God has made it plain in many diverse ways that Saul has lost it, and what Saul has lost, David has been given. But all Saul does is double down in his disobedience. The irony is that, even after the Spirit had departed from him, and come upon David, the Spirit was still there at Saul’s court—until Saul drove him away with a spear.
“And it came to pass, when Saul was returned from following the Philistines, that it was told him, saying, Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi . . .” (1 Sam. 24:1-22).
Summary of the Text
When Saul returned from chasing (not fighting) the Philistines, he was told that David was in the wilderness of Engedi (v. 1) So Saul took three thousand men to hunt for David (v. 2). They came to a cave, which Saul needed to use for a bathroom. But David and his men were in the cave (v. 3). David’s men said that it was an invitation from God to kill Saul, but David only cut off a part of his robe (v. 4). His conscience then smote him that he had done even that much (v. 5), and he told his men this (v. 6). David kept his men from killing Saul, and Saul departed (v. 7). David called out after Saul, and bowed down to him (v. 8). David has as great a heart as Jonathan did. He asks why Saul listens to the slanders of men (v. 9). He recounts how some had wanted him to kill the king (v. 10). He proves his words by producing the piece of the robe he had cut off (v. 11). He calls Saul his father. May the Lord judge, but David will not judge (v. 12). David then cites an ancient proverb against the king (v. 13). Who are you chasing? David asks (v. 14). He again invites the Lord to judge between them (v. 15). Saul temporarily softened, calls David his son and weeps (v. 16). He acknowledges that David is in the right (vv. 17-19), and asks the Lord to reward David. Saul tells David openly that he knows that David will have the throne (v. 20). He seeks and obtains from David a promise that he will not cut off his seed (v. 21), which is much the same thing that David has promised Jonathan. David swears this oath, and they part company (v. 22).
A Divided Robe
Back in 1 Samuel 15, the tearing of Samuel’s robe was interpreted by the prophet as meaning that the kingdom was taken from Saul. How much more was it significant that Saul’s robe was “cut off ” by David? The robe was a symbol of royal authority, and to cut the robe was to symbolically attack the throne. This is why David’s conscience smites him for having done even this much. At the same time, he uses the piece of the robe he cut off to prove that he had no intention against the king’s person.
David’s rebuke of his men was fierce (v. 7). The verb for rebuke is actually a very strong one, meaning “to tear apart.” David lit into his men—self-appointed assassins—because he would not light into the king. When Saul tore Samuel’s robe, the result was that he lost the kingdom. He did not repent, but was rather trying to save face. When David cut Saul’s robe, he would have faced the same ignominious fate if he had not repented. But he did repent, and God still used that small piece of cloth.
A High Humility
When David comes out of the cave, he calls Saul his father. When David calls out to Saul, he bows himself to the ground—for Saul is his king. This is true humility. But humility is not craven. David respects Saul’s office (far more than Saul does, actually), but is more than willing to deliver a much needed rebuke. Twice he invites the Lord to judge between the two them, indicating that it will not go well for Saul if the Lord does so. Saul himself in this encounter acknowledges it. David receives this, but knows that Saul is still unreliable.
This situation is one that we should use to help us understand the apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 13. Remember that he teaches us there that all authorities are established by God, and that the one who resists that authority is resisting God (Rom. 13: 2). Now let us ask this question. Did David respect the authority that God had established in Israel? The biblical answer would have to be absolutely, yes. He respected the Lord’s anointed in ways that stagger us whenever we think carefully about it. Now here is another question. Did David do whatever Saul wanted him to do? Did he stop running? Stop hiding? Did he turn himself in? Put those two answers together and you will see that respecting the authorities that God has established does not mean accepting their narrative of what is going on.
So David has to stand against two kinds of bloodthirstiness. He stands against Saul’s, obviously, by his singular lack of cooperation. And he also stands against his men, those who want to fight Saul with Saul-like tactics. They could read the story (perhaps with a degree of plausibility) as a story right out of Judges. Did not Ehud kill the king of Moab, a man named Eglon, and did not his servants think he was covering his feet? Why can’t we do the same? David knows—he sees the tyranny of Saul and he sees the wrong-headedness of some in the Adullam Militia. And, at the same time, he is identified with Saul (father), and he is identified with his men. He is not criticizing everybody from some very spiritual balcony seat.
The Glory Grab
Do not grab if God has not promised it—this was Saul’s problem. He was trying to grab what was not his to hold. When there is no promise, grabbing is futile. Do not grab if God has promised it—this was David’s great temptation. When there is a promise, grabbing is unnecessary—and counterproductive. When you grab tyranny away from tyrants, the result is just a name change, and not a category change. We get the red tyrant instead of the blue tyrant. Great. But what we want is for the throne to be established in righteousness (Prov. 16:12).