In today’s passage from 1 Samuel we read of a time when David was tempted to kill Saul and to seize the kingdom of Israel by force, instead of trusting in the Lord and waiting patiently for the Lord to give him the kingdom at the right time. In a similar way, in the gospels, we read how the Lord Jesus was tempted to become king over the nations by bowing down to the Devil, instead of trusting in his Heavenly Father and waiting patiently for his Father to make him king over all after his death and resurrection. And so, once again what we read about David in 1 Samuel foreshadows the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ who was willing to suffer and to die on the cross to pay for our sins before being installed as king over all. But we also learn from this passage that we must not repay evil for evil, but we must trust in the Lord and do good.
Verses 1 to 7
Let’s turn to today’s passage which begins by telling us what happened after Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines. You might remember at the end of chapter 23 Saul and his men were chasing after David and his men. And it seemed that David was done for, because Saul and his men were closing in on David and his men. However, in the nick of time for David, a messenger came to Saul to say that the Philistines were raiding the land. And so, there was nothing else for it, but Saul had to abandon his pursuit of David and go after the Philistines. That’s how chapter 23 ended; and between the end of chapter 23 and the beginning of chapter 24, Saul has dealt with the Philistines. And now, having dealt with them. he’s ready to have another go at David.
Someone was able to tell him that David and his men were now in the Desert of En Gedi. Saul called up 3,000 chosen men. I think I’ve said before that the Hebrew word used for a thousand can also refer to a company of soldiers. But whether it’s 3,000 men or three companies of men, nevertheless we’re told that these are ‘chosen’ men. That is, these are his best men. Saul took his best men and set off to look for David.
And we’re told that while they were looking for David, Saul needed to take a bathroom break. He needed to relieve himself. But since there were no bathrooms, because they were in a desert, he went into a cave all by himself to do what was necessary. So, all his men were waiting outside for the king to relieve himself and resume the search.
But what neither Saul nor his men knew is that David and his men were hiding at the back of the exact same cave. And as far as David’s men are concerned, this is David’s chance. Saul has been trying to kill David for some time. He’s been pursuing David from place to place. Last time, Saul almost managed to catch David. He’ll not give up until David is dead. But now’s your chance, David. And they even suggest that this is God’s will: ‘Didn’t God say that he would give your enemy into his hands for you to deal with as you wish?’ We have no record of God ever saying that. They’re probably making it up, putting words into God’s mouth. Or perhaps they’re trying to interpret the circumstances of David’s life. We try to do that, don’t we? Something happens to us and we take it as a sign from God. ‘This is clearly God’s will’, we think. That’s what David’s men were doing: God has brought Saul into this cave so that you can kill him. It’s obvious, isn’t it?
So, what will David do? We read at the end of verse 4 that David crept up unnoticed. But instead of killing Saul, he sliced off a piece of Saul’s robe. Now, we don’t know what David was thinking at the time. Was he going to kill Saul; and then did he have second thoughts? We don’t know. We do know, however, that afterwards he was conscience-stricken. Do you see that in verse 5? We perhaps think it was no big deal. Yes, he damaged Saul’s robe, but does it really matter? I’m sure Saul had lots of robes.
But what he did perhaps had symbolic significance, because royal robes represented the king and the kingdom. For example, whenever Jonathan gave his royal robe to David back in chapter 18 it signified that — as far as Jonathan was concerned — David deserved to be king. But on that occasion in chapter 18, Jonathan gave the robe to David; David didn’t take it by force. And so, here in chapter 24, the reason David was conscience stricken was perhaps because he was tempted for a moment at least to take the kingdom from Saul, instead of waiting for God to give it to him. And so, he said to his men: ‘The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the LORD’s anointed, or lift my hand against him, for he is the anointed of the LORD.’
Two times in the one sentence David refers to Saul as the Lord’s anointed. He means that Saul was God’s anointed king. He may have been a wicked king; and God may have already declared that he intended to take the kingdom from Saul and give it to someone else. But for the time being he was still the Lord’s anointed king; and therefore set apart by God to rule his people on God’s behalf. And while he remained the Lord’s anointed king, it would be wrong for David to harm him in any way or to try to take the kingdom from him.
And we’re told in verse 7 that with these words David rebuked his men. The commentators point out that the word translated ‘rebuked’ can also mean ‘tear apart’. And so, we might say he ripped his men apart for suggesting to him that he should harm Saul and take the kingdom by force. And he forbade them from attacking Saul themselves. And so, Saul was able to leave the cave unharmed and completely in the dark about how close he had come to losing his life.
Verses 8 to 15
The remainder of the chapter contains two speeches: the first is by David to Saul; and the second is by Saul to David.
And in David’s speech to Saul he asked why does Saul listen when men say that he, David, was trying to harm Saul. And we can imagine David holding up the torn piece of robe and saying that Saul can now see with his own eyes that David has no intention of harming Saul, because doesn’t the torn robe demonstrate that David had the chance to kill Saul, but did not take it? And even though his men urged him to kill Saul, he refused to harm the Lord’s anointed king. And so, David declared his innocence. And in verse 12 he appeals to the Lord to judge between them; and he appeals to the Lord to avenge the wrong that Saul has done to David. ‘[But] my hand will not touch you’ he adds.
David is doing what the Apostle Paul tells us to do, isn’t he? In Romans 12 Paul tells us not to repay anyone evil for evil. David’s men were urging him to repay Saul evil for evil: since Saul was trying to take David’s life, David should take Saul’s life. Evil for evil; tit for tat. But don’t do it, Paul says to us. If it is possible, he says, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. David’s men were urging him to harm Saul, not to live at peace with him. And do not take revenge, says Paul. Don’t take revenge, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay.’ That’s what Paul wrote in Romans 12. And the Spirit of God who inspired Paul to write those words enabled David to live by them, because instead of taking revenge on Saul, he appealed to the Lord to act on his behalf.
And that’s what you must do. Has someone annoyed you? Has someone upset you? Has someone crossed you? Has someone hurt you or abused you? Well, if what they have done is a crime, you should report it the governing authorities, because Paul goes on in the next chapter of Romans to make clear that God has appointed the governing authorities to punish wrongdoers on his behalf. He has given them the power of the sword. In other words, he has given them the power and the authority to punish wrongdoers on his behalf. So, if someone has committed a crime against you, you can rely on the authorities to put things right for you. But what you’re not to do is to take revenge yourself, but you’re to leave it to the Lord who has said: ‘It is mine to avenge. I will repay.’ That’s what you’re to do. And that’s what David did. He declared his innocence; and he appealed to the Lord to judge between them — who was in the right; who was in the wrong — and to avenge David. But David was not going to take matters into his own hands.
And then, in verse 14, he compares himself to a dead dog and to a flea. ‘Whom are you pursuing?’ he asks. Only a dead dog and a flea. He’s saying that he’s no threat to Saul. Saul has many, many soldiers, companies of soldiers at his command. And David has only 600 followers or so. David and his men are as harmless as a dead dog and as a flea on that dead dog.
And he ends his speech by once again appealing to the Lord to decide between them. Since David is convinced he has done no wrong, he expects the Lord to uphold him and to vindicate him by delivering him from Saul’s hand.
Verses 16 to 22
And then we have Saul’s speech to David in verses 16 and following. And look: Saul wept. It seems that David’s words convicted him and he realised that David was more righteous than he was. David was in the right; and he was in the wrong. You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly. More literally, he says that you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. And that resembles Paul’s instruction to us in Romans 12 not to repay anyone evil for evil. And Saul recognises that God had given Saul into David’s hands. In other words, David had the chance to kill Saul. But you did not kill me. And he confesses that David deserves to be rewarded by God for the good he has done. And he confesses that he knows the kingdom will one day be given to David.
And since that’s the case, he asks David not to cut off his descendants. You might recall that Jonathan said the same thing to David in chapter 20 when they made a covenant with one another. In those times, when one king overthrew another king, very often the first thing a new king would do was to kill the descendants of the old king, because the new king didn’t want the old king’s son or grandson rising up in rebellion and trying to take revenge on the new king. So, new kings would wipe out the old king’s family. And so, first Jonathan, and then Saul, asked David not to do that to their family. And by making this request, it demonstrated once again that they were sure that David would one day be king in their place. And after David gave his word to Saul, Saul returned home.
David faced a twofold temptation in this chapter. One side of it was to take the kingdom by sinning, instead of waiting for the Lord to give it to him. And the second side was to take vengeance on Saul.
So, firstly, he was tempted to take the kingdom by sinning, instead of trusting in the Lord to give it to him. But David refused to sin against the Lord by killing Saul; and instead of taking the kingdom, he trusted the Lord who had promised to give it to him when the time was right. And while he waited, he was prepared to endure all kinds of suffering and humiliation, because that was God’s will for him.
And in the gospels, we read how the Devil came to tempt the Lord Jesus, right after he was baptised and anointed by the Holy Spirit. The Devil came to God’s Anointed King and took him to a very high place and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. And the Devil said to the Lord Jesus: ‘All these I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.’ The Devil was offering to make him king over all without having to wait for it and without having to suffer and to die on the cross for our sins. He could have the kingdom and all the glory right now and immediately. He could have it all without having to suffer. He could have it all. All he had to do was to bow down before the Devil and worship him.
But just as David refused when he was tempted, so the Lord Jesus refused. He would not sin against his Father in heaven by worshipping the Devil. And he would not sin against his Father in heaven who sent him into the world to endure all kinds of suffering and humiliation on our behalf and to pay for our sins with his life by dying on the cross. Though it was the Father’s will for the Lord Jesus to become king over all, it was the Father’s will for the Lord Jesus to suffer first to save us from our sins.
And so, the Lord Jesus resisted the Devil’s temptation and instead of receiving the kingdom by sinning, he was prepared to do his Father’s will and to give up his life on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins. And so, he was willing to endure all things for you and for your salvation; and to wait patiently until he has done all that was necessary to pay for your sins and to satisfy God’s justice. And only then, after he had done what was necessary, would he be exalted by the Father and installed in heaven as king over all.
And so, this is your Saviour: when he was tempted, he remained faithful and obedient to his Father in heaven; and he was prepared to endure all kinds of sorrow and suffering and humiliation in order to pay for your sins with his life and to give you everlasting peace and joy in the presence of God. This is your Saviour. And he promises forgiveness and eternal life to all who believe in his name.
And he calls on his people, here on earth, to follow his example. He has promised that we will one day live with him and reign with him in glory. He has promised us everlasting joy and pleasures forevermore in his presence in the new and better world to come. But you must wait for it. You must wait for it.
And while you wait for it, he commands his people to be like David and to be like the Lord Jesus, so that you do not repay evil for evil or take revenge on your enemies. In his word, he says to you: Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. As far as it depends on you and if it is possible, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge. And do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good. That’s what he calls on you to do as you wait for the day when you will enter the glory to come.
Do not repay evil for evil or insult with insult. That’s how Peter puts it in his first letter. Do not repay evil for evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called. What has he called you to do? To bless those who curse you. To seek peace and pursue it. And even to suffer for doing good, just as Christ your Saviour suffered to give you eternal life.