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Books Worth Reading: Mere Apologetics by Alister McGrath

A while back I picked up this book at a discount store near my house. I recognized the name so I figured it would be worth reading. I have know Alister McGrath primarily as a historian, having read his books on the Reformation and John Calvin. However, this little book is considerably different than what I have read by him before. In Mere Apologetics, McGrath presents a basic overview of apologetic theory and practice. The apologetic task is a very personal one for McGrath, in that he was at one time an atheist himself. Now he is an advocate for Christianity, writing against advocates of the New Atheism like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (e.g. Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty? and Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith, and How We Make Sense of Things).

As the play on the title Mere Christianity suggests and the as the author clearly states, McGrath’s approach is in many ways similar to that of C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), the famed 20th century apologist (p. 12). McGrath claims that his approach to apologetics is not “committed to any particular school of thought” (e.g. presuppositional, evidential, etc), and I got the feeling that the book takes something of an eclectic approach to the apologetic task, much like Richard Swinburne takes in his book The Existence of God. McGrath utilizes information and arguments from a variety of sources and schools to build a cumulative case for the reasonableness of Christianity, but we are perhaps getting ahead of ourselves in terms of this review. McGrath’s overall approach to apologetics in this book can be summarized in six clear statements: (1) Understand the Faith, (2) Understand the audience, (3) Communicate with clarity, (4) Find points of contact, (5) Present the whole gospel, and (6) Practice, practice, practice (pp. 35–38).

