I Samuel 16:1-25
26 The Ziphites went to Saul at Gibeah and said, “Is not David hiding on the hill of Hakilah, which faces Jeshimon?” 2 So Saul went down to the Desert of Ziph, with his three thousand select Israelite troops, to search there for David. 3 Saul made his camp beside the road on the hill of Hakilah facing Jeshimon, but David stayed in the wilderness. When he saw that Saul had followed him there, 4 he sent out scouts and learned that Saul had definitely arrived. 5 Then David set out and went to the place where Saul had camped. He saw where Saul and Abner son of Ner, the commander of the army, had lain down. Saul was lying inside the camp, with the army encamped around him." 6 David then asked Ahimelek the Hittite and Abishai son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, “Who will go down into the camp with me to Saul?” “I’ll go with you,” said Abishai. 7 So David and Abishai went to the army by night, and there was Saul, lying asleep inside the camp with his spear stuck in the ground near his head. Abner and the soldiers were lying around him." 8 Abishai said to David, “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hands. Now let me pin him to the ground with one thrust of the spear; I won’t strike him twice.” 9 But David said to Abishai, “Don’t destroy him! Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless? 10 As surely as the Lord lives,” he said, “the Lord himself will strike him, or his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. 11 But the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed. Now get the spear and water jug that are near his head, and let’s go.” 12 So David took the spear and water jug near Saul’s head, and they left. No one saw or knew about it, nor did anyone wake up. They were all sleeping, because the Lord had put them into a deep sleep. 13 Then David crossed over to the other side and stood on top of the hill some distance away; there was a wide space between them. 14 He called out to the army and to Abner son of Ner, “Aren’t you going to answer me, Abner?” Abner replied, “Who are you who calls to the king?” 15 David said, “You’re a man, aren’t you? And who is like you in Israel? Why didn’t you guard your lord the king? Someone came to destroy your lord the king.16 What you have done is not good. As surely as the Lord lives, you and your men must die, because you did not guard your master, the Lord’s anointed. Look around you. Where are the king’s spear and water jug that were near his head?” 17 Saul recognized David’s voice and said, “Is that your voice, David my son?” David replied, “Yes it is, my lord the king.” 18 And he added, “Why is my lord pursuing his servant? What have I done, and what wrong am I guilty of? 19 Now let my lord the king listen to his servant’s words. If the Lord has incited you against me, then may he accept an offering. If, however, people have done it, may they be cursed before the Lord! They have driven me today from my share in the Lord’s inheritance and have said, ‘Go, serve other gods.’ 20 Now do not let my blood fall to the ground far from the presence of the Lord. The king of Israel has come out to look for a flea—as one hunts a partridge in the mountains.” 21 Then Saul said, “I have sinned. Come back, David my son. Because you considered my life precious today, I will not try to harm you again. Surely I have acted like a fool and have been terribly wrong.” 22 “Here is the king’s spear,” David answered. “Let one of your young men come over and get it. 23 The Lord rewards everyone for their righteousness and faithfulness. The Lord delivered you into my hands today, but I would not lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed. 24 As surely as I valued your life today, so may the Lord value my life and deliver me from all trouble.” 25 Then Saul said to David, “May you be blessed, David my son; you will do great things and surely triumph.” So David went on his way, and Saul returned home.
1. The Stage is set for a repeat of recent history 1-5
Saul received information regarding David’s movements and went again on the offensive. The Ziphites came to him and told him where David was, in the same place where he was when they earlier betrayed him, (23:19). Perhaps Saul had told them he would be glad of their assistance. If not, they were very eager to serve Saul and knew what would please him. Were they hateful themselves towards David? At any rate, they stirred up Saul who needed no such spur against David. For all we know, Saul would have continued in the same attitude toward David and would not have given David this fresh trouble, if the Ziphites had not put him up to it. This teaches us that we have to pray to God that, since we have so much inclination toward corruption in our own hearts, the sparks of temptation may be kept far from us, but if we are not careful and those sparks come together, we will be set on fire of hell. Saul eagerly received the information, and went down with an army of 3000 men to where David hid himself. How soon do our evil hearts lose their good intentions and return with the dog to their vomit!
David learned of Saul’s movements and acted defensively. He did not march out to meet and fight him; he only wanted his own safety, not Saul’s ruin; therefore Scripture says, “but David stayed in the wilderness,” curbing the bravery of his own spirit, showing more true valor than he could have done by fighting and winning. He had spies who informed him so David “learned that Saul had definitely arrived,” (v 4) yet he wanted to see for himself. He observed with his own eyes how Saul was encamped, (v 5) He came towards the place where Saul and his men had pitched their tents, so near as to be able, undiscovered, to take a view of their camp, probably in the dusk of the evening.
2. David Declined one Opportunity, but Seized Another 6-12
David initiated a bold adventure into Saul’s camp in the night, accompanied only by his cousin Abishai, the son of Zeruiah. He proposed it to him and to another of his confidants, (v 6) but the other either declined it as too dangerous or at least was content that Abishai, who was eager to do it, should run the risk of it rather than himself. Whether David was prompted to do this by his own courage, or by an extraordinary impression upon his spirits, or by God’s Spirit, is not stated; but God allowed and blessed it and, like Gideon, he ventured through the guards, with a special assurance of the divine protection.
David found "Saul was lying inside the camp, with the army encamped around him" (v 5). "there was Saul, lying asleep inside the camp with his spear stuck in the ground near his head. Abner and the soldiers were lying around him”(v 7). and "They were all sleeping, because the Lord had put them into a deep sleep”(v 12). Eyes closed, hands bound so to speak, so fast asleep that David and Abishai walked and talked among them, and yet none of them stirred. Sleep, when God gives it to his beloved, is their rest and refreshment; but he can, when he pleases, make it to his enemies their imprisonment. “The valiant lie plundered, they sleep their last sleep; not one of the warriors can lift his hands” (Ps. 76:5-6). How helpless do Saul and all his forces lie, all, in effect, disarmed and chained! and yet nothing is done to them; they are only rocked asleep. How easily can God weaken the strongest, befool the wisest, and baffle the most watchful! Let all his friends therefore trust him and all his enemies fear him.
Abishai did not propose that David kill Saul, probably because he knew David would not, but he did venture to suggest that he himself would. “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hands” (v 8). Recently David had a similar advantage of this kind, but it was accidental, when Saul happened to be in a cave with him at the same time. But this time there was something extraordinary; the deep sleep that had fallen on Saul and all his guards was clearly from the Lord, so that it was a special providence which gave him this opportunity; he ought not therefore to let it slip. That was Abishai’s own understanding, but that was not “trusting in the Lord with your his heart” like David was inclined to do.
David not only would not do it himself, he also would not let Abishai for two reasons: It would be a sinful anticipation of God’s providence. God had sufficiently shown him, in Nabal’s case, that, if he left it to Him to avenge. He would do it in due time. Encouraged therefore by his experience in that instance, he resolved to wait until God will see fit to avenge him on Saul, and he will by no means avenge himself. “the Lord himself will strike him, or his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish.” (This actually happened.) David valued his innocence more than his safety.
Secondly, “the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed.” It would be a sinful anticipation of God’s providence. God had sufficiently shown him, in Nabal’s case, that, if he left it to him to avenge him, he would do it in due time. David resolved to wait until God will avenge him on Saul, and he will by no means avenge himself. I will contentedly wait on God, rather than force my way to the promised crown by any indirect methods.” The temptation indeed was very strong; but, if he should yield, he would sin against God, and therefore he will resist the temptation with the utmost resolution: “The Lord forbid that I should stretch forth my hand against the Lord’s anointed; no, I will never do it, nor allow it to be done.” David preferred his conscience to his interest and trusted God with the issue.
David did, however use this as another kind of opportunity—to prove his innocence to Saul. He and Abishai carried away the spear and cruse of water which Saul had by his bed-side. I see some symbolism here: Saul’s spear was for defense, and his cup of water was for refreshment, and both were stolen from him while he slept. Spiritually we too lose our strength and our comfort when we are careless and resting when we should stay awake and pray. There are times when we need to watch and pray; and not sleep.
3. David Taunted Saul and Abner 13–20
David arrived at a safe distance and remained close enough to be heard, but far enough to be safe, then he began to reason with them about what had just passed.
Even though David knew full well that God had made them sleep, yet he criticized Abner as being unworthy to be captain of the lifeguards, since he could sleep when the king was exposed to danger. As soon as David was out of danger, a very little thing awakened them, even David’s voice at a great distance roused them. Abner got up, asked who called, and disturbed the king. “It is I,” said David, and then he scolded him for sleeping when he should have been guarding. David told him he had lost his honor: “You’re a man, aren’t you? And who is like you in Israel? Why didn’t you guard your lord the king?” You are a man of valor? You are a man of courage? You are a general? Look here at the spear and water jug of the king. Anyone who took these could just as easily taken Saul’s head. Who are the king’s best friends? You that neglected him and left him exposed or I that protected him when he was vulnerable. You pursue me as worthy to die, and stir Saul up against me; but who is worthy to die now?
David reasoned seriously with Saul. “Is that your voice, David my son” (v 17)? Saul had given his wife to another and yet calls him son, thirsted after his blood and yet is glad to hear his voice. David has an opportunity of reaching Saul’s conscience, “Why is my lord pursuing his servant? How gladly would I serve you as formerly if my service would be accepted! but, instead of being owned as a servant, I am pursued as a rebel, and my lord is my enemy, and he whom I would follow with respect compels me to flee from him.” He was driven from his God and from his religion; and this was a much greater grievance. David is using good reasoning power. “If the Lord has incited you against me, then may he accept an offering.” Forgive me if I have done anything wrong—implying he had done nothing wrong. If, however, people have turned you against me, may they be cursed before the Lord!
“They have driven me today from my share in the Lord’s inheritance and have said, ‘Go, serve other gods.’” They have made Canaan too hot for me, at least the inhabited parts of it, have forced me into the deserts and mountains, and will, before long force me to entirely quit my homeland” And that which troubled him was not so much that he was driven out from his own inheritance, but that he was forced to live among non-believing Gentiles—to live among worshippers of strange gods and was thereby shoved into temptation to join with them in their idolatrous worship. Years earlier when Ruth from Moab wanted to follow Naomi to the Holy land, she meant she wanted to live among Naomi’s people and worship Naomi’s God. David was being denied this joy.
He insisted on his own innocence: “What have I done, and what wrong am I guilty of?” (19) The last time the two met, Saul had said, “you are more righteous than I.” It was very unreasonable and wicked for Saul to pursue him as a criminal, when he could not charge him with any crime. How do we handle criticism like this? When do we defend ourselves and when do we remain quiet and let God defend us?
He attempted to convince Saul that Saul’s pursuit of him is not only wrong, but mean, and much below him: “The king of Israel has come out to look for a flea—as one hunts a partridge in the mountains.” (v 20) . . . a poor game for the king of Israel to pursue. He compares himself to a partridge, a very innocent harmless bird, which, when attempts are made upon its life, flies if it can, but makes no resistance. And would Saul bring the power of his army into the field only to hunt one poor partridge? Was this honorable? James 5:6 warns believers today who have money to be careful not to injure the poor, “You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.” We could, anyone of us, be like Saul if we are not careful.
David wanted to settle this matter before the Lord. He proposed: “If the Lord has incited you against me, then may he accept an offering.” We do not know why, but this seemed to be enough for Saul to realize his error. This was as much as to say “let us join in making our peace with God, reconciling ourselves to him, which may be done, by sacrifice.” Let us make God our friend and then each other too. Proverbs 16:7 says, “When the Lord takes pleasure in anyone’s way, he causes their enemies to make peace with them.”
4. Saul Again Saw David’s virtue, but They Never-the-less Part Ways 21–25
Saul confessed his faults and promised to not do it again. This second similar confrontation drew from Saul a better commitment to David than the former one at the cave. He acknowledged David’s kindness to him. “Because you considered my life precious today,”
He also admitted that he had acted foolishly. “Surely I have acted like a fool and have been terribly wrong.” Those that sin play the fool and err exceedingly, especially those that hate and persecute God’s people.
He even hinted at an invitation to return to the court. “I have sinned. Come back, David my son.”
He also promised that he would not persecute David any more. “I will not try to harm you again.”
These are strong statements and he probably meant them at the time, but it is difficult to change. Only by close cooperation between God, Who wants to change us, and a child of God, who sincerely wants to change or to be changed, can a person change or improve.
David says in verse 21, “The Lord rewards everyone for their righteousness and faithfulness.” This could be an appeal to God for justice for Saul or for a reward for himself. Both are true. Abraham prayed, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right.” And in Psalm 28:4 David later wrote, “Repay them for the deeds and for their evil work; repay them for what their hands have done and bring back on them what they deserve.”
Saul expressed a surprisingly kind thought, “May you be blessed, David my son; you will do great things and surely triumph.” The princely qualities which appeared in David—his generosity in sparing Saul, his military authority in reprimanding Abner for sleeping, his care of the public good, and the obvious indications of God’s presence with him—convinced Saul that he would certainly be advanced to the throne at last, according to the prophecies concerning him.
At the end of this engagement a pain-relieving measure was made and, though the root cause of the disease was not cured, nevertheless they parted friends. Saul returned to Gibeah without accomplishing his design, and ashamed of the expedition he had made; but David could not believe or trust his word so far as to return with him. Those that have once been repeatedly false or consistently hostile are not easily trusted another time. Therefore David went on his way. And, after this parting, it does not appear that Saul and David ever saw one another again.
David progressed to greater and greater virtues and Saul degenerated to baser and greater foolishness and unrighteousness. Revelation 22:11 says, “Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile, let he who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.” Since change and improvement are so difficult, let all parents give due attention to the early training of their children in godly thought and behavior. Later in life change or improvement is exceedingly difficult.
David did not seize his opportunity to “get even”—take revenge—with or on Saul. He spared Saul generously. In doing so he showed great courage, self-control and generosity to a person who had badly mistreated him. Sometimes leaders show greatness by what they do and other times they show their good character by what they do not do. You will have opportunities to show personal excellence by not retaliating, complaining or verbally attacking someone. Let Christian leaders today learn from David a practical lesson about not doing harmful things—that too is good leadership.