Expositor's Bible Commentary
And it came to pass, when Saul was returned from following the Philistines, that it was told him, saying, Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi.CHAPTER XXXI.
DAVID TWICE SPARES THE LIFE OF SAUL.
1 Samuel 24:1-22; 1 Samuel 26:1-25.
THE invasion of the Philistines had freed David from the fear of Saul for a time, but only for a time. He knew full well that when the king of Israel had once repelled that invasion he would return to prosecute the object on which his heart was so much set. For a while he took refuge among the rocks of Engedi, that beautiful spot of which we have already spoken, and which has been embalmed in Holy Writ, as suggesting a fair image of the Beloved One - "My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of Engedi" (Song of Solomon 1:14). The mountains here and throughout the hill country of Judea are mostly of limestone formation, abounding, like all such rocks, in caverns of large size, in which lateral chambers run off at an angle from the main cavity, admitting of course little or no light, but such that a person inside, while himself unseen, may see what goes on at the entrance to the cave. In the dark sides of such a cave, David and his men lay concealed when Saul was observed by him to enter and lie down, probably unattended, to enjoy the mid-day sleep which the heat of the climate often demands. We cannot fail to remark the singular providence that concealed from Saul at this time the position of David. He had good information of his movements in general; the treacherous spirit which was so prevalent, greatly aided him in this; but on the present occasion, he was evidently in ignorance of his situation. If only he had known, how easy it would have been for him with his three thousand chosen men to blockade the cave, and starve David and his followers into surrender!
The entrance of the king being noticed by David's men, they urged their master to avail himself of the opportunity of getting rid of him which was now so providentially and unexpectedly presented to him. We can hardly think of a stronger temptation to do so than that under which David now lay. In the first place, there was the prospect of getting rid of the weary life he was leading, - more like the life of a wild beast hunted by its enemies, than of a man eager to do good to his fellows, with a keen relish for the pleasures of home and an extraordinary delight in the services of God's house. Then there was the prospect of wearing the crown and wielding the sceptre of Israel, - the splendours of a royal palace, and its golden opportunities of doing good. Further, there was the voice of his followers urging him to the deed, putting on it a sacred character by ascribing to it a Divine permission and appointment. And still further, there was the suddenness and unexpectedness of the opportunity. Nothing is more critical than a sudden opportunity of indulging an ardent passion; with scarcely a moment for deliberation, one is apt to be hurried blindly along, and at once to commit the deed. With all his noble nature, Robert the Bruce could not refrain from plunging his dagger into the heart of the treacherous Comyn, even in the convent of the Minorite friars. The discipline of David's spirit must at this time have been admirable. Not only did he restrain himself, but he restrained his followers too. He would neither strike his heartless enemy, nor suffer another to strike him. On the first of the two occasions of his sparing him - recorded in the twenty-fourth chapter - he might naturally believe that his forbearance would turn Saul's heart and end the unjust quarrel. On the second occasion of the same sort - recorded in the twenty-sixth chapter - he could have had no hope of the kind. It was a pure sense of duty that restrained him. He acted in utter contempt of what was personal and selfish, and in deepest reverence for what was holy and Divine. How different from the common spirit of the world! Young people, who are so ready to keep up a sense of wrong, and wait an opportunity of paying back your schoolfellows, study this example of David. Ye grown men, who could not get such-a-one to vote for you, or to support your claim in your controversy, and who vowed that you would never rest till you had driven him from the place, how does your spirit compare with that of David? Ye statesmen, who have received an affront from some barbarous people, utterly ignorant of your ways, and who forthwith issue your orders for your ships of war to scatter destruction among their miserable villages, terrifying, killing, mutilating, no matter how many of the wretches that have no arms to meet you in fair fight - think of the forbearance of David. And think too of many passages in the New Testament that give the idea of another treatment and another species of victory: - "Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good."
The special consideration that held back the arm of David from killing Saul was that he was the Lord's anointed. He held the office of king by Divine appointment, - not merely as other kings may be regarded as holding it, but as God's lieutenant, called specially, and selected for the office. For David to remove him would be to interfere with the Divine prerogative. It would be so much the more inexcusable as God had many other ways of removing him, any one of which He might readily employ. "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. The Lord forbid that I should stretch forth mine hand against the Lord's anointed."
Let us briefly follow the narrative on each of the two occasions.
First, when David saw Saul asleep at the entrance of the cave near Engedi, he crept towards him as he lay, and removed a loose piece of his garment. When Saul rose up and proceeded on his way, David boldly followed him, believing that after sparing the king's life he was safe from attack either from him or his people. His respectful salutation, drawing the king's attention, was followed by an act of profound obeisance. David then addressed Saul somewhat elaborately, his address being wholly directed to the point of disabusing the king's mind of the idea that he had any plot whatever against his life. His words were very respectful but at the same time bold. Taking advantage of the act of forbearance which had just occurred, he demanded of the king why he listened to men's words, saying, Behold, David seeketh thy hurt. He protested that for himself nothing would induce him to stretch forth his hand against the Lord's anointed. That very day, he had had the chance, but he had forborne. His people had urged him, but he would not comply. There was the skirt of his garment which he had just cut off: it would have been as easy for him, when he did that, to plunge his sword into the heart of the king. Could there be a plainer proof that Saul was mistaken in supposing David to be actuated by murderous or other sinful feelings against him? And yet Saul hunted for his life to take it. Rising still higher, David appealed to the great Judge of all, and placed the quarrel in His hands. To vary the case, he quoted a proverb to the effect that only where there was wickedness in the heart could wickedness be found in the life. Then, with the easy play of a versatile mind, he put the case in a comical light: did it become the great king of Israel to bring his hosts after one so insignificant - "after a dead dog, after a flea"? Was ocean to be tossed into tempest "to waft a feather or to drown a straw"? Once more, and to sum up the whole case, he appealed solemnly to God, virtually invoking His blessing on whoever was innocent in this quarrel, and calling down His wrath and destruction on the party that was really guilty.
The effect on Saul was prompt and striking. He was touched in his tenderest feelings by the singular generosity of his opponent. He broke down thoroughly, welcomed the dear voice of David, "lifted up his voice and wept." He confessed that he was wrong, that David had rewarded him good and he had rewarded David evil. David had given him that day a convincing proof of his integrity; though it seemed that the Lord had delivered him into his hand, he killed him not. He had reversed the principle on which men were accustomed to act when they came upon an enemy, and had him in their power. And all these acknowledgments of David's superior goodness Saul made, while knowing well and frankly owning that David should be the king, and that the kingdom should be established in his hand. One favour only Saul would beg of David in reference to that coming time - that he would not massacre his family, or destroy his name out of his father's house - a request which it was easy for David to comply with. Never would he dream of such a thing, however common it was in these Eastern kingdoms. David sware to Saul, and the two parted in peace.
How glad David must have been that he acted as he did! Already his forbearance has had a full reward. It has drawn out the very best elements of Saul's soul; it has placed Saul in a light in which we can think of him with interest, and even admiration. How can this be the man that so meanly plotted for David's life when he sent him against the Philistines? that gave him his daughter to be his wife in order that he might have more opportunities to entangle him? that flung the murderous javelin at his head? that massacred the priests and destroyed their city simply because they had shown him kindness? Saul is indeed a riddle, all the more that this generous fit lasted but a very short time; and soon after, when the treacherous Ziphites undertook to betray David; Saul and his soldiers came again to the wilderness to destroy him.
It has been thought by some, and with reason, that something more than the varying humour of Saul is necessary to account for his persistent efforts to kill David. And it is believed that a clue to this is supplied by expressions of which David made much use, and by certain references in the Psalms, which imply that to a great extent he was the victim of calumny, and of calumny of a very malignant and persistent kind. In the address on which we have commented David began by asking why Saul listened to men’s words, saying, Behold, David seeketh thy life? And in the address recorded in the twenty-sixth chapter (1 Samuel 26:19) David says very bitterly, "If they be the children of men that have stirred thee up against me, 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." Turning to the seventh Psalm, we find in it a vehement and passionate appeal to God in connection with the bitter and murderous fury of an enemy, who is said in the superscription to have been Gush the Benjamite. The fury of that man against David was extraordinary. Deliver me, O Lord, "lest he tear my soul like a lion, rending it in pieces when there is none to deliver." It is plain that the form of calumny which this man indulged in was accusing David of "rewarding evil to him that was at peace with him," an accusation not only not true, but outrageously contrary to the truth, seeing he had "delivered him that without cause was his enemy." It is not unlikely therefore that at Saul's court David had an enemy who had the bitterest enmity to him, who never ceased to poison Saul's mind regarding him, who put facts in the most offensive light, and even after the first act of David's generosity to Saul not only continued, but continued more ferociously than ever to inflame Saul's mind, and urge him to get rid of this intolerable nuisance. What could have inspired Gush, or indeed any one, with such a hatred to David we cannot definitely say; much of it was due to that instinctive hatred of holy character which worldly men of strong will show in every age, and perhaps not a little to the apprehension that if David did ever come to the throne, many a wicked man, now fattening on the spoils of the kingdom through the favour of Saul, would be stript of his wealth and consigned to obscurity.
It would seem, then, that had Saul been left alone he would have left David alone. It was the bitter and incessant plotting of David's enemies that stirred him up. Jealousy was only too active a feeling in his breast, and it was easy to work upon it, and fill him with the idea that, after all, David was a rebel and a traitor. These things David must have known; knowing them, he made allowance for them, and did not suffer his heart to become altogether cold to Saul. The kindly feelings which Saul expressed when he dismissed from his view all the calumnies with which he had been poisoned, and looked straight at David, made a deep impression on his rival, and the fruit of them appeared in that beautiful elegy on Saul and Jonathan, which must seem a piece of hypocrisy if the facts we have stated be not kept in view: “Saul and Jonathan were pleasant and lovely in their lives, and in their death they were not divided."
In the second incident, recorded in the twenty-sixth chapter, when David again spared the life of Saul, not much more needs to be said. Some critics would hold it to be the same incident recorded by another hand in some earlier document consulted by the writer of 1 Samuel, containing certain variations such as might take place at the hand of a different historian. But let us observe the differences of the two chapters, (1) The scene is different; in the one case it is near Engedi, in the other in the wilderness, near the hill Hachilah, which is before Jeshimon. (2) The place where Saul was asleep is different; in the one case a cave; in the other case a camp, protected by a trench. (3) The trophy carried off by David was different; in the one case the skirt of his garment, in the other a spear and cruse of water. (4) The position of David when he made himself known was different; in the one case he went out of the cave and called after Saul; in the other he crossed a gully and spoke from the top of a crag. (5) His way of attracting attention was different; in the one case he spoke directly to Saul, in the other he rallied Abner, captain of the host, for failing to protect the person of the king. But we need not proceed further with this list of differences. Those we have adverted to are enough to repel the assertion that there were not two separate incidents of the same kind. And surely if the author was a mere compiler, using different documents, he might have known if the incidents were the same. If it be said that we cannot believe that two events so similar could have happened, that this is too improbable to be believed, we may answer by referring to similar cases in the Gospels, or even in common life. Suppose a historian of the American civil war to describe what took place at Bull Run. First he gives an account of a battle there between the northern and southern armies, some incidents of which he describes. By-and-bye he again speaks of a battle there, but the incidents he gives are quite different. Our modern critics would say it was all one event, but that the historian, having consulted two accounts, had clumsily written as if there had been two battles. We know that this fancy of criticism is baseless. In the American civil war there were two battles of Bull Run between the same contending parties at different times. So we may safely believe that there were two instances of David's forbearance to Saul, one in the neighbourhood of Engedi, the other in the neighbourhood of Ziph.
