Published on August 20th, 2013 | by Dr. Joel McDurmon5
Saul’s confession, and the folly of short-term political fixes (1 Samuel 24)
“I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life.”
In chapter 23, we learned that God would protect and spare David and the remnant from Saul even in the direst of situations. In Chapter 24, God goes one step further to show that he would even deliver Saul right into the hands of David. Yet this is not just a victory for David; it is also a test. Would David give in to peer pressure and accept a short-term political solution to his predicament? It seemed so obviously right and beneficial, and his men urged him vehemently. No. As we shall see, in remaining disciplined, principled, and faithful, David would reap a victory much larger than the one apparent before his eyes.
This passage, therefore, carries obvious lessons for us today as well. As with so much in 1 Samuel, these lessons apply on all levels—personal and social.
One theme we can note running throughout the passage is relief. Everyone is seeking relief. David has experienced relief from Saul’s pursuit, but only briefly. Chapter 23 leaves off with Saul diverted. But this chapter picks up with that relief coming to an end. He and his men are still hiding in a cave, seeking relief from their plight.
Saul, too, seeks relief, but it is from his own delusion that David is after him. So he rounds up his army once again to go get David. His delusion that David is his enemy is highlighted in the fact that Saul goes looking for David among the Wildgoats’ Rocks (24:2), when David was actually hiding in a cave near the sheepfolds (24:3)—in other words, Saul was looking among the goats when he should have been looking among the sheep. David was, after all, innocent and no enemy at all.
The theme of relief comes to a somewhat comedic point—at Saul’s expense—when Saul turns aside into this cave to relieve himself (24:3). In doing so, he unwittingly walked right into the cave in which David was hiding. It was a classic case of being caught with one’s pants down, literally. In this scene we see that even the most guarded warriors among us have their vulnerable moments when their guard is down. Moreover, God can spoil the proudest of men through the basest of means—just as he uses the foolish things of this world to confound the wise, and the weak to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:18–31).
God had just used the routine, natural urge of Saul to place him at the mercy of David. It was just in the last chapter that we saw Saul rejoice because he thought the Lord had delivered David into his hand (23:7), but Saul was proven wrong. Now we see him proven doubly wrong—not only did David escape, but not God has done just the opposite in delivering Saul into David’s hand. So often does God surprise us by giving so much more than we would have asked.
Saul’s wings clipped
So here was an opportunity for David. But what exactly was the nature of it? Should, must, David take it to the greatest extent possible?
His men certainly urged him to do so. After all, how obvious could it be? Here the very center and cause of all of David’s trouble had been brought defenseless and unsuspecting before his feet. Strike the blow and get it over with. Then we can start to right this ship of state! David’s men even had a “word from the Lord” to back up their actions: “Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you’” (24:4). So, allegedly, there was direct religious sanction for this agenda as well. It appeared that both the Word and Providence, not to mention a multitude of counselors, demanded that David kill Saul at this moment.
Fresh off such counsel, David moved forward very quietly. He pulled out his knife. His men, no doubt, thought that he was about to strike. But David had another idea. Something was not quite right with killing Saul. Instead, David quietly reached down for the robe Saul had no doubt laid aside for the moment. David cut the “corner” or “skirt” of that robe, and then just as quietly retreated back to the dark corners of that cave. He was collecting evidence for his upcoming impromptu court case against Saul.
This, of course, was no ordinary “robe.” It was the meil—the outward robe of authority like Samuel’s mother had made for him (2:19), and which Jonathan had given to David (18:4). As much as I would like to think that David cut out the rear side of the general garment so that as Saul walked out the cave he showed the world his behind, this was about more than rivalry or Saul’s ego. Instead, David was taking a symbolic slice out of Saul’s authority here—indeed, severing it from him. And the cutting away of this robe in this way carries even more significance in light of Saul’s history. It was Saul who inadvertently tore Samuel’s meil after being rejected by God (15:27). At that time, Samuel told him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you” (15:28). Now we see David symbolically acting out that prophecy. Even if David had not known about it, Saul very likely would have remembered.
Moreover, the Hebrew word for “skirt” or “corner” here is also the word for “wings.” Symbolically, Saul had just gotten his wings clipped. This would be humiliating enough.
Yet even this symbolic act tore David in his heart. He did not want to lay hands on Saul personally, for David maintained a very high view of the civil office—Saul was the Lord’s anointed. This was just a wise politically as it was morally. Had David killed Saul here, he would have done little but confirm the lies Saul and Saul’s establishment had been spreading about him for some time—that David was a bloodthirsty terrorist who just wanted the throne. This would hardly have ingratiated David with Saul’s loyal base throughout the kingdom, and would have made David’s own kingship impossible and short-lived.
When David returned to his men, he spoke from his torn heart, and it is clear that they needed persuading. After all, these guys were just as disgusted and angry with Saul as David was, and bitter on top of that. David related his high view of civil office and God’s anointing, and with this, persuaded his men not to attack Saul (24:7). The word “persuaded” here is more than mere persuasion. The NRSV’s “scolded” is closer, but the Hebrew word is an intensified form of the word “cleave.” In this form it means “tear” or perhaps “rip.” We used words like this today when someone is giving a good tongue lashing. David “tore into” his men, or “ripped” his men with a good scolding. They were so intent on killing Saul, so upset with David for not doing so, and so misguided in their ambitions that they needed a good chewing out. David put them in line.
Saul in the dock
Just as Saul’s tearing of Samuel’s robe came back to haunt him here, so would another of his actions. We have seen him more than once call an impromptu court case in order to deal with his “enemies” on the spot. It failed with Jonathan in chapter 13, but succeeded disastrously with the priests of Nob. Here, however, we see David turning the same tactic against Saul. This time, Saul was in the dock.
Saul leaves the cave and David follows after him. David gets Saul’s attention by calling to him. There is thus a confrontation. With Saul, usually defiant of David, and standing a head taller, the scene is ironically a bit like David versus Goliath. But David does not stand to fight—he bows before the current king, showing that he is no threat. Thus while calling Saul to account, he defuses the situation at the outset. This is a lesson to his men, too, who are almost surely watching from the cave’s entrance at this point.
David goes even further: he does not lay the blame for the murderous intentions squarely on Saul himself. Instead, he (pretends?) to assume Saul was deceived by his counselors. He asks, “Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Behold, David seeks your harm’?” (24:9). Love covers a multitude of sins, and so often we can make headway with even our decided enemies by beginning with the benefit of the doubt. Once some of the antagonism is removed and purer intentions demonstrated, prejudices can be softened as well when the facts come out.
Yet David does not shy away from putting the honest facts on the table so that Saul would have to deal with them. David rehearses what had just happened in the cave, even the fact that the men urged him to kill Saul. David can assert not only his general innocence against Saul, but now has a specific incident in which he can say he specifically did the opposite of harming Saul—he prevented harm from coming to Saul. And he not only had the claim but the evidence as well: “Check your robe”:
By the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it. May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you (24:11–12),
When David said May the Lord judge between me and you, Saul knew he was in a court case. And he knew that the evidence showed that David had a pretty solid case. He probably still had enough good judgment to recognize David was earnest and truly innocent. He certainly had enough sense to realize he had little choice but acquiesce in this setting.
As David pleaded further as to why Saul would be hunting the life of one who was willing to see himself as a dog or flea in comparison (24:14–15), Saul had one of his weepy, tender moments. Perhaps the emotion was genuine, but the apparent repentance on Saul’s part would last only as long as the emotion, for as we shall see, Saul will give in to the pressure of his counselors yet one more time against David (chapter 26)—even after admitting here that David is no enemy. Nevertheless, at this point, Saul breaks down weeping and repentant.
And at this point, Saul provides a vital confession. Aside from confessing that David is more righteous than he, and that David was no enemy after all, Saul goes on to admit the fact that David is the true heir to the throne: I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand (24:20). Saul asks only that David will not annihilate Saul’s posterity once in power—obviously not recognizing that David does not think like him. David, of course, had no problem making such a promise, being already covenanted friends with Jonathan anyway. The confession, however, made before heaven and earth, as well as before David’s men as witnesses, was a landmark for Saul and more importantly for the kingdom of God. The civil government was on record confirming the continuity of government which God had ordained.
This does not mean that David was in the clear. As we said, Saul will go back on his word as he is known to do. David needed a second witness to the fact, at least, and after a brief interlude in chapter 25, this will come in chapter 26. But this first confession is monumental enough that the narrative records the death of Samuel afterward. Chapter 25 verse 1 properly, I believe, belongs at the end of chapter 24, not the beginning of chapter 25. Samuel’s larger mission was complete at this point, his work was done. He had replaced the old priesthood as was promised in chapter 2, he ushered in the king-state in judgment (chapters 8 and 11), warned the people how to behave (chapter 12), and he had faithfully rebuked Saul and prophetically replaced him (chapters 13 and 15) after he repeatedly failed. Samuel anointed David in fear of his own life (chapter 16), and finally protected David during one of Saul’s murderous pursuits (chapter 19). As God had finally moved to put Saul beneath David publicly, and forced Saul to confess the fact of David’s future enthronement, it seemed as if Samuel’s work was done. A monumental confession was followed immediately by a monumental funeral. A grand national transition seemed to be at hand.
1. Be careful from whom you take counsel.
The Proverbs tell us that a multitude of counselors is a good thing (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6). But these verses are not speaking of just any large group of people. They assume a variety of inputs and perspectives so that a leader can weigh pros and cons. They do not describe a dedicated majority that is unified around the same agenda. After all, such a unified “multitude of counselors” can be unified around a message that is wrong or evil. Thus, sometimes, a multitude of counselors is not wise.
We see this idea at work here with David and his men. They were a de facto multitude of counselors, and it would have been quite easy for them to persuade the average person due to their sheer number and unanimity. Peer pressure is a power force. But David was not swayed by the masses—he had a higher consideration and a higher standard than mere popularity. In withstanding their demands, he showed great courage and independence of thought—in the service of faithfulness, of course. It was, after all, written in the Law of God specifically: “you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice” (Ex. 23:2 NRSV).
We must have the same type of fortitude today. We need more people willing and faithful in the midst of an evil generation—and in the midst of multitudes of other fearful and compromised Christians—who refuse to bend with the lusts and grudges of this world, and instead act according to godly wisdom, the true “big picture.”
This lesson applies to larger society as well as smaller groups like David’s. Indeed, the concept of “democracy” as a political system has great limitations because of this problem. I am reminded of something I wrote on the fallacy of “appeal to peer pressure” in my book Biblical Logic:
The greatness of “democracy” is a myth, and the old saying vox populi, vox dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God) makes a political idol out of fallacious reasoning. Oddly enough, the first person to record this Latin proverb was the British cleric and scholar Alcuin of York (AD 735–804), who also subsequently refuted it. He wrote to Charlemagne, “Nor are those to be listened to who are accustomed to say, ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God.’ For the clamor of the crowd is very close to madness.”
For this reason, our own systems of civil government as well as church government should never be pure democracies, and have not been historically. Instead, our systems have applied the biblical and covenantal idea of representation—and that in multiple levels and limited jurisdictions. Letus therefore be wary of appeals for “democracy”—especially when the Law of God is speaking otherwise. Just as David refused to bow to the unanimity of his men when they counseled evil, so let us stand on the Word and not budge even in the face of a million votes against us.
2. Short-term solutions can be dangerous.
David’s decision to defy his men was more than just a case of peer pressure. In that case, all indicators immediately before them seemed to demand the same action on David’s part. As we explained already, it seemed like God had given David the opportunity he needed, and had made it so accessible and easy for him to accomplish. A very strong case could be made at the moment that David would be foolish not to kill Saul on the spot. In short, it seemed like a no-brainer.
Yet David looked at the bigger picture, and in doing so, he exposed his men’s counsel to have been ill-thought-out. While much could have been achieved in that one fell stroke, it would have been very short lived. It was a short-term solution that would have led to disaster in a long term world.
We face the same type of apparent solutions today—indeed, they are shoved down our throats all the time. We are cajoled and intimidated constantly in the political realm with the immediate necessity of voting this way or supporting that measure, and if we do not, we are dismissed as foolish, ignorant, holier-than-thou, etc. Yet over and over again this vote and that measure turn out only to exacerbate the problem, or at best maintain the current level of nonsense and hypocrisy—usually justified by reminding us how bad the last guy or the last measure had been.
David’s example encourages us to see exactly who was the maddened and ignorant party. Despite all indicators of right and prudence in the immediate term that could have been put before him, despite all the arguments that leveraged all that persuasive evidence, and despite even alleged words from God and interpretations of prophecy, David had the wisdom to think outside of the immediate political discourse. He thought in grander terms of the biblical doctrine of civil government and the longer course of history and politics before him. And he was not afraid to take a course that seemed foolish at the moment.
So often, faithfulness does look absolutely foolish at the moment. But we must follow the example of David here, and not take a certain path merely because it seems we can profit from it immediately, or that there is much to be gained in a short time. Let us instead weigh our decisions in light of greater biblical principles and a long-term, multi-generational vision. However foolish our forbearances and abstinences appear to others for the time being, when we are faithful and obedient to God’s Law, we know that He shall bless His people and bring His will to pass in due time.
3. Prophecy is not always properly interpreted or applied.
It is worth repeating the point about prophecy, if only in brief. I obviously do not have the time at this point to cover all the views of prophecy, gifts, and specific arguments that pertain to this topic. But we should always remember that no prophecy is of any private interpretation, and thus we should be very wary when people begin to use applications of prophecy in such casual ways as David’s men did. “Here’s your chance! God said so. So do. . . .” We should be especially wary when such prophecies come through alleged private revelations.
But we should be wary even so when we are dealing with biblical prophecy. And let me just say that millions of Christians are currently held in delusion and paralysis by this means. Millions refuse to have anything to do with this world, or to do so at this time, because of mistaken eschatological beliefs. Many more think mistakenly concerning modern-day “Israel” (which is not Israel) in such a way as to cause and to justify all kinds of political upheaval and misfortune in this world. Again, this is not the place to elaborate on amillennialism and dispensationalism, but let us be mindful of their error in general anyway.
4. Sometimes even the remnant needs to be “ripped.”
Finally, we should remember that the men who failed David here and would have had him run into sin and political destruction by it were not actually the bad guys. They were in fact the courageous, faithful remnant. Yet here we see them fall into a gross error which required David to tear into them with a heated lecture.
We should learn from this that even the best of God’s people need to be chastened on occasion. Not for every single little mistake, of course, but the writer of Hebrews does tell that such chastening is the work of our heavenly Father—indeed, it is proof that we have Him as a Father (Heb. 12:5–8). This “ripping” can come through the pulpit, literature, Bible study, other ministries, or music and song. And as it did with David, such chastening often comes through the criticism of our brethren. In fact, through relationships—especially spouses—is one of the most common ways such chastening occurs.
We should therefore be patient when it is our turn to hear it, and not resist the wisdom of God just because it grates against our own dearly-held agendas. And if it should come about that God puts us in a position to be the one ripping, let us pray that we relate the Word with compassion and calmness as much as is possible. We should not be too proud either to give or to receive criticism—just let us do both only as need be and only with a mind to the truth and character of Christ Himself. Just never forget that sometimes, even the remnant needs to be lectured in this way.
In this narrative, we learn once again that God is in control, and that the battle is His. Yet we learn also that although He has every single detail in control, and will bring things to pass in such a way as to put them right in our lap, He nevertheless also includes tests and trials for us within that gracious providence. We are warned by this to remain ever faithful to His Word and not to trust the devices of men. We should learn to discern those apparent gifts which look like smiling providences when in reality they are rebellions against His Law.
The more we study and cling to that Law as David did, the more we will be in position to refuse apparently good counsel when it is really the madness of crowds, to reject misapplications of prophecy, and to criticize the futility of quick-fixes to our social and political ills. And from that Law, also, let our families, churches, and communities be shaped and molded by the chastening of God’s Fatherhood.