In the last essay we studied 1 Samuel chapters 21-22, which contain the first part of Saul’s pursuit of David the fugitive. In this essay we are taking up chapters 23 and 24, which continue the story of David’s adventures as Saul pursued him.
The town of Keilah, mentioned in 23:1, was on the frontier between Judah and Philistia. As you can see, David learned that a raiding band of Philistines was robbing the threshing floors of Keilah. So David inquired of the Lord (v. 2). That means he sought the Lord’s will regarding whether or not to go to Keilah’s defense. This suggests that Abiathar the priest arrived before David went to Keilah. At any rate, David received an affirmative answer. However David’s men feared the idea. Thus they were reluctant to go (v. 3). So David inquired of the Lord a second time; and once again received the word that they should go. So they went, and won a significant victory (vv. 4-5).
Saul learned that David was at Keilah, so he decided to attack him there, thinking that David was trapped within city walls (vv. 7-8). But David heard about Saul’s plan. He inquired of the Lord and learned not only that Saul was serious about the attack, but also that the people of Keilah would not remain loyal to David. So David left Keilah for the hills, and Saul had to abandon the plan (vv. 9-13). Notice that David’s band had grown by this time to 600.
Verses 15-18 make up an interesting passage. Saul’s son, Jonathan, not only was able to locate David, David trusted Jonathan enough to permit him to visit. Jonathan used the visit to encourage David, and they renewed their personal covenant. Notice that Jonathan clearly knows that David is to be the next king. And he claims that Saul also knows that. And Jonathan obviously is content to be David’s second in command.
In verses 19-29, we see a betrayal of David by the Ziphites. David had been hiding in the wilderness of Ziph, which was the wilderness surrounding the city of Ziph, which is located south of Hebron. But the Ziphites were loyal to Saul, so they made plans to help Saul capture David (vv. 19-24).
By the time Saul arrived on the scene, David had moved to the wilderness of Maon. Maon is located about five miles directly south of Ziph. Saul learned where David was located, and he began to close in on David and his men. It was a close call for David. As Saul was moving up one side of the mountain, David and his band were moving down the other side; and escape didn’t look possible (vv. 25-26)
But suddenly David was saved by circumstances. Just as Saul was closing in, a messenger came to Saul and informed him of a raid by the Philistines, which seemed serious enough that Saul felt obligated to break off his pursuit of David to deal with the Philistine threat. So David escaped to the area of Engedi (vv. 27-29).
Engedi is a marvelous place. It is located almost at the coast of the Dead Sea, a little southeast of Hebron. But the fascinating thing about it is the water there. The surrounding area is largely a dry wilderness, but at Engedi there is this abundance of water that flows from fountains of some sort up in the mountains down a series of beautiful waterfalls to the Dead Sea. At least it used to flow into the Dead Sea. The modern state of Israel has siphoned off so much of the water for irrigation that none makes it as far as the Dead Sea anymore. But the stream, the waterfalls and the lovely pools of water at the base of the falls are still there; and it is a wonderful hike up the mountain to see them.
I have made that hike, and perhaps one still could see the “wild goats” mentioned in 24:2. I did not see any wild goats, but I did see a goat-sized species of antelope. Numerous caves also are visible in the area, though it isn’t possible to know which one David and his men hid in.
In 24:1-7 we see that after Saul dealt with the Philistine threat, he took up his pursuit of David once again. He heard that David was in the area of Engedi, and Saul took 3,000 troops there. In verse three we are told that Saul went into a cave “to relieve himself.” Interestingly, it just happened to be the cave in which David and his men were hiding deeper in the cave.
David’s men saw the fact that Saul chose to enter the cave where they were located as providential, as God’s way of giving David an opportunity to kill his enemy (vv. 3-4). But David didn’t see it that way. He had too much respect for the fact that Saul was the Lord’s anointed. So instead of killing Saul, David simply sneaked up on Saul, and stealthily cut off a piece of Saul’s cloak, which apparently he had laid aside while relieving himself (v. 4). Even doing that much against the Lord’s anointed made David feel guilty, and he forbade his men to harm Saul in any way (vv. 5-7).
When Saul left, David called after him to let him know that David had had the opportunity to kill Saul, but spared his life. Then he showed Saul the piece of his cloak to prove it (vv. 8-11). Saul could have no more conclusive proof that David intended him no harm. David then called upon the Lord to judge between them (v. 12). To further convince Saul, David used the metaphors of a dead dog and a single flea to further illustrate how harmless he was to Saul. Dead dogs don’t bite, and a single flea is completely insignificant (v. 14).
Saul was deeply touched by David’s sparing of his life. And at that moment Saul seemed completely repentant and won over. He even conceded that David would one day be the king. Saul only asked that his family be spared when that day came (vv. 20-21). David agreed. But notice that David didn’t trust himself to Saul regardless of what Saul said. David returned to his stronghold, rather than to Saul’s court. As we shall see, David was correct in his decision. As always before, Saul’s good intentions didn’t last.
For our application, I want us to give our attention to chapter 24. There are two things of note here. One is David’s unusual sparing of the life of Saul, and the other is Saul’s reaction.
In relation to David’s not killing Saul, first, David was tempted to kill him. I know the text doesn’t specifically say that. It doesn’t say anything about David’s initial reaction. But I offer two reasons for saying that. One, we must remember that Saul had become David’s mortal enemy. And in that day, under their world-view, it was standard procedure to take revenge on mortal enemies. And two, David was given a plausible argument to do it. David’s men reminded him that such a turn of events as Saul’s coming into the cave alone was to be interpreted as the Lord’s giving Saul into David’s hands so that he could kill him.
So I believe David was tempted to kill Saul; but second, David overcame the temptation. And again I offer two reasons. One, David had complete regard for the will of God. David consistently had determined to do God’s will in all things. And as part of that, he had respected Saul as the Lord’s anointed throughout his relationship to him. And two, David possessed a responsive conscience, which enabled him to perceive and do the Lord’s will.
Perhaps a more important application is seen in verses 16-22 in connection with Saul. Saul showed repentance and admitted his wrongdoing. In other words he exhibited good qualities. What can we say about this? First, it was not the first time. We have seen Saul repent and admit wrongdoing before.
Second, it apparently was genuine. There was genuine emotion. Saul wept (v. 16). There was genuine admission of evildoing (v. 17). There was genuine conviction of divine purpose in the situation when Saul acknowledged that David would one day be king (v. 20). And there was a genuine abandonment of an evil purpose on Saul’s part when he returned home (v. 22).
Third, and this is the most important one, it was temporary. Saul is an outstanding case study of many evil men. Some people are surprised at this, but evil men have the capacity to love and even be compassionate under certain circumstances. Many Nazi commanders who were responsible for unspeakable evils against Jews and others during WW II loved their families. They would go home for dinner and enjoy their wives and children. They would go to concerts on Saturday night and enjoy the music as any other German might. Saul had the additional issue of a mental problem. And as we shall see as we continue our study, his good intentions were temporary.