therefore, with some certainty, that the accounts contained in 1 Samuel 23, 24, , 26 refer to two distinct and separate events; and so Keil, Erdmann and Lange, Dean Payne Smith in the Pulpit Commentary, Wordsworth, &c. Bishop Hervey, in the Speaker’s Commentary, is, however, supported in his hypothesis of the two accounts referring to only one incident by Ewald, De Wette, and others. In the course of this exposition, the more striking agreements and divergencies will be discussed.
There remains, however, a still graver question to be considered, the gravity and difficulty of which remains the same whether we assume, as we propose to do, that twice in the course of the outlaw life of David the king’s life was in his power, or that only once David stood over the sleeping king, sword in hand, and that the two accounts refer to one and the same event—For what purpose did the compiler of the First Book of Samuel insert in his narrative this twenty-sixth chapter—where either the old story of 1 Samuel 23, 24 is repeated with certain variations, or else an incident of a similar nature to one which has been told before in careful detail is repeated at great length? To this important question no perfectly satisfactory reply can be given. The object of one such recital in an account of the early life of the great founder of Israelitic greatness is clear, but we may well ask why was a second narrative of an incident of like nature inserted in a book where conciseness is ever so carefully studied? All we can suggest is, that everything which conduced to the glory of the favourite hero of Israel was of the deepest interest to the people, and the surpassing nobility and generosity of the magnanimity of David to his deadly foe was deemed worthy of these detailed accounts even in the necessarily brief compilation of the inspired writer of the history of this time.
Then Saul arose, and went down to the wilderness of Ziph, having three thousand chosen men of Israel with him, to seek David in the wilderness of Ziph.(2) Then Saul arose, and went down to the wilderness of Ziph.—We assume, then, that after the marriage of David with Abigail he and his armed band returned again to his old neighbourhood in the south—in the desert of Judah—the district named after the Hill of Hachilah being, no doubt, in all respects well adapted for the permanent encampment of such a large band as David’s now most certainly was. David, who had been forced on a previous occasion to leave it on account of the hot pursuit of Saul, aided by the Ziphites, who knew the country and its resources so well, probably now supposed, after the protestation of Saul at En-gedi, that he would now at least be left in peace. But he forgot with whom he had to do—forgot the state of mind of his determined foe, and how likely it was that the old mania would return with redoubled force. The Ziphites, however, who knew Saul, and the feeling respecting David which existed at the court of Saul, repeated their old tactics, and sent, as on a previous occasion, to suggest that with their help the obnoxious chieftain and his free lances could be destroyed. The temptation was too great to be resisted; so probably, with the advice of Abner, Saul took the field again. The 3,000 seem to have been the standing force which Saul kept round him in the Gibeah garrison. (See the first notice of this standing army in 1Samuel 13:2.)
And Saul pitched in the hill of Hachilah, which is before Jeshimon, by the way. But David abode in the wilderness, and he saw that Saul came after him into the wilderness.(3) But David abode in the wilderness.—The former incident, when David spared Saul’s life, happened long after the information of the Ziphites brought the king to the hill “Hachilah, on the south of Jeshimon.” Then David, on hearing of the march of Saul and his army, retired into the wilderness of Maon. Saul pursued him, and David and his force were then only saved from destruction owing to the news of a formidable Philistine invasion. This intelligence called Saul’s forces away from the pursuit of David. David, unmolested, drew off his band, and sought refuge et En-gedi (1 Samuel 23). After the Philistine invasion had been repulsed, Saul again commenced operations against David; and marched his force to En-gedi, in one of the caves of which took place the scene where David for the first time spared the king’s life (1 Samuel 24). Now, after the information of the Ziphites had brought down Saul and his soldiers from Gibeah, David does not flee in haste to Maon, and thence to En-gedi, nor is Saul called away to any Philistine invasion; but David abides in the wilderness, and his scouts come and tell him that Saul in very deed (1Samuel 26:4) was come after him in force.
And David arose, and came to the place where Saul had pitched: and David beheld the place where Saul lay, and Abner the son of Ner, the captain of his host: and Saul lay in the trench, and the people pitched round about him.(5) And David arose.—Immediately after the scouts informed him of the purpose of Saul, and of the near proximity of the royal army David seems to have resolved upon that night adventure which resulted in the episode told in this twenty-sixth chapter.
