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SECTION 4 B. David Occupies His Men, Acts As A Deliverer In Israel, And Avoids Saul (23.1-28).
David and his men were now outlaws and every man’s hand was at least theoretically against them. They lived in constant fear of being hunted down and trapped by Saul’s army. We are given little detail of how they survived day to day, for although the forests would be full of game, four hundred hungry men would take a lot of feeding. But it would seem clear that David prevented his men from wreaking havoc on the people of Israel and Judah as they might so easily have done. He did not want to be seen as a bandit chief, and he knew that these were YHWH’s people. Thus amidst all his trials David kept true to God, and was being prepared for what lay ahead.
On the other hand you cannot be in charge of four fighting units (‘hundreds’) and do nothing. They had to be kept satisfied. So David apparently kept his eyes open for ways of using them and keeping them in trim, without causing offence to their own people. Some of the ways in which he did this will now be described. They could probably be multiplied, but these particular examples were selected out because they aroused the attention of Saul.
For at the same time we will see how Saul continued mercilessly to hunt them down, even though they did only good and made no attempts against him, and this would continue until at length they had to flee the country. In this way Saul forfeited some of Israel’s best fighting men. And he not only did that but he drove out of Israel the saviour of Israel, the one on whom was the Spirit (16.13). If only Saul had been willing to trust David what a different ending he might have had. But his obsession with kingship thrust all other thoughts from his mind.
Some of us similarly need to ask ourselves what the obsession is that drives our Saviour from our lives so that He cannot operate through us as He would. The question is do we live to please God as David did, or do we live solely to our own advantage?
Analysis of Subsection 4B.
Section 4 Subsection B. David Delivers Keilah From An Invasion By The Philistines, Is Visited by Jonathan, And Evades Capture By Saul (23.1-28)
In this subsection we have emphasised before us the undependability of men and the total dependability of God. Whether it was in delivering a needy city, or escaping from a vengeful Saul, men could not be relied on, and it was God alone Who would prove reliable. This would even be confirmed by Saul’s son as he declared that David’s future was secure, not because of his men, but because God was with him. That is not, however, to deny that there were faithful men who were ready to stand by him to the end.
David Delivers Keilah From The Philistines (23.1-5).
The last we heard David and his men were in the Forest of Hareth (whereabouts unknown). If they were still there when Abiathar sought them out it would appear that this was in the area around Keilah (23.6). But, of course, they would always be on the move in order to avoid Saul, so it is not certain. It may be that they had now returned to the cave of Adullam. Keilah (Joshua 15.44) was a city in the Shephelah, the low limestone hills bordering the coastal plain where the Philistines were settled, It was a city of Judah built on a steep hill overlooking the valley of Elah, and was named in the Amarna letters as a Canaanite strongpoint. The area around would be included under the name.
The importance of this passage is that it brings out that YHWH was still delivering Israel, and was doing it through the one on whom His Spirit had permanently come (16.13). That David and his men had a good reputation comes out in that when a Philistine raiding party attacked Keilah in order to rob it of its harvest, a cry for help was sent to them from the people informing them of what was happening. It is clear that David’s exploits against the Philistines were still not forgotten.
Recognising what an opportunity this presented to him and his men he sought YHWH’s guidance through the ephod brought by Abiathar, and on receiving a positive reply put it to his men that they deliver Keilah. But his men were not happy with the idea of annoying the Philistines. Did they not have enough trouble keeping out of Saul’s way? Thus David consulted the ephod again. Again the reply was positive. This appears to have satisfied the men because they now followed David to Keilah where they slaughtered the fairly large Philistine raiding party, and took possession of their cattle, which would provide necessary provisions for some time to come. In this way they also saved Keilah from the Philistine depredations.
Two things stand out in this passage. The first is that David acted in obedience to YHWH. It was his constant desire to discover YHWH’s will and do it. Perhaps he remembered the mess that he had made of things when he had acted without consulting YHWH at Nob and at Gath. The second is the contrast between David’s act of saving Keilah and Saul’s act of destroying Nob. The saving compassion of David contrasts strongly with the vindictiveness of Saul.
Note that in ‘a’ the Philistines attacked Keilah seeking to rob their threshing floors (steal their harvest), while in the parallel David and his men defeated the Philistines and took their cattle as spoil, and in the process saved Keilah. In ‘b’ David enquired of YHWH and got a positive response, and in the parallel did the same. Central in ‘c’ is an indication of the precarious situation David and his men were in.
23.1 ‘And they told David, saying, “Look, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah, and are robbing the threshing-floors.” ’
We do not know who ‘they’ were, but presumably some local inhabitants, who knew of the presence of David and his men in the area, sought them out with the hope that they would come to the assistance of the beleaguered city. It would appear that the Philistines had their eyes on Keilah’s harvests which had been gathered in and were in process of being threshed. Alternately ‘robbing the threshing-floors’ may simply signify that they were after their grain stores. The border cities of Judah would unquestionably constantly experience such raids. That was why Keilah was a fortified city. But Saul could not monitor the whole border, and by the time he had raised help the Philistines would have disappeared with their booty leaving a devastated city behind. The one hope of the city, therefore, was that they could persuade David and his men, who were on the spot close by, to help them.
This is a reminder to us of the constant to and fro of life in Israel when they had no strong leader, with danger constantly threatening from the Philistines (and in other parts from other raiders). Life was hard and they often felt threatened, and if cities prospered they could always be sure that envious eyes would be watching so as to take advantage of it. This was especially true near the borders. On the border, raids and death would be a regular occurrence, but this was seemingly a raid in some force.
23.2 ‘Therefore David enquired of YHWH, saying, “Shall I go and smite these Philistines?” And YHWH said to David, “Go, and smite the Philistines, and save Keilah.”’
As he now had the means to do so because Abiathar was present with the ephod (verse 6), which presumably contained the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28.6-35), David consulted YHWH about the position and was given the go ahead to smite the Philistines and save Keilah. The writer is reminding us that this indeed was why YHWH had put His Spirit within David, so that he could deliver His people while he would be allowed to do so. It was not by coincidence that David and his men were around at this time.
23.3 ‘And David’s men said to him, “Look, we are afraid here in Judah, how much more then if we go to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines?” ’
But David’s men were wary when he informed them of YHWH’s decision. They did not yet have David’s faith. And they were tired of being constantly harried by a vengeful Saul. Surely if they upset the Philistines they could find themselves being harried on two fronts? They preferred to melt into the background and live off what they could get, and avoid trouble. Besides, they felt that the trained Philistine soldiers were too strong for them. After all they themselves were only a motley band of outlaws.
23.4 ‘Then David enquired of YHWH yet again. And YHWH answered him, and said, “Arise, go down to Keilah, for I will deliver the Philistines into your hand.” ’
It is probable that we are now to see that David consulted the oracle publicly, so that all could be aware of the result. What the oracle would probably produce was ‘yes’ and ‘no’ decisions (or ‘no answer’) which are here interpreted for us. But its conclusions were quite clear in this case. YHWH would deliver the Philistines into the hands of David and his men. As a result David then managed to persuade his men that they could do this, and benefit by it. And he would point out that it would win them local support. But above all he was concerned to obey YHWH. Note, however, the emphasis on the fact that it was YHWH Who would give deliverance. It was ‘not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says YHWH of Hosts’ (Zechariah 4.6).
23.5 ‘And David and his men went to Keilah, and fought with the Philistines, and brought away their cattle, and slew them with a great slaughter. So David saved the inhabitants of Keilah.’
David was no mean general, and he would unquestionably have spent time training his men (it would keep them busy if nothing else). But this was the first time that they had faced a professional army. He knew that their real calibre was about to be tested. Nevertheless, true to YHWH’s word they proved successful, fought the Philistine raiding band, slaughtered them and captured their cattle. And at the same time they saved Keilah. They would go back to their hide out feeling a lot better about themselves, and with much booty as well. And what was more, without upsetting the people of Judah (which was always David’s aim. He had his eye on the future).
Saul Learns That David And His Men Are Gathered In Keilah And Summons The Tribes So As To Capture Him (23.6-13).
When news reached Saul that David and his men had delivered Keilah from the hands of the Philistines his first thought was not of rejoicing at the deliverance of Keilah (which should have been his responsibility), but of the fact that it might give him an opportunity to capture David. However, his fear of David was so great that he determined that he must do so with a large force, so that there was no danger of David escaping. Thus he put out the summons to all the tribes (‘all the people’) in accordance with their treaty obligations. Had he moved with his standing army he might well have been in time to encounter David before he left Keilah, but he might well also have recognised that with David’s skills in warfare the result might be far from certain. He dared not take the risk of attacking David and then being defeated. And he knew only too well what a skilful general David was.
At first reading it may appear as if the inhabitants of Keilah were blameworthy. However, we must not be too hard on them. It should be noted that their leaders (‘lords’) did not actually determine to hand over David. It was only that David learned that that was what they finally would have done, had they been put to the test. And we should recognise that they were in an impossible position. If Saul arrived with all the armies of Israel and besieged the city, demanding for David and his men to be handed over, they would have been in the parlous position of either having to do so, thus betraying David but saving their city from the fate of Nob, or of fighting their own countrymen and being branded as traitors, or even, if Judah sided with them and David (compare the Benjaminites in Judges 20), of being responsible for the commencement of a civil war. Thus they really would have faced a hard choice (assuming of course that David and his men allowed them that choice). Fortunately for them they were saved from having to make that choice by David removing himself and his men from their midst. In fact David remaining there would have been good for no one, least of all for him.
So we should recognise that no one in fact decided to hand David over. It was simply that YHWH knew what they would feel forced to do if the crunch came. We must face the fact that if everyone was blamed for what they would do if the temptation came none of us would stand.
Note that in ‘a’ Abiathar came down to David to Keilah, and in the parallel David and his men leave Keilah. In ‘b’ Saul hears that David is in Keilah and thinks that God has delivered him into his hands while in the parallel David knows this and wants to know if the people of Keilah will deliver him into his hands (and receives the answer ‘yes’). In ‘c’ Saul calls out the tribes in order to go against David, and in the parallel David wants to know if Saul will come down, and learns that the answer is ‘yes’. Central in ‘d’ is David’s appeal to YHWH.
23.6 ‘And it came about that when Abiathar the son of Ahimelech fled to David to Keilah, he came down with the ephod in his hand.’
This note is put in with a view to explaining how David was now able to enquire of YHWH. It was because when Abiathar came, escaping the massacre of the priests, he brought with him the ephod, the special vestment of the High Priest which contained the Urim and Thummim in the breast pouch. These latter probably worked by their being tossed down, with the decision being dependent on how they fell.
The direction ‘to Keilah’ suggests that David and his men had at the time when Abiathar arrived, been hiding and operating in the local area. This would explain both why they received the news about the attack on the city of Keilah so quickly and why they were able to tackle the problem with such alacrity.
Alternately the brevity of ‘to David to Keilah’ can be seen as indicating that Abiathar came to David and then they both went to Keilah.
23.7 ‘And it was told Saul that David was come to Keilah. And Saul said, “God has delivered him into my hand, for he is shut in, by entering into a town that has gates and bars.” ’
When Saul learned that David had entered the city of Keilah, and had remained there, he was delighted. The news may have reached him through his spies, or it may have been because what most saw as glad tidings was being passed around without any thought of harming David. But to the blinkered Saul it indicated only one thing. With any luck he could have David trapped within the gates of Keilah. Of course he expressed it very piously. Literally “God has rejected him (treated him as profane) into my hand, for he is shut in, by entering into a town that has gates and bars.” He felt that YHWH had at last by this means rejected David. There was no need now to look for him in places where he could fade away, or even cause endless trouble by guerilla fighting. All he could hope was that he would stay there long enough for Saul to gather sufficient men to be able to surround the town and capture him.
23.8 ‘And Saul summoned all the people to war, to go down to Keilah, to besiege David and his men.’
But that was the problem, the number of men he would need. The summoning of ‘all the people’ suggests a general levy of the tribes. So Saul was taking no risks, because he knew what he was up against. It is doubtful whether in making the levy he genuinely explained why he was doing it. Many probably thought that the Philistines were attacking again. But Saul’s purpose was simply to go and besiege Keilah and trap David. And he was prepared to call the levy, seemingly at the time of harvest, in order to do it. Such was the penalty to Israel of having a king.
Of course the one problem with the general levy was that word inevitably got around, and the gathering of the army would take some days. But as far as Saul was concerned there was no alternative, for there was no way in which he was going to risk meeting a David, trapped with four to six hundred desperate fighting men at his call, unless he had overwhelming force. They had after all proved their calibre against the Philistines.
23.9 ‘And David knew that Saul was devising mischief against him, and he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” ’
Inevitably the news reached Keilah about Saul’s plans so that David was alerted to them and realised that Saul was planning mischief. So he immediately called on Abiathar to bring the ephod to him. In fact had he actually thought about it he would have realised that there was nothing to be gained by staying, but both he and his men were probably enjoying their current popularity. It was a change from hiding in the forest, and sleeping in caves. It may indeed have been with the purpose of persuading his men that it was time that they were on the move that he again consulted the ephod. But it may equally well have been because he could not really believe that Saul was going to this great trouble just to capture him. Right up to the end David never really understood what Saul’s problem with him was. He did not realise the light in which Saul saw him.
23.10 ‘Then David said, “O YHWH, the God of Israel, your servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city for my sake. Will the men of Keilah deliver me up into his hand? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O YHWH, the God of Israel, I beseech you, tell your servant.” And YHWH said, “He will come down.” ’
So David did what was so typical of him. Far from being ‘treated as profane’ by YHWH he got down to genuine praying, and in doing so he was bursting with questions, which poured out from him. But the ephod was not designed for dealing with multiple questions which is why only one was answered at a time. Firstly David wanted to know what the leaders of Keilah do if Saul came and besieged the city. Would they hand them over to Saul? But even before that. Was Saul coming at all? As the last was the most urgent question it was answered first. Yes, Saul was coming.
We can understand why David was a little perplexed at the thought that Saul would destroy Keilah just to capture him. After all Keilah was an Israelite city (of the tribe of Judah) for which Saul had responsibility. But the news that had reached him would have included the fact that Saul had called up the levy. So that raised the question of what Saul’s aims really were. Would he really have called up the levy just in order to take David? And the answer was ‘yes’.
23.12 ‘Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah deliver up me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And YHWH said, “They will deliver you up.” ’
The question then was as to whether the ‘leading men’ (the baalim - lords) of Keilah would hand them over to Saul. And the reply was, ‘yes, they would deliver them up’. We have only to think about it to realise that they would have had little alternative. They were in an impossible position. They were certainly grateful to David, but not to have handed him over would have been treason, and with the host of Israel surrounding them they would have had no hope of holding out for long, with the certainty of death and destruction following. Better to be in the hands of the Philistines than in the hands of a vengeful Saul. Nor would they have wanted to fight their fellow-countrymen. And besides, they would not want to start a civil war between Israel and Judah, and that was what might have been involved. It is doubtful if Judah would have just sat by and watch one of their own towns being besieged by Saul. It would have been a question of tribal loyalty. So the position was impossible. (We should, however, note that they never had to make this decision. Nor in the event did they even have to think about what they would do if Saul came. It was YHWH Who knew what they would in the end do out of concern for their town, and once David was aware of that he saved the leading men from having to face up to an impossible situation. The emphasis is thus on David’s concern for them, not on their duplicity.
On the other hand the fact that the question about Keilah handing him over is asked twice in the narrative points to an indication of the horror that the thought would raise in the minds of readers and hearers as the story was read out at the feasts. We should remember that what are regularly called ‘duplications’ by some are often simply a way of ensuring that the audience gets the message. They are equally found in the writings of other nations. As the audience heard the words, and then heard them repeated, their hearts would say ‘surely not’, but their heads would say ‘yes’. It raised the whole question of tribal honour, and each would ask himself what he would have done. However, the aim behind it was probably in order to emphasise the straightness of all David’s dealings in that first he saved them from having to make that decision, and secondly in that all would know what David would have done in such a circumstance (or at least they would all think that they knew).
But as we think more deeply about this whole situation we are also made aware of how despotic Saul had become. How otherwise would he have dared to call the levy, and have risked war between Israel and Judah, simply over a personal grievance and because of his own ambitions? The truth was that David and his small band of outlaws who caused no trouble to anyone (except the Philistines) did not really warrant it. It is thus being made quite clear that his mind had become unhinged as a result of his intense hatred of David. Israel really were learning what ‘having a king like the nations’ really meant.
23.13 ‘Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed out of Keilah, and went wherever they could go. And it was told Saul that David was escaped from Keilah, and he forbore going forth.’
The result was that David and his men reluctantly left Keilah with all its love and friendliness overflowing towards them and went back to hiding in the forests, wherever they could find safety. And once Saul learned that David had left Keilah and had ‘disappeared’, no one knew where, he simply stayed where he was. There was now no point in going to Keilah. (How he explained having made the levy we do not know). But we note one further point of significance. David’s private army was growing. It now had six effective units. It was becoming a formidable fighting force.
Jonathan Comes To David In Order To Encourage Him As Saul Continues To Pursue Him (23.14-18).
Meanwhile David had a pleasant surprise, for Jonathan came looking for him and found him. Jonathan was unquestionably a true man of faith (as we have already seen) and a godly and humble man. And he was totally submissive to what YHWH wanted to do. He was indeed quite content to play second fiddle to David. He was so unlike his father that in many ways it is difficult to understand how he could have been a son of Saul at all, even though he was. Furthermore it is clear that from the beginning he had seen the genius of David, and had been willing to accept it without rancour. Jonathan would have made a good, steady king, but he did not have David’s genius, and he knew it. And he was therefore perfectly willing to go along with being his lieutenant. He was a truly great man.
And besides he loved David in a way that can only be understood by comrades-in-arms. That is why when he saw how things were going he put himself at great personal risk by seeking David out in order to encourage and strengthen him. At this torrid time in his life Jonathan’s friendship and love must genuinely have been a great encouragement to David. To have a friend like Jonathan (which means ‘gift of YHWH’) was to have a friend indeed.
Note that in ‘a’ David abode in the wilderness in the hill country and in the parallel he abode among the brushwood. But note also the great contrast. On the one hand we have David versus Saul in continual opposition, and in the parallel we have David and Jonathan in complete harmony. In ‘b’ Saul comes out to seek David’s life, and in the parallel Jonathan assures David that he will not find him. Central in ‘c’ is the fact that Jonathan seeks David out in order to comfort him and make him strong.
23.14 ‘And David abode in the wilderness in the natural strongholds, and remained in the hill-country in the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God did not deliver him into his hand.’
Compare verse 7. There Saul had convinced himself that God had delivered (literally ‘rejected’) David into his hand. But it had been a vain dream. Now we learn that God continued with His policy of not delivering David into Saul’s hand. Indeed we will shortly learn from the mouth of none other than Saul’s son, that God would never deliver David into Saul’s hand. He was inviolable in the purposes of God. (Nevertheless God would still give him a hard time. After all he was in training).
David and his men were ever on the move in order to avoid Saul. They were now in the barren wilderness of Judah, the wild uncultivated tract between the mountains of Judah and the Dead Sea. And in that area, the hill of Hachilah in the hill country in the wilderness of Ziph appears to have been a favourite camp site (verse 19). From there they would be able to scan the area for miles around, and be aware of anyone approaching from any direction. In view of the undoubted strength of David’s small army, which having got used to the terrain would be able to pick off any enemy unless they came in unusual strength, this continual movement must have been as much because David did not want to attack his fellow country men as because he was afraid of them. Indeed from what we know of his exploits it was Israel who would have been wise to be afraid of him. But fortunately for them he had no desire to vent his rage on them. He was prepared to bide his time, and clearly kept his men in good order, even protecting local communities from those who meant them no good.
On the other hand Saul’s determination to find him had increased even more, for while we must not take ‘every day’ too literally, his manoeuvres clearly took up a large part of Saul’s time. It could not have been good for Israel, for Saul should have been watching the borders. But Saul had become obsessed with David, and to him nothing else mattered.
23.15 ‘And David saw that Saul was come out to seek his life, and David was in the wilderness of Ziph among the brushwood.’
David was now well aware that this was a life and death game. He had no wish to harm Saul, but he knew that Saul did not feel the same and was unquestionably seeking his life. He knew therefore that if he was caught he could expect no mercy. This was why he and his men constantly changed their haunts, and it was why they had come to this desolate region. Life would not have been easy there. The burning heat and the shortage of water would have provided them with a constant problem. But its undoubted advantage was that it was not a place to which most men liked to come, and while it is doubtful if there were trees in that dry and barren land, the brushwood would provide ample cover for men as skilled as David’s men had become in avoiding being seen. Indeed they were becoming so skilled as fighting men that we have to wonder what would have happened if Saul had ever come up with David and his men without a huge force behind him. Perhaps fortunately for Saul it never happened. David and his men were too elusive.
The whole wilderness of Ziph was a hot, waterless and almost barren place. It is doubtful if trees would grow there. But brushwood (choresh) is very persistent and probably grew there in some profusion. On the other hand, some see Choresh as signifying a place name which is simply not mentioned elsewhere.
23.16 ‘And Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose, and went to David among the brushwood, and strengthened his hand in God.’
But then out of the blue another Saulide sought David. He had clearly learned of where he was and sought him out to strengthen his hand in God. He must have constantly grieved over his father’s attitude towards David. Not being aware of the kind of mental illness that his father had, he must have been totally unable to understand it. But Saul was a prisoner of his own mental instability and delusions. What Saul did not, of course, realise, was that he was preparing David for a bright future. David would never have become the man he was without Saul.
Jonathan’s faith and loyalty to God shine through in all that he does. He would have made a good and godly king. But he would never have achieved what David did, and even compared with his, David’s godliness was exceptional (in spite of his mistakes). We may wonder how Jonathan found David when Saul could not. The answer probably lies in the fact that people would tell Jonathan things that they would never tell Saul. And, of course, Jonathan’s approach would neither have been hindered or avoided. Indeed he would have been helped. All knew that he was David’s friend.
23.17 ‘And he said to him, “Do not be afraid, for the hand of Saul my father will not find you, and you will be king over Israel, and I will be next to you, and that also Saul my father knows.”’
Jonathan, a man of great spiritual insight, recognised the hand of God in David’s life. He therefore knew that God would keep him safe from the hand of his father. He knew that come what may, Saul would never find David. And that was because he knew in his heart that it was God’s purpose that David be king over Israel, and he knew that deep in his heart that was also something that Saul knew. And then he, Jonathan, would be quite content to be ‘next to him’. He was quite prepared to be his second-in-command. And that was something that Saul also knew, and which added to his fury.
23.18 ‘And they two made a covenant before YHWH, and David abode among the brushwood, and Jonathan went to his house.’
And there in the burning wilderness the two men made a further covenant before YHWH, confirming the covenant that they already had, solemnly agreeing to protect each other’s future, and guaranteeing that they would work together in harmony in the future. And then they parted for the last time. And meanwhile David continued to live among the brushwood, and Jonathan returned to his home in Gibeah. For those who would serve God fully the way is often in the brushwood.
The Ziphites Inform Saul Of David’s Whereabouts (23.19-24).
Because we favour David we can tend to be harsh with anyone who supported Saul, but in fact we do have to remember that Saul was the rightful king in Israel’s eyes, and that many therefore felt that they owed their duty to him. The people who lived in this area would be a remote, probably tight knit, people, suspicious of strangers, and to such people loyalty to the king (who was too far off for them to know what he was really like) was often paramount.
Furthermore in the case of the Ziphites who sought to survive in that lonely wilderness there was also probably more to it than that, for the presence of David’s men would not only make them feel uneasy (however disciplined his men were) but would also be taking up valuable provisions of water and food in an area where such were in short supply. They may well have found themselves suffering because of it and they would therefore have seen it as being to their advantage to get rid of David and his men as soon as possible. Thus they approached Saul and informed him of David’s whereabouts. Let him come and rid them of this unwelcome intrusion.
Note that in ‘a’ Saul learns that David is in the Hill of Hachilah which is on the south of the Waste (Jeshimon), and in the parallel he is in the wilderness of Maon, in the Arabah on the south of the Waste. In ‘b’ the Ziphites call on Saul come down to where they are so that they might deliver David into Saul’s hands, and in the parallel Saul declares that he will go with them once they have brought more certain news, and will ensure that he finds him. Centrally in ‘c’ he blesses them before YHWH for their love for their king.
23.19 ‘Then the Ziphites came up to Saul to Gibeah, saying, “Does not David hide himself with us in the strong points in the brushwood, in the hill of Hachilah, which is on the south of the Waste?”
As we have seen above the Ziphites had good reason for wanting to be rid of David and his men. They were intruding on their quiet tribal life, in an area which they saw as their own, and where therefore intruders were not welcome, and on top of that they were using up scarce supplies of food and water which they themselves needed for their livelihood.
So they despatched messengers to Saul in Gibeah informing him that David and his men were hiding themselves in strong positions in the brushwood on the Hill of Hachilah, to the south of the Waste (Jeshimon). It probably caused quite a sensation when these wild desert dwellers from the wastelands arrived at Saul’s court, and even more so when they explained their reason for coming.
23.20 “Now therefore, O king, come down, according to all the desire of your soul to come down, and our part will be to deliver him up into the king’s hand.”
They called on their king to ‘come down’ to them (they would see Gibeah as the capital city) if that was what he desired, and they promised that they on their part would deliver David into Saul’s hands.
23.21 ‘And Saul said, “Blessed be you of YHWH, for you have had compassion on me.” ’
That these wild desert dwellers were more loyal (in his eyes) than most of the country stirred Saul’s heart. It seemed that they were the only ones who cared for him. And he blessed them in the Name of YHWH for their loyal attitude.
23.22 “Go, I pray you, make yet more sure, and know and see his place where his haunt is, and who has seen him there, for it is told me that he deals very subtly (behaves very cunningly).”
But he had sought David many times, only to discover that he had disappeared, and he did not therefore want to enter the wastelands on the mountains near the Dead Sea without being sure of his prey. He knew how inhospitable the conditions were. So he told them to go and make absolutely sure of where he was, and identify his exact haunt, and who had seen it in order to be able so to identify it, because he had learned from the hard experience of his spies how elusive and cunning David was.
23.23 “Watch therefore, and take knowledge of all the lurking-places where he hides himself, and come you again to me of a certainty (i.e. with sure knowledge), and I will go with you, and it will come about that, if he be in the land, I will search him out among all the ‘thousands’ (small family clans) of Judah.”
So he wanted them to watch David’s movements, learn where all his hide-outs were, and then come again to him when they were sure of the facts. Then he would go with them to rid them of this scourge, and once he was there they could be sure that he would root out all David’s followers from among all the small family clans. They would not be able to hide from him. (It would not have been a very comfortable experience for the small family clans of Judah as they were interrogated and possibly tortured, but that would not worry the heartless Saul). But Saul knew that he would be bringing with him a large army of men, and so he would not want them to have to spend too much time hanging around or searching that desolate place.
23.24 ‘And they arose, and went to Ziph before Saul, but David and his men were in the wilderness of Maon, in the Arabah on the south of the desert.’
So the Ziphite messenger returned home ahead of Saul, only to discover when they got back to Ziph that the elusive David had moved on, and was now in the wilderness of Maon, going as far as the Arabah (the Arabah is the continuation south of the Dead Sea of the rift between two mountain ranges through which further northward the Jordan flowed into the Dead Sea), even further south of the Waste.
In view of the fact that they do not think that the Arabah itself could have been the destination many would translate arabah here as ‘plain’ or ‘steppe’. The exact geographical details are not too certain, although they would have been at the time of writing.
David And His Men Have A Near Escape In The Wilderness of Maon (23.25-28).
When intelligence reached Saul that David was now in the wilderness of Maon it probably caused him similar delight to when he had heard that he was trapped in Keilah, for he would know that the Wilderness of Maon provided little cover. Thus he would consider that if he moved quickly he would be able to take him. Humanly speaking David may have made one of his rare tactical mistakes by taking his men there, for it left them open to discovery, but of course in amelioration we must remember that he was running out of places to hide. The probably unexpected activities of the Ziphites had made things very difficult for him. What had been a safe hiding place had suddenly become a trap and a snare. What it was to prove in the end, however, was that YHWH was still with him, for when he came to the end of himself God stepped in. And it must be seen as ironic that the coming king of Israel who would finally destroy the power of the Philistines, was, (looking at it from a human point of view), saved from destruction by a Philistine invasion of Israel!
Note that in ‘a’ David came down to the Rock (sela), and abode in the wilderness of Maon, and in the parallel as a result of what happened that rock was called the Rock (sela) of slipperiness, and David dwelt in the caves of Engedi. In ‘b’ Saul pursued after David, and in the parallel Saul ceased pursuing after David. In ‘c’ David was hastening to get away because of his fear of Saul, and in the parallel Saul was told to hasten for fear of the Philistines . Centrally in ‘d’ is the fact that for the first time Saul almost had David in his grasp (only to be thwarted once again).
23.25a ‘And Saul and his men went to seek him. And they told David, which was why he came down to the Rock (sela), and abode in the wilderness of Maon.’
Learning of the activities of the Ziphites and that Saul was coming with an army to find him David made for the wilderness of Maon south of the Dead Sea, where he knew of ‘the Rock’, a large rocky eminence which would provide them with some kind of protection and cover, and could be defended. He no doubt hoped that once the Ziphites knew that he had gone they would forget about him and no longer help Saul. It was a slim hope but the only one that he seemed to have left.
23.25b ‘And when Saul heard that, he pursued after David in the wilderness of Maon.’
Saul, however, learned where he had gone and continued to pursue after him, confident that this time David would not escape his clutches. No doubt recognising that the Rock was one of the few places where David and his men could have taken refuge he and his army made for it.
23.26 ‘And Saul went on this side of the mountain, and David and his men on that side of the mountain, and David made haste to get away for fear of Saul, for Saul and his men surrounded David and his men round about to take them.’
David’s lookouts had no doubt seen Saul and his army coming, so he moved his men to the other side of the Rock (a rocky eminence). But his heart must have sunk, for it would look as though at last they were approaching a final showdown. He would have had no doubt that his men would give a good account of themselves, but the question was, would it be enough against an army of the size that Saul had brought? He did not want to take the risk. As a good general he knew his men’s limitations.
‘For fear of Saul.’ It is doubtful if David was actually afraid, for he would know that YHWH was with him. This ‘fear’ is rather speaking of the awareness of a general for the difficult position his troops find themselves in so that he fears for their welfare and is making every effort to extract them from it, however hopeless it might seem. He was probably enjoying the excitement, but every nerve was strained. And how desperately he must have been praying.
But as he and his men moved round the cliff paths on their side of the Rock it must have looked more and more as though they would have to make a last stand, for part of the army of Saul were climbing the cliff paths on the other side, while the remainder had moved out to encircle the Rock where they were in hiding. The enemy were closing in and there seemed no way of escape. All they could do was make a last brave stand. Some might escape, but a lot of men would die.
23.27 ‘But there came a messenger to Saul, saying, “Hurry yourself and come, for the Philistines have made a raid on the land.” ’
And then the miracle happened. The ram’s horns sounded and to his surprise David recognised that they were signalling not the final charge but the call to assemble. And at that signal Saul’s army ceased its steady and wary approach on the Rock, and began to muster and move away before their very eyes, leaving them looking at each other in wonderment. They did not know what had caused it, but the explanation was humanly speaking quite simple. A messenger had arrived with the urgent news of a Philistine invasion, with the result that Saul and his army were needed immediately to deal with it. Even a dictatorial Saul could not ignore a call like that when the facts were known to his commanders. The Philistines were always the prime enemy. So David would have to wait. We can imagine the chagrin in Saul’s heart. In his view he had ‘almost had him’. But perhaps there was relief too? For who knew what David, who had won so many battles against the odds in the past, might have accomplished? It was an unknown quantity, and the Rock would certainly not have been easy to take against trained hill fighters with their backs to the wall.
David, however, would have known what it all meant, for as Jonathan had said at their earlier meeting in the wilderness, ‘the hand of Saul my father will not find you’. Thus he knew that it was YHWH Who had been watching over them and had delivered them at the last moment.
23.28a ‘So Saul returned from pursuing after David, and went against the Philistines.’
So as a result of the call of duty Saul returned from his hopeless task of pursuing the man whom YHWH did not want caught, and went against the Philistines. At least he could comfort himself with the thought that YHWH was not on the Philistines’ side (even if He had used them in order to deliver David).
23.28b ‘Therefore they called that place Sela-hammahlekoth (the rock of slipperiness, or of smoothnesses).’
And the Rock where it all happened was given a new name. It was called ‘the rock of smoothnesses’ or ‘slipperiness’, because of the smooth way in which David and his men had slipped away from capture.
23.29 ‘And David went up from there, and dwelt in the natural strongholds (hillside caves) of Engedi (23.29).’
David and his men then made for the caves of Engedi, which looked out from the limestone rock cliffs over the barren western bank of the Dead Sea. That barren and desolate area, (save only for the oasis of Engedi itself where there were palm trees and vineyards), was not a place that men frequented. And its multiplicity of caves mad it easier to hide in.
Section 4 C. David’s Threefold Obedience In Sparing Fools (24.1-26.25).
In contrast with the threefold disobedience of Saul in 13-15 we now have three examples of David’s obedience to YHWH in the face of provocation, two in relation to Saul and one in relation to Nabal. As Saul had deteriorated, so David advances. We may see them as follows:
We note that there is an interesting parallel between Saul’s dual pursuit of David, and David’s pursuit of Nabal. Both were seeking vengeance and both were prevented from attaining their object by being made to feel ashamed. However, the difference between them lay in the fact that David had some justification for his action, and in that he was deeply concerned at the thought of the possibility of offending YHWH. This last trait of David, in fact, comes out in all three incidents.
A further point that comes out in the three incidents is David’s obedience to YHWH. In the first and third cases he restrains himself from vengeance and refuses to lay a hand on YHWH’s anointed, and in the second case he restrains himself from vengeance once the folly of his adventure is brought to his attention.
David Shows Mercy To Saul In Engedi (24.1-22).
In this passage we have the first of three examples of David’s full obedience to YHWH. In this first example he has Saul at his mercy and yet spares him because he is ‘YHWH’s anointed’ (see 24.6, 10; 26.9, 11, 16, 23; 2 Samuel 1.14, 16). He refuses to make a move before God’s time, on the one chosen by YHWH. The result is that Saul declares that one day he will be king over Israel (24.20).
The whole chapter may be analysed as follows:
Saul Unwittingly Puts Himself At David’s Mercy (24.1-7).
Even in Engedi David was not safe from a vengeful Saul, for once he had driven back the Philistines, Saul gathered three thousand of Israel’s best fighting men and made tracks for Engedi, in order to finally finish him off. Yet there he was able to find no trace of David, because the huge caves provided adequate shelter, and there were too many to search in safety. As he and his men looked them over their empty mouths must have appeared like a death trap which lure them in and swallow up all who entered them.
Note that in ‘a’ Saul came among the caves of Engedi and selected what seemed a safe cave where he could relieve himself, and in the parallel he leaves the cave safely unaware of how close to death he has been. In ‘b’ David’s men were in hiding in the cave and in the parallel David has to firmly dissuade them From killing Saul. In ‘c’ his men urge that YHWH has delivered Saul into his hands, and in the parallel David refuses to lift up a hand against him because he is YHWH’s anointed. Centrally in ‘d’ David is even conscience stricken at having cut the hem off Saul’s outer robe.
24.1 ‘And it came about that, when Saul was returned from following the Philistines, it was told him, saying, “Look, David is in the wilderness of Engedi.” ’
As soon as Saul returned from driving back the Philistines, his spies informed him that David and his men were now in hiding in the wilderness of Engedi. This wilderness was a desolate and barren limestone desert on the western side of the Dead Sea, a desolation and barrenness only relieved by the oasis at Engedi (meaning ‘spring of the kid’) which gave the area its name. It was an area full of caves which went deep into the limestone cliffs, and a regular hiding place for bandits who could disappear into the caves without trace. Some caves were at ground level and others higher up the cliff face. These cliffs were the haunt of wild goats who could scamper along the narrow paths in a way that caused men to speak with admiration of the ‘surefootedness of a mountain goat’. The caves at ground level would sometimes be used as a shelter in bad weather for sheep, and the shepherds would build a rough wall round the entrance for the purpose, turning them into a sheepcote.
24.2 ‘Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and went to seek David and his men on the rocks of the wild goats.’
It was in this barren and desolate area that Saul, with three thousand chosen troops, began his search for David, no doubt traversing the goat tracks on the cliffs at the risk of their lives as they searched the caves. But they discovered nothing. It began to look as though David and his men had moved on.
24.3 ‘And he came to the sheepcotes by the way, where was a cave, and Saul went in to cover his feet. Now David and his men were abiding in the innermost parts of the cave.’
Coming to a group of caves at ground level which had clearly been used by shepherds as sheepcotes Saul reckoned it was safe to enter one in order to relieve himself. As king he seems to have felt that it was below his dignity to perform this function in front of his men. But what he did not know was that he had actually chosen the very cave where David was in hiding with some of his men. These caves were very large with many recesses and side passages, and were pitch black to any who entered them from the sunlight, although once men had been in them a few hours and had become attuned to the darkness, and were looking towards the mouth of the cave, they could see more clearly. Thus Saul would have been able to see nothing, while the men in the cave, of whom he was unaware, were very much aware of his presence.
24.4 ‘And the men of David said to him, “Look, the day of which YHWH said to you, “Behold, I will deliver your enemy into your hand, and you will do to him as it will seem good to you.” Then David arose, and cut off the hem of Saul’s robe secretly.’
Recognising that the person who had entered the cave was an unguarded Saul David may well have turned to his men in the recesses of the cave and explained the situation, with the result that they came to him in the pitch blackness and whispered triumphantly in his ears that YHWH had delivered Saul into David’s hands, ‘as He said to you’.
Their words they cited were, ‘“Behold, I will deliver your enemy into your hand, and you will do to him as it will seem good to you.” We have no record of these words but it is quite possible here that they had in mind some unrecorded Psalm that David had regularly sung to them in anticipation of some such event as he sought to keep up their spirits. It may possibly even have been based on a prophecy spoken by Samuel or Gad. Alternately it might simply have been their own interpretation of something that David had sung, suitably adapted by them, especially in the last part, so as to say what they themselves felt. The words certainly to some extent reflect similar ideas found in his recorded Psalms where deliverance from his enemies and his vindication over them are predicted, and his men may well in a general way have applied the wording in Judges 16.24 to them (‘our God has delivered into our hand our enemy’). See, for example, Psalm 25.2-3, 19-20; 31.15; 54.7; 59.10; Exodus 23.22 for fairly parallel ideas.
David then appears to have crept over to where Saul was in the pitch darkness and have cut part of the hem, or possibly a tassel, off Saul’s robe. It may be that Saul had laid the robe aside while he was relieving himself, or it may have been that David did it extremely carefully so that Saul was unaware that it was happening. If Saul did feel anything he may simply have thought that his robe had momentarily caught on a rock. We must remember that he did not suspect that anyone was in the cave, and that from his point of view it was pitch black. (In so short a time he would not have had time to accommodate his vision to the darkness in the cave).
As we have seen earlier there are indications that the hem of the robe was seen as of some significance. In the case of the king he would have a hem connected with the royal authority of the wearer so that such an act may well have been intended specifically to contribute towards the downfall of his kingdom by a kind of prophetic ‘magic’, as well as it acting to remind Saul and his men that he was rejected by God (compare 15.26-28; 1 Kings 11.29-30). This would explain why David felt so guilty about it afterwards.
24.5 ‘And it came about afterward, that David’s heart smote him, because he had cut off Saul’s hem.’
Having done what he did David’s conscience was smitten. It is possible that he felt that he had tried to put YHWH on the spot by trying to force Him to act against Saul against His will. Or it may simply be that he felt convicted for touching, with an intention of doing hurt to him, the very person of YHWH’s anointed. He may well have felt that it was almost like touching YHWH himself. For in Israel this man represented YHWH, and David was very religiously sensitive. To him what he had done was therefore like touching something which was ‘very holy’, and was forbidden, such as the Ark. We can compare what happened later to the man who touched the Ark of God YHWH (2 Samuel 6.6-7). Perhaps David felt similarly about Saul.
24.6 ‘And he said to his men, “YHWH forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, YHWH’s anointed, to put forth my hand against him, seeing he is YHWH’s anointed.” ’
His men probably were probably continuing to urge him to take advantage of this opportunity to get rid of Saul, with the result that he felt that he had to speak to them very firmly, (tear into them’), in order to prevent them taking further action (verse 7). He forbade what they were suggesting in the Name of YHWH on the grounds that Saul was ‘YHWH’s anointed’, in other words, one who was holy to YHWH and therefore untouchable. It is clear that David felt that to attack his person was to attack YHWH. It says much for the respect that his men had for him that they did agree to restrain themselves even though they probably did not feel the same way as he did.
24.7a ‘So David tore into his men with these words, and would not let them rise against Saul.’
The belligerence of his men against Saul (for they had suffered much as a result of his activities) meant that David had to speak to them very strongly. He had to use all his authority in order to prevent them from ‘rising against Saul’.
This brings out that one of the main purposes of this passage and its later parallel is in order to emphasise David’s total loyalty, and to demonstrate that he was in no way at fault in his approach to the kingship, taking no steps towards taking the crown until YHWH gave it to him. He patiently awaited YHWH’s time, and when that came he wanted to b sure that his appointment was wholly by YHWH without his needing to resort to force of arms. (Even Ishbosheth’s death was not of his doing).
24.7b ‘And Saul rose up out of the cave, and went on his way.’
But the final result was that Saul was able to leave the cave quite unaware of how close to death he had been and of the tumult that he had left behind him. His complacency did not, however, last for long.
David Reveals Himself To Saul And Demonstrates That He Has Proved By His Restraint In Not Killing Him That He Is Totally Loyal To Him (24.8-22).
Once Saul had left the cave David boldly revealed himself to him and pointed out to him that if he had intended hurt him he could have killed him while he was in the cave and at his mercy, at which Saul responded accepting the justice of David’s position and acknowledging that David would undoubtedly one day be king, and requested that when that should happen he would have mercy on Saul’s family. But we should note that while Saul goes away at that point and withdraws his men there is no full reconciliation, with the consequence that David and his men remain in their stronghold. David had clearly recognised that he could not rely on what Saul had said, and that what had happened had simply bought his men respite for a time.
The conversation that follows brings out David’s extraordinary attitude towards Saul, and it was clearly seen as very important by the writer. What then was his purpose in recording it so fully? A number of suggestions can be made:
Note that in ‘a’ David arose and came out of the cave and made obeisance to Saul, and in the parallel he made an oath to Saul and he and his men again took themselves to the stronghold. In ‘b’ David points out that he has spared Saul’s life in spite of the protestations of others, and in the parallel Saul seeks that he will also spare the lives of his descendants. In ‘c’ David points out that he had cut off the hem of Saul’s robe, the emblem of his kingship, and in the parallel Saul recognises that that kingship will go to David. In ‘d’ David puts his plea before YHWH to take care of his case, and in the parallel Saul looks to YHWH for him to be rewarded. In ‘e’ David cites a proverb and says that his hand will not be on Saul, and in the parallel Saul points out that David had restrained his hand from him, and also cites a proverb. In ‘f’ David asks that YHWH judge between them, and in the parallel Saul does judge between them. Centrally in ‘g’ Saul responds to ‘his son David’ with weeping.
24.8 ‘David also arose afterward, and went out of the cave, and cried after Saul, saying, “My lord the king.” And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the earth, and did obeisance.’
We can imagine something of the shock that Saul must have received when he heard David calling to him and, on turning round, recognised that he had been present in the cave that he had just left. He was probably just as surprised when David humbled himself before him (safely at a distance). David was seeking to bring home to Saul his genuine loyalty and desire only to serve him. This was, as we will now learn, because he saw him as YHWH’s anointed.
24.9-10 ‘And David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to men’s words, saying, ‘Look, David seeks your hurt?’ Behold, this day your eyes have seen how that YHWH had delivered you today into my hand in the cave, and some bade me kill you, but my conscience spared you, and I said, ‘I will not put forth my hand against my lord, for he is YHWH’s anointed.’ ”
David then asked Saul why he listened to the men who claimed that David was seeking to do him hurt. He was still unable to believe that the one who had previously shown him such kindness, and had even made him his son-in-law, could have turned against him of his own volition. (He was, of course, not aware of what Saul’s motive had really been in making him his son-in-law). And he pointed out to him that some of his men had urged him to kill Saul when he had been delivered into his hand, but that because of his conscience about putting out his hand against the one who was anointed by YHWH he had refrained.
The point about the continued reference to Saul as ‘YHWH’s anointed’ was not just that he was the generally anointed king, but that David knew from Samuel that Saul had specifically been anointed for the whole of his lifetime, after which, as a result of his disobedience, his line would then cease to rule and David would take over as the new ‘YHWH’s anointed’. It seemed to David, therefore, presumptious, and almost sacrilegious, to seek to hasten that event before the end of God’s allotted period. It is another reminder to us that history is in God’s hands.
24.11 “Moreover, my father, see, yes, see the hem of your robe in my hand, for in that I cut off the skirt of your robe, and did not kill you, know you and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in my hand, and I have not sinned against you, though you hunt after my life to take it.”
He then produced the piece of cloth/tassel which he had cut off from the hem of Saul’s royal robe as evidence of the fact that he had been close enough to Saul to choose whether he would cut off the hem or kill him. And it demonstrated quite openly that he had chosen not to kill him. Did not that prove conclusively that there was no evil or transgression in his hand? Did it not prove that he had not sinned against Saul, even while, paradoxically and mistakenly, Saul was hunting after his life to take it? What more proof did Saul need of his genuineness?
Note also his reference to Saul as ‘my father’. For Saul was his father in that he had married Saul’s daughter, and he was also his ‘father’ in that he was his king. It was a further indication of David’s respect for Saul.
24.12 “YHWH judge between me and you, and YHWH avenge me of you, but my hand shall not be upon you.”
Then he called on YHWH to act as judge between them. He wanted Saul to know that while YHWH might choose to avenge him for what Saul was doing to him, he himself would not do so. He assured him that whatever happened in the future his hand would not come against him in treachery.
There can be no question but that David was revealing a magnanimity and generosity that was beyond that of ordinary men. He was showing in practise what Jesus would later teach, a love for his enemy, even though in fact in his case it was limited to Saul and was because Saul was YHWH’s anointed. Thus it was as much a manifestation of his love and regard for YHWH as for Saul.
24.13 “As says the proverb of the ancients, ‘Out of the wicked comes forth wickedness,’ but my hand shall not be upon you.”
He then cited a proverb in order to prove that there was no wickedness in his heart. For, he pointed out, had he been wicked he would have behaved wickedly, and would have smitten him. But all could testify that he had refrained from laying his hand on him, and he wanted him to be assured that he never would. On the other hand let Saul consider what his (Saul’s) behaviour revealed about him.
24.14 “After whom is the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog, after a flea.”
Furthermore he wanted King Saul recognise who it was to whom he was doing all this. Did he not realise that it was not to anyone of great importance. What Saul as the exalted King of Israel was chasing was simply someone who was the equivalent of a dead dog, or even lower still, of a flea from the dead dog’s back. Why then was he behaving in this way towards him? Was a flea really worth all this trouble? In a sense he was probing Saul as to why he was hunting him.
24.15 “YHWH therefore be judge, and give sentence between me and you, and see, and plead my cause, and deliver me out of your hand.”
And finally he put his case in YHWH’s hands. He was quite content that YHWH would judge and give sentence between them, and see and plead David’s cause and deliver him from Saul’s hand. He was ready to leave everything in YHWH’s hands. And the point is that these were not just smooth words. He really meant it. There can be no doubt that David’s powerful plea was a test of Saul’s heart, and that he was seeking a genuine response from Saul. He longed for Saul to truly repent and take him back again on the old terms. But in the end it failed because Saul’s heart was shallow and finally unresponsive. All this was thus a further manifestation of Saul’s inability to truly repent.
24.16 ‘And it came about that, when David had made an end of speaking these words unto Saul, Saul said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And Saul lifted up his voice, and wept.’
It will be noted that while in his response Saul made the right noises, and indeed called him ‘my son’ and wept to think of the magnanimity of what David had done, he still made clear that he saw David as his rival and even as his enemy. He acknowledged that David had been magnanimous, but it was not with a magnanimity that drew out his heart. He made no attempt at an offer of reconciliation. Rather there was a recognition on his part of what must always be a barrier between them, who would inherit the kingship. What David had done in showing compassion to him had even caused him to weep. But it did not cause in him a melting of their differences. He still intended to keep David at arm’s length, for he could not forgive him for being his family’s rival. So there was no rapprochement, no happy reunion. That is why after this incident they both went their ways rather than coming together again. It was because Saul’s heart was too hardened for him to be able to accept God’s verdict, and both of them knew it.
24.17 ‘And he said to David, “You are more righteous than I, for you have rendered to me good, whereas I have rendered to you evil.”
Saul acknowledged that David had behaved the better and was the more righteous man, because David had offered him mercy when all he would have offered David was death. David had offered good, where he would have offered evil.
24.18 “And you have declared this day how that you have dealt well with me, forasmuch as when YHWH had delivered me up into your hand, you did not kill me.”
He had to admit the fact that David’s own words revealed that when he had had Saul at his mercy he had spared him, even when it must have appeared to everyone as though YHWH had delivered him into his hands.
24.19 “For if a man find his enemy, will he let him go well away? Wherefore YHWH reward you good for that which you have done to me this day.”
He also showed himself as equally adept at citing proverbs. ‘If a man finds his enemy, will he let him go well away?’ The expected answer would be ‘no’, and yet David had answered ‘yes’. So he called on YHWH to reward him with good for the mercy that he had shown to Saul that day.
24.20 “And now, see, I know that you will surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hand.”
And then he made clear why there could be no rapprochement between them. It was because he knew that David would take the kingship away from his own family. The kingdom, which was not to be established in his hand as Samuel had informed him (13.14), was to be established in David’s hand
24.21 “ Swear now therefore unto me by YHWH, that you will not cut off my seed after me, and that you will not destroy my name out of my father’s house.”
David’s act of pure mercy towards him had moved Saul enough for him to be able to contemplate for a short while the possibility that his family would lose the kingship after his death. The sentiment would not last for long, but while it did Saul pleaded for the lives of his descendants. It was normal practise for the king of a new dynasty to slaughter all the members of a deposed king in order to ensure that none later arose to claim the succession. Saul was asking David to swear by YHWH that if he became king he would not indulge himself in such behaviour, but would instead be merciful.
24.22a ‘And David swore to Saul.’
It was not difficult for David to comply with Saul’s request, because nothing was further from his mind than the slaughter of Saul’s descendants. Thus he gladly swore to Saul that he would not deliberately harm his family. And he kept his word, for while circumstances (and especially Abner, Saul’s uncle), would later force him to fight with Ishbosheth’s men, it was more Abner’s doing than his (2 Samuel 2.8-12; 3.6). In the case of Mephibosheth. Jonathan’s son, he not only did not act against him, but took him under his protection and favoured him (2 Samuel 9).
24.22b ‘And Saul went home, but David and his men took themselves up to the stronghold.’
Still moved by David’s magnanimity Saul returned to Gibeah with his troops, leaving David alone for a period, while David and his men remained in their strongpoint. Both knew that it was an uneasy truce, not a genuine reconciliation. There was no thought in Saul’s mind of David being restored to favour. He was probably unsure about what he would do.
The Folly Of Nabal (‘Fool’) And The Way That YHWH Dealt With Him While Providing For David And His Men Through Nabal’s Wife (25.1-44).
This is the second of three successive examples in which David reveals his obedience to YHWH in not taking his own vengeance on those who have sinned against him, and in consequence of this Abigail declares that he will be appointed ruler over Israel (25.30). This declaration of David’s ordained kingship is an important aspect of the story.
The incident fits aptly here as it gives a further indication of the way in which David made use of his men without harming Israelites, while at the same time as a result of the incident, events confirmed to him that YHWH would deal with fools (and therefore also with Saul) in His own good time. But it also brings out how easily he could have become like Saul, had YHWH not used Abigail to restrain him, and teach him an important lesson which he would carry into the future. It is a reminder to us that David also could be imperious and merciless, and that while he was certainly more merciful than his contemporaries, he could also at times be quite ruthless, as we shall have cause to discover later. It is a reminder that he was a good man, but still a man of his times, something which the writer does not try to hide from us (compare, for example, 27.9; 2 Samuel 8.2, although it should be noted that in both cases they were regular occurrences of those violent times and were for reasons of safety).
Indeed the question of good in contrast to evil pervades the whole narrative. The Hebrew words for "good" and "evil" each occur seven times in the chapter, which is surely not a coincidence. It is the number of divine completion. See verses 3, 8, 15, 21, 30, 31, 36, and 3, 17, 21, 26, 34, 39 (twice). And good is seen to triumph. Thus the incident is being used in order to demonstrate that David will in the end come through triumphantly, while Saul will perish.
In order to fully understand the story we need to understand the ceremony of sheep-shearing. Sheep-shearing was not just a time of hard work for the shearers, many of whom would have to be hired in, but also ended in a joyous festival to which the whole neighbourhood would be welcome. Compare how Absalom sought to invite the king, and if not him his own brothers, to the festivities at his sheep-shearing, (although in both cases it was because he was planning mischief during the festivities - 2 Samuel 13.23-26). It was a time when wine flowed freely, generosity abounded, and men got very drunk as they thanked God for the ‘harvest’ of wool. It was because Jacob knew that Laban’s attention would be taken up by the sheep-shearing festivities that he slipped away when he did, and the festivities explain why Laban did not learn of it for three days (Genesis 31.19-20). In some ways we might liken it to secular ideas about Christmas. Presents would often be exchanged, food and drink would be abundantly provided and a good time would be had by all.
But in the case of the shearing of larger flocks there was a clear temptation to wandering tribesmen and outlaws to wait until the shearing was nearly complete and then swoop down in order to claim their spoils. Thus neighbouring tribesmen, who showed their forbearance and friendship by not attacking the flocks or disturbing the activity of sheep-shearing, and by hanging around and ‘warning off’ predators, would quite blatantly send their representatives in order to obtain some of the good things on offer, openly expecting them as an act of hospitality and a kind of return gesture of friendship. It was of advantage to both. A modern historian has written, ‘On such a festive occasion near a town or village, even in our own time, an Arab sheikh of the neighbouring desert would hardly fail to put in a word, either in person or by message, and his message both in form and substance, would be only the transcript of the message of David’. Thus David’s action was not as unusual, nor as preposterous, as it might sound to us. It was a regular method of demonstrating mutual friendship in a violent world, through which each party would see himself as benefiting from the other on a friendly basis, in return for the friendliness that the other had also shown.
The whole chapter may be analysed as follows:
The End Of A Prophet and An Introduction To A Fool (25.1-3).
The death of Samuel introduces a period of folly, possibly in order to bring out what the loss of his influence resulted in. This period commences with the story of Nabal the fool, (‘Nabal is his name and folly is with him’ - 25.25) illustrative of the folly of the wealthy in Israel towards David under Saul, and continues with Saul’s further gross act of folly against David in which he declares, ‘I have played the fool, and erred exceedingly’ (26.21).
It is probably not accidental that having described Samuel’s death and his being buried ‘in his house’, Nabal is described as ‘of (the house/family) of Caleb’. In the context the second description may be seen as rather ominously pointing to the fact that Nabal too will also shortly be joining his fathers.
A further thing to note is that the description of Samuel’s death and burial which then introduces the folly and end of Nabal (25.1), parallels similar words about Samuel’s death and burial which commence the passage which introduces the final folly and end of Saul (28.3). Nabal’s end as ‘a fool’ would thus seem to be intended as a kind of pre-indication of what will happen to Saul the fool. This parallel can be seen as confirmed by a number of further indications that we should relate the two:
In contrast we have the presentation of David, the man who ‘dealt wisely’ (18.15, 30) and was of ‘a beautiful countenance’ (16.12), which can be paralleled with the presentation of Abigail, Nabal’s wife, as a woman of ‘good understanding’ and ‘beautiful countenance’. Both of them (David and Abigail) would enjoy ‘life’ together and share a glorious future. Thus the story of Nabal and Abigail is a kind of cameo of the story of the lives of Saul and David, the one foolish and condemned, the other wise and beautiful and destined for life and glory.
Note that in ‘a’ Samuel died and all lamented him, and he was buried ‘in his house’ (in his family garden or tomb) and in the parallel we have a man about to die whom no one will lament, who was of good stock, i.e. ‘of Caleb’, and was, unsuspectingly, about to join Caleb ‘in his house’. His death is being depicted as a kind of forerunner to that of Saul, the death of a fool. It is in contrast with the one who lives and who carries on himself the mantle of Samuel. In ‘b’ we have David, the man anointed by Samuel who will live, and in whom the future lay as he carried on and extended Samuel’s work, and whom we know from what we have been told already was of beautiful countenance (16.12) and wise in his dealings (18.15, 30), and in the parallel we have the woman Abigail (‘my father is joy’) who will live and will share that future, who was also of good understanding and of beautiful countenance. Centrally in ‘c’ we have a description of a prosperous man, who was celebrating an abundant ‘harvest’ of wool with an outward show of hospitality, but whose name was Nabal (‘fool’, compare Psalm 14.1; Proverbs 30.22). Like Saul he would not include David, and thus he lived and died like a fool.
25.1 ‘And Samuel died, and all Israel gathered themselves together, and lamented him, and buried him in his house at Ramah.’
We had almost lost sight of Samuel amidst the follies of Saul and YHWH’s preservation of David, but we are now reminded that he had continued his prophetic work in Israel, and was generally greatly loved. Thus when he died all Israel gathered together to lament him. And he was then buried in his ancestral home, no doubt in a special tomb or mausoleum in the grounds (compare 2 Kings 21.18; with 2 Chronicles 33.20. To literally bury him in the house would be to render it permanently unclean). What a contrast with Nabal whom no one seems to have lamented, (although he no doubt had a rich funeral), and with Saul who was disgraced in his death (31.10) and was only remembered by a few (31.11), who buried him away from his ancestral home (31.13).
In this passage the description of Samuel’s end leads on to the story of a man who behaved like a fool and died like a fool. A parallel description in 28.3 leads on to the story of how Saul also behaved like a fool, and how, while he appears to have died bravely, he came to a fool’s end. If David had been with him at the battle with the Philistines at which he died things might have gone very differently.
25.1b ‘And David arose, and went down to the wilderness of Paran.’
In contrast with the death of Samuel is the fact that his protégé David continued his advancement. He did not die but ‘arose’ and went into the wilderness and pasture land of Paran, where he was to learn an important lesson and gain a good and beautiful wife to replace Michal who had been taken from him (25.44). For him life, and God’s purposes, went on. We must not see ‘wilderness’ simply as representing a desert. In such wildernesses there would be much good pasture land, and when at times such places as the Negev were irrigated they could be very fertile . ‘The wilderness of Paran’ was in the area south and south west of the Dead Sea, It represented a large region bounded by the wilderness of Shur on the west and Edom on the east, with the wilderness of Sinai to the south. In it had wandered both Ishmael (Genesis 21.21) and the wandering Israelites, and from it had gone out the spies into Canaan (Numbers 10.12; 12.16; 13.3). It thus reached to the borders of Canaan. Like all such regions it was not closely defined, and the name was clearly seen here as loosely describing a large area extending northwards towards Maon.
25.2 ‘And there was a man in Maon, whose possessions were in Carmel, and the man was a very important man, and he had three thousand sheep, and a thousand goats, and he was shearing his sheep in Carmel.’
Living in the town of Maon, with extensive lands in Carmel (see Joshua 15.55), was a prosperous and important man who had large flocks of sheep and goats. Maon and Carmel (now Khirbet el-Karmil) were in a wilderness area west of the Dead Sea, and 12 kilometres (eight miles) south south east of Hebron. Such areas were regularly open to attack by marauding tribesmen and bandits looking for spoils. (We should note that this was a different Carmel from Mount Carmel on the Mediterranean coast).
‘And he was shearing his sheep in Carmel.’ As described above, the end of sheep-shearing was a time of great festivity, when the wool harvest was celebrated. Ample food and drink would be made available and visitors would be welcomed. Note how Nabal’s festivities are describes as ‘like the feast of a king’ (25.36). Indeed to turn people away from the provision made would be looked on as a sign of and favour and enmity. Thus it was quite common for the leaders of local desert tribesmen, who had refrained from molesting the flocks and whose presence had ensured the peaceful conduct of the sheepshearing and had prevented unwanted visitors from interfering with it, to send representatives assuring the sheepshearers of their goodwill and at the same time asking for their share of what was being provided as being ‘friendly neighbours’. To refuse such a request would have been looked on as an act of inhospitality, and therefore of enmity, for it was a time of recognised hospitality.
25.3a ‘Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail, and the woman was of good understanding, and of a beautiful countenance.’
The man’s name was Nabal, which means ‘fool’ (compare Psalm 14.1). This was possibly a nickname by which he had become popularly known because of the kind of man he was. In contrast his wife was called Abigail which means ‘joy is my father’. She was a sensible and wise woman and very beautiful. It is probable that the writer intends us to see here a contrast between Saul and David for he has previously revealed the folly of Saul (13.13; 26.21 - sacal), and the wisdom and beauty of David (18.15, 30; 16.12).
25.3b ‘But the man was hard (obstinate, churlish) and evil in his doings, and he was of (of the house/family of) Caleb.’
In striking contrast with his wife, Nabal was obstinate and unpleasant in his dealings. The mention of his connection with the house/family of Caleb (literally ‘of Caleb’) indicated that he came from a noble house, and was possibly intended in context as a hint of the fact that he would soon be joining his fathers in the same way as Samuel had.
Caleb was of the ‘royal’ house of Judah. He had settled Hebron and the hill county around (Judges 1.8-15). His brother Othniel had subsequently been Judge and War-leader of Israel (Judges 3.9). Thus, like Saul, Nabal had noble forebears. But he was a fool.
As we have seen the contrast between Nabal and Abigail could not be more striking. He was a fool, she was of ‘good understanding’. He was evil and ungenerous, she was good and generous. He was repulsive in character, she was ‘beautiful’, both in character and appearance. He was arrogant and thoughtless, she was humble and thoughtful. He was ungodly, she was godly. He was an antagoniser, she was a peacemaker. We could equally say the same about Saul as he had become, and David.
David Contacts Nabal In Order To Share In His Hospitality, Is Rebuffed And Insulted, And Decides On Vengeance (25.4-19).
In this next passage we are informed about Nabal’s incredible and foolish response to the messengers of David, and about Abigail’s intention to put matters right. It would seem that Nabal had heard about David as a treacherous outlaw, and probably thought that he only had a rag tag band of outlaws following him. He could only possibly have acted as he did because he thought that David only had a handful of followers who would not be able do anything against his shearers and shepherds combined. It was only later that he would learn that they had nearly been ‘visited’ by four hundred trained warriors seeking vengeance for the insult given (a fact which led to his having a stroke).
Note that in ‘a’ David gave his instructions to his young men so that they will go to Nabal, and in the parallel Abigail gives her instructions to her young men so that they will go to David. In ‘b’ David learns about the approach of the sheep-shearing festivities, and in the parallel Abigail sends him the provisions connected with the sheep-shearing festivities. In ‘c’ David tells Nabal to consult his men as to whether they had been treated fairly, and in the parallel the servant confirms that this was so. In ‘d’ David’s young men came to Nabal with David’s message and then sat down awaiting his reply, and in the parallel refers to the arrival of those servants and Nabal’s response to them. In ‘e’ Nabal asks who David the son of Jesse is, and in the parallel David sets out to let him know. Centrally in ‘f’ the men report back the welcome that they had received to David. On this hinges the whole narrative.
25.4 ‘And David heard in the wilderness that Nabal was shearing his sheep.’
Residing in the wilderness with his men, and having kept a friendly eye on the shepherds of Nabal and their sheep, David learned that the sheep-shearing, along with its accompanying celebrations, had begun. In accordance with custom, therefore, he and his men, as a friendly and protective ‘tribe’, would seek to share in the festivities.
David’s Puts In His Request.
25.5-6 ‘And David sent ten young men, and David said to the young men, “Get you up to Carmel, and go to Nabal, and greet (ask welfare and peace for) him in my name, and thus shall you say to him who lives, ‘Peace be to you, and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have.”
Accordingly David sent a number of his young men (‘ten’ often means ‘a number of’, compare 1.8; Genesis 31.41) with a friendly message for Nabal. He asked that he might enjoy welfare and peace, and that he might recognise that the fact that he was still alive and prosperous was partly due to the services of David and his men. He assured him that his desire for him was that both he and his house and all that he had might enjoy peace and welfare. It was a typical Near Eastern greeting.
25.7 ‘And now I have heard that you have shearers. Your shepherds have now been with us, and we did them no hurt, neither was there anything missing to them all the while they were in Carmel.”
Then he came to the main point that he wanted to convey. It was that he had heard that Nabal was engaged in sheep-shearing, at the end of which, as all knew, festivities would be held, and ample food and drink would be made available to any guests who came, and he reminded him of the services that he and his men had provided to Nabal’s shepherds when they had shared the same area of land. Rather than doing any hurt to them and taking advantage of their unprotected flocks, they had instead protected them so that nothing went missing. So as a friendly ‘neighbour’ he wished to share in the festivities. Such hospitality was a feature of sheep-shearing festivities to which all neighbours would be invited.
25.8 “Ask your young men, and they will tell you. Wherefore let the young men find favour in your eyes, for we come in a good day (a festival day). Give, I pray you, whatever comes to your hand, to your servants, and to your son David.”
He suggested that Nabal question his young men on the matter, and pointed out that they would then tell him that what David had said was so. In view of this he requested that his representatives might meet with favour in his eyes, because they came on a festival day, and that they might share in the hospitality. Let Nabal give from the food and drink on offer what he considered reasonable, for the benefit of his young men and himself. As mentioned above, his request was friendly and in accordance with custom and best practise. He and his men had restrained themselves and had sought to be helpful. Now Nabal could reciprocate by sharing with them some of the festive food and drink.
Note David’s deliberate attempt to make his approach friendly and indeed almost a family affair. Let Nabal look on his men as ‘his servants’ who had fulfilled their responsibility to him, and on David himself even as one of his family because he felt only goodwill towards him. He was appealing to custom and the laws of hospitality. We should remember that David and his men, who were outlaws and responsible to no one, could, had they wished, easily have appropriated for themselves whatever they had wanted from the flocks with no one to say them nay. The shepherds would have had no chance against his six hundred experienced warriors. Thus he considered quite justly that they had in actual fact been very neighbourly, generous and considerate, and had performed an important service in ensuring that no other wandering bands interfered with them.
25.9 ‘And when David’s young men came, they spoke to Nabal in accordance with all those words in the name of David, and sat down.’
On arrival at the sheep-shearing site where the festivities were in progress, and food and drink would be flowing like water, David’s young men passed on David’s words exactly as he had given them. Then they sat down and awaited Nabal’s response. They were probably quite confident of a positive reply in the light of custom.
Nabal’s Foolish Reply.
Given the strength of David’s band Nabal’s reply was foolish in the extreme. Indeed we can only assume that he was not aware of how powerful David’s fighting strength was, for it is difficult otherwise to imagine why he acted so foolishly, however cranky he might have felt. He probably in fact thought that he was simply dealing with a disreputable bunch of rather cheeky outlaws who could easily be kept in their place. He had after all a good number of experienced fighting men to call on himself (all shepherds in such an area had to be fighting men).
His act was in fact a gross breach of oriental hospitality. It went against recognised custom, and was deliberately insulting withal. Indeed it was an act of the utmost foolishness, and was inviting repercussions, as his own servants recognised. No doubt he thought that he had enough shearers to keep these audacious outlaws at bay. It was presumably only when the fullscale nature of the size of David’s band was brought home to him, and he realised what his wife had saved them from, that he had his heart attack.
25.10 ‘And Nabal answered David’s servants, and said, “Who is David? And who is the son of Jesse? There are many servants nowadays who break away every man from his master.”
His reply was contemptuous in the extreme. It was not only a rejection, but a deliberate and calculated insult. Who did this man ‘David’ think he was? Why should he listen to ‘the son of Jesse’? He was nothing special. He was just a renegade servant who had slipped his master’s leash, and there were many of them around. Why then should he cater for them? He did not want people like that enjoying his hospitality.
25.11 “Shall I then take my bread, and my water, and my flesh that I have killed for my shearers, and give it to men of whom I know not from where they are?”
Indeed, why should he take the food and drink which he had provided for his shearers and neighbours, and give it to unknown strangers of whose background he was unaware? (It is clear from what follows that his servants, who did know the strength of David’s force, were appalled to learn of his words. To them it was quite clear what the consequences would be. You just did not treat leaders of powerful outlaw bands in this way).
25.12 ‘So David’s young men turned on their way, and went back, and came and told him according to all these words.’
David’s young men were also no doubt quite surprised. They had come with friendly overtures and had expected to share in Nabal’s generosity. It was the custom. But now they were going away empty. And it was as empty that they returned to David and told him what Nabal had said.
Humanly speaking David’s reaction was inevitable. What Nabal had said was deliberately insulting, contrary to custom and an act of open hostility. It was a refusal to accept the norms of hospitality because of his contempt for David. It was to declare war. Had they partaken of his food and drink David and his men would, according to the laws of hospitality, have been bound to treat him and his servants in a friendly way. But by refusing to treat David and his men as ‘friendly’, he was actually stating that he saw them as nondescript enemies. That too resulted from the laws of hospitality.
25.13 ‘And David said to his men, “Gird you on every man his sword.” And they girded on every man his sword, and David also girded on his sword. And there went up after David about four hundred men, and two hundred abode by the baggage.’
So when he received Nabal’s reply David commanded his men to gird themselves with their swords, and taking four hundred men set off to gain his vengeance. This was precisely what everyone would have expected, as we see from the reaction of Abigail’s servant who would be unwittingly caught up in the consequences. Note the threefold repetition of ‘sword’. The repetition is in order to emphasise that they were going to be used. David did not, of course, stop to think that he was behaving exactly like Saul would have behaved. He was furious. To him custom had been violated, hospitality had been refused, insults had been offered, personal hostility had been demonstrated and repercussions had been invited. Well, he would give them what they asked for. They would soon learn who David, the son of Jesse, was when they were drowning in their own blood.
We see here another side of David. It is a reminder that his compassion for Saul was not the result of his general moral stance, but was simply because Saul was the anointed of YHWH. It was his loyalty to YHWH that had prevented him from killing Saul, not a general moral dislike of killing. Indeed like many of his day he spent his life killing. This would thus be just one more example of it. However, the remainder of the story indicates that God was not pleased with his attitude, and that he himself, when he had cooled down and thought about it, recognised that he had gone somewhat over the top. He was still learning the need for compassion that would be required by a godly king.
25.14-16 ‘But one of the young men told Abigail, Nabal’s wife, saying, “Look, David sent messengers out of the wilderness to salute our master, and he railed at them But the men were very good to us, and we were not hurt, neither missed we anything, as long as we went with them, when we were in the countryside, they were a wall to us both by night and by day, all the while we were with them keeping the sheep.”
Fortunately for all involved one of the shepherds, who must have been a trusted servant, had learned of what Nabal had said to David’s messengers and was appalled. He knew the strength of David’s band, and he could not believe that Nabal had behaved so foolishly. He was quite well aware that what he had done and said had invited repercussions of a terrible kind. It went against all custom and all common sense.
So he sought out Abigail, his master’s wife, whom he knew to be a woman of sense. And he told her what had happened, and how David’s messengers had come in order to receive the customary hospitality, and had been turned away with insults. He then pointed out how good David’s men had been to them, and how they had not only not hurt them, or stolen anything from them, but that they had also protected them so that no wandering bands of outlaws and brigands had dared to approach them, and had continued to do so all the time that they were there. According to custom they had therefore earned Nabal’s hospitality.
25.17 “Now therefore know and consider what you will do, for evil is determined against our master, and against all his house, for he is such a worthless fellow, that one cannot speak to him.”
And he pointed out that there could really be no doubt about what David’s response would be. You just did not treat people like David and his men like that. Thus it was quite clear that there would soon be severe repercussions, not only on Nabal but on all of them, for all would be seen as involved in the insult offered. It could only be a matter of time before David arrived to wreak his vengeance. Nabal had asked for it. (Note that the servant had no gripe about this. He actually appears to have felt that David would be in the right, and that it was his own master who was in the wrong).
The servant must have been one who was ‘privileged’, for he then indicated that he had not talked with Nabal about it because he knew that he was such an awkward man that there was no way in which he would listen. This was a very daring thing for a servant to say against his master, but he clearly expected Abigail to recognise the truth of what he had said, and to sympathise. It also demonstrates his own fears about what the repercussions were going to be..
25.18 ‘Then Abigail acted hurriedly, and took two hundred loaves, and two skins of wine, and five sheep ready dressed, and five measures of parched grain, and a hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs, and laid them on asses.’
The astute Abigail recognised at once the truth of what he had said. No doubt she had been informed of the size of David’s band. So she hurriedly ‘took two hundred loaves, and two skins of wine, and five sheep ready dressed, and five measures of parched grain, and a hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs, and laid them on asses.’ This was more than David would necessarily have originally expected, but she knew that the extra would be needed if there was to be any hope of appeasing him. The fact that the sheep were ready dressed demonstrates that the feast was still going on.
25.19 ‘And she said to her young men, “Go on before me. Look, I am coming after you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal.’
Then, recognising the necessity for urgency, she told her young men to go on in front of her in order to let David know that provisions were on the way, and that she, Nabal’s wife, was bringing them. She knew that with the provisions that she was taking she would not be able to travel very quickly and that it was urgent that David knew what she was doing before he carried out the expected vengeance.
‘But she did not tell her husband Nabal.’ She recognised that the servant was perfectly correct about his obstinacy and hardness, and that if she had said anything he might have tried to stop her from going. But apart from Nabal everyone realised what the consequences must be of what he had done, so she knew that she must act secretly and on her own.
Abigail Averts Disaster (25.20-36).
Abigail rides to meet David, takes all the guilt on herself, and begs him to show mercy, not only for her sake but for his own, so that he will not be guilty before YHWH of shedding innocent blood, thereby revealing that she has a more tender conscience than he. David then acknowledges that she is right and assures her that he will not harm Nabal’s household for her sake. We have a reminder here of the One Who Himself bore our guilt on Himself in order that we too may escape destruction.
We also have a reminder of how even the greatest saints of God like David can so easily allow their pride and passion to persuade them into gross sin and error. It make clear that always we have to maintain a close watch over our hearts and our desires, lest we allow ourselves to slide into doing what is evil.
But we also once again have a reference to the certainty of David’s future kingship. It had begun with Samuel’s anointing (16.1), had been acknowledged by Jonathan (23.17), and then by Saul (24.20), and is now confirmed by Abigail. Thus following his anointing we have now had a threefold recognition of David’s future kingship.
Note that in ‘a’ Abigail comes and meets David, and in the parallel he indicates that he has accepted her plea and her person. In ‘b’ David swears that he will leave not a single male alive, and in the parallel he says that if Abigail had not come to him that is what he would have done. In ‘c’ Abigail rejoices that YHWH has kept David from blood-guiltiness, and in the parallel David rejoices in that Abigail’s intervention has kept him from blood-guiltiness. In ‘d’ Abigail declares that David fights the battles of YHWH and that evil will not be found in him all his days, and in the parallel she declares that YHWH will appoint him as war-leader (nagid) over Israel, and rejoices that he will have no grief, nor offence of heart, nor have shed blood without cause. Centrally in ‘e’ she declares that his life will be bound in the bundle of life with YHWH his God, while his enemies will be slung away like stones from a sling.
25.20 ‘And it was so, as she rode on her ass, and came down by the covert of the mountain, that, behold, David and his men came down toward her, and she met them.’
Moving as quickly as she could with all the good things that she was taking to David, and herself riding on her own ass, the normal beast of travel for wealthy people in Canaan, Abigail came into an isolated pass which was hidden from outside view. There she was suddenly faced with a large band of warriors coming in the other direction. It was David and his men. And they had vengeance in their hearts.
25.21 ‘Now David had said, “Surely in vain have I kept all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that pertained to him, and he has returned me evil for good.”
For David’s response to Nabal’s churlishness and inhospitableness had been instantaneous. He was angry that after all the generosity they had shown in not attacking the shepherds and stealing some of the sheep (which would have been a normal and regular experience for the shepherds to experience), all that he had received in return was insults, snubs and a refusal to show even basic hospitality.
While we may feel that David and his men had no right to expect to receive anything when they had not been actually contracted to provide a service, that would not have been the view of those days. Showing hospitality was considered to be of prime importance, especially at a time of feasting, and while it is true that there had been no specific contract, what David and his men had done was something regularly performed, without being asked, by tribal chieftains, and in the end they also expected reciprocation by sharing in the sheep-shearing festivities.
We must remember that they lived at a time when invading other territories for booty was looked on almost as a sport (see 2 Samuel 11.1). People would actually have expected that a group like David and his men would travel around seizing spoil, and therefore to refrain from doing so was an act of unlooked for generosity. It was therefore incumbent on the beneficiary to show hospitality towards them as ‘good neighbours’. Nabal would, in fact, only have refused it because he did actually have enmity towards ‘those outlaws’. It was because he considered that they were reprobates. And he also no doubt considered that they were not powerful enough to attack him and his sheep-shearers and other servants, for these in themselves would make up a formidable band. Thus it must have been when he discovered how strong David’s band was, and how close they had come to disaster, he was so shocked that he had a stroke.
25.22 “God do so to the enemies of David, and more also, if I leave of all that pertains to him by the morning light so much as one man-child (literally ‘anyone who relieves himself against the wall’).”
David’s vengeance was to be swift and sure. Not one male who could stand on his own feet (expressed in terms of those who relieve themselves against a wall) would be left alive. This was because they would all have been seen as participating in the insult, and they would therefore all be dead before morning. The description is probably meant to exclude unweaned male children who would not yet have matured to an age when they relieved themselves against walls.
His oath was no doubt a regular form of oath which basically indicated that they would suffer in the same way as his enemies did, with the extra severity, which would not have normally been shown, being shown to his enemies if he failed to fulfil his oath. It was not, however, a serious oath in that it had to be fulfilled once made. It was rather David’s way of expressing how strongly he felt.
It is unquestionable that David’s response was impulsive and in the light of the teaching of Jesus Christ quite wrong. He should certainly have taken time to consider his action which would not only affect Nabal and those who greed with him, but also many innocent people. It would, however, at the time have appeared to most people to be quite reasonable considering the provocation, (although not to a godly person like Abigail), and we must remember that David was already under pressure through being continually hunted by Saul, through having lost his wife Michal whom Saul had given to another (25.44), and through having received the terrible news that Samuel, his beloved mentor, probably the only man in Israel who could openly stand against Saul and survive, was dead (25.1). What is to David’s credit is that when Abigail drew his attention to what he was about to do he recognised his error and regretted it.
It is probably difficult for us to perceive how pivotal Abigail’s action was for David. Up to this point, as far as we know, David and his men had only ever proved themselves to be friendly and protective towards Israelites. We are left to imagine then what might have been the effect of the spreading of a story of how he and his men had descended on a group of innocent Judean sheepshearers enjoying their festivities (the full facts would not necessarily be known) and had slaughtered them in cold blood, with the result that he had wiped out a prominent and noble family from Judah, and all for the sake of a few provisions. No one would have known who would be next.
25.23 ‘And when Abigail saw David, she hurriedly alighted from her ass, and fell before David on her face, and bowed herself to the ground.’
When Abigail saw David and his men she did not hesitate. As quickly as she could she alighted from her ass and fell down and paid homage at a distance. She then followed this up by a further abasing of herself and by touching the ground with her head. Then finally she approached David and prostrated herself again before him. She was emphasising to David the deep respect that she had for him.
25.24 ‘And she fell at his feet, and said, “On me, my lord, on me be the iniquity, and let your handmaid, I pray you, speak in your ears, and hear you the words of your handmaid.”
Note the final stress that she fell at his feet before him. It was an act of total submission. Notice also the threefold, ‘fell before David --- bowed herself to the ground --- fell at his feet’ emphasising the completeness of her submission. It was typical of the way in which an important ruler would be approached. She was trying to appease him. Then she begged that he would listen to her. It was not normal for a woman to approach a man like David, especially when he was on a warlike enterprise. So she firstly asked that her iniquity in daring to speak to him and delay him might be on her alone (he would not yet know who she was). No fault was to lie at his door, or at anyone else’s. And then she begged that he would continue to listen to her. Again notice the threefoldness, ‘on me be the iniquity --- let me speak in your ears --- hear you my words’. It is typical of the flowery language and behaviour that was used by someone engaged in an urgent mission to a powerful ruler who had been offended.
Alternately she may be asking that the blame for her husband’s unrighteous behaviour might fall on her, which is certainly something she does later. But in context the words are related to her appeal for him to listen to her which would suggest that she is seeking forgiveness that she as a woman has dared to approach him as a man so as to speak to him before others.
25.25 “Let not my lord, I pray you, regard this worthless fellow, even Nabal, for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him. But I your handmaid did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent.”
She pleaded with him to recognise Nabal for what he was, a worthless and useless fellow, as his nickname indicated, and one therefore to be dismissed as such. He had been rightly characterised. His name meant ‘folly’ and that is what he was, a fool. And the pathway for a fool led him to his own destruction. It did not need David to help it along. (The writer no doubt intends his readers to recognise that in this he is like Saul). But let David not lay Nabal’s folly at anyone else’s door. She, for example, had not seen the young men whom David had sent. Note her constant use of ‘my lord’. This was how a respectful woman addressed an important man in those days (even her husband).
25.26 “Now therefore, my lord, as YHWH lives, and as your soul lives, seeing YHWH has withheld you from bloodguiltiness, and from avenging yourself with your own hand, now therefore let your enemies, and those who seek evil to my lord, be as Nabal.”
Abigail now advanced three arguments to advance her call for compassion:
‘As YHWH lives.’ David is to remember that YHWH is the living God Who requires all men to walk righteously, and Who is able to avenge all who are righteous.
‘And as your soul (inner life) lives,’ in other words ‘as you yourself live righteously within your inner man (soul).’ Her point was that while free from blood-guilt and pointless vengeance he would live a free, untrammelled life of righteousness and purity. She is thus calling on him maintain the truly righteous life which he enjoys before YHWH, a life which brings fullness of blessing (Deuteronomy 30.19).
‘Seeing YHWH has withheld you from bloodguiltiness.’ She wanted him to see that this meeting between them was YHWH’s doing with the very purpose of preventing him from becoming blood guilty as a result of slaying the innocent with the guilty.
‘And from avenging yourself with your own hand.’ Right from the beginning Scripture taught that vengeance was not to be in men’s hands but in YHWH’s hand. Thus one mark of Cain lay in his determination to obtain his own vengeance (Genesis 4.8), something that came to full fruit in the similar behaviour of Lamech who demanded even greater vengeance just for being slighted (Genesis 4.23-24), something which clearly therefore characterised the line of Cain. In contrast Abel’s vengeance came from YHWH. (Genesis 4.8-10), and Adam’s family were therefore not to seek vengeance on Cain (Genesis 4.15) but to leave it in YHWH’s hands. Compare Leviticus 19.18; Deuteronomy 32.35, 43; Psalm 94.1; This was later enunciated in the words, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says YHWH’ (Romans 12.19; Hebrews 10.30). Thus Abigail was calling on David to follow in the way of revealed righteousness.
25.27 “And now this present which your servant has brought to my lord, let it be given to the young men who follow my lord.”
Finally she gave practical proof of her own genuineness by drawing his attention to the gifts that she had brought for his young men, which demonstrated on behalf of her and her servants the welcoming hospitality, that previously had been refused. Let them now enjoy hospitality and friendship and not vengeance. Note the subtle implication that David himself was, of course, above requiring such evidence and compensation.
25.28 “Forgive, I pray you, the trespass of your handmaid, for YHWH will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord fights the battles of YHWH, and evil shall not be found in you all your days.”
Abigail then asked for forgiveness for her trespass. This may signify that she was acknowledging that she shared in the guilt that fell on the whole household as a result of Nabal’s behaviour, or it may be that she is still aware of how unseemly her intervention as a woman in men’s affairs might seem. Possibly, in fact, both are included. Her plea was that David might forgive whatever trespass he was concerned about.
And her plea was on the basis of her assurance that YHWH would establish David’s house for ever (it would be a sure house), because David was one who fought YHWH’s battles and would thus be preserved from all evil all his days, both external evils from without and internal evils arising from within. Such a man must therefore surely be willing to forgive a weak woman. (It is a reminder that what we are determines what people expect from us).
25.29 “And though men be risen up to pursue you, and to seek your life, yet the life of my lord will be bound in the bundle of life with YHWH your God, and the lives of your enemies, them will he sling out, as from the hollow of a sling.”
Indeed, while David may have to face many enemies, and be pursued by many who will seek his life (a fate likely at some time or other for any war-leader in those days), yet he will not have to fear because his life will be bound up in YHWH’s bundle of life. It will be safely tied up with YHWH. The thought is that his being bound up in a bundle made up of God’s life, and of the lives of His chosen ones, makes him invulnerable. Death cannot penetrate it. His life is safe in God’s hands. Today we would say, ‘your life is hid with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3.3).
The picture is a vivid one. Those who are true to God are tied up with Him in His bundle of life safe and secure in His hands. Those who are not are slung far and wide and are outside of His care and protection.
She may, of course, have specifically had in mind the fact that he had been pursued by Saul. That would not have been a secret to anyone. Considering the number of men that Saul had had with him such facts would inevitably have spread and become common knowledge. All Israel would know of Saul’s pursuit of David, and the reasons for it, as they would undoubtedly by now have learned of David’s anointing by Samuel, for all such ‘secrets’, where a number of people are involved, inevitably get out. They were in fact probably one of the on-dits of Israelite life, as all learned about them and wondered what would come next.
In contrast to the lives of those who were wrapped up in YHWH’s bundle of life were the lives of his enemies which would be put in the pouch of YHWH’s sling to be slung out far and wide away from YHWH’s protection. This would include both Nabal and Saul. And to be far from YHWH could only result in death in contrast with life. It was to live in the shadows and then finally be destroyed.
25.30 “And it will come about that when YHWH shall have done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and shall have appointed you prince over Israel, that this shall be no grief to you, nor offence of heart to my lord, either that you have shed blood without cause, or that my lord has avenged himself. And when YHWH shall have dealt well with my lord, then remember your handmaid.”
And in the day when the life that YHWH had given David came to fruition in his receiving the kingship of Israel, the promise of which was common knowledge, he would be only too glad that he was free from blood-guiltiness in regard to this sordid affair. Note the stress on the fact that all this would be given to him by YHWH because YHWH had said so. How sad it would then be to have innocent blood on his hands simply because he had responded to the behaviour of a fool. And how sad if he was then seen as someone who thought of nothing but vengeance, instead of being known as someone who was magnanimous. Such attitudes were not those of a great king.
We must not forget the popularity that David had had as a successful commander, such that his reputation in Israel was even famed among the Philistines (21.11; 30.5). Thus all Israel were interested in his welfare, and any news about him would spread rapidly, especially among the womenfolk to whom he was an heroic figure. Indeed one thing that no doubt spurred on Saul in his pursuit of David was what he learned about what people were saying about him. By this Abigail was making plain that she and many others in Israel viewed David’s prospects with favour.
The writer is making clear by this, and by David’s response, what were seen as being the qualities by which a good king of Israel (and any good person) should be judged. They were indeed the qualities displayed by David towards Saul in chapter 24 and 26. He is also making clear again that to be king of Israel was David’s destiny as God’s purposes moved on.
In his response David acknowledged that she was in the right, and that she had kept him from unnecessary blood-guiltiness. It was one thing to have to slay men in warfare and in order to preserve peace for all. It was a different matter when it came down to personal vendettas, and he was basically admitting that his temper had got the better of him. So he thanked YHWH, and Abigail’s discretion, and Abigail herself for keeping him from folly.
25.32 ‘And David said to Abigail, “Blessed be YHWH, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me,”
David first praised YHWH, Who was the God of Israel, for sending Abigail to meet him and prevent him from committing folly in Israel. Both acknowledged that it was first and foremost YHWH’s doing (compare verse 26).
25.33 “And blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who has kept me this day from bloodguiltiness, and from avenging myself with my own hand.”
Then he thanked her for her discretion. He was admitting that, had she not approached him in the way that she had done, he was in such a temper that he might well not have listened. And finally he praised her for being the human instrument whom God had used, and for having such concern both for her own people and for him. For it was these things which had kept him from what he now admitted would have made him blood-guilty and a usurper of YHWH’s prerogative of vengeance. He would have committed the very same sin as he had avoided in the case of Saul.
25.34 “For in very deed, as YHWH, the God of Israel, lives, who has withheld me from hurting you, except you had hurried and come to meet me, surely there had not been left to Nabal by the morning light so much as one man-child.”
For he admitted that had YHWH not intervened through her, and had she not come in such haste to meet him, he would have hurt her and all her household by slaying without distinction, before morning, all males capable of standing up and relieving themselves against a wall. The slaying would have been indiscriminate. It would probably have included all who were seen as involved with Nabal because of their presence at the feast.
It would not, of course, have happened without a battle. Those who knew of what had happened when David messengers came would undoubtedly have armed themselves, and probably not a few visiting celebrants would have quietly moved off, not wanting to get involved. If the hired shearers had not yet been paid (they may have been expecting payment at the end of the feast) and knew about what had happened (the word would soon get around) they would have been in a real predicament as to whether to flee or stay and fight. But all would have acknowledged that Nabal had probably brought disaster on them all, a disaster earned by his churlish behaviour which had flouted the accepted rules of hospitality and had courted such disaster. It had been basically a declaration of war because of his contempt for ‘runaways’.
‘Left to Nabal.’ Which means left to Nabal’s household. He hardly intended to leave Nabal alive.
25.35 ‘So David received of her hand what she had brought him, and he said to her, “Go up in peace to your house, see, I have listened to your voice, and have accepted your person.”
It must have been a huge relief to Abigail when David accepted her gift, for the acceptance of the gift was the guarantee of friendship. Custom was such that it would have been inconceivable that he accept a gift from Nabal and then do him harm. Thus the acceptance of the gift was the guarantee that there would be no further action against Nabal.
This was then confirmed by David’s words as he affirmed that she could go in peace as he had listened to her plea and had accepted her for what she was, an acceptable messenger of peace and goodwill. Her mission had been successful.
Abigail Informs Nabal of What Has Happened and Nabal Has A Heart Attack And Dies (25.36-39b).
On receiving news from Abigail about how close they had come to disaster Nabal had a stroke and died, causing David, when he heard of it, to thank YHWH for taking up his cause while keeping him from evil.
Note that in ‘a’ Nabal, having refused David and his men any provision, indulges himself to excess, and in the parallel his evil is said by David to have been returned by YHWH onto his own head. In ‘b’ Nabal had a stroke which is described as his heart dying within him, and in the parallel David learns that Nabal is dead and he blesses YHWH for Himself judging Nabal and preventing David from evil behaviour. Centrally in ‘c’ Nabal died.
25.36 ‘And Abigail came to Nabal, and, behold, he held a feast in his house, like the feast of a king, and Nabal’s heart was merry within him, for he was very drunk, for which reason she told him nothing, less or more, until the morning light.’
On returning home Abigail found the festivities in full progress with the result that Nabal was in no condition to listen to what she had to say because he was very drunk. So she told him nothing that night and decided to wait until he had sobered up in the morning.
The feast is said to be one which was the equivalent of that of a king, a reminder that we are to see in this incident a precursor of what would shortly happen to the real king. This extravagant language also emphasises the meanness of Nabal in refusing hospitality to David and his men. It had not been due to a shortage of provisions, but simply to nastiness.
25.37 ‘And it came about in the morning, that when the wine was gone out of Nabal, his wife told him these things, and his heart died within him, and he became as a stone.’
Once he had recovered from his excesses in the morning Abigail explained to him all that she had done, and how, as a result, she had been able to turn back an army of armed men who had been coming to destroy them. He found the news so disturbing that it resulted in him having a stroke. His body ceased to function. (Some consider that it was his anger at Abigail’s disobedience that caused his stroke, but no one would have ever known which it was)
25.38 ‘And it came about approximately ten days after, that YHWH smote Nabal, so that he died.’
And the result was that around ten days afterwards he died, ‘smitten by YHWH’. (Anyone who had a stroke was in fact, in those days, seen as smitten by YHWH).
25.39a/b ‘And when David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, “Blessed be YHWH, who has pleaded the cause of my reproach from the hand of Nabal, and has kept back his servant from evil. And the evildoing of Nabal has YHWH returned on his own head.”
When David heard the news of the stroke, and Nabal’s consequent death, he blessed God both for avenging him the insult that he had suffered, and for punishing Nabal for his evildoing, while at the same time having prevented it occurring at David’s hands. It demonstrated to him that YHWH was with him, confirmed that in the same way he could also wait for YHWH Himself to deal with Saul, and in addition had given him a lesson in mercy.
The fact that David ‘heard’ so quickly suggests that he had by now an efficient system of spies and informers.
David, Having Lost His Wife Through Saul’s Conniving, Receives Two Wives in Her Place (25.39c-44).
Once David had fled from Saul he became an outlaw. Thus Saul considered that his marriage to Michal was consequently at an end, and gave Michal to someone else. But we learn that YHWH then adequately compensated him by giving him instead two wives, first Ahinoam, a Jezreelite, and now Abigail the Wise and Beautiful.
Note that in ‘a’ David decided to take Abigail to be his wife, and in the parallel took Ahinoam to be his wife, having lost Michal. In ‘b’ David sent his servants for Abigail, and in the parallel Abigail hastened to go with them to be his wife. Centrally in ‘c’ Abigail accepted David’s proposal.
25.39c ‘And David sent and spoke concerning Abigail, to take her to him to wife.
David had clearly been impressed by Abigail, and once he had learned that she was now free he decided to take her as his wife, in addition to Ahinoam from Jezreel whom he had previously married. By this means he would probably gain control of great wealth and provision through Abigail which would provide resources for his men, unless of course Nabal had an adult son. But in that case the lands would probably be confiscated by Saul once he learned of the situation.
There must, however, have been a decent interval between Nabal’s death and this final incident for custom would have demanded that Abigail mourn for Nabal for a reasonable period (compare Genesis 50.1; Numbers 20.29, and those were just the periods of official mourning. A further discreet period would also probably be expected).
25.40 ‘And when the servants of David were come to Abigail to Carmel, they spoke to her, saying, “David has sent us to you, to take you to him to wife.”
So he sent his servants to Abigail to explain that David wanted her as his wife.
25.41 ‘And she arose, and bowed herself with her face to the earth, and said, “Look, your handmaid is a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.”
Abigail received them with courtesy and discreetly accepted what, once David had made his choice, must have been seen as inevitable. She was in no position to refuse him. On the other hand the fact that she hurried to respond may suggest great willingness. After all, she knew that he was the heir apparent to the throne of Israel.
Her response should not be taken too literally. To wash the feet of someone’s servants was the job of the meanest slave. It was merely an exaggerated way of accepting David’s offer and expressing her willingness to obey him in all things.
25.42 ‘And Abigail hurried herself, and arose, and rode on an ass, with five damsels of hers who followed her, and she went after the messengers of David, and became his wife.’
In the same way as Abigail had hurried to set out in order to appease David in verse 18, so now she hurried to go to meet him as her future husband, taking with her five maidens for company, and travelling in the company of David’s men. And once she had arrived at his camp she became his wife, no doubt through the ministry of Abiathar.
25.43 ‘David also took Ahinoam of Jezreel, and they became both of them his wives.’
We should probably translate as ‘had taken’ for 2 Samuel 3.2 suggests that Ahinoam was David’s first wife after Michal. She came from Jezreel which was also in the hill country of Judah (Joshua 15.55-56). Whether consciously or unconsciously David was by this preparing the way for the future, for by these marriages he was establishing his identity among the southern tribes and their allies and gaining family rights over large areas of land. It would do him no harm once the throne of Israel/Judah became vacant.
25.44 ‘And Saul had given Michal his daughter, David’s wife, to Palti the son of Laish, who was of Gallim.’
We are then informed why David needed further wives. It was because Michal had been taken from him by Saul and had been married to another. Having made David an outlaw, and having determined on his death, he wanted his daughter removed from such a parlous situation. Saul also probably had the aim of scotching any idea that David could claim the throne as Saul’s son-in-law. So many of Saul’s wrong actions were the result of his passion to ensure the establishment of his own dynasty. Samuel’s twofold rejection of him had bitten deeply into his life. We know nothing of Palti other than the fact that he came from Gallim (compare Isaiah 10.30) and was the son of Laish, and that he truly loved Michal and was heartbroken when after Saul’s death David demanded that she be restored to him (2 Samuel 3.13-16).
Saul Determines To Seek Out David Once More, And Once More Survives Because Of David’s Mercy (26.1-25).
After his conflict with Nabal David appears to have returned to his encampment on the Hill of Hachilah, a move which may well have been with a view to furthering his romantic involvement with Abigail, who would not have been able to marry David immediately. Nabal would have had to be buried and a respectable period of mourning would then have been required of Abigail. Thus being on the Hill of Hachilah would have kept him in close touch with his prospective wife, until she was free to marry. It would, however, also have resulted in his once again offending the Ziphites, for it is very probable that, as previously, the presence of David and a large band of men was straining the resources of the area so that the Ziphites suffered accordingly. As a result, being unable themselves to do anything against such a large force, they would again have turned to Saul.
As it happened it would appear that Saul was at this time passing through one of his dark periods. This comes out in that he responded to the call. We should not be surprised at this. While no one at the time would have understood it, his illness was of such a nature that no one would know how he was going to react next, and medically speaking it should be no surprise that he went back on his previous decision. If his paranoia had once again thrust itself to the fore, and his perception of David had once again become twisted in his mind because of his illness, no moral considerations would even have come into play. His reaction would have been automatic. We cannot judge a person with his kind of illness in rational terms. Such a person is not thinking rationally. (We should, however, remember that his rejection for disobedience dates to before he became ill. It was not, therefore, for what he did in his illness that he was condemned by YHWH).
(Some have seen this passage as simply a duplicate of chapter 24 in view of the similarities between the two, but many others agree that, in the circumstances, those similarities were in fact to be expected as David continued in the same area, whereas they would maintain that it is the dissimilarities that are the most striking and reveal that chapters 24 and 26 undoubtedly refer to two different occasions. For further discussion of the question see the note at the end of the commentary on this passage).
Analysis of the chapter.
The Ziphites Inform Saul That David Has Returned to the Hill of Hachilah And Saul Again Pursues David (26.1-4).
The Ziphites were probably annoyed that David had again brought his men into their territory, partly because they saw it as their own preserve and disliked all intruders, partly because they were loyal to their king, and partly because it would result in diminishing resources being available for their own families. In such a wilderness six hundred men with their families could make a huge difference to what was available. They thus sent messengers to Saul informing against David.
Saul, who was going through a period when his illness was accentuated, responded, and, as a result of his paranoia and obsession with the idea of maintaining his dynasty, again took the standing army of three military units and sought to root David out. But when he arrived at the Hill of Hachilah he discovered that David had decamped. It appears that by now David had an efficient system of spies (we remember how he had ‘heard’ about the sheep-shearing and about Nabal’s death).
Note that in ‘a’ Saul learns from the Ziphites that David is encamped on the Hill of Hachilah, and in the parallel learns that Saul has definitely come to the Hill of Hachilah. In ‘b’ Saul went into the wilderness (mentioned twice) and in the parallel David saw that Saul had come after him into the wilderness (mentioned twice). Centrally in ‘c’ Saul arrives with his army and encamps on the Hill on which David and his men had had their encampment.
26.1 ‘And the Ziphites came to Saul to Gibeah, saying, “Does not David hide himself in the hill of Hachilah, which is before the Waste (Jeshimon)?” ’
When David and his men returned to the Hill of Hachilah which was south of ‘the Waste’ (Jehimon), a hot and barren area of hills, peaks and precipices west of the Dead Sea (23.19), he was back on what the Ziphites saw as ‘their territory’. Thus they immediately sent messengers to Saul, hoping thereby to rid themselves of the menace. They did not like trespassers in their area. It may also be that they were fiercely loyal to Saul. Tightly bound, more isolated groups with a strong sense of loyalty often have the strongest traditions of loyalty towards kings who do not bother them overmuch, whatever others may think about them.
26.2 ‘Then Saul arose, and went down to the wilderness of Ziph, having three thousand chosen men of Israel with him, to seek David in the wilderness of Ziph.’
The result of the activity of the Ziphites was that Saul’s paranoia and delusion again took over and he gathered the three units of his standing army to seek for David in the wilderness of Ziph. He again sought his death.
26.3 ‘And Saul encamped in the hill of Hachilah, which is before the Waste (Jeshimon), by the highway. But David abode in the wilderness, and he saw that Saul came after him into the wilderness.’
David clearly had advanced notice of his movements, for he and his men moved from their encampment on the Hill of Hachilah before Saul’s arrival, and took refuge in the hot and deserted wilderness. His men would by now have become expert at moving under these conditions, and at fading into the background. Thus David was able to keep watch on the army that had come against him, as it also came into the wilderness to seek him. But the question was, was Saul with it?
The fact that the Hill of Hachilah was ‘by the highway’, the main route through the mountains, may explain why David and his men were there. It is quite possible that they robbed non-Israelite caravans as they made their way through the mountains. This may have given a further reason why Saul felt that he had to act against him. On the other hand it may simply be that they lived off game, but wanted to be in as close a touch with things as possible. David would not feel that he was simply surviving. He knew that he had a future in Israel, and would want to keep in touch.
26.4 ‘David therefore sent out spies, and understood that Saul was definitely come.’
David then specifically sent out scouts in order to discover whether Saul was with his troops, and as a result discovered that Saul really was among them. The impression given in chapters 23 & 24 had been of David and his men in full flight before Saul. Here the impression is very different. David is depicted as confident and in control. It would appear that David’s spy system was now more organised, and that he and his men were now more sure of their ability to move around and keep the situation under control. Having been there for so long this was now his territory. It was rather Saul’s army who were unfamiliar with the terrain. David’s six small ‘military units’ (hundreds) may well also have grown considerably larger.
David Pays A Secret Visit To Saul And Enters His Camp (26.5-7).
David then took two of his best men with him and went to an eminence from which he could observe Saul’s camp, and from there he saw the lay out of the camp, and the place where Saul and Abner slept among the wagons. Then that night, taking one of his men, he evaded the guards and entered the camp, making his way stealthily towards the spot where Saul lay asleep, alongside Abner, his commander-in-chief. Stuck in the ground at Saul’s head was his ceremonial spear, the symbol of his kingship. The situation was totally different from the previous time when they had fled from Saul and been hiding in a cave, with Saul coming into their power by ‘accident’. Here David was in control, and Saul came into his power by design.
Note that in ‘a’ Saul was sleeping, along with Abner, among the wagons, with his people around him, and in the parallel he is described as being the same. Central in ‘b’ is David’s decision to enter the enemy camp. Note how the distinctive features of this venture are being accentuated by the use of small chiasmuses. This is the first stage, entry into the enemy camp.
26.5 ‘And David arose, and came to the place where Saul had encamped, and David beheld the place where Saul lay, and Abner the son of Ner, the captain of his host, and Saul lay within the place of the wagons, and the people were encamped round about him.’
Leaving his troops in hiding, David, more confident now than he had been when Saul had previously hunted for them, took two of his best men, Ahimelech the Hittite and Abishai, the son of Zeruiah (and therefore Joab’s brother), and led them to an eminence from which he could observe what was happening in Saul’s camp. From there he observed the lay out of the camp and exactly where Saul and Abner had their sleeping quarters. This was among the supply wagons, which were parked in the centre of the sleeping army.
26.6 ‘Then answered David and said to Ahimelech the Hittite, and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, brother to Joab, saying, “Who will go down with me to Saul to the camp?” And Abishai said, “I will go down with you.” ’
There seems little doubt that Saul and Abner were so confident that David and his men would be fleeing from before them as they had before, that they took few, if any, extra precautions, being quite certain that they would be undisturbed. No doubt sentries were posted, but they felt able to sleep soundly, confident in the security of their camp. After all, who was there to bother them?
This situation was too tempting for a now more confident David. And determining to leave one of his men on watch, so that if necessary he could report back anything that might happen to the others, he asked which of the two men would like to join him on a visit by night to the enemy camp. It would obviously be a risky business but Abishai immediately responded and volunteered.
Ahimelech the Hittite was probably a Hittite native to Canaan, for groups of Hittites (sons of Heth) had been resident in Canaan since before the time of Abraham in this very region (Genesis 23). His familiarity with the region from birth may well have been why he was one of the party. Abishai was one of David’s mighty men. His mother Zeruiah was David’s sister. He was bother to Joab who would later become David’s commander-in-chief. He was not one of the first ‘Three’, but was head of the second ‘Three’ (2 Samuel 23.18-19). He may well have been seen as especially skilled at nocturnal adventures. He would later save David’s life during a battle with the Philistines (2 Samuel 21.17), and was one of the three who spectacularly brought water to David when he was thirsty (2 Samuel 23.17). He was thus a skilled warrior and a daredevil.
26.7 ‘So David and Abishai came to the people by night, and, behold, Saul lay sleeping within the place of the wagons, with his spear stuck in the ground at his head, and Abner and the people lay round about him.’
The two then made their way into the enemy camp by night, successfully evaded the sentries, and making their way through the hillside camp, came to the spot where Saul was lying among the wagons with his ceremonial spear stuck in the ground at his head. It marked the spot where the king lay so that all the troops would know who lay there. It was the symbol of his authority and presence, just as royal standards would later indicate the same for later kings. Around him lay Abner, his commander-in-chief and cousin, no doubt with his other commanders, surrounded by the whole army.
(David and Abishai would know that hillside like the back of their hands, having been encamped there a number of times. They would thus know all its routes, even in the dark. And once past the sentries there was no reason why anyone should suspect two armed men walking through the encampment. No one was expecting anyone to attempt to enter the camp. There would only be danger for them when they came close up to those who knew them both well).
David Restrains Abishai From Smiting The Sleeping Saul Because Saul Is YHWH’s Own, And Instead Commands The Appropriation Of His Ceremonial Spear And Water Jar (26.8-11).
Having arrived at dead of night by the sleeping Saul Abishai wished to take the opportunity to slay Saul, but David forbade him because Saul was the anointed of YHWH. Instead he commanded him to take his spear, the symbol of his kingship, and his water jar, the symbol of his life, as trophies which would demonstrate both that they could have taken his life, and that they would one day take his kingship (compare how previously this latter had been symbolised by taking part of the hem of Saul’s robe, a hem which signified his kingship- 24.4, 11).
Note that in ‘a’ Abishai wishes to smite Saul with his own spear, taking his life, and in the parallel David rather commands him to steal Saul’s spear and his jar of water, symbolically taking his life. In ‘b’ David points out that Saul is YHWH’s anointed, and therefore inviolate to any but YHWH, and in the parallel stresses that to slay him was forbidden by God because he is YHWH’s anointed.
26.8 ‘Then Abishai said to David, “God has delivered up your enemy into your hand this day, now therefore let me smite him, I pray you, with the spear to the earth at one stroke, and I will not smite him the second time.” ’
Abishai was delighted to find a sleeping Saul at their mercy and pointed out to David in a quiet whisper that God had delivered Saul into their hands. Indeed he guaranteed that, if granted permission, he would at one stroke of the spear smite Saul so that he lay dead. He would not need to smite a second time. David’s men had by now become confident and highly trained warriors.
26.9 ‘And David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him, for who can put forth his hand against YHWH’s anointed, and be guiltless?” ’
But David would not permit it. He equally quietly forbade him to harm Saul, on the grounds that Saul was YHWH’s anointed. To strike one who was holy to YHWH, as a result of being set apart for Him by anointing, would be to incur the most grievous guilt. Such a one was in the hands of YHWH to live or to die, not in the hands of men. This is a reminder to us that the prime significance of anointing was that of being wholly dedicated to God. Any power subsequently received was for the purpose of fulfilling that dedication.
26.10 ‘And David said, “As YHWH lives, YHWH will smite him, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish.”
David then made clear the reason for his decision. YHWH was the living God. Thus He was alone responsible for those who were His anointed. None other must touch them. The consequence was that the smiting of Saul, or otherwise, lay in YHWH’s hands. If YHWH chose he would be smitten, or he would die naturally, or he would perish in battle, the three ways in which a king might expect to die. But all was to be in the hands of YHWH (a sign of the authenticity and integrity of the whole book is that he does not suggest what in fact was Saul’s end, that he kill himself).
26.11a “YHWH forbid that I should put forth my hand against YHWH’s anointed.”
David then recoiled in horror at the thought of putting out his hand against YHWH’s anointed. To do so would be sacrilege. It would be to despoil YHWH. It was God-forbidden. (Nor did he take a way out by allowing his men to do it. He was honest to his convictions).
26.11b “But now take, I pray you, the spear that is at his head, and the cruse of water, and let us go.”
Instead what they were to do was take Saul’s ceremonial spear, the symbol of his kingship, and his water jar, the symbol of his very life (see 2 Samuel 23.16-17), and then leave the camp while they were still safe.
The Secret Of The Success Of Their Venture And David’s Rebuke of Abner For Failing To Watch Over Saul (26.12-16).
We now learn, in a verse which in one sense stands by itself, being itself central to the chiasmus of the whole passage as outlined above, why it was that they had been symbolically able to take both Saul’s kingship and his very life. It was because YHWH had caused a deep sleep to fall on the whole army. This whole situation was thus of YHWH’s doing, because David’s life was in the hands of YHWH. Even Saul’s attempt to hunt David down must therefore be seen as in the hands of YHWH and as contributing towards his own death and David’s reception of the kingship.
This fact is then followed up by David’s taunting of Abner for failing in his responsibility to watch over Saul’s life as he illustrated by means of the spear and the water jar how close Saul had come to being slain.
Note that in ‘a’ David takes the spear and jar of water from by Saul’s head , and in the parallel holds it aloft in order to illustrate what has happened. In ‘b’ YHWH had kept watch over David by causing Saul’s army to remain asleep, while in the parallel Abner had failed to keep watch over Saul who was YHWH’s anointed, illustrating that it is better to be watched over by YHWH than by man. In ‘c’ David calls to Abner and asks why he does not answer, and in the parallel describes what Abner has to answer for, his failure to keep watch over the king so that those who would destroy him were able to approach him. Central in ‘d’ is Abner’s question both illustrating their total ignorance of David’s presence, and emphasising the question, ‘who are you?’. Compare Nabal’s question, ‘who is David? (25.10). The answer in both cases is that he is the one whom YHWH has chosen to be His champion and king of Israel after Saul.
26.12 ‘So David took the spear and the cruse of water from Saul’s head, and they took themselves away, and no man saw it, nor knew it, nor did any awake, for they were all asleep, because a deep sleep from YHWH was fallen on them.’
As a result of their activities David was able to appropriate both Saul’s ceremonial spear, symbol of his kingship, and Saul’s water jar, symbol of his very life. And the two were then able to steal away, and none knew that they had come and gone, nor did any awake, because YHWH had put them all into deep slumber, a situation no doubt aided by the fact that they were exhausted after their long march in the hot sun. The writer, however, is concerned that we recognise that it was all YHWH’s doing, because YHWH was with David. It was for that reason that YHWH had placed Saul’s kingship and Saul’s life in David’s hands in order that all might know both of David’s loyalty to the king in spite of all, and of the fact that he himself would shortly receive the kingship..
26.13 ‘Then David went over to the other side, and stood on the top of the mountain afar off, a great space being between them.’
David and Abishai then returned to Ahimelech waiting on the peak on the other side of the plateau or ravine that lay between the two mountain peaks, and having put a suitable space between himself and the enemy camp, turned in order to awaken the camp so as to inform them of what had happened while they all slept. (The space could not, however, have been too great for he expected to be seen and heard, and it would seem that there was probably a ravine between).
26.14 ‘And David cried to the people, and to Abner the son of Ner, saying, “Do you not answer, Abner?” Then Abner answered and said, “Who are you who cries to the king?”’
Yelling with a strident voice across the plateau David sought to awaken Abner in order to taunt him with his failure to watch over the king. ‘Do you not answer’ was a mocking question indicating that he was aware that Abner was asleep. Awoken as a result of the noise, and possibly also by the sentries, Abner, having been informed that someone was calling to them from another hilltop, asked who it was, informing the caller at the same time if he realised that he was actually awaking the king. It was an indication of the total lack of awareness of Saul and his men of the presence of David and his men so close at hand. They had probably assumed that he had fled southwards as he had done previously
“Who are you who cries to the king?” The question is highly symbolic. We are reminded of how Nabal had asked, ‘Who is David, and who is the son of Jesse?’ Both are questions that the writer wanted answered. Abner meant his question to indicate to whoever it was who had awoken the camp that he should be silent in view of the king’s presence, unless he had something very important to say, his assumption being that whoever it was would not know that the king was there. But the writer intends us to see that the answer to the question was ‘David, the anointed of YHWH and successor to Saul in the kingship’.
26.15 ‘And David said to Abner, “Are you not a real man? And who is like to you in Israel? Why then have you not kept watch over your lord the king? For there came one of the people in to destroy the king your lord.” ’
David then taunted Abner with the fact that while he was certainly an able warrior, and in fact the highest authority in Israel after Saul, he had failed in that he had not kept proper watch over his lord, the king. Why he did not even appear to realise that there had been intruders in the camp, one of whom had wished to slay the king while they slept, and that when he was supposed to be arranging for watch to be kept.
26.16 “This thing is not good that you have done. As YHWH lives, you are worthy to die, because you have not kept watch over your lord, YHWH’s anointed. And now see where the king’s spear is, and the cruse of water that was at his head.”
He then rebuked Abner for his failure, which he pointed out was not a very good thing at all. Indeed it was a sign of slackness (someone was no doubt later severely punished as a result). Thus he should recognise that he had made himself worthy of death as sure as YHWH was the living God, because he had failed to keep watch over what belonged to YHWH, even over Saul, YHWH’s anointed.
He then produced Saul’s ceremonial spear and water jar in order to emphasise his point. These made clear that he, or one of his men, had actually approached Saul while he was asleep and had stolen them unobserved. By this he was emphasising that Saul’s kingship and very life had been at his mercy. David was no doubt hoping by this that he might once again persuade Saul to give up his search, and he also wanted it known that David and his men were no longer afraid of Saul and his army.
Saul’s Response (26.17-25).
The difference between this reply and that in 24.17-21 is striking. In 24.17-21 Saul had declared that David was more righteous than he because he had repaid good for evil, and admitted that he himself had been at fault in the matter and he expressed his gratitude that David had not killed him when he had had the opportunity. He had then declared his recognition that on his own death the kingship would go to David, and sought an oath that David would not slaughter all the males in his house when he did became king, thus cutting off the name of Saul’s family. He was clearly deeply concerned about the succession.
Here in contrast in 26.17-25 Saul admitted that he had erred and played the fool in treating David as he had, and expressed his thankfulness that his life was precious in David’s eyes. And he then blessed David and declared that he would do many things and succeed in them. It was as though he gave no hint that he thought that David might succeed him. Thus while he spoke of his coming successful life there was no mention of the kingship, nor specifically of David’s goodness, nor was there any mention of any required oath to do with the succession. Here it was as though Saul did not consider that David was a threat to the succession at all. This striking difference is explainable in terms of a Saul who was sometimes paranoid about the kingship when in his black moods, but was otherwise free from those fears when not in a black mood. It does not fit at all with the idea that they are duplicate narratives.
Note that in ‘a’ Saul speaks of David as his son, and in the parallel does the same. In ‘b’ David asks what evil he has done, and in the parallel he confirms that he has behaved rightly towards Saul. In ‘c’ he asks whether YHWH has anything against him, and in the parallel declares that in fact he has behaved in such a way that YHWH cannot have anything against him. In ‘d’ David declares that he is as a flea or a partridge in contrast with the king, and in the parallel he humbly hands back to the king the ceremonial sceptre which represents his kingship. Centrally in ‘e’ Saul admits that he has done wrong by David and declares that he will do him no more harm. Saul is at this stage clearly in a good state mentally.
26.17 ‘And Saul knew David’s voice, and said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And David said, “It is my voice, my lord, O king.” ’
Recognising David’s voice Saul asked ‘is this your voice, my son David?’ The question did not mean that he was doubtful about the fact that it was David for he had asked the same question in 24.17 when he knew perfectly well that it was David. It was rather an opening greeting indicating conciliation. David replied with great respect that it was indeed his voice, addressing Saul as ‘my lord, O king’. He was taking no chances.
26.18 ‘And he said, “Why does my lord pursue after his servant? For what have I done, or what evil is in my hand?”
He then asked Saul why he was again pursuing after him. If he knew that he had done anything wrong, or that he intended evil to him, let him declare it. All David wanted to know was what his offence had been. He could never understand why Saul behaved as he did. (Even modern psychiatrists would have had problems with the question)
26.19 “Now therefore, I pray you, let my lord the king hear the words of his servant. If it be YHWH who has stirred you up against me, let him accept an offering (literally ‘let YHWH smell sacrifice’) , but if it be the children of men, cursed be they before YHWH, for they have driven me out this day that I should not cleave to the inheritance of YHWH, saying, “Go, serve other gods.” ’
David then made what was to be his final plea to Saul. They would never meet again. He posited two possibilities. The first was that it was YHWH Who had stirred up Saul against him. If that were the case, and his sin was pointed out, he would gladly admit it, offer up a sin offering and thus deal with the problem once and for all. But if it was men who had maligned him, then let them be cursed before YHWH, for by their activities they had driven him to recognise that he must leave Israel, (‘the inheritance of YHWH’) and go and live in a foreign country where there was no institutional worship of YHWH. Thus they were basically telling him to go and worship other gods. (He did not, of course, have the intention of worshipping other gods. His faith and awareness of God as revealed in his Psalms indicated that he knew that he could worship YHWH wherever he was. But it was not the same thing as being able to worship at the Sanctuary with God’s people). It is clear that at this stage the decision recorded in 27.1 had already been made.
‘Let YHWH smell sacrifice.’ This is simply an anthropomorphic way of indicating God’s acceptance with pleasure of men’s offerings (compare Genesis 8.21). Some see in it a reference to the daily offerings made by Israel, others the possibility of a personal offering. The main point is that if YHWH has been offended He has made a way by which David could come back and be restored to His favour.
26.20 “Now therefore, let not my blood fall to the earth away from the presence of YHWH, for the king of Israel is come out to seek a flea, as when one hunts a partridge in the mountains.”
So he pleaded that Saul would leave him along so that when he died his blood would fall on Israel’s soil, on the inheritance of YHWH. He did not want to die outside YHWH’s inheritance, and away from the Sanctuary where He had established His Name. After all surely he was simply the equivalent of a flea which men searched out because it was irritating them, or a partridge (a rock partridge) which men hunted in the mountains. Why then should Saul take such trouble over him when he was just a minor irritant? You did not call out the standing army of Israel to find a flea or a partridge. (Like all godly men David never fully recognised just how influential he was).
The flea appears to have been a favourite description of David. Compare 24.14. No doubt in their wilderness life he and his men suffered from fleas more than most and were aware of how much irritation they could cause. But note that in 24.14 the flea is associated with a dead dog, not compared with a partridge.
The mention of the partridge here was a word play on Abner's question, "Who are you who calls (Hebrew qarata) to the king?" (verse 14). David’s reply was that he was like a "partridge" hunted in the mountains (verse 20, Hebrew haqqore, i.e. a caller-bird). Furthermore he and his men would no doubt have hunted many a rock partridge in the mountains in their search for food, but few who lived under normal conditions would have sought for partridge in the mountains, for there would be partridge much nearer to hand. Thus to look for a partridge in the mountains was to go to a great deal of effort for little reward.
26.21 ‘Then Saul said, “I have sinned, return, my son David, for I will no more do you harm, because my life was precious in your eyes this day. Look, I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly.” ’
In contrast with 24.16-21 Saul made no reference to the kingship or to his fears that David would take it from his house, which is all the more significant because the kingship was one of the writer’s emphases. Here Saul is seen as free from his paranoia and delusion. His illness has left him for a while, and he is no longer obsessed with the idea of kingship. Rather he now admitted that he had behaved wrongly, and that he had ‘played the fool and erred exceedingly’. Note the comparison with Nabal ‘the fool’ although the Hebrew word is a different one. David’s generosity in again sparing his life and therefore treating it as precious had, in his present state, moved him deeply, and had made him realise what a fool he had been. He probably did not even understand himself.
‘Return, my son David.’ It was seemingly a promise to restore David to his former position. But it was not one that David was willing to take seriously. He knew how rapidly Saul’s mood could change.
26.22 ‘And David answered and said, “See, the spear, O king! Let then one of the young men come over and fetch it.” ’
David responded by offering him back his ceremonial spear which was the symbol of his kingship, the equivalent of a royal sceptre. But he would not approach the king himself. He had suffered too much at Saul’s hands to trust the genuineness of his repentance. Let one of Saul’s young men come over and collect it. Thus he did not take the request for him to return as reliable.
26.23 ‘And YHWH will render to every man his righteousness and his faithfulness; forasmuch as YHWH delivered you into my hand today, and I would not put forth my hand against YHWH’s anointed.”
Instead of trusting in Saul’s repentance he would put his trust in YHWH. Let YHWH work out events and give to every man what he was worthy of. And he was confident that YHWH would reward his own righteousness and faithfulness in not putting out his hand against the one who was consecrated to YHWH
26.24 “And, behold, as your life was much set by this day in my eyes, so let my life be much set by in the eyes of YHWH, and let him deliver me out of all tribulation.”
Indeed he applied to himself the maxim ‘what a man sows, that will he reap’ (Galatians 6.7; compare Proverbs 20.22; 24.29). He asked that just as he had treated Saul’s life as important because he was the anointed of YHWH, so YHWH would treat his life as important because he too was the anointed of YHWH, even to such an extent that he would deliver him out of ‘tribulation’, that is, out of trouble and distress. He had a firm confidence that if he was faithful to YHWH, YHWH would be faithful to him.
26.25a ‘Then Saul said to David, “Blessed are you, my son David. You will both do mightily, and will surely prevail.”
Saul humbly replied by blessing ‘my son David’, and assuring him that he would surely yet do mighty things, and would prevail in all to which he set his hand. That at least was sure.
26.25b ‘So David went his way, and Saul returned to his place.’
And then they parted for the last time. David ‘went on his way’, for he had no settled place to go to, while Saul returned to his palace-fortress at Gibeah.
Note On The Question Of Whether The Incident In Chapter 26 Is Merely A Duplicate Of The Incidents In Chapters 23-24.
Superficially a strong case can be made out for the case that the incident in chapter 26 is merely a duplicate of the combined but different incidents in chapters 23-24. Consider for example the following:
At first sight the duplication appears impressive, but once the incidents are inspected in detail the coincidence actually becomes less impressive. Firstly we should notice that David spent some considerable time hiding in the wilderness area west of the Dead Sea, moving from area to area. It would not therefore be surprising if he went back to what may well have been a suitable encampment on the Hill of Hachilah a number of times. And once he had done so it is not surprising that, if at one of those times the Ziphites had complained to Saul with the result that David had been forced to depart, the next time they tried complaining to Saul again because they saw David and his men as a threat and a nuisance and hoped that he would be made to depart again. What is more significant, and counts against the idea of duplication, is that the first time David then fled to the wilderness of Maon, at which point Saul had to cease his search because of the Philistine threat, while the second time David only hides nearby and does not flee, and there is no suggestion that Saul’s withdrawal has anything to do with the Philistines. It should further be noted that in chapters 23-24 the appeal of the Ziphites and reference to the hill of Hachilah in chapter 23 strictly have no direct connection with Saul’s later search for David in chapter 24 which occurs because of anonymous information (24.1). Thus we would have to suggest that chapter 26 unnecessarily conflated two narratives and totally ignored the true circumstances.
That Saul had three military units with him each time cannot be regarded as significant. It simply suggests that he constantly operated with three military units, compare also 13.2.
That Saul was twice found to be at the mercy of an astute David is not really surprising, especially as, while the first time it was accidental, the second time it was specifically by the deliberate choice of David. What happened the first time may well have sparked off David’s adventure in the second. David knew from his experience in chapter 24 that this was one way in which he could persuade Saul to return home and leave his men alone. It was surely just common sense to try the same method again. But we should note that the place at which it happened was different (the cave of Engedi in the cliffs facing the Dead Sea compared with the Hill of Hachilah in the mountain range near Hebron some way from the Dead Sea), the circumstances were very different (accidentally in a pitch black cave, compared with by David’s choice in the centre of Saul’s camp at night), the objects taken were totally different, fitting in with the difference in each situation (the hem of the robe cut off in a pitch black cave compared with Saul’s ceremonial spear and water jug taken from his camp), the persons involved were very different (David’s men in hiding and then Saul alone, compared with David and two named men who have set off with the intention of spying on Saul’s camp, and then Abner and Saul seen as together) and the spirit in which it happened was very different (in the first case it was by coincidence because David and his men were hiding in a cave in some trepidation, in the second it was a deliberate act of David as he acted fearlessly and decisively in order to bring the situation about).
That David spared Saul’s life both times is what we would expect if he genuinely saw Saul as YHWH’s Anointed (which suggests that he would spare Saul’s life whenever he saw him), and once David had in each case appropriated something of Saul’s which expressed his authority we would expect that the main events which followed would necessarily be duplicated. The whole point of appropriating the very different symbols of Saul’s authority was precisely in order to reveal them to Saul and have a conversation with him.
But even the very conversations are very different. In the first case Saul is obsessed with the question of the kingship, in the second case the idea of kingship does not arise at all. In the first case he discourses at length, in the second case he says little. The kingship does not seem to be a concern. In the first case he admits to his actions being evil compared with David’s good actions, in the second case he quite spontaneously admits that he has sinned and played the fool, and asserts that he will in future do David no more harm. To those who suggest that Saul could not have behaved in a way which was so against character by pursuing David a second time after what he had said the first time we can only point out that the nature of Saul’s illness was such that it is quite explicable. When they take over a person’s mind paranoia and delusion supply their own justification which always seems logical to the person at the time. That is a symptom of the illness. Nor would Saul be the first person who, having made a promise about something he felt deeply about, stewed over it for some time and reneged on that promise because the worst side of his nature got the better of him..
The dual references to a flea only indicate that David regularly saw himself in those terms (living in the circumstances that they did he and his men were probably very familiar with fleas), but in context both are in fact very different pictures. In the first case the flea is paralleled with a dead dog, as a symbol of what is unpleasant, in the second it is seen as hunted down and connected with a partridge in the mountains which was also hunted down.
And finally the emphasis of David is different in each case. In the first case David stresses that the fact that he has spared Saul is proof of his innocence, in the second he indignantly demands to know why Saul is pursuing him and considers that there is a remedy which should have been considered. In the first case he has no thought of leaving Israel, in the second he has clearly made up his mind to do so.
All these differences and different emphases count very strongly against these simply being duplicate narratives, for if they are they have been changed in every detail, while history is in fact full of examples of far greater ‘coincidences’ than these where the fact that different occasions were actually in mind is absolutely certain. We must therefore conclude that the narratives are not mere duplications but are dealing with two totally different incidents which occurred during the long years of Saul’s pursuit of David while he was in hiding in the wilderness areas west of the Dead Sea.
End of note.
Further free Bible articles and commentaries
Commentary on Samuel - Contents
1 Samuel 1.1-4.1a The Birth of Samuel And His Subsequent Career
1 Samuel 4.1b-8.22 The Movements of the Ark of God and the Judgeship of Samuel
1 Samuel 9.1-12.25 Saul Becomes King
1 Samuel 13-15 The Downfall Of Saul
1 Samuel 16.1-18.4 David Is Anointed And Slays Goliath
1 Samuel 18.5-20.42 The Rise Of David And Jealousy Of Saul
1 Samuel 21.1-22.23 The Murder of The Priests, David Builds a Private Army
1 Samuel 27.1-30.31 David Defeats The Amalekites Who Had Sacked Ziklag
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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- I & II CHRONICLES --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH---ESTHER---PSALMS 1-73--- PROVERBS---ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS