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Bible Passage: 1 Samuel 24
1 When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, “Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi.” 2 Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel and went to seek David and his men in front of the Wildgoats’ Rocks.
3 And he came to the sheepfolds by the way, where there was a cave, and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave. 4 And the men of David said to him, “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.’”
Do you remember the story of Ehud from Judges? Ehud assassinated the king of Moab while he was relieving himself alone in his chambers. Israel celebrated Ehud as a hero, so imagine how tempting it must have been for David to kill Saul.
And that is the dilemma of this story. Is this God’s providence or temptation? David’s men seem to think God has provided this opportunity. Would we blame David for killing Saul? How do we know the difference between providence and temptation?
The answer to that question is knowing God’s Word. The king of Moab was a pagan enemy. Saul was anointed king by God. David would be wrong to take the king’s life in such a dishonorable way. This was a temptation, not a blessing.
Ralph Davis calls this the “temptation of the short cut”. We live in a microwave culture. We want everything quickly. We don’t like waiting on God to do things. We pray for God to provide and then we try to take short cuts. But that isn’t how God works. The Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. We should be patient with our own growth and the growth of others.
Let’s find out what David decided to do.
Then David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. 5 And afterward David’s heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s robe.
6 He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord’s anointed.” 7 So David persuaded his men with these words and did not permit them to attack Saul. And Saul rose up and left the cave and went on his way.
David decided not to kill Saul, which was the right decision. Instead, he cut a corner off of Saul’s robe. But notice that even that bothered David’s conscience.
Tearing Saul’s robe was not a fun prank. It was symbolic of Saul losing his glory. Remember, the robes of the king were symbolic of his glory.
Remember also when Saul tore a piece of Samuel’s robe and Samuel prophesied that Saul’s kingdom would be ripped from him in a similar way.
David realizes this and it bothered his conscience. Why? Because David doesn’t want to grab the kingdom. He wants God to give it when God is ready. He also made a covenant with Jonathan that he would not cut off Saul’s family.
David realizes he made a mistake and repents. And then he does something crazy.
8 Afterward David also arose and went out of the cave, and called after Saul, “My lord the king!” And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the earth and paid homage. 9 And David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Behold, David seeks your harm’?
10 Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.’
11 See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For 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.
12 May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. 13 As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes wickedness.’ But my hand shall not be against you.
14 After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! 15 May the Lord therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand.”
Why does David pursue Saul out of the cave? Surely David knew that he was risking his life! There are 3,000 men outside – the best soldiers in Israel – and they have been hunting David to kill him.
And look at how he speaks to Saul. David bows his face to the ground. He calls Saul his lord and his king. He calls him the Lord’s anointed. He calls him father. David shows Saul respect and honor. He pleads with Saul to reconsider. In other words, David is laying his life on the line to attempt reconciliation.
There have been many shadows of Christ in the story of David, but this one may be the most theologically significant so far.
Saul is a mad man. David has no reason to trust Saul. Saul is an enemy in the truest sense of the word. And that is what makes this so theologically significant. David is acting out the most beautiful thing we know about the character of God.
David is showing us what it looks like to love our enemy, and his love for Saul is obviously stronger than his fear of Saul.
And yet, I want to make something else very clear. Notice that David is not trusting Saul to make the right choice. He’s trusting God to make the right choice. He’s not letting Saul off the hook, but he’s leaving the matter in God’s hands. “May the Lord be the judge between me and you…”
In other words, if vengeance is necessary, then God will bring it. That’s not my job. My job is to trust God and love my enemy. Love is always the right choice for us, even with our worst enemy.
But let’s be honest. This is crazy talk, right? Who does this?! Part of the reason I’m convinced that God must have written the Bible is because stories like this are too crazy for human writers to make up. What kind of man shows this kind of love to an enemy?
And the Bible itself knows this is crazy.
The Apostle Paul marvels over this mystery in Romans 5:
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
We were the ungodly. We were still sinners. We were enemies. Paul says, barely anyone would die for a good person. What sort of person would die for an enemy?
The answer is Jesus – the true David. He offered himself up to His enemies. He let us kill him. And in a remarkable mystery of God’s grace, God used the death of Jesus to reconcile us to Himself.
How are we even supposed to respond to something like this? In order to accept it, we have to recognize that we were the enemies of God. Me. You. We are Saul in this story. And how does Saul respond? Let’s find out.
16 As soon as David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. 17 He said to David, “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.
18 And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. 19 For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day.
20 And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. 21 Swear to me therefore by the Lord that you will not cut off my offspring after me, and that you will not destroy my name out of my father’s house.”
22 And David swore this to Saul. Then Saul went home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.
Why does David go to a stronghold? Probably because he doesn’t trust Saul, and he shouldn’t. Saul, for now, has a moment of clarity. He backs off and even recognizes that David will be king. Of course, it doesn’t last. But for our purposes today, Saul’s response is a helpful way to think about our own response to the Gospel.
“You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.” That is actually a very good summary of the Gospel. Jesus is the righteous one, not me. I deserve evil and I received good. That’s what the word grace means.
Basically, Saul is so moved by the reality of the situation that he repents – at least momentarily. Saul knows he should be lying dead in his own excrement at the back of that cave. He’s not. And that is an undeserved kindness that will melt the hearts of even the worst of sinners. If not for the grace of God, that would be me.
And that is the point. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is intended to melt our hearts, to crush our pride, to leave us amazed. And it can’t do any of that to us if we think we have earned God’s love.
It has been a while since I’ve told this story and it is one of my favorites. A lady named Catherine Larson spent time in Rwanda as a missionary and she published a book with stories from her trip. Rwanda was the country where hundreds of thousands of people died in a genocide. She writes,
“When I was in Rwanda, a beautiful seventeen-year-old survivor of the 1994 genocide told me a secret. Rain pelted the tin roof so loudly that I had to lean in to hear what Joy had to say. In a near whisper Joy said, ‘Forgiveness is a gift one gives to change the heart of the offender.’ This profound truth came from a young lady who had forgiven the neighbors who brutally murdered her own father with machetes.
Forgiveness is a gift. It is not something one can deserve or earn. Like all gifts it costs the one who offers it more than the one who receives it. I believe that the extreme costliness of forgiveness has the power to call forth something from the receiver. And because the gift is so extravagant, so undeserved, so lavish, of all gifts it is most able to mirror the divine nature of self-giving love.”
We have earned the wrath of God – the vengeance of God. In Christ, we are being offered the love of God. He is offering us reconciliation and adoption… a hope and a future. But we have to receive it with empty hands, with humility. As Augustine said, “God gives where he finds empty hands.”
And the people in our lives that we need to forgive – they have nothing to offer us either. May God give us the grace to fill their hands with forgiveness and leave the vengeance up to God.