“Go, execute him.”
Throughout 1 Samuel, David’s actions and reactions to Saul’s tyranny were almost entirely blameless. With the exception of his taking a second wife while knowing he was already anointed as king of Israel (1 Sam. 25), David seemed to follow the law of God perfectly. His life up to this point was not only exemplary but inspiring: showing the people of God still today how to live through triumph and persecution alike. After Saul dies, however, and David is to inherit the throne, we will witness a transformation in David’s judgment and behavior. We will see in action the old adage that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
We are all familiar with David’s great sin with Bathsheba which takes place later in chapter 11. We need to realize, however, that his departure from God’s ways did begin already back with that second marriage (and we will deal more with this sin and its place in a larger biblical-theological theme much later). Here, also, we will see the beginning of David’s flawed judgement and compromised decisions almost immediately after he inherits Saul’s mantle. David’s mistakes here will take place in tandem with the sins of a lying Amalekite. Together, they illustrate how corruption spreads, especially in civil government: a little leaven leavens the whole lump, and even the formerly praiseworthy can grow corrupt. In this case, it will be under an enduring, classic guise: the government’s own God-ordained job of punishing evil.
What we see here in the broad picture is fallout from the death of Saul, but also a great failure of David the moment he must assume that position for himself. In short, the picture is one of fallen men being fallen kings.
News of the Death of Saul
John Calvin begins his sermon on this passage with a blunt insight: “There was only one way for David to be able to relax his guard and that was for him to know that Saul was dead.” The passage relates to us the events surrounding David learning of that fact, and more importantly his reactions to it. Surely there was sigh of relief which Calvin suggests, but David also displays grief, and surely would have felt a new burden of the duties of leadership in the midst crisis.
In some ways, it was a curious confluence of events. David had just returned from striking down the Amalekites (see 1 Sam. 30). They had raided his camp and cities while he and his men were out among the Philistine army. This raid had been doubly-disturbing since these Amalekites should not have even existed. Saul had been tasked with their total elimination, but his failure in 1 Samuel 15 left the job incomplete. David had thus been raided and spoiled due to the failure of Saul to do his job. At the top of the list of David’s enemies, therefore, were Saul (who had also been trying to kill David) and the Amalekites (whom God had ordered annihilated, but who had raided David). Here we see David learning of the death of Saul through the mouth of a wandering Amalekite.
The fact that this happens on the third day seems to foreshadow the resurrection of Christ. The king (Saul) was slain, but the king (now David) stood on the third day—an interesting way of considering death (sin) and resurrection (righteousness). We need not insist on any clear typology here, but the thought is at least interesting enough to pursue.
The Amalekite brings news not only of the death of Saul, but also of Jonathan, David’s dear friend, as well as many of the people of Israel, and the defeat of the Israelite army. David is surely not surprised by this news in general, for as we have seen before, his departure from Israel in 1 Samuel 27 likely entailed his expectation that Israel was ripe for God’s judgment. Nevertheless, the news concerning Jonathan in particular would certainly have moved David.
The first thing David does is inquire for proof. The Amalekite responds by claiming he knew Saul was dead because he himself had finished him off. Indeed, he says Saul was mortally wounded when he arrived, and allegedly asked to finish him off before the Philistines could arrive. The Amalekite produces evidence in the form of Saul’s crown and bracelet—items David surely would have recognized as authentic. As Calvin notes, this may have been proof enough that Saul was dead (although even here he could simply have lost his articles or could have been robbed), but it certainly was not proof that the Amalekite had actually done the killing. This fact will be important for what follows.
We should note at this point that the Amalekite is a liar. To begin with, the Word of God tells us that Saul’s attempt at suicide was successful, and that his armor bearer witnessed him dead (1 Sam. 31:4–6). Case closed, by divine revelation. The story the Amalekite told simply never happened. Further, even though David did not himself know what had happened on Mt. Gilboah, the Amalekite’s story does not make great sense. First, why would an Amalekite be out wandering by chance (v. 6) at a strategic military position (Mt. Gilboah) during a deadly battle between Israel and the Philistines? Second, if Saul had been mortally wounded but unable to finish the task, it was only a matter on moments before the enemy found him and finished him. But an Amalekite would be considered an enemy just as much as the encroaching Philistines. Saul would not want an enemy to finish him off (as he himself says, 1 Sam. 31:4). David would have shared such a disposition, as all Israelites would. But in the Amalekite’s tale, he specifically told Saul he was an Amalekite. That Saul would have begged one uncircumcised enemy (Amalekite) to kill him in order to prevent another uncircumcised enemy (Philistines) from doing so is not really that plausible.
Since we know for certain that the Amalekite was lying, we know he must have had some ulterior motive. The scene gives us enough to understand what was really happening. The Amalekite presents this story of the death of Saul, and says he brought the crown and bracelet here to my lord (v. 10)—that is, to David. All his actions before David are certainly proper before a king, but the repeated indications here are over the top. He first approaches with his clothes torn and dirt on his head (v. 2)—outward signs of mourning. He then bowed before David and paid homage (v. 2). He then tells his implausible story and offers the crown and bracelet to David, calling him “my lord.” Putting all of this together, I believe Calvin and other commentators are correct to suspect that the wandering Amalekite had seized and opportunity to spoil Saul’s body with the expectation that David would reward him for delivering the crown of David’s enemy. Most likely this Amalekite expected that David would be so thankful for his news of Saul’s death and presentation of the crown, that the new king would reward him with a position in the new administration. It seems our Amalekite had seized an opportunity to advance himself in life, to gain certain prestige by flattering David and crushing his enemies. His main problem, however, was to misjudge David’s reaction to Saul’s death.
The Amalekite’s main problem was that David was not pleased with the death of Saul. Instead, he was terribly aggrieved. At first blush, this seems backward. Considering Saul’s cruel persecution of David, we can agree with Calvin that David “ought to have rejoiced in the death of one who was preventing the establishment of what God had ordained.” We can be as surprised by David’s grief as the Amalekite surely was.
So why was David so stricken by the death of one who was—by all accounts—his enemy and an enemy of the peace of God’s people? The answer is simple; he was not considering Saul the person, but the office of Saul and what its fall represented. David was aggrieved by the fact that it had to come down to the judgment of God in order to get the nation’s attention—indeed, even to begin to do so. David recognized the goodness of Saul’s office as the Lord’s anointed, and David recognized the work of God—the providence of God—in both raising up and putting down Saul. As Calvin put it, “Even when we must hate and detest a person’s evil side, we must not be so carried away with the violence of our own feelings that we are unable to accept the good, for then we have lost our perception and discernment.”
The last part of Calvin’s comment is convicting: when we allow our distaste for a particular person or candidate to become a controlling passion, we are guilty of losing our discernment and perception. At that point we are bigots and partisans rather than Spirit-led thinkers and discerners. We become like brute beasts ruled by our fears and appetites rather than the fruit of the Spirit such as patience and self-control.
Further, the moment we begin to justify the calamities of others by affirming their fall as just desserts or just punishment, and indeed saying “they got what they deserved,” we immediately imperil ourselves by the same standard. Instead, we ought to repent and mourn for the terrible consequences of sin. This is the example David sets here; where there could rightfully have been rejoicing, David has immediate recourse toward humility and the fear of God.
Moreover, David’s grief was weighted by what was surely his personal grief for Jonathan and for the people of God. This combined news had to have been a crushing blow. David loved the people of God and had often risked his life for their welfare. Even when under Saul’s intense persecution, David still performed his military tasks of defending the people from invasions, even though those very people then immediately betrayed him to Saul (1 Sam. 23). And, of course, his love for Jonathan is well-known. There is no way that Jonathan’s death here did not strike David to the very depths of his emotions. David’s weeping and fasting was certainly genuine here and not a mere show for public relations in the empire.
What we see here are true and false mourning contrasted. One the one hand you have a wicked and self-serving man in the Amalekite. He comes with all the outward trappings of mourning; torn clothes and dust on the head. He knows the ritual. But inwardly he is scheming and lying, hoping to to capitalize on what he believes are David’s own ambitions. On the other hand, you have a man who is anointed king, and who we would expect to jump and rejoice at this opportunity to finally acquire this power, but who instead weeps and fasts at the destruction of his most deadly enemy—mainly because of what it meant for his beloved people and friend. Instead of seeing the judgment as an opportunity to capitalize on the loss of others, David saw it as an opportunity to repent and pray, and to grow stronger in trusting God even in the midst of His judgment. He exhibits the truth Calvin urges: “Even when he seems intent on breaking us to pieces, we must not fail to confess that he is a just judge.”
Without Due Process
The most outstanding aspect of this story, in my opinion, often goes with very little comment, and that is David’s pronouncement of the death penalty for this lying Amalekite. It is clear to me that David did not try this man, scoundrel that he was, according to due process. The law of God clearly says that no one should be put to death without the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut. 17:6; 19:15). It specifically says that no one should be put to death only on the testimony of one witness (Num. 35:30; Deut. 19:15). There were not only not two witnesses in this case, but the one witness David did adduce—the man himself—does not count. Self-incrimination is not possible under biblical law.
Before we comment further on this point, we must acknowledge the ironic side of the Amalekite’s punishment—unlawful as it was. There is a point of providence in David’s execution of him because the guy should have been killed long ago. This Amalekite was under the condemnation of death for God had pronounced such back in 1 Samuel 15:3. Had Saul done his job faithfully at the time, this man would not have entered the picture now. The fruit of Saul’s disobedience therefore blooms with vengeance, and the unfinished business shows up to spoil the fallen king of his crown.
Likewise, however, the Amalekite’s sin finds him out. God allows him to seize just enough riches to bring about his own fall. His scheme and his ambition become his own destruction. While the crown, the wealth, and the office were all good and noble aspirations in themselves, the Amalekite’s deceitfulness was hardly the way to achieve them. Calvin would have us meditate upon this sad figure’s death when he asks rhetorically, “So then, what is the outcome when we wish to . . . be admired on the basis of lies?” We must remain humble and refuse to attribute more to ourselves than we have actually achieved or deserve. It is bad enough to seek to be admired; it is far worse to seek to do so on the basis of deceit and falsehoods.
But the chief trouble here is David’s first major failure as successor to Saul. While we can leave God’s providential outcomes to his sovereignty and rest in that, we also acknowledge that what has been revealed to us is binding upon us and we will be held accountable for it (Deut. 29:29). This is why it is absolutely inexcusable for David to have denied this man due process in a court of law. God revealed this much to us.
I have considered this passage from different angles and cannot find any way in which David could be exculpated here. It could be argued that he was acting under martial law—as the nation of Israel was technically just at battle—and that the Amalekite enemy was thusly treated as an invading enemy. This is a far stretch however, for David noted the man’s crime as that of having touched the Lord’s anointed, and condemned him specifically upon the confession of his own mouth. This is not an act of war, but an execution after a very arbitrary trial.
Second, it could be argued that a confession is the gold standard of criminal evidence and thus holds greater weight even than the testimony of two witnesses. But such a theory will not even hold, for example, in American criminal law, let alone biblical law. In most cases in America, a confession by itself is not enough to establish guilt. It must either be corroborated by other evidence, even if not other witnesses. In fact, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story went so far as to say that confessions are “the weakest and most suspicious of all testimony.” Under biblical law, however, the standards are stricter, as we’ve seen. One witness alone cannot condemn himself. Further, historically, rabbinical understanding of Old Testament standards absolutely forbade defendants from testifying or confessing at all. Thus there could be no possibility at all of self-incrimination, corroborated or otherwise. I believe this is the intent of the biblical standards.
“Confession” as a standard of guilt does not, therefore, derive from biblical law. Where we find it historically is in the legal traditions of ancient pagan nations like Rome and Greece, as well as the subsequent Roman Catholic inquisitorial traditions built upon them. It is pagan, not biblical, in origin. Looking back at David’s departure from biblical law in this regard, we must conclude that he was acting more like a pagan than a believer. As a fresh successor to Saul, it is easy to assess that David had just partaken of the spirit of the nation proclaimed in 1 Samuel 8; “a king like all the nations.” He was filling Saul’s shoes well, more representative of Babylon than the Bible.
Moreover, it seems to me that this particular failure of David’s represents a classic besetting-sin of civil governments; overreaching power in the service of punishing crime. I suspect everyone on the scene was suspicious of this lying Amalekite and that David was especially enraged by his pitiful story and transparent scheme. But David was also surely aware he did not have enough witnesses to convict the man of anything, let alone to death. He knew a truly lawful trial would see the man walk free. Yet he, as we all do, certainly yearned to see vengeance visited upon what he just knew to be a great crime—especially one committed by a despised immigrant Amalekite. It was probably a great passion welling up in his breast. So he allowed himself to employ an arbitrary measure of guilt and an arbitrary process—the man’s own confession, uncorroborated or tried—and called forward one of his soldiers to execute the man on the spot; “Go, execute him” (v. 15). What we see here is how the state, if allowed, will allow itself to break its own laws in order to convict and punish those it targets for prosecution.
Learn this lesson well: if this can happen to David, the man after God’s own heart, it can happen to anyone, anywhere, even to the most upstanding policeman, prosecutor, sheriff, or government at any level.
1. Our faith and patience will be tried under various conditions.
David had been tried, tempted, and tested under every possible variation of persecution while running from Saul, it seems. He was, by this time, a well-seasoned veteran of Spiritual warfare. Yet he was caught off-guard by two new circumstances which together pushed him into a great failure. First, I don’t think he anticipated that his moment to succeed a vacant throne would take place in the midst of a greatly-defeated nation. The news of Saul’s death hit him simultaneously with the news of his best friend’s death, the death of several others, and the defeat of the nation in battle. Worse yet, he himself had been present among the Philistines as they had gathered to battle against the Israelites. How would that news be received when the defeated nation found out their new would-be king had been on the opposite side the days before the battle? David had to deal with that stress.
Second, despite all of his successes in various battles, David had yet to be trusted with the peculiar temptations of power. The orator Robert Ingersoll once stated in an oration on Abraham Lincoln, “Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity; but if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power.” While I have severe disagreements with both Ingersoll (an agnostic) and Lincoln, I appreciate the wisdom in that statement. What we see here is David entrusted with a power he had never handled before; judicial power. He did what so many men, untrained and undisciplined in the law, would do. He defaulted to the much more efficient and macho, and much less subtle and self-restrained, aspect of government—the executive function. David pronounced immediate death and had it carried out on the spot. Boom! Problem solved.
Except, the problem was not solved. The problem was the corruption that had crept into government through Saul. The problem was the corruption that was allowed to spread through lying social-climbers like this Amalekite. David didn’t solve the problem. He became part of it. He exacerbated it. He departed from the law and perverted justice.
Spiritual growth means learning new things. Throughout our Christian lives, we will be presented with new lessons which challenge us in new ways. We cannot default to that with which we feel confident or comfortable. To do so in new situations is to try to solve new challenges with old tools. When we do, we risk missing the point of the new challenge, and when we do that, we are telling God we refuse to grow. We start trusting in our own past experiences instead of trusting what God tells us and what He would have us to do.
So how do we know what to do in new situations? We must have continual recourse to God’s revealed Word, including God’s law. All David needed to do was apply God’s rules for witnesses to this case. But David relied instead on his past experience. He treated a judicial case more like a military case, even though his words show he knew it was clearly a judicial case. But he proceeded like a warrior instead of a judge anyway. When he did, he failed the test of power. He failed to learn, he failed to grow. In failing these things, he failed that which is the most important function of civil rulers: to protect the rights of the people.
Be assured, God will test us in all circumstances, and He will expect us to grow. We need to trust God’s Word above all things, or else we will find our failure having consequences for ourselves and those who depend upon us as well.
2. Indignation must not lead to bitterness.
David had every reason in the world to hate Saul, and we can safely assume that he certainly disapproved of Saul’s many and great sins, but we are also regularly shocked by David’s submission to Saul, his respect for him, and now, his mourning over Saul’s death. We already noted the reason for this—that David was not considering Saul the evil man so much as Saul the anointed king in office. Calvin builds powerfully upon this note: “he could not hate the evil in him without at the same time honouring the favours God had bestowed upon him.”
Calvin is making a presuppositional argument here: the standard by which we judge all of these issues must always be the inspired Word of God. It is the presupposed standard by which we judge both right and wrong. We cannot escape this standard, and we cannot have it in one case and not the other, or one aspect and not another. The moment we begin to condemn Saul’s sin by the Word of God, the same moment we must begin to acknowledge the goodness of the office of civil government by the Word of God.
This point is important on at least two levels: personal and institutional. On the personal level, we must not let indignation become bitterness. David would not let rightful righteous indignation drag him down into cynical bitterness.
While we are not required to discount or dismiss all evils in order to find the smallest good, we should be willing to try to find good. The apostle Paul encountered this challenge with some other ministers of the gospel:
Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice (Phil. 1:15–18).
For Paul, even the fact that some men were preaching Christ because of jealous and selfish motives, even intending to afflict Paul, did not deter him from seeing the practical good in the result: Christ was being preached!
Our lesson here with David and Saul is even more justifiable in that Saul had indeed been called and anointed for public office. This brings us to our second application: institutional. Even when Saul abjectly failed, David looked through the person to the goodness of the office, and to what the fall of that office meant for God’s people as a body politic. David would not let Saul’s failures become a failure of government and a descent into total anarchy in general. Applying Calvin’s insight, we could generalize and say that we hate injustice because we uphold godly civil government. When governments fail, we do not reject government, but instead reject the bad laws, processes, procedures, courts, officials, etc.—and the more any given government fails, the more we must cry out for godly government according to the Word of God.
This point is especially true in an era where appeals to liberty feature secular libertarians and so-called anarcho-capitalists whose fundamental assumptions are no different than those of Marxists and atheists: nature, naturalism, Darwinism, secularism, etc. While their conclusions may purport to be different, and while they may use the language of “liberty,” naturalism will always devolve into tyranny eventually—either the tyranny of the mighty of dictators, or the might of the mob. We see this most especially among many who espouse forms of secular libertarianism or anarchism: their criticisms of government failures are often laced with a cynicism against civil government in general. It’s not that civil government must be reformed according to the Bible, but that it should be abolished altogether.
This view is not only obviously unbiblical, it will also always be self-defeating practically. Without divine imprimatur binding the size, scope, and process of government, all appeals to liberty are delusional at best. If nature is the ultimate standard of law and government, then might makes right, and it is only a question of what form that might will take against us. Unless there is a divine authority above all forms of might, then Alexander Pope is correct; Whatever is, is right. And that prospect, friends, makes Saul’s administration look like a paradise of liberty. Christians must have the wisdom of David. We must look past the failures of particular governments and look to the righteousness of government as God has revealed it.
3. Our disobedience will later work to spoil us.
We see particularly in the lying Amalekite’s role the fruit of Saul’s disobedience. His sin found him out, and returned to spoil his treasure and rank. Let us not be deceived, our unfaithfulness deserves just as much. For our failures, we ought to be stripped of what little treasure we have, and to be left destitute before our gloating enemies. Indeed, if we do not have quick recourse to Christ, such an end may befall us as well.
This is not just a spiritual truth: it is practical in every area of life. Where God’s people are unfaithful, they leave openings for the enemies of God to enter and spoil our work. Just as Saul failed in his civil capacity and ended up as a corpse spoiled of his crown, so will modern civil governments and societies suffer consequences when they depart from the law of God. In every area we refuse to obey God, we implicitly follow a false God. To that same degree our enemy takes the crown and gloats over our failure.
We must therefore examine ourselves. Leaders, especially, ought to be quick to overcome fear, prejudice, jealousy, envy, and injustice. They must be quick to repent of their failures and shortcomings. They ought to be quick to lay their crowns at Christ’s feet before they find themselves fallen like Saul and the people suffering accordingly. But this does not apply only to civil leaders. It applies to everyone at every level: individual, family, and church as well.
4. Beware of self-deception and self-promotion.
Self-love, being the antithesis of godliness, always seeks to be admired and praised by men, and it does not demur to acquire such things by deceit and falsehoods. The most frightening part of this truth, however, is that we are all fallen creatures, and thus we are all prone to the very vices which destroyed this Amalekite. It is only by the grace of God that we escape this sin, this behavior, this attitude, this self-love. It is only by the grace of God that we can transcend these vices and obey God’s law according to His will.
We should be especially aware of the problem of self-deception and self-promotion because they often arise most readily after we have happened upon some momentary opportunity or blessing. Here this Amalekite had the occasion to spoil the body of Saul. He surely thought he had won the lottery at the moment. He seized the opportunity, likely without must thought, then schemed about how he could best leverage it. He surely thought he was on top of the world. Yet it was only a matter of a few days before the greatest apparent blessing in his life turned out to be his destruction.
We can be the same way when God sends us blessings of any sort. We receive and accept them as if we deserve them, and immediately begin to think about how we could grow richer and more powerful. The parable of the rich fool applies here (Luke 12:13–21). But before we plan how we can capitalize upon momentary blessings, we ought first to humble ourselves and thank God for what we don’t even deserve. Once we return to a proper frame of mind in relation to God in general, we will start to be grounded in better stewardship as well. Grounded in humility, truth, and service, the exercise of true dominion will not be far behind.
5. Beware the dangers of arbitrary government.
No matter how great a scoundrel, or even a legitimate criminal, this Amalekite may have been, his case simply did not warrant the resort to arbitrary government. No case will ever warrant leaping the train of justice from the tracks of biblical law. The moment justice is so derailed for one case, it can be derailed for any case. The only direction left is downhill (as we will see in following regarding David, with few exceptions). As such, David’s arbitrary trial here exhibits precisely the danger of such government and the dire need for the protections of biblical law.
The lesson here is as we said earlier, the classic dictum attributed to Lord Acton: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. No sooner had David fallen into the position of such power than he began to abuse it. The moment he acted outside of the constraints of biblical law, that moment the government put a man to death unlawfully.
It is for this very reason that God’s law includes such strict checks and boundaries against arbitrary law, procedure, and sanctions. It is better that a guilty man go free once in a while than that a single innocent man suffer unjust punishment. To establish arbitrary powers in one case is to set a precedent for later cases. Worse yet, to establish a precedent for relaxing the standards of conviction is to start a vicious cycle. When we decide the standard can be moved in one case, it will be easier to move it further in the future—either into different types of cases, for different types of alleged crimes, or to further degrees for the same charges. What results is an ever-creeping tyranny in which arbitrary power slowly suffocates every freedom that once existed. What is one day used to get tough on certain types of crime that we would all be happy to see stamped out—lawfully or not—will at a later time be used for all sorts of tyrannies, for example, to persecute Christians for worshipping Jesus, or for merely preaching against homosexuality.
The famous American journalist H. L. Mencken once rightly said that the problem with defending human freedom is that you have to spend most of your time defending scoundrels, because oppressive laws are first aimed at the various scoundrels of society; but if we don’t stop oppression at the beginning, we stand little chance of stopping once it has a full head of steam.
What David did here was wrong. It was statism in the service of an agenda. The case could be made that this agenda was based on good intentions, but there is a well-known road paved with such material that leads to an undesirable location. The issue in society must never be to elevate this or that particular sin or even crime to the level of preeminent civil action by the state. It must rather always be to preserve the rule of law, for it is only by God’s law that justice can be accomplished in society. The moment we abandon that in one point, we may as well abandon it in all, for the principle to do so is established—human autonomy over theonomy, man’s law over God’s law.
David made such a grave mistake here so that we may learn from it. Most of the rest of this book will reveal the snow-ball effects of such a departure from God’s law. Let us not be so fast to execute judgment and vengeance that we put the same tragedy in motion in our day and age.
 Sermons on 2 Samuel, Chapters 1–13, 1.
 See the discussion about the appropriation of the language of Sodom and Gomorrah and an exodus motif in In the Midst of Your Enemies: Exposition and Application of 1 Samuel, 353–355.
 Sermons on 2 Samuel, Chapters 1–13, 5–6.
 Sermons on 2 Samuel, Chapters 1–13, 6.
 Sermons on 2 Samuel, Chapters 1–13, 13.
 Sermons on 2 Samuel, Chapters 1–13, 6.