1 Samuel 24

Jimmy Jo1 & 2 Samuel, SermonsLeave a Comment

We are continuing our study of the books of Samuel – continuing the story of David.  Once again, we remember that David is famously characterized as a man after God’s own heart.  And we’re trying to explore what that might mean. 

When last we left off, David was being pursued by king Saul.  After Saul’s rejection as God’s chosen one, David had been anointed, he had defeated Goliath and the Philistines, and he had won (or was winning) the hearts of the people.  Saul, whether because of jealousy of David’s popularity or out of concern for his own dynasty, hated David and wanted to kill him.  Last week, at our outdoor service, we explored a little bit about how David responded to that. 

Now once again, we are skipping a couple of chapters.  The part of the story we are skipping tells us, among other things, that even though David was in exile, he still sought to defend Israel against her enemies (i.e. the Philistines).  And we pick up the story again in chapter 24. 

Read the passage here.

One of the things we’ve been paying attention to over the past many chapters is how, in the narrative, Saul functions as a foil to David.  That is, inasmuch as David is our main character, comparing David with Saul helps us understand David better.  And in our passage today, we see a pretty clear distinction between the two.  We have seen over the past few chapters that Saul desperately wants to kill David.  Out of fear for his life, David has fled Saul’s court and has been on the run with Saul in hot pursuit.  Here, however, David has an opportunity to kill Saul – to take revenge – thereby saving his own life, and he doesn’t take it. 

Do you ever wonder why revenge movies are so popular?  Or, why is revenge such a popular motif in movies, TV, and other media?  It may simply be that many of these kinds of movies tend to be violent.  And we tend to find violence (which usually gets translated into action) in movies entertaining and exhilarating.  But there may be more to it than that. 

It may be that in these kinds of movies, we see power differentials being worked out.  We like to see those who have power being overcome by those who seem to have no power.  Similarly, perhaps it’s about the weak overcoming the strong.  Most of us in society find ourselves in a position of weakness relative to someone else.  We love seeing the underdog overcome his or her oppressor.  From a slightly different perspective, this may point to a widespread victim mentality.  And I want to be careful how I say that because when we hear “victim mentality,” we are inclined to think that someone is feeling sorry for himself or herself.  But I’m actually pointing to the fact that most of us have, at some point, been taken advantage of, abused, or neglected.  So we relate to those who have been done wrong. 

Now perhaps all of these are different shades of the same thing (or even simply different ways of saying the same thing).  But ultimately, I think it points to an innate desire for justice that exists in all of us (or at least most of us).  We long for wrongs to be righted, the weak to be freed from the oppression of the strong, and the poor to no longer be exploited by the wealthy.  Now make no mistake – this desire for justice gets perverted when we lose sight of who the judge is (or should be).  The temptation is to become the judge ourselves – and then we become the measure of what is right and good.  And when we start to think that we are the judge, a desire for justice quickly turns into a lust for revenge. 

And I think that perhaps this is what David is avoiding – the desire to be judge for himself, the desire to take on the role of the avenger.  Ultimately, David recognizes that this belongs to God alone. 

So when David is in the cave with his companions and is presented with the opportunity to take his revenge against Saul, he refuses to take it.  Instead, David approaches Saul and cuts off the corner of his robe. 

We read from verse 4: 

The men said, “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’” Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe.

Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.”

1 Samuel 24: 4-6

Now this is an interesting passage that’s worth giving a little more thought to.  Firstly, because the action of cutting off a corner of Saul’s robe is puzzling in itself.  Secondly, because David’s reaction seems extreme given what he actually did – that is, why is David conscience-stricken merely from cutting off a piece of Saul’s robe? 

For this, we turn to the commentators who, I should note, don’t seem to agree on the significance of this action.  But perhaps they can help point us in the right direction. 

Firstly, Dale Ralph Davis argues that David’s action mirrors what we read in 1 Samuel 15, after Saul has been rejected by God as Israel’s king.  We read: 

27 As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. 28 Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you.

1 Samuel 15:27-28

So Davis argues that David’s action of cutting off Saul’s robe mirrors Saul’s action of tearing Samuel’s robe.  And that both symbolically point to the judgement, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today…” 

However, David Tsumura doesn’t find this convincing because in one case, Samuel’s robe is torn (that is, the Lord’s prophet), and in the other case, Saul himself (the incumbent king of Israel) has his robe torn.  Tsumura believes that the objects don’t line up and therefore, the symbolism (if it were accurate) is reversed.  Says Tsumura,

However, the two occasions are totally different and the significance of “cutting off” and of “tearing” of the garment are not same; see on 15:27. If nothing else, in the earlier case, the one who tore the robe would have things torn from him, while in the later, the one whose robe was cut would lose. Symbols must be taken in context. (David Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, NICOT.)

Rather, Tsumura appeals to Mesopotamian legal traditions where a piece from the hem of clothing was used as an “identity card,” or a type of authorization.  That is, where Davis argues that David’s actions represent judgement over or against Saul, Tsumura argues that David’s action amounted to claiming authority over Saul. 

Finally, Robert Bergen seems to agree in part with Tsumura.  He sees David’s action through a similar lens as Tsumura, and amounted to the taking or transferring of royal power from Saul to David.  Bergen, however, appeals to the Torah, noting that the corner of the robe had covenantal significance. 

37 The Lord said to Moses, 38 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. 39 You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. 40 Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God.

Numbers 15: 37-40

 Make tassels on the four corners of the cloak you wear.

Deuteronomy 22:12

Therefore, according to Bergen, David’s action of cutting off the corner of Saul’s robe renders it ceremonially non-compliant, or insufficient.  It’s essentially an action of invalidating Saul’s claim to kingship, but particularly from the perspective of Torah. 