On the meaning and nature of apologetics, McGrath never offers a formal definition of the word apologetics, but he comes close when he says that the Greek word apologia “is a ‘defense,’ a reasoned case proving the innocence of an accused person in court, or a demonstration of the correctness of an argument or belief” (p. 15). McGrath sees the apologetic task as consisting in three activities. First, the job of the apologist is to defend the Christian faith against outside attack (pp. 17–18). Second, the apologist is to commend faith so that it is appreciated by those who hear about it (p. 19). Finally, the apologist is to translate the faith into contemporary life and culture (pp. 20–21).
One key element to McGrath’s book is the distinction he makes between apologetics and evangelism. The two should not be confused. He writes:
Apologetics clears the ground for evangelism, just as John the Baptist prepared the way for the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. Evangelism moves beyond this attempt to demonstrate the cultural plausibility of the Christian faith. Where apologetics can be considered to clear the ground for faith in Christ, evangelism invites people to respond to the gospel. Where apologetics aims to secure consent, evangelism aims to secure commitment (pp. 21–22).
This distinction is important later on in McGrath’s book when he deals with the theological basis of apologetics (ch. 3). There he writes:
Apologetics does not and cannot convert anyone. But it can point people in the right direction by removing barriers to an encounter with God, or opening a window through which Christ can be seen. Apologetics is about enabling people to grasp the significance of the gospel. It is about pointing, explaining, opening doors, and removing barriers. Yet what converts is not apologetics itself, but the greater reality of God and the risen Christ (p. 43).
The last sentence quoted above is worthy of further reflection because it goes a long way to helping the reader get the “feel” for the book’s overall approach. To the informed reader the reference to a “God encounter” will likely sound a bit Barthian, but it should be pointed out that one of the main concerns in this book is the problem of reaching people who are engrossed in a postmodern world of relativity. McGrath points out that “postmodernity finds appeals to rational argument problematic. But it is deeply attracted to stories and images” (p. 34). Thus, McGrath attempts to address this sort of audience in another way, namely, helping people have an encounter with God through Jesus Christ. McGrath illustrates this point with a conversation that takes place between Philip and Nathanael in John 1:45–46. In this passage Philip tells Nathanael that he had found the Messiah promised by the prophets and the law. Nathanael is not convinced and offers up a skeptical question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” McGrath points out that “instead of meeting this objection with a reasoned argument, Philip invites Nathanael to meet Jesus of Nazareth and decide for himself” (p. 43). He continues:
Now Philip might have answered Nathanael with a detailed argument. Perhaps he might have argued that Jesus’s origins in Nazareth represented the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy. Or perhaps he might have set out the various factors that led him, Andrew, and Peter to follow Jesus of Nazareth and believe him to the be the culmination of the hopes of Israel. Yet Philip has learned that encounter is to be preferred to argument (p. 44). 
McGrath’s point here is based on the biblical doctrine of depravity. In commenting on the Bible’s teaching about spiritual blindness, McGrath insightfully observes:
Arguments do not cure blindness, nor does the accumulation of evidence, powerful rhetoric, or a compelling personal testimony. Blindness needs to be healed—and such a healing is something only God is able to do. God alone is able to open the eyes of the blind and enable them to see the realities of life. Apologetics thus depends upon the grace of God and the divine capacity to heal and renew. This in not something we can do. This helps put apologetics in proper perspective (p. 45)!
This paragraph should not be understood to mean that McGrath is against reasoned argumentation. In fact he devotes the entirety of chapter 5 to showing the reasonableness of Christianity. McGrath suggests two ways in which this can be done: (1) “by showing there is a good argument or evidential base for the core beliefs of Christianity, and (2) by showing that, if the Christian faith is true, it makes more sense of reality than its alternatives” (p. 72).
McGrath is careful to point out, however, the limitations of apologetics in this regard. McGrath compares the case for Christianity, and the case for God’s existence in particular, to the approach of a trial lawyer. The goal of the defense lawyer is to convince the jury that his client is innocent beyond a reasonable doubt. “Apologetics works in much the same way,” says McGrath. “No one is going to be able to prove the existence of God, as one proves that ‘the whole is greater than the part.’  Yet one can consider all the clues that point in this direction and take pleasure in their cumulative force” (p. 95).
It is with this understanding that McGrath utilizes what he calls “pointers to faith.” Among these “pointers” are things like the fact of creation, the apparent design and order of the universe, the moral sense of human beings possess, the innate longing people have for God, our appreciation of the beautiful, our need for personal relationships, and our inherent hope for a better life in the future. McGrath argues that Christians should utilize these and other arguments to show the harmony of the Christian worldview and remove barriers people might have to lending their ear to the message of the Gospel. Of course McGrath goes into more detail on each of these points, but you will get the gist of his approach from this brief description.
Before I make my final remarks on the overall character of the book, I would like to point out some helpful advice McGrath gives in his final chapter. McGrath, like many other apologists, recognizes that apologetics is something of an art, and it requires practice to be an effective defender and communicator of the faith. He gives four recommendations for those who are setting out in the apologetic task:
1.   Be gracious: “Try to give polite, considerate, and helpful replies, especially if the question suggests that the person asking it doesn’t really understand the Christian faith, or has an inflated view of his own intellectual prowess” (p. 160).  
2.   Find the real question: “Apologists are often told to try and work out the question behind the question. . . . One way of dealing with this issue that I have found helpful is to welcome the question, and then ask the questioner if he would mind sharing why this is a particular concern for him. This helps me work out what the real question is and address it properly” (pp. 160–61).
3.   Don’t give prepackaged answers to honest questions. In this same vein, McGrath points out that you should avoid simply borrowing answers from other apologists and use answers that actually convince you (p. 159).
4.   Appreciate the importance of learning from other apologists (p. 161).
Having presented the reader with some of the basic ideas McGrath presents in Mere Apologetics, I will devote these final paragraphs to a brief assessment. I will begin with the negative because I believe that for the most part this is a very good book, and I want the reader to be left with a positive impression of the book. Therefore, I will end with positive comments.
By way of criticism, I offer two points. First, this book will not likely satisfy the intellect of someone who is more advanced in philosophy or apologetic methods. This book is written as an introduction and nothing more. McGrath acknowledges such and points readers to other sources at the end of each chapter. In some ways this negative is a positive (see below), but I want to reduce expectations and prevent disappointment in more advanced readers. Second, I found McGrath’s distinction between apologetics and evangelism a bit artificial. He even seems to sense this problem when he says, “The dividing line between apologetics and evangelism is fuzzy; making a distinction between them, however, is helpful” (p. 22). I am not completely denying that it may helpful to think about evangelism and apologetics separately, but I doubt it is possible to keep them separate when we actually do the work of the apologist. The goal of the apologist is something more than clearing barriers to faith or demonstrating the reasonableness of Christianity. His goal is to present Christ as someone who must be embraced as the Creator, Savior, and Lord of all mankind. The goal is repentance and faith. Our goal is to persuade people to embrace the gospel, that is, our goal is to be an evangelist.
In conclusion, I want to leave the reader with some positive aspects of the book. First, the book is fairly easy to read and understand. This fact makes the book an excellent choice for people who may not have extensive backgrounds in philosophical argumentation and the like. While this book certainly contains these elements along the way, the reader is not overwhelmed with intricate philosophical proofs and arguments. No doubt part of the book’s emphasis on addressing postmodern culture, which tends to shy away from these sorts of debates, explains McGrath’s conversational style. Second, I appreciate McGrath’s recognition that, in the final analysis, the work of the apologist can never bring about genuine conversion in an individual. McGrath is right to point out that arguments do not convert anyone. He rightly believes that God is ultimately the one who changes lives. It is very important for any Christian who engages unbelievers with the Gospel to depend on the working of God’s Spirit through the Word of God to transform lives. Finally, I believe that the integrated approach McGrath takes to apologetics is useful and practical. It is important to answer the questions people are actually asking and to tailor our defense of the faith to the culture in which we live. Using information and strategy from every possible source will enhance our apologetic work. McGrath’s case studies throughout the book show how a varied approach to apologetics which is adapted to a specific audience can be applied to real life situations.

In sum, Mere Apologetics is a book worth reading.

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A Spooky Blast from the Past: Saul and the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:3-25)

Introduction: When people hear the word “atheist,” they normally think of someone who intellectually denies the existence of God. However, theologians and philosophers over the years have used the term in a number of different ways: Intellectual Atheism: As mentioned above, this form of atheism pertains to people who formally deny God’s existence for some sort of intellectual reason. These people deny that God exists at all. Practical Atheism: This type of atheism refers to people who believe that there is a God, but they live their lives in such a way that they act like God does not exist. […]

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A Spooky Blast from the Past: Saul and the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:3-25)


When people hear the word “atheist,” they normally think of someone who intellectually denies the existence of God. However, theologians and philosophers over the years have used the term in a number of different ways:

  • Intellectual Atheism: As mentioned above, this form of atheism pertains to people who formally deny God’s existence for some sort of intellectual reason. These people deny that God exists at all. 
  • Practical Atheism:  This type of atheism refers to people who believe that there is a God, but they live their lives in such a way that they act like God does not exist. They do not fear God’s judgment for their sins and live as though they are not responsible to God’s moral law.
  • Wrong God Atheism: This form of atheism applies to people who believe in a god, but it not the one, true God of the Scriptures. Paul talked about these sorts of people in Ephesians 2:12 when he described the Gentiles as being “without God in the world” (literally “atheists in the world”). Certainly, most Gentiles in Paul’s day believed in a god, perhaps in many gods, but they did not have a knowledge of, or a relationship with, the true God of Israel.
  • The Gods Turn their Backs on a Person: There is one other form of atheism that ancient philosophers such as Sophocles describe. This form of atheism takes place when the gods themselves turn their backs on an individual. In this scenario, the gods refuse to have any interaction with a person due to a problem in their relationship. 

Of these different types of atheism, the last one should cause us the most concern. Intellectual atheists can change their minds and become believers in God. Immoral people can change their behavior and become godly. Pagans can come to know the one true God. Obviously, in each case God’s grace must work this sort of change in a person’s life. However, if the last form of atheism applies to a person, there really is no hope for that individual. If the deity himself turns his back on a person, there is nothing that individual can to do to bring about a right state of affairs.

We encounter this last form of atheism in 1 Samuel 28’s account of Saul. Saul finds himself in almost the same situation as Esau, who “found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears” (Heb. 12:17).  Some of the saddest words in the Bible are found in 1 Samuel 28:6, which tells us that “when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets.” Saul found himself to be an atheist in the worst possible way. God had turned his back on Saul and refused to hear any of his prayers or communicate with him in any way. This is a desperate situation indeed. As a result, Saul will do the unthinkable and turn to witchcraft for a solution.


Our passage opens with a short but important editorial remark: “Now Samuel had died, and Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the necromancers out of the land” (v. 3).  We already know that Samuel is dead (1 Sam. 25:1), but we did not know that Saul had rid the land of people practicing the black arts. These seemingly unrelated remarks will dovetail together in a remarkable fashion in this chapter.

The immediate occasion for the events of our story is an invasion by the Philistines into Israel. David is with the Philistine army (vv. 1-2), and we are still waiting to see if David will fight against Israel. But we will have to wait to find out the answer to that question. The once great Saul, who had been chosen as king to “fight [Israel’s] battles” (1 Sam. 8:20), stood cowering in fear (v. 5).

Saul tried everything he could get gain some insight from God as to what he should do, but he had been cut off from God’s throne room (v. 6). Part of this was of Saul’s own doing. After all, he had slaughtered the priests at Nob back in 1 Samuel 22, which made consulting the priesthood rather difficult (the Urim belonged to the priests). Having found no recourse through the God-ordained avenues of finding God’s will, Saul turns to witchcraft.

Saul’s quest to find a witch was an about-face from his previous policy of ridding Israel from those who were involved in the occult (v. 3). More significantly, Saul’s decision to consult a medium was a direct violation of the clear teaching of the Mosaic law. Consider the following passages:

Leviticus 19:31: Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 20:6:  If a person turns to mediums and necromancers, whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.

Leviticus 20:27: A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.

Deuteronomy 18:10-14: 10There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, 14for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this.

There are a number of important truths in these passages that have bearing on our present chapter. First, God explicitly condemns consulting a medium. Second, God will set his face against those who consult mediums (Lev. 20:6). This portion seems especially applicable to Saul’s situation. Third, God forbade his people to consult those who would try to summon people from the dead (Deut. 18:11). Saul will violate this commandment as well. Finally, the Law states that those who practice such things were an abomination to the LORD and worthy of death. This fact explains Saul actions earlier in his reign and the witch’s fear of Saul when he comes to her (v. 9). It also has bearing on Saul’s ultimate fate (cf. 1 Chron. 10:13-14).

Disobedience was something characterized the general course of Saul’s life, and Saul defies the Scriptures once again and makes his way to the medium. Saul does two things that should have given him pause in going forth with his plan: (1) he has to disguise himself, and (2) he goes at night. While it is true that part of Saul’s motivation in disguising himself and going at night was to avoid detection by the Philistines (Endor was approximately 2 miles from the Philistine camp), no doubt part of his motivation was that he did not want to be seen doing that which was clearly wrong. This inference seems justified by the fact that he tried to keep his identity from the medium as well. It is common practice for people to try to hide their sinful actions under the cloak of darkness (cf. Prov. 7:6-23).

When Saul gets to the medium, he asks her to summon someone from the dead (v. 8). The medium responds with hesitation, probably feeling out the situation to make sure she is not being set-up in some kind of sting operation. It is likely that she suspects that the man before her is Saul. After all he is the tallest man in Israel, so his disguise was probably not that effective. It should have pricked his conscience when she asked: “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?” The medium reminds Saul of his previous obedience and gives him an opportunity stop what he is doing. Yet Saul persists and even has the audacity to reassure the medium by swearing in the name of the Yahweh (v. 10). It is important not to miss how bad this oath is. Saul swears in the name of the LORD that he will not do what he should do to the medium in light of the LORD’s commandments in the Law. He obligates himself in the name of the LORD to disobey God’s word. It is remarkable how Saul can have the name of the LORD on his lips while he sits before a witch. This behavior is a clear indication that Saul’s devotion to the LORD was superficial at best.

Having been assured that she will not be killed for her actions, the medium asks Saul who it is he would like to have brought back from the dead. Saul tells her he would like to speak with Samuel (v. 11). The woman goes through her incantations and brings up Samuel (v. 12). Samuel’s appearance results in the woman knowing that her client was Saul. David Tsumura suggests that Samuel addressed Saul by name when he appeared (The First Book of Samuel, NICOT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007], p. 624). Samuel is described as “a god coming up out of the earth” and as “an old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe” (vv. 13-14). Apparently, Saul could not see Samuel and had to rely on the medium to tell him what she was seeing. However, Saul was able to carry on a conversation with Samuel.

Saul must have thought that speaking with Samuel, his closest spiritual advisor, would help him in some way. Samuel’s response to Saul would quickly reveal that this would not be the case. Clearly irritated with Saul’s request to have him come back, Samuel asks, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” This question is reminiscent of two other occasions where Samuel questioned Saul’s sinful behavior (1 Sam. 13:11; 15:14) and is more of an accusation than a question. Samuel is pointing out the sinfulness of Saul’s actions. Saul does not pick up on Samuel’s ire and goes on to explain why he has summoned him: “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do” (v. 15). Samuel does not give Saul any advice for the upcoming battle but rather answers with another accusatory question: “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy?” Saul wanted Samuel to help him, but Samuel would not and could not do this because God was Saul’s enemy and Samuel was on God’s side. Samuel simply reiterates what God had already told Saul through Samuel, namely, that the kingdom had been taken from Saul and given to David because of Saul’s disobedience (vv. 17-18). Samuel message does transition from a reminder to a prophecy in verse 19. He predicts the outcome of the impending battle with the Philistines: “Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”

Samuel’s answer was not what Saul wanted to hear. Samuel predicted that Saul and his sons would be with him the next day, that is, they would be dead. He became emotionally distraught and paralyzed with fear. The witch felt sorry for Saul and prepared a meal for him to help him regain his strength. This would ultimately be Saul’s last meal as far as we know. He would die in battle the next day, just as Samuel had said.         

Theological Question:

One of the most discussed questions in Israel’s history is the appearing of Samuel in this passage. Throughout church history there have been a number of views advocated about what is actually happening in this passage. For a helpful discussion of the issues involved in this passage, see John J. David & John C. Whitcomb, Israel: From Conquest to Exile (Winona Lake, IN: BHM Books, 2002), pp. 254-58. Here are the major views:

  1. The appearance of Samuel was not a literal one, but merely the product of psychological impressions. Variations of this view include the use of hypnotic drugs and the like.
  2. A demon or Satan impersonated Samuel. This was the view of Matthew Henry and Merrill Unger. Advocates of this view seek to protect Samuel from being summoned by a witch.
  3. The witch did nor really see Samuel but tricked Saul into believing that her voice was really Samuel’s voice. This was the view of James Orr. Orr suggests that the witch performed something of a ventriloquist act before Saul.
  4. Samuel actually appeared to Saul. This view takes the passage at face value and holds that Samuel came back from the dead and spoke with Saul.

For my part, the last of these options seems to be the best for a number of reasons:

  1. If the first view is correct, then multiple people would have had to have the same psychological impressions at the same time. Both the witch and Saul interacted with Samuel, and Saul actually carried on a conversation with Samuel. It seