Expositor's Bible Commentary
And Saul spake to Jonathan his son, and to all his servants, that they should kill David.CHAPTER XXVI.
SAUL’S FURTHER EFFORTS AGAINST DAVID.
1 Samuel 19:1-24.
ANEW Stage of his wicked passion is now reached by Saul; he communes with his servants, and even with his son, with a view to their killing David. Ordinary conspirators are prone to confine their evil designs to their own breasts; or if they do have confidants, to choose for that purpose persons as vile as themselves, whom they bind to secrecy and silence. Saul must have been sadly overpowered by his passion when he urged his very son to become a murderer, to become the assassin of his friend, of the man with whom God manifestly dwelt, and whom God delighted to honour. It is easy to understand what fine Saul would take with Jonathan. Heir to the throne, he was specially affected by the popularity of David; if David were disposed of, his seat would be in no danger. The generous prince did his utmost to turn his father from the horrid project: "He spake good of David unto Saul, and said unto him, Let not the king sin against his servant, against David; because he hath not sinned against thee, and because his works have been to thee-ward very good. For he did put his life in his hand, and slew the Philistine, and the Lord wrought a great salvation for all Israel: thou sawest it and didst rejoice: wherefore then wilt thou sin against innocent blood, to slay David without a cause? "For the moment the king was touched by the intercession of Jonathan. Possibly he was rebuked by the burst of generosity and affection, - a spirit so opposite to his own; possibly he was impressed by Jonathan's argument, and made to feel that David was entitled to very different treatment. For the time, the purpose of Saul was arrested, and "David was in his presence as in times past." "Oft-times," says Bishop Hall, "wicked men's judgments are forced to yield unto that truth against which their affections maintain a rebellion. Even the foulest hearts do sometimes retain good notions; like as, on the contrary, the holiest souls give way sometimes to the suggestions of evil. The flashes of lightning may be discerned in the darkest prison. But if good thoughts look into a wicked heart, they stay not there; as those that like not their lodging, they are soon gone; hardly anything distinguishes between good and evil but continuance. The light that shines into a holy heart is constant, like that of the sun, which keeps due times, and varies not his course for any of these sublunary occasions."
But, as the heathen poet said, "You may expel nature with a thunderbolt, but it always returns." The evil spirit, the demon of jealousy, returned to Saul. And strange to say, his jealousy was such that nothing was more fitted to excite it than eminent service to his country on the part of David. A new campaign had opened against the Philistines. David had had a splendid victory. He slew them with a great slaughter, so that they fled before him. We may be sure that in these circumstances the songs of the women would swell out in heartier chorus than ever. And in Saul's breast the old jealousy burst out again, and sprang to power. A fit of his evil spirit was on him, and David was playing on his harp in order to beguile it away. He sees Saul seize a javelin, he instinctively knows the purpose, and springs aside just as the javelin flies past and lodges in the wall. The danger is too serious to be encountered any longer. David escapes to his house, but hardly before messengers from Saul have arrived to watch the door, and slay him in the morning. Knowing her father's plot, Michal warns David that if he does not make his escape that night his life is sure to go.
Michal lets him down through a window, and David makes his escape. Then, to give him a sufficient start, and prolong the time a little, she has recourse to one of those stratagems of which Rebecca, and Rahab, and Jeroboam's wife, and many another woman have shown themselves mistresses - she gets up a tale, and pretends to the messengers that David is sick. The men carry back the message to their master. There is a peculiar ferocity, an absolute brutality, in the king's next order, "Bring him up to me in the bed that I may slay him." Evidently he was enraged, and he either felt that it would be a satisfaction to murder David with his own hand when unable to defend himself, or he saw that his servants could not be trusted with the dastardly business. The messengers enter the house, and instead of David they find an image in the bed, with a pillow of goat's hair for his bolster. When Michal is angrily reproached by her father for letting him escape, she parries the blow by a falsehood - "He said unto me. Let me go; why should I kill thee?"
On this somewhat mean conduct of hers a light is incidentally shed by the mention of the image which she placed in the bed in order to personate David. What sort of image was it? The original shows that it was one of the class called "teraphim" - images which were kept and used by persons who in the main worshipped the one true God. They were not such idols as represented Baal or Ashtoreth or Moloch, but images designed to aid in the worship of the God of Israel. The use of them was not a breach of the first commandment, but it was a breach of the second. We see plainly that David and his wife were not one in religion; there was discord there. The use of the images implied an unspiritual or superstitious state of mind; or at least a mind more disposed to follow its own fancies as to the way of worshipping God than to have a severe and strict regard to the rule of God. It is impossible to suppose that David could have either used, or countenanced the use of these images. God was too much a spiritual reality to him to allow such material media of worship to be even thought of. He knew too much of worship inspired by the Spirit to dream of worship inspired by shapes of wood or stone. When we read of these images we are not surprised at the defects of character which we see in Michal. That she loved David and had pleasure in his company there is no room to doubt. But their union was not the union of hearts that were one in their deepest feelings. The sublimest exercises of David's soul Michal could have no sympathy with. Afterwards, when David brought the ark from Kirjath-jearim to Mount Zion, she mocked his enthusiasm. How sad when hearts, otherwise congenial and loving, are severed on the one point on which congeniality is of deepest moment! Agreement in earthly tastes and arrangements, but disagreement in the one thing needful - alas, how fatal is the drawback! Little blessing can they expect who disregard this point of difference when they agree to marry. If the one that is earnest does so in the expectation of doing good to the other, that good is far more likely to be done by a firm stand at the beginning than by a course which may be construed to mean that after all the difference is of no great moment.
If the title of the fifty-ninth Psalm can be accepted as authentic, it indicates the working of David's mind at this period of his history. It is called "Michtam of David, when Saul sent, and they watched the house to kill him." It is not to be imagined that it was composed in the hurried interval between David reaching his house and Michal sending him away. That David had a short time of devotion then we may readily believe, and that the exercises of his heart corresponded generally to the words of the psalm, which might be committed afterwards to writing as a memorial of the occasion. From the words of the psalm it would appear that the messengers sent by Saul to apprehend him were men of base and cowardly spirit, and that they were actuated by the same personal hatred to him that marked Saul himself. No doubt the piety of David brought to him the enmity, and the success of David the rivalry, of many who would be emboldened by the king's avowed intention, to pour out their insults and calumnies against him in the most indecent fashion. Perhaps it is to show the estimate he formed of their spirit, rather than to denote literally their nationality, that the Psalmist calls on God to "awake to visit all the heathen." Prowling about the city under cloud of darkness coming and going and coming again to his house, "they return at evening; they make a noise like a dog, and go about the city. Behold, they belch out with their mouth; swords are in their lips; for who, say they, doth hear?" Thus showing his estimate of his enemies, the Psalmist manifests the most absolute reliance on the protection and grace of God. "But Thou, O Lord, shalt laugh at them; Thou shalt have all the heathen in derision. Because of his strength will I wait upon Thee; for God is my defence. The God of my mercy shall prevent me; God shall let me see my desire upon mine enemies." He does not ask that they may be slain, but he asks that they may be conspicuously dishonoured and humbled, and made to go about the city like dogs, in another sense - not like dogs seeking to tear upright men in pieces, but like those starved, repulsive, cowardly brutes, familiar in Eastern cities, that would do anything for a morsel of food. His own spirit is serene and confident - "Unto Thee, O my strength, will I sing; for God is my defense, and the God of my mercy."
It may be that the superscription of this psalm is not authentic, and that the reference is either to some other passage in David's life, or in the life of some other psalmist, when he was especially exposed to the ravings of a murderous and calumnious spirit, and in the midst of unscrupulous enemies thirsting for his life. The psalm is eminently fitted to express the feelings and experiences of the Church of Christ in times of bitter persecution. For calumny has usually been the right-hand instrument of the persecutor. To justify himself, he has found it necessary to denounce his victim. Erroneous opinions, it is instinctively felt, are no such offence as to warrant the wholesale spoliation and murder which vehement persecution calls for. Crimes of a horrible description are laid to the charge of the persecuted And even where the sword of persecution in its naked form is not employed, but opposition and hatred vent themselves on the more active servants of God in venomous attacks and offensive letters, it is not counted enough to denounce their opinions. They must be charged with meanness, and double dealing, and vile plots and schemes to compass their ends. They are spoken of (as St. Paul and his companions were) as the offscourings of the earth, creatures only to be hunted out of sight and spoiled of all influence. Happy they who can bear all in the Psalmist's tranquil and truthful spirit; and can sum up their feelings like him - "I will sing of Thy power; yea, I will sing aloud of Thy mercy in the morning; for Thou hast been my defense and refuge in the day of my trouble."
But let us return to David. Can we think of a more desolate condition than that in which he found himself after his wife let him down through a window? It is night and he is alone. Who could be unmoved when place' in such a position? Forced to fly from his home and his young wife, just after he had begun to. know their sweets, and no prospect of a happy return! Driven forth by the murderous fury of the king whom he had served with a loyalty and a devotion that could not have been surpassed! His home desolated and his life threatened by the father of his wife, the man whom even nature should have inspired with a kindly interest in his welfare! What good had it done him that he had slain that giant? What return had he got for his service in ever so often soothing the nerves of the irritable monarch with the gentle warblings of his harp? What good had come of all his perilous exploits against the Philistines, of the hundred foreskins of the king's enemies, of the last great victory which had brought so unprecedented advantage to Israel? Would it not have been better for him never to have touched a weapon, never to have encountered a foe, but kept feeding that flock of his father's, and caring for those irrational creatures, who had always returned his kindness with gratitude, and been far more like friends and companions than that terrible Saul? Such thoughts might perhaps hover about his bosom, but certainly they would receive no entertainment from him. They might knock at his door, but they would not be admitted. A man like David could never seriously regret that he had done his duty. He could never seriously wish that he had never responded to the call of God and of his country. But he might well feel how empty and unprofitable even the most successful worldly career may become, how maddening the changes of fortune, how intolerable the unjust retributions of men in power. His ill-treatment was so atrocious that, had he not had a refuge in God, it might have driven him to madness or to suicide. It drove him to the throne of grace, where he found grace to help him in his time of need.
It was no wonder that the fugitive thought of Samuel. If he could get shelter with him' Saul would surely let him alone, for Saul could have no mind to meddle with Samuel again. But more than that; in Samuel's company he would find congenial fellowship, and from Samuel's mature wisdom and devotion to God's law learn much that would be useful in after life. We can easily fancy what a cordial welcome the old prophet would give the youthful fugitive. Was not David in a sense his son, seeing that he had chosen him from among all the sons of Jesse, and poured on him the holy oil? If an old minister has a special interest in one whom he has baptized, how much more Samuel in one whom he had anointed! And there was another consideration that would have great effect with Samuel. Old Christians feel very tenderly for young believers who have had hard lines in serving God. It moves them much when those on whom they have very earnestly pressed God's ways have encountered great trials in following them. Gladly would they do any- thing in their power to soothe and encourage them. Samuel's words to David would certainly be words of exceeding tenderness. They must have fallen like the dew of Hermon on his fevered spirit. Doubtless they would tend to revive and strengthen his faith, and assure him that God would keep him amid all his trials, and at last set him on high, because he had known his name.
From Ramah, his ordinary dwelling-place, Samuel had gone with David to Naioth, perhaps under the idea that they would elude the eye of Saul. Not so, however. Word of David's place of abode was carried to the king. Saul was deeply in earnest in his effort to get rid of David, - surely a very daring thing when he must have known God's purpose regarding him. Messengers were accordingly sent to Naioth. It was the seat of one of the schools of the prophets, and David could not but be deeply interested in the work of the place, and charmed with its spirit. Here, under the wing of Samuel, he did dwell in safety; but his safety did not come in the way in which perhaps he expected. Saul's purpose was too deeply seated to be affected by the presence of Samuel. Nay, though Samuel in all likelihood had told him how God had caused him to anoint David as his successor, Saul determined to drag him even from the hands of Samuel. But Saul never counted on the form of opposition he was to encounter. The messengers went to Naioth, but their hearts were taken hold of by the Spirit who was then working in such power in the place, and from soldiers they were turned into prophets. A second batch of messengers was sent, and with the same result. A third batch followed, and still the same miraculous transformation. Determined not to be baffled, and having probably exhausted the servants whom he could trust, Saul went himself to Ramah. But Saul was proof no more than his servants against the marvelous spiritual force that swept all before it. When he came to Ramah, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he went on and prophesied all the way from Ramah to Naioth. And there, stripping himself of his royal robes and accoutrements, he prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down, just as one of the prophets, and continued so a whole day and night. It was a repetition of what had taken place at "the hill of God" when Saul returned from his search after the asses (1 Samuel 10:10-11), and it resuscitated the proverb that had been first used on that occasion, is Saul also among the prophets? Transformed and occupied as Saul was now, he was in no mood to carry out his murderous project against David, who in the view of this most unexpected form of deliverance might well sing, "My safety cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth."
The question cannot but press itself on us, What was the character of the influence under which Saul was brought on this remarkable occasion? Observe the phenomena so far as they are recorded. In the first place, nothing is said of any appeal to Saul's reason and conscience. In the second place, no such conduct followed this experience as would have followed it, had his reason and conscience been impressed. He was precisely the same wicked man as before. In the third place, there is no evidence of anything else having taken place than a sort of contagious impression being produced on his physical nature, something corresponding to the effect of mesmerism or animal magnetism. In earnest religious movements of a very solid character, it has been often remarked that another unusual experience runs alongside of them; in some persons in contact with them a nervous susceptibility is developed, which sometimes causes prostration, and sometimes a state of trance; and it has been found that many persons are liable to the state of trance whose hearts and lives are in no way transformed by the religious impression. It seems to have been some such experience that befell Saul. He was entranced, but he was not changed. He was for the time another man, but there was no permanent change; after a time, his old spirit returned. Evidently he was a man of great nervous susceptibility, and it is plain from many things that his nerves had become weakened. He fell for the time under the strong influence of the prophetic company; but David did not trust him, for he fled from Naioth.
And yet, even if this was all that happened to Saul, there was something providential and merciful in it that might have led on to better results. Was it not in some sense a dealing of God with Saul? Was it not a reminder of that better way which Saul had forsaken, and in forsaking which he had come to so much guilt and trouble? Was it not a gracious indication that even yet, if he would return to God, though he could not get back the kingdom he might personally be blessed? Whatever of this kind there might be in it, it was trampled by Saul under foot. He had made his bed, and, thorny though it was, he was determined to lie on it. He would not change his life; he would not return to God.
Does not God, in His merciful providence, often deal with transgressors as he dealt with Saul, placing them in circumstances that make it comparatively easy for them to turn from their sins and change their life? Your marriage, a death in your circle, a change of residence, a change of fortune, forming a new acquaintance, coming under a new ministry, - oh! friends, if there be in you the faintest dissatisfaction with your past life, the faintest desire for a better, take advantage of the opportunity, and turn to God. Summon courage, break with your associates in sin (the loss will be marvelously small), give up your dissipated pleasures, betake yourselves to the great matters that concern your welfare evermore. Mark in the providence that gave you the opportunity, the kind hand of a gracious Father, sadly grieving over your erring life, and longing for your return. Harden not your heart as in the provocation in the day of temptation in the wilderness. Don't drive the angel out of your way, who stands in your path, as he stood in Balaam's, to stop your progress in the ways of sin. Who knows whether ever again you shall have the same opportunity? And even if you have, is it not certain that the disinclination you feel now will be stiffer and stronger then? Be a man, and face the irksome. Whatever you do, determine to do right. It is childish to stand shivering over a duty which you know ought to be done. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest."