The story in this chapter has many similarities to the story two chapters earlier, when David spared the life of Saul in the cave. In both instances, Saul was completely within David’s reach. In both cases, David was urged to take Saul’s life. In both situations, David took a token that would prove that Saul had been within his reach. In both cases, Saul would acknowledge the justice of David’s behavior. But there are striking differences as well, as we will see.
“And the Ziphites came unto Saul to Gibeah, saying, Doth not David hide himself in the hill of Hachilah, which is before Jeshimon? . . .” (1 Sam. 26:1-25).
Summary of the Text
David’s old adversaries, the Ziphites, reported David’s location to Saul (v. 1). Saul pursued David with 3,000 men, the same number as before (v. 2). Saul camped by the hill Hachilah (v. 3), and David had scouts determine Saul’s location (v. 4). David comes there, and sees where Saul slept, with Abner next to him, and the 3,000 soldiers around (v. 5). David asks for someone to accompany him into Saul’s camp, and Abishai, David’s nephew, volunteers (v. 6). So David and Abishai go, and make it to Saul, who is sleeping with his spear stuck in the ground next to his head (v. 7). Abishai urges that he be allowed to pin Saul to the ground; two strokes will not be necessary (v. 8). David refuses, as he did before in the cave (v. 9). David had learned from the example of Nabal; God will take care of this (v. 10). David will not take matters into his own hand, but he does take the spear and a water pot (v. 11). They got away because a deep sleep from the Lord was upon the encampment (v. 12).
David got a good distance away (v. 13), and then called out to taunt Abner for his dereliction of duty (vv. 14-16). Saul recognizes David’s voice and calls him his son (v. 17). David asks, again, what fault he has committed (v. 18). Who is driving this, God or men (v. 19)? Why should the king waste his time looking for David (v. 20)? Saul confesses his sin, and invites David to return (v. 21). David invites someone to come fetch the spear (v. 22). He asks the Lord to apply the Golden Rule to him (vv. 23-24), and the chapter concludes with Saul blessing David (v. 25). This concludes Saul’s interactions with David.
Abishai is David’s nephew, son of his sister Zeruiah (1 Chron. 2:16-17), and therefore Joab’s brother. Here David restrains Abishai, but a good portion of the rest of the David story will consist of his inability to control his relatives. He has a good start, but he does not continue. Abishai wants to successfully pin Saul to the ground, with the same spear that unsuccessfully tried to pin David to the wall. Abishai would not have to strike twice—as Saul had attempted to strike twice. The spear is the symbol of the Saulide pattern of rule, which is to say tyrannical, and David refuses to rule in that way. Rather, he takes that spear away, and demonstrates to Saul that he is not the kind of anointed king that Saul has been. His conscience smote him for cutting the robe; it did not smite him for taking away the tyrannical spear. In the cave, the encounter was arranged by providential chance. Here the encounter was entirely at David’s initiative. He has taken the lesson from Nabal, and is beginning to take the initiative—but without ungodly revolution.
Stories Have a Way of Unfolding
In the New Testament, we are told that Esau could not go back in time to undo the consequences of what he had done (Heb. 12:17). We may repent of our sins, and God will forgive us our sins (1 John 1:9). We are not always given the opportunity to repent the consequences of our sins. History matters, Biography matters. The way the story unfolds matters.
In the incident outside the cave, David had called Saul his father, and Saul calls David his son. In this episode, Saul calls David his son, but David does not reciprocate. He acknowledges that Saul is still the Lord’s anointed (v. 9), and he still calls Saul “lord” and “king” (v. 17). But he does not call him father. In the previous episode, Saul does not invite David to come home with him, and here he does. But the water is under the bridge, and Saul does not have an opportunity to restore what he destroyed. David does not take up the invitation. In the previous situation, Saul ended by predicting that it would go well with David (1 Sam. 24:20), while here he ends by blessing David (1 Sam. 26:25). This is a sad end to a tragic relationship.
David says here, as he had said before, that certain “men” may be poisoning Saul’s mind against David (v. 19). This may be more than just tact on David’s part. Saul certainly had his own brain snakes, and bore the central responsibility (which David knows and says), but there is no reason to assume that there were not counselors around the king taking full advantage of this.
When David “calls out,” he calls out Abner. Abner deserved to die (v. 16) because he had not protected the Lord’s anointed. David, on the other hand, had protected the Lord’s anointed, and discharged Abner’s office better than Abner had. Abner’s failure to act meant he deserved death, and David’s refusal to act meant that he did not deserve death—and that he should, by rights, be in Abner’s position. David then compares Saul’s hunt for him as a king with 3,000 men hunting for a partridge (lit. a calling bird) in the mountains. What a waste.
What the Locusts Have Eaten
You have heard before that God takes you from where you are, and not from where you should have been. Our God is a gracious God, and there are many instances where He wonderfully restores what the locusts have eaten (Joel 2:25). God is a Healer, a Savior, a Deliverer, and His ability includes the ability to restore. Ask Him to restore what the locust has eaten. But do not think about this like children. Do not presume upon it. If you hear the Lord’s voice today, do not harden your hearts as the Israelites did in the wilderness—on the presumption that tomorrow (or the day after) you may ask God to restore. What Saul lost, Saul lost. As R.C. Sproul might put it, right now counts forever.