In the trench.—The English Version (Margin) has, “in the midst of his carriages”; Keil renders, “by the wagon rampart”; The LXX. translate the Hebrew word by “covered chariots.” The meaning is, no doubt, that the king lay down within the barricade or rampart formed by the baggage wagons.
Then answered David and said to Ahimelech the Hittite, and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, brother to Joab, saying, Who will go down with me to Saul to the camp? And Abishai said, I will go down with thee.(6) Ahimelech the Hittite.—The Hittites were one of the old Canaanitish peoples; we hear of them round Hebron in the time of Abraham (Genesis 15:20). The conquering Israelites subdued, but did not exterminate them; and gradually, in the days of the weakness and divisions which succeeded the first conquest, the Hittites, in common with many other of the old tribes, seeem to have enjoyed the Land of Promise with the children of Israel in a kind of joint occupation. We find the Hittites ranking here among David’s trusted faithful men; and later we hear of another Hittite, Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, filling an important post in the royal army, and possessing a house and an establishment in the capital city of Jerusalem. We do not hear again of this Ahimelech in the sacred record.
Abishai the son of Zeruiah.—Zeruiah was David’s sister. Abishai, later one of the famous generals of David, was brother to Joab, afterwards the captain of the royal host. Abishai was apparently nearly of the same age as David. There was a third younger brother also high in the favour of his kinsman David—Asahel, celebrated especially for his speed in running. Between these three sons of Zeruiah and Abner a blood feud seems to have existed. Abner, the near relative, and captain of the host of Saul throughout that monarch’s reign, is closely associated with the fortunes of Saul. It has been supposed, and with some probability, that he was among the determined foes of David. Dreading the advent of the son of Jesse to the throne, he saw in his elevation the signal of the downfall of all Saul’s family and friends. He, Abner, surely would no longer be captain of the host of Israel. The words of David to Abner in this chapter (1Samuel 26:14-16) seem to point to the fierce hatred which existed between them. The bloody sequel to the feud between the great kinsman of Saul and the three brothers, the famous sons of David’s sister, is strictly in accordance with what we should expect in these fierce, wild days. Some time after Saul’s death Abner slew the young Asahel, who seems to have been passionately loved by his elder brother. Abner became reconciled to David, but the reconciliation saved not the friend of Saul and the slayer of Asahel from the vengeance of Joab and Abishai, who murdered the illustrious Abner in cold blood.
And Abishai said, I will go down with thee.—Ahimelech seems to have backed out of the perilous night enterprise, but Abishai, the son of Zeruiah, with the reckless gallantry and the intense devotion to David which, with all their pride and self will, ever characterised these famous warrior kinsmen of the king, at once volunteered to go with his loved chief.
So David and Abishai came to the people by night: and, behold, Saul lay sleeping within the trench, and his spear stuck in the ground at his bolster: but Abner and the people lay round about him.(7) Within the trench.—As above, in 1Samuel 26:5, “within the barrier of the wagons.”
His spear . . . at his bolster.—“Bolster,” literally, the place where his head is, better rendered at his head; and so in 1Samuel 26:11-12; 1Samuel 26:16. The same Hebrew word occurs in the narration of Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:11); it is there rendered in our English Version, “his pillows.” It was the tall spear which ever seems to have been in Saul’s hand, or placed close to him. We read of it in battle in his hand, and in the council chamber and at the state banquet it was within his reach, and now it was evidently reared upright beside the sleeping king. “I noticed at all the encampments which we passed that the sheik’s tent was distinguished from the rest by a tall spear stuck upright in the ground in front of it; and it is the custom when a party set out on an excursion for robbery or for war, that when they halt to rest the spot where the chief reclines or rests is thus designated”—Thomson, Land and the Book.
Then said Abishai to David, God hath delivered thine enemy into thine hand this day: now therefore 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.(8) I will not smite him the second time.—The meaning of the savage words of Abishai is accurately given in Lange’s paraphrase, “I will pin him to the ground so thoroughly with one blow that it will not need another to kul him;” “et secundo non opus erit” as the Vulg. well renders it.
And David said to Abishai, Destroy him not: for who can stretch forth his hand against the LORD'S anointed, and be guiltless?(9) Against the Lord’s anointed.—David—taught, no doubt, by the prophet Samuel—looked upon the person of Saul as made sacred and inviolable by the royal anointing. Through the anointing Saul had become the possession of Jehovah; only Jehovah, then, could lawfully take away that sacred life. This he elaborates in the next verse. It is possible that these exalted sentiments respecting the Divine rights of kings were not uttered by David while standing in the dark night among Saul’s soldiers by the sleeping king, but subsequently, when he and Abishai were talking the incident over together.
David said furthermore, As the LORD liveth, the LORD shall smite him; or his day shall come to die; or he shall descend into battle, and perish.(10) David said furthermore.—David suggests three possible cases in which the Divine arm might smite the “anointed of Jehovah.” The first, the Lord “shall smite him” by some sudden death from disease—no doubt, the recent death of Nabal was in his mind; the second by what is termed “natural death;” and the third by some blow received in battle. The idea of an arrow winged by some unseen hand was evidently here in the speaker’s thoughts.
The LORD forbid that I should stretch forth mine hand against the LORD'S anointed: but, I pray thee, take thou now the spear that is at his bolster, and the cruse of water, and let us go.(11) The spear.—The spear was Saul’s especial sign of royalty. “This taking away of the spear from Saul’s head as he slept was an omen of the transfer of his royalty to David.”—Bishop Patrick, quoted by Wordsworth.
And the cruse of water.—“A very ancient usage explains why the cruse of water is here brought into such special prominence. According to this custom, some high dignitary always had in keeping a costly ewer for the king’s necessary ablutions, and it was specially his duty to take it with him, and present it to the king during campaigns or other journeys, so that its disappearance would involve almost as great a disgrace to the king as the loss of his sceptre” (Ewald, in reference to Psalm 60:8, states his belief that this custom existed in the time of David).—Ewald, History of Israel, “David,” ii. 3 (Note). The same scholar also writes that “there are many other instances of similar stories, in which the future conqueror and founder of a new dynasty is represented as having received at first some symbol of royalty from his predecessors by accident, as it were, or in sport. Thus Alexander at first takes the royal divining cup from Dârâ as if in sport: a story which in the Shâhnâmeh no longer appears in its original light; and in nothing was the belief in omens so strong as in the high affairs of state.”—“David,” ii. 3 (Note).
So David took the spear and the cruse of water from Saul's bolster; and they gat them away, and no man saw it, nor knew it, neither awaked: for they were all asleep; because a deep sleep from the LORD was fallen upon them.(12) No man saw it, nor knew it, neither awaked.—The Hebrew is more graphic: “And none saw, and none knew, and none awaked.”
A deep sleep from the Lord.—The inference here, at first sight, certainly is that an unnatural, or rather, a supernatural drowsiness had fallen on the camp of Saul. Still, it is not absolutely necessary to suppose that a special miracle was wrought on this occasion. The memory of great carelessness and want of vigilance in the royal army was evidently in David’s mind when he sarcastically reproves the royal general Abner, in 1Samuel 26:14-16. They were in a friendly district, and never dreamed of a surprise, and possibly the rough soldiers on duty had been carousing. David too and Abishai, owing to their long experience in camp life, often flying before their enemies, were practised scouts, and in the dark night did their perilous work speedily and noiselessly.
Then David went over to the other side, and stood on the top of an hill afar off; a great space being between them:(13) David went over to the other side.—That is to say, after taking the royal spear and cruse of water from beside the sleeping king, David with Abishai left the camp of Saul, then, crossing the deep ravine, re-ascended the opposite hill or mountain—there was then a deep gorge between him and the camp—and uttered his shrill cry, which awoke the sleeping sentinel, who seems at once to have roused Abner. Keil calls attention here to the special notice in the text that the mountain whence David spoke was afar off, not, as we should say, “as the crow flies,” but afar, because a deep steep ravine lay between the camp of Saul and the hill on which David and Abishai stood. “On the previous occasion when, in the cave of En-gedi, the son of Jesse cut off the skirt of the royal garment, David fearlessly cried to Saul when the king was still evidently quite close to the cave. Now, however, he seems to have reckoned far less upon any change in the state of Saul’s mind than he had done before . . . in fact, he rather feared lest Saul should endeavour to get him into his power as soon as he woke from his sleep.”
And David cried to the people, and to Abner the son of Ner, saying, Answerest thou not, Abner? Then Abner answered and said, Who art thou that criest to the king?(14) Who art thou that criest to the king?—The Vulg. rightly interprets with “Who art thou that criest and disquietest the king?” that is, disturbs the king’s rest with your shouting.
And David said to Abner, Art not thou a valiant man? and who is like to thee in Israel? wherefore then hast thou not kept thy lord the king? for there came one of the people in to destroy the king thy lord.(15) A valiant man.—The English translators have rightly emphasised the Hebrew ish here by rendering a “valiant” man. Ish was used not unfrequently in this “nobler” sense; so in Psalm 49:2, when the b’ne adam, as “the poor mean ones,” were contrasted with the b’ne ish, “the noble ones.” (See also Isaiah 2:9 : “mean men and great men.”)
Wherefore then hast thou not kept?—The whole of this bitter sarcastic address seems to imply that a deadly feud existed between David and Saul’s captain and kinsman, Abner. If this be the case, the royal generosity and nobility of David’s character was well shown in his subsequent friendship with this Abner, and in his deep sorrow for the great captain’s untimely death. (See 2 Samuel 3)
And Saul knew David's voice, and said, Is this thy voice, my son David? And David said, It is my voice, my lord, O king.(17) And Saul knew David’s voice.—The account is most natural throughout. 1Samuel 26:7 speaks of the enterprise being undertaken “by night,” when the soldiers of Saul had fallen into “a deep sleep” (1Samuel 26:12). When David on his return stood on the opposite ridge, it was still, no doubt, the dawn of early morning. So Saul speaks of hearing that voice of David so well known to him, and which once he so dearly loved; he could not as yet discern the figure of his former friend.
And he said, Wherefore doth my lord thus pursue after his servant? for what have I done? or what evil is in mine hand?(18) What have I done?—The whole address of David to Saul is intensely reverent, even loving. The conspicuous trophy of his late “night raid” was in his hand; we can imagine the first rays of the morning sun lighting up the glittering royal spear grasped by David. Saul could not help recognising that at least the son of Jesse sought not his life.
Now therefore, I pray thee, let my lord the king hear the words of his servant. If the LORD have stirred thee up against me, let him accept an offering: but if they be the children of men, cursed be they before the LORD; for they have driven me out this day from abiding in the inheritance of the LORD, saying, Go, serve other gods.(19) Let him accept an offering.—The words here are difficult ones in a theological point of view. If, however, we are content to interpret them with Bishop Wordsworth according to the Arabic Version of the Chaldee Targum, the difficulty vanishes: “If the Lord hath stirred thee up against me for any fault of mine, let me know mine offence, and I am ready to make an offering for it to the Lord, that I may be forgiven.”—Wordsworth. But by far the greater number of scholars and expositors understand the words of David in what seems to be their plain literal sense, viz.: “If Jehovah has incited you to do this evil thing, let Him smell an offering.” The word for offering in the Hebrew is minchah, the meat offering, which signifies “sanctification of life and devotion to the Lord.” In other words, “If you think or feel that God stirs you up to take this course against me—the innocent one—pray to God that He may take the temptation—if it be a temptation—from thee.” This conception that the movement comes from God runs through the Old Testament. It is apparently expressed in such passages as “the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart,” and in such sayings as we find here in this Book of Samuel of an evil spirit from the Lord haunting Saul. “Some have explained the conception by referring it to the intensity with which the Israelites had grasped the idea of the omnipresence of the Deity, and of His being the one power by whose energy all things exist and all acts are done; alike evil and good come from God, for He alone is the source of all . . . but it does not follow that everything to which His providence seems to lead is therefore right for man to do; on the contrary, all leadings of Providence are to be judged by God’s immutable law.”—Dean Payne Smith. These seeming leadings must be tested by prayer offered by an earnest heart: that is the meaning of the offering (minchah) here. The conception—strange as it may seem at first—is a true one, as in the case of Pharaoh, and also—though with some important modifications—of Saul. The Holy Spirit had pleaded long, and had pleaded in vain. It is possible, we know, for us to weary, or, as St. Paul puts it, quench that Spirit of God pleading within us; then at length, wearied or quenched, it wings its flight away from the wicked soul. This spreading its wings in flight may be said to be God’s work. The sad and invariable result is, the deserted heart becomes hardened, as in the case of Pharaoh; the empty shrine becomes the swept and garnished home for the evil spirit, as in the case of Saul.
But if they be the children of men.—But David goes on to say, “If the cruel, unjust thoughts are the result of the envy and hatred of men who are my enemies, may God punish them as they deserve; for see what they have done for me: they have by their calumnies—whispered in your ears—driven me into exile; they have violently bidden me to go and serve other and strange gods.” He means that, far away from the only country where Jehovah is loved and honoured, away from the influence of Jehovah’s prophets and beloved priests, he and his would be tempted to serve other gods, and to share in the foul and impious practice of the heathen nations.
Now therefore, let not my blood fall to the earth before the face of the LORD: for the king of Israel is come out to seek a flea, as when one doth hunt a partridge in the mountains.(20) Before the face of the Lord.—Better rendered, far from the presence of the Lord. The same thought dwelt upon in the last verse is here enlarged. “If this savage persecution continues,” David goes on to say, “sooner or later I shall fall a victim to one or other of the countless perils to which one in my situation, as leader of a band of outlaws, is daily exposed. Let not such hard, cruel fate be mine—to die a violent death far away from the land which Jehovah loves.” It was the same thought which inspires so touchingly this last prayer he made to Saul which, ever present in his heart, made the bringing up of the Ark to a permanent sanctuary, where the visible symbol of the Eternal Presence should dwell for ever, the dream of David’s life. It was the same holy thought which induced him to spend so much time and to lay up such vast stores for the building of a glorious sanctuary. The passionate longing of the “man after God’s own heart” to worship his Eternal Master in a fitting house devoted to His service, and in the company of men who loved and honoured the Name of names, is to be found in some of the most soul-searching of his psalms.
To seek a flea.—The same humiliating comparison he had made once before on a similar occasion again occurs to him. Such repetition is of ordinary occurrence, as we well know, both in speeches and writings. The LXX. here substitute for “a flea” “my soul,” probably with the view of avoiding the repetition of the simile of a flea, which David had made use of on the previous occasion of his sparing the king’s life at En-gedi.
A partridge in the mountains.—The LXX. needlessly alters “partridge” into “screech-owl,” and changes the sense: “as the screech-owl hunts on the mountains.” The meaning of the simile in the Hebrew original is well given by Erdmann, in Lange: “The isolated from God’s people, far from all association, a fugitive from their plots on the mountain heights, thou seekest at all cost to destroy, as one hunts a single fugitive partridge on the mountain, only to kill it at all costs, while otherwise, from its insignificance, it would not be hunted, since partridges are to be found in the field in coveys.” Conder (Tent Life in Palestine) especially tells us that partridges still tenant these wilds; and speaking of the precipitous cliffs overhanging the Dead Sea, he says: “Among the rocks of the wild goats the bands of ibex may be seen still bounding, and the partridge is still chased on the mountains, as David was followed by the stealthy hunter Saul.”
Then said Saul, I have sinned: return, my son David: for I will no more do thee harm, because my soul was precious in thine eyes this day: behold, I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly.(21) I have played the fool.—There seems something more in these words of Saul than sorrow for the past. He seems to blame himself here, as the Dean of Canterbury well suggests, for putting himself again in David’s power through overweening confidence in his own strength. He reproaches himself with the unguarded state of his camp, but he pledges himself to do no harm to David for the future. He even begs that he will return to his court. But in these words, and also in his blessing of David (1Samuel 26:25), there is a ring of falseness; and this was evidently the impression made on the outlaw, for he not only silently declined the royal overtures, but almost immediately removed from the dominions of Saul altogether, feeling that for him and his there was no longer any hope of security in the land of Israel so long as his foe, King Saul, lived.
Here the two whom Samuel had anointed as kings—the king who has forfeited his crown, and the king of the golden future—parted for ever. They never looked on each other’s faces again; not even when the great warrior Saul by dead was his former friend able to take a farewell look at the face he once loved so well. The kindest services his faithful subjects of Jabesh Gilead could show to their king’s dishonoured remains, for which they had risked their lives, was at once, with all solemnity and mourning, to burn the disfigured body, and to draw a veil of flame over the mutilated corpse of Saul.
Then Saul said to David, Blessed be thou, my son David: thou shalt both do great things, and also shalt still prevail. So David went on his way, and Saul returned to his place.(25) Thou shalt both do great things.—“Saul is here again ‘among the prophets,’ and foretells David’s exaltation and victory. ‘Vicisti Nazarene!’ was the exclamation of Julian.”—Bishop Wordsworth.