“If it is men, may they be cursed before the Lord.”
The other day, I was reading a book that was about as timely for modern politics as anything you can imagine: it was humorously titled, What Makes You Think We Read the Bills? The rest of the book is just as insightful and eye-opening as the title is funny. Of course, it seems so timely because of the attention given to certain 2,000-page pieces of legislation that got passed into law even though none of the senators or representatives had ever read it. One lady even quipped that we need to pass the bill so we could find out what is in it! So you can imagine how timely this book is. But then you look at the copyright page and see that it was written in 1978—thirty five years ago. I guess our problems today are really nothing new. No, and they are much older than 35 years. When we understand the text before us, we’ll realize that political and social evils—very much the same ones with which we deal today—have existed for several thousand years.
Fresh off Saul’s testimony that David should be king, and then the inheritance of Nabal’s wealth along with getting married, David had to have been on something of an emotional high at this point. Things were far from perfect, but they probably seemed at least a little better than they were before. But despite Saul’s confession, there were still powerful forces at work who wanted to rid themselves of David. It is these corrupting forces that motivate the action in this chapter, and to which we will give attention.
The narrative gives us a clear picture into such corruption, but also shows us that God is totally provident over them. He preserves David and, right in the midst of the very strength of these forces, causes Saul to confess David’s innocence and to promise him protection. But there are bigger issues—such as national judgment—in the works as well. This chapter provides us with very insightful lessons regarding the nature and effects of political corruption, encouragement to remain faithful despite them, and hope that God will judge the wicked and bring to pass His promises.
A Deep Sleep
The narrative opens with the Ziphites coming to inform Saul that David was hiding in their land again. Remember these helpful chaps, the Ziphites? They are the ones who ran to Saul in chapter 23 to inform on David’s whereabouts. Saul used the opportunity to set up a surveillance state—which we discussed at the time. Good loyal establishment players, they were.
Here we see that loyalty continued, only now it reveals an interesting phenomenon with such political alliances. Had Saul not finally confessed David would sit on the throne, and that the kingdom would be established in David’s hand (24:20)? We have seen Saul break his oath to protect David in the past, but chapter 24 was quite a confession. Why in the world would be bother to go hunt David yet again after such a confession? In fact, the decision is so starkly contradictory that liberal scholars believe the text was corrupted and the two confessions of Saul switched in order. But that is not what happened. Part of what happened is called political pressure. Saul had turned the Ziphites into good crusading statists. Now, when Saul would probably have preferred to do nothing and forget about David, the Ziphites come along and pressure him to do something. So tyranny has come full circle. Of course, the lust for a military-king had begun with the prominent men of the land (8:4). Saul came and entrenched them further in their madness. Now they are the ones prompting Saul, despite his confession, to finish his war on terror and go get David. Saul responded. So do political ambitions, traditions, lusts, agendas, etc., become like a trance from which we not only deceive ourselves and whole nations, but fall deeper and deeper into that deception as time goes on as pressure groups fight and influence one another.
David saw Saul coming and kept watch over the army until they bedded down for the night. At this point, David asked a couple of his men for a volunteer to accompany him into Saul’s camp. This seems like suicide. We are not told what David’s plan or motivations are for this tactic. He might have assumed the men would be asleep, but surely he would have assumed there would also be watchmen. He could not have known that God had made a deep sleep to fall upon all of them. He had to have expected to meet some confrontation, but had confidence he would be able to reason or negotiate with Saul, especially after their last meeting and Saul’s confession. Remember also, David had just won a mighty victory and spoil after the incident with Nabal. He was beginning to see his increase in the kingdom now. He was full of faith at this point. He walked right into the camp of Saul. It was 3,000 of Saul’s men against just David and his companion, Abishai.
There’s an interesting literary point in the names of these accomplices, by the way. Saul is accompanied by his commander, Abner the son of Ner. He has been Saul’s right-hand man since 14:50–51. Ner was Saul’s uncle, and thus Abner was Saul’s cousin. Abner will become a perceived rival to David after Saul’s and Jonathan’s deaths. David is accompanied by Abishai. Abishai turns out to be David’s nephew (1 Chron. 2:16). His name means “My father is Jesse.” Abner’s name means “My father is Ner”—which is funny because the text usually goes out of its way to add “the son of Ner.” At any rate, what is going on here is a clash between family dynasties which will continue on into David’s reign. For now, it is a classic battle of the two seeds.
The theme of the battle between the seeds—a la Genesis 3:15—is even more pointed in the description of Saul here. David arrives in the camp and finds everyone zonked out (to use a theological term), even Saul and Abner. So here is Saul, curled up at the feet of David, with a spear stuck in the ground at his head. This is foreshadowing the death of Saul, indeed the “crushing,” if you will, of his head. Were the KJV right in calling Saul’s sleeping spot “in the trench,” we would have even more imagery foreshadowing his death—for he would be in a deep sleep in a makeshift grave. But the word more likely indicates the encampment in general. Nevertheless, when we learn that God had caused a deep sleep from the Lord (26:12) to fall upon them, we have all the imagery we need. The word for deep sleep here is tardemah—a special word usually reserved for a divinely-induced “death sleep” imposed during great shifts in covenantal reality. For example, Adam is put in in tardemah when Eve is created (Gen. 2:21). Abram experienced it when God made covenant with him (Gen 15:12). Likewise, God used tardemah as judgment upon the rebellious Israelites (Isa. 29:10). Here it is used in a similar manner. We are about to see a great covenantal house cleaning in Israel. God has caused a deep sleep to fall upon the house of Saul.
I think David recognized coming judgment at this point. Whatever his intentions for going into Saul’s camp were, David soon understood that Saul had come for blood once again, but that God had spared him from it with this deep sleep.
David certainly had not come into the camp to wage war for himself, for when Abishai desired to pin Saul to the earth and kill him with one stroke (remember Jael and Sisera? Judges 4:21), David gave him the same speech he gave his men back in the cave in chapter 24. He would not let Saul be killed under his watch. Yet he knew, now at this point, that Saul was destined to come to such destruction: And David said, “As the LORD lives, the LORD will strike him, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish” (26:10). Instead, David acted similarly as he had before: he gathered an undeniable piece of evidence, and positioned himself to hold an impromptu hearing.
Saul’s second witness
David scrambles back to a high place opposite Saul’s camp, and then makes his presence known. He begins by taunting Abner, who should have been protecting Saul. Instead, he was asleep on the job—the cardinal sin for a watchman—and allowed someone to sneak in who could have destroyed Saul. Want proof? See if you can find Saul’s spear and canteen.
Abner is apparently left speechless, or at least does not speak quickly enough before Saul speaks over him. David responds to Saul, and essentially holds court once again: but this time, the indictment does not only fall against Saul, it falls against his whole army: “If it is the LORD who has stirred you up against me, may he accept an offering, but if it is men, may they be cursed before the LORD, for they have driven me out this day that I should have no share in the heritage of the LORD, saying, ‘Go, serve other gods’” (26:19). First, this statement forces Saul to assess his motivations: did God prompt him to annihilate David? Or was it men? As the beginning of the narrative shows, it was men. Saul knows he has let political influences drive him to go back on his previous confession. But that first confession was made when Saul was alone among David’s men. So, second, God has orchestrated events so that Saul confirms his testimony with his whole army standing as witness, including Abner. In effect, God has caused Saul to be two witnesses against himself. The matter was now publicly settled.
Third, David presents the matter in covenantal terms: by pursuing innocent David, whom Saul himself has declared will be king, the men motivating Saul are conspiring to spoil David of his rightful inheritance and to drive him to blaspheme. Wrongful excommunication is an attack on a person’s inheritance and their reputation. If the person should hold civil office at the national level, is such an attack not treason? Therefore David says, “let them be cursed.”
Saul responds with a confession of his own foolishness and sin. This, of course, implicates all of his 3,000 men in public as well, and also the Ziphites who started this latest expedition. He, once again, promises he will do David no harm. David knows by now he cannot trust this promise, but it would probably buy him a few days.
David’s response here is interesting. He does not meet Saul half way, nor overtly forgive him. He has, remember, already pronounced that God will somehow destroy Saul. He does not expect restoration here. Instead, he responds with a sermonette that concludes with a blessing . . . upon himself:
The Lord rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness, for the Lord gave you into my hand today, and I would not put out my hand against the Lord’s anointed. Behold, as your life was precious this day in my sight, so may my life be precious in the sight of the Lord, and may he deliver me out of all tribulation (26:23–24).
He is essentially saying, “Yes, Saul, we all know you’re sorry. But God does not reward mere words and good intentions. He rewards righteousness and faithfulness. If you’d like to see an example of that, look how I have lived and served you and this people—while you have hunted me like an animal. So just remember, as far as blessings go, I am the one who has shown mercy and righteousness to you, and I pray the Lord will continue to return such favor upon me into the future.”
Then, the two parted, to go meet their respective fates. They would not see each other alive again. David was bound for more successes, though many trials lay ahead. Saul was near the bottom of a slippery slope that was about to dive into absolute rebellion and ruin.
1. The dangers of political compromise
There is no escaping the political nature of the lesson in this chapter. Of course, beneath all political problems are spiritual problems, but the expression of the spiritual problems here is overtly political, and we must discuss this for ourselves no matter how uncomfortable it may seem to some.
Saul breaks his vow at least partly due to political pressure from his loyal establishment party. Every public leader, elected or not, faces this predicament: whom do you represent? Once in office, every grand promise made beforehand, every professed principle, can be quickly and easily compromised and sold out. The most common means by which this is done—and it is almost universally done—is through the power of special interests pressuring the candidate to do exactly opposite as he promised before. He usually will be handsomely rewarded, and will likely also be given a viable justification to persuade his disappointed constituency, or at least cover himself with an excuse.
This phenomenon is something the late California state senator and author Bill Richardson called “peer group shift.” His is the book I mentioned in my opening. He answers the question of “What happened to our guy?” This is when a young politician has all the right ideals and says all the right things, takes firm stands on issues and gets sent off to the capitol as a crusader who will not budge an inch on our great conservative values. But within a short time he begins compromising, and offering excuses to his constituency. What happened? Richardson, speaking from much experience, explains that the moment the guy gets to the capitol, he meets a new set of “friends.” These are the old establishment, career politicians and their favorite lobbyists. They befriend him, buy him dinner and drinks, usher him into important meetings, introduce him to new important people, and promise to show him the ropes (and indeed, they are ropes—strings attached to corporate and PAC money, and many that tie one’s hands in various ways). They speak to him as if they appreciate and need him: “you’re just the kind of young blood we need around here: idealistic, firm convictions, no-nonsense! You’re going to do great things. We’ll help you by introducing you to the people you’ll need to get things done.”
But there is a deception. The money and good feelings poured into the young man are an investment on their part: it is the first step in turning the guy into a compliant party man. The new influential friends to whom he will be introduced are people who will fund his next elections—if he just votes this way or that, or compromises a little bit on this issue. Soon, he begins to see his political future—indeed, his future—as dependent upon pleasing these people. He begins to believe that nothing can get done by staunch idealism or “purism.” Everyone must give a little here and there. His constituency seemed upset at first, but he was able to persuade them it was for the better. After all, (he now becomes an apologist for the system) we won’t get anything we want if we don’t give a little. What has happened? Peer group shift. The politician has gone from being a champion of the people and their values to being a tool of the establishment. Before, the people were his peers; now the career politicians and lobbyists are his peers. It is a problem of representation: he has gone from representing the people who originally elected him to representing a small, influential elite.
The problem, however, is even more pronounced in cases like Saul’s. He was not brought to office and then bought off, but because of war lust and humanistic nationalism already in the hearts of the people. There was no peer group shift necessary; the evil peers were the people to begin with. But this is even worse. From day one, he fulfilled the lusts for which he was elected. Once the war lust was entrenched in a political establishment, it then turned on the people and entrenched itself further with arbitrary law, perverted justice, nationalistic pride, political executions, and the surveillance state. The nation grew militarized, indebted, invasive, and tyrannical just as Samuel had warned. Instead of leading the state by God’s Law, the people let the state exacerbate their own lusts—and a vicious cycle ensued. The state grew worse and worse. Finally, you had some level of justice and remedy in Saul’s confession to David; but the entrenched forces which Saul himself had helped develop came back and pressured Saul to break his promise. Saul showed in the end just whom and what he really represented.
These forces are not unique to Saul’s era, nor to our own. They have existed throughout human history. But unlike modern preachers, our Reformation forefathers were not too intimidated or deceived to attack them from the pulpit. Preaching on 2 Samuel 1:21–27 (which we’ll get to some day!), John Calvin had the following application:
Today, princes do nothing but seize everything they can for themselves, and then they support those ravening wolves who never have enough to satisfy their appetite. For when someone comes to court, instead of serving his prince, he tries to make himself important. One man will preen his feathers to try to be included among the brave; another will look for debauchery; someone else will aim to be a cook, and others jockey for this or that position. They will not be satisfied with remaining at a low level, but, by using others, one man will acquire some lordship or the rights to a rental income of 15,000 francs; another will get 20,000; another, 30,000; another 50,000; the sum must keep increasing in the attempt to win great titles and great honours! But at whose expense? It is the poor people who are skinned alive, and are eaten up and taken advantage of from all sides. But nevertheless, they must keep their mouths politely closed when ‘my lord’ speaks, so that is how this rabble of princes can be left in shock after they have despoiled their wretched subjects to cater to their own extravagant life-style.
While some of the details of these political relationships have changed since Calvin’s time (and since Saul’s), the nature of them has not. There are always powerful interests trying to control law and government in such a way as to enrich their own interests at other’s expense. This led the American literary figure Ambrose Bierce to define “politics” as, “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
Beyond cynical humor, the Bible is not silent on this issue. In fact, the Law, the Psalms, Wisdom Literature, the Prophets, the Gospels, Epistles, and Revelation all address this issue. We will not cover all the instances, but we should note God’s Law and David’s understanding of it. It is the very issue of unjust political and legal influence that the Law of God seeks to eliminate when it forbids bribery of judges and jurors. It says,
You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit. Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked. And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the clear-sighted and subverts the cause of those who are in the right (Ex. 23:6–8).
While so many forces today prefer the money and power instead of doing right, all the power in the world will not protect them from God’s judgment. When he says, “I will not acquit the wicked,” they should shudder in sheer naked terror.
David himself noted the centrality of these corruptions in fallen society. In describing the righteous man—truly only Jesus, but an image into which we should be molded—among the few traits he described was absolute incorruptibility in regard to bribery and unjust gain:
O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart; . . .
in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
but who honors those who fear the LORD;
who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
who does not put out his money at interest
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved (Psa. 15:1–2, 4–5).
This guy is honest. This guy is true. He is honest with himself, first of all, before the face of God. This commitment to honesty and integrity rules his behavior. He will not help the corrupt advance, surely not by corruption. He makes a promise, gives his word, or takes an oath—and when the circumstances turn out not to favor him because of the commitment he has made, he still refuses to change. He bears the burden; he assumes responsibility for himself before God. Knowing that God will not acquit the wicked, he avoids wickedness and refuses to join the wicked or abet them in their wickedness. He takes no bribes. He swears to his own hurt. He is incorruptible.
Let me ask you: are you prepared to swear to your own hurt? In reality, as a communing member of the body of Christ, you already have. The sermon is merely to call you to remembrance to the standard you already swear an oath to uphold. So I guess I should ask, are you prepared to live up to that oath? You have sworn allegiance to Christ, and to that “holy hill,” Zion (Heb. 12:22). But when the political or social conditions around you demand that you compromise with wickedness, bribery, or corruption, or to support those who do, are you ready to bear the burdens of principled faithfulness? Or shall the Ziphites of this world intimidate you into compliance with their interests? Shall the war lusts of our age drive you to accept a militarized police state, and the destruction of every standard of privacy? And shall such a corrupt state and society set your standard for you in regard to social influence and social change? Will you join the corrupt? Will you encourage them by voting for them? Or will you oppose them even if it seems such principled opposition is not viable for “winning”—that is, when such a stand seems to be “to your own hurt”?
This is an important question at the heart of this passage. As overtly political as it is, we have to deal with it. The more we deceive ourselves into joining Ziphites, the more we entrench and perpetuate the evil among us. The more that proceeds, the closer we get to having no room for repentance. All that is left then is some form of judgment.
2. The judgment of a nation
It still bothers me trying to figure out exactly why David went down into the camp of Saul. Certainly he did not intend to attack. So, he must have had somewhat peaceful expectations, likely built upon Saul’s first confession and his recent inheritance. Whatever his motivation, I believe that when he entered the camp, any questions he might have had were answered: he realized they were armed to the teeth and after him again for blood. It was at this point and no sooner that David pronounced his conviction that Saul would come to judgment and destruction. He had not done this at the previous instance. He does now. I believe he realizes how pervasive the evil was throughout the kingdom—that there would now be no safety for the remnant, and there would be inevitable judgment upon the nation. He will reveal this sentiment immediately in the next chapter, and the literary aspects of the narrative record will make it even clearer.
David understood judgment was coming. It was at this point that the headers to the Psalms say he penned Psalm 54. In it, he calls his pursuers “strangers,” “ruthless men,” and “my enemies,” and he prays that God “vindicate me.” He says, “He will return the evil to my enemies; in your faithfulness put an end to them” (Ps. 54:5). It certainly sounds to me like he expected major judgment. But remember, these were enemies within his own nation.
From this we should realize that nations—as represented by their government and military—do reach the point at which judgment is inevitable. If there are some who say that this pertains only to Israel who was in a particular exclusive covenant with God, they should try telling that to Sodom and Gomorrah, or to Nineveh or Egypt. Nations throughout history have risen or fallen, and usually great empires have fallen when the lusts inherent in their legal, ethical, economic, judicial and justice systems manifest to a culmination point in history. God is obviously longsuffering and gives plenty of time to repent. But not forever.
This raises a series of questions. How do you know when a nation is too far gone? While we cannot know God’s secret or decretive will (Deut. 29:29), we can certainly see some indicators from this narrative. Some things to look for: when people trust in men or in political might rather than God’s Law; when political traditions protect and perpetuate corruption; when special interests use government force to enrich their cause at the expense of average people; when the grand moral pundits and leaders of an era refuse to acknowledge the true evils at the heart of the system and call them out publicly; when even godly men began to dismiss faithfulness and instead demand that change can only come through the corrupt system.
We should be especially wary when those in allegiance to political parties or forces marginalize Christ and His Law, and His faithful followers. We see that the Ziphites persuaded Saul to keep pursuing David. It is exactly like this when conservative leaders begin to persuade themselves and each other that the principled faithful among them are threats to the establishment maintaining rule, and that their views are too “pure” to be of any practice in the land. And they are doing the same thing of which David accused those men: trying to chase the little ones out of their rightful inheritance, claiming that they themselves are the anointed leadership, and thereby falsely excommunicating the faithful from the ranks. They are in reality trying to drive the faithful into idolatry of one form or another.
It is at this point that some form of judgment must be near. And we should respond by holding forth the Law, and calling for judgment if necessary. Today we too often neglect the use of the imprecatory psalms, such as the one David wrote just for this occasion. We should be patient, not angry (as we saw in the last sermon), and we should hold forth space for repentance and hope of it. But we should also not fear to pronounce the words of Psalms such as this one, and beg God remove our enemies according to His will. The wicked establishment, the accomplices, the compromised, and even the loyal opposition must be made to know clearly that God will not acquit the wicked—that they are called to be faithful even if in the wilderness and hunted rather than leveraged with wickedness.
We should also be willing for this to take longer than we expect, for God works in His time: he promised Nineveh forty days, but Jesus gave Jerusalem forty years. It took 400 years before the era of the kings in Israel came to utter collapse. In such a meantime, what shall we do? Remain faithful and courageous. But there may come a time when we need our feet. This raises a question of expatriation—is it sometimes necessary or right? When do we know when a nation has reached that “point of no return” such that we should leave? We will discuss these things further in the next sermon.
 Paul quotes this very verse in Romans 11:8 to describe the unbelieving Jews of his day—perhaps the most definitive time of covenantal transition and judgment.
 John Calvin, Sermons on 2 Samuel: Chapters 1–13, trans. by Douglas F. Kelley (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 43.