And all that needs to be said further respecting the second act of forbearance by David is that it shines forth all the brighter because it was the second, and because it happened so soon after the other. We may see that David did not put much trust in Saul's profession the first time, for he did not disband his troop, but remained in the wilderness as before. It is quite possible that this displeased Saul. It is also possible that that inveterate false accuser of David from whom he suffered so much would make a great deal of this to Saul, and would represent to him strongly that if David really was the innocent man he claimed to be, after receiving the assurance he got from him he would have sent his followers to their homes, and returned in peace to his own. That he did nothing of the kind may have exasperated Saul, and induced him to change his policy, and again take steps to secure David, as before. Substantially, David's remonstrance with Saul on this second occasion was the same as on the first. But at this tune he gave proof of a power of sarcasm which he had not shown before. He rated Abner on the looseness of the watch he kept of his royal master, and adjudged him worthy of death for not making it impossible for anyone to come unobserved so near the king, and have him so completely in his power. The apology of Saul was substantially the same as before; but how could it have been different? The acknowledgment of what was to happen to David was hardly so ample as on the last occasion. David doubtless parted from Saul with the old conviction that kindness was not wanting in his personal feelings, but that the evil influences that were around him, and the fits of disorder to which his mind was subject, might change his spirit in a single hour from that of generous benediction to that of implacable jealousy.
But now to draw to a close. We have adverted to that high reverence for God which was the means of restraining David from lifting up his hand against Saul, because he was the Lord's anointed. Let us now notice more particularly what an admirable spirit of self-restraint and patience David showed in being willing to bear all the risk and pain of a most distressing position, until it should please God to bring to him the hour of deliverance. The grace we specially commend is that of waiting for God's time. Alas! into how many sins, and even crimes, have men been betrayed through unwillingness to wait for God's time! A young man embarks in the pursuits of commerce; but the gains to be derived from ordinary business come in far too slowly for him; he makes haste to be rich, engages in gigantic speculation, plunges into frightful gambling, and in a few years brings ruin on himself and all connected with him. How many sharp and unhandsome transactions continually occur just because men are impatient, and wish to hurry on some consummation which their hearts are set on! Nay, have not murders often taken place just to hasten the removal of some who occupied places that others were eager to fill? And how often are evil things done by those who will not wait for the sanction of honourable marriage?
But even where no act of crime has been committed, impatience of God's time may give rise to many an evil feeling that does not go beyond one's own breast. Many a son who will succeed to an inheritance on the death of his father, or of some other relative, is tempted to wish, more or less consciously, for an event the last to be desired by a filial heart. You may say, it is human nature; how could anyone help it? The example of David shows how one may help it. The heart that is profoundly impressed with the excellence of the Divine will, and the duty and privilege of loyally accepting all His arrangements, can never desire to anticipate that will in any matter, great or small. For how can any good come in the end from forcing forward arrangements out of the Divine order? If, for the moment, this brings any advantage in one direction, it is sure to be followed by far greater evils in another. Do we all realize the full import of our prayer when we say, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"? Of one thing you may be very sure, there is no impatience in heaven for a speedier fulfillment of desirable events than the will of God has ordained. There is no desire to force on the wheels of Providence if they do not seem to be moving fast enough. So let it be with us. Let us fix it as a first principle in our minds, as an immovable rule of our lives, that as God knows best how to order His providence, so any interference with Him is rash and perilous, and wicked too; and with reference both to events which are not lawfully in our hands, and the time at which they are to happen, let us realize it as alike our duty and our interest to say to God, in the spirit of full and unreserved trust-"Not our will, but Thine be done."