Now I recognize that this might be more information than any of us wants.  And what we see is that none of the three commentators agree on the symbolic significance of David’s actions (though one might see the disagreement as a matter of nuance rather than substance).  However, where all three agree is in seeing David’s act as essentially a hostile action.  David was attacking, rejecting, or subverting Saul’s reign as king of Israel.  And similarly, they all agree that David’s extreme remorse was due to the fact that he realizes that it is not his place to overthrow the incumbent king of Israel, but God’s alone.  We read: 

Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.”

1 Samuel 24: 5-6

And later, when David reveals himself to Saul, telling him what happened, David says: 

12 May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you.

1 Samuel 24: 12

And again,

15 May the Lord be our judge and decide between us. May he consider my cause and uphold it; may he vindicate me by delivering me from your hand.”

1 Samuel 24: 15

In short, David’s remorse is because he presumably took action against Saul, the king of Israel, when that action wasn’t his to take.  His response (presumably the proper one) is to give up his own agency and allow God to do what God is going to do. 

Now in addition to this, I want to quickly touch base on one other aspect of David’s response.  Specifically, referring again to vv. 5-6, David says: 

Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.”

1 Samuel 24: 5-6

What’s interesting to me about this is that David says, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed…for he is the anointed of the Lord.”  Now this is interesting to me because, while it’s true that Saul was anointed by Samuel to be king of God’s people, so was David.  So inasmuch as David would have been doing an awful thing by attacking (or going against) God’s anointed, isn’t Saul doing exactly the same thing – that is, attacking the Lord’s anointed?  So David’s reluctance also serves as condemnation for Saul’s aggression.  Or to put it another way, this vignette serves once again to compare and contrast the characters of David and Saul.

More to the point, inasmuch as both Saul and David are anointed (though we know Saul has been ultimately rejected), David is willing to wait and trust in God’s timing and God’s sovereignty, whereas Saul is not.  Saul is taking every action in his power to hold onto what he thinks belongs to him.  But David knows (I think – here I am making an assumption) David knows that the kingdom belongs to the Lord. 

So getting back to our (more or less) main point, this is some of what we discussed last week when we were looking at Psalm 52, in particular.  Psalm 52 is one of the imprecatory Psalms.  And as we remember, the imprecatory Psalms are those in which the speaker (David, in the case of Psalm 52 and many others) wishes or prays harm, judgement, and curses upon their enemies.  And many people have problems with the imprecatory Psalms because the Christian attitude is supposed to be (or so we think) to forgive, give grace, and love our enemies.  And of course, this is true.  But the imprecatory Psalms can serve to remind us that our attitude towards our enemies and those who do us harm is to give the role of avenger to God.  The imprecatory Psalms, or imprecatory prayer, can be a spiritual practice that helps us let go of our desire for vengeance, our desire to be the arbiter of justice, and allow God to be God. 

Now this does not mean that we should perpetually place ourselves in the position of the aggrieved.  This does not mean that we can constantly see ourselves as the victim, calling on God as our avenging angel.  This is not permission to always be crying out, “what about me?” 

What it does mean is that we need to make it our practice to place our whole trust in God.  And as (again) a bit of an aside, how we view and how we pray the imprecatory Psalms may depend on, or in fact reveal, our theology of God.  Because inasmuch as we view God as our servant, our spiritual genie, our cosmic butler, we might view the imprecatory Psalms as a way to get God to take vengeance on our enemies.  But if we understand that God alone is judge, God alone is sovereign, and that the kingdom belongs to God alone, we can pray the imprecatory Psalms as a practice of giving our whole selves (along with all of our anger, all of our hurt, all of our ambitions and disappointments) to God.

I think this is what we see in David.  It’s precisely that he chooses not to take matters into his own hands – that he chooses not to take vengeance on Saul.  He realizes that he needs to leave it in God’s hands.  It is not up to him to take vengeance upon his enemy.  Justice belongs to the Lord.  The kingdom belongs to the Lord. 

Now before we close, I want to reflect briefly on this a little more, and think how it impacts our own spirituality and our own relationship with God.  One of the things that we can often struggle with is that we often don’t see “justice” worked out in our own lifetimes, in the way that we think it should be.  Of course, part of this is our tendency towards ego-centrism – something that we’ve mentioned before.  And I want to comment on this because just a couple of chapters later, we will see that Saul dies, presumably indicating that David finally does get his justice. 

However, part of this is also understanding that what God’s justice is not merely “fixing my life.”  Rather, what God is doing is working out the redemption of all creation.  Though we will shortly see David’s situation resolved (for now), what we frequently see in the story of Israel is that God’s promises are simply not worked out in the lives of the petitioners.  The Israelites waited and prayed for centuries in Egypt.  They wandered in the wilderness for generations.  Many of the Israelites died in exile, without their nationhood, away from their land, long before Jesus arrived on the scene. 

But even still, God’s purposes are being worked out.  Because justice in God’s economy is often more than merely “justice for me,” or “justice in this situation.”  Rather, God’s justice entails the eradication of all evil, the elimination of all sin, the restoration of all of our brokenness.  It’s for this justice that we wait; it’s this justice that we long for.  When all the wrongs are finally made right. 

And make no mistake, we can and must call on God in every situation.  But our ultimate hope, our ultimate promise will be realized on the day when Jesus comes again.  We live in the already-not-yet.  But the hope that we wait for is sure. 

Therefore, put your hope in God.  Know that God is working.  And trust that God is working for a good that we cannot yet see or imagine.  But nevertheless, God is on His throne and His sovereignty will endure. 

But I am like an olive tree
    flourishing in the house of God;
I trust in God’s unfailing love
    for ever and ever.
For what you have done I will always praise you
    in the presence of your faithful people.
And I will hope in your name,
    for your name is good.

Psalm 52: 8-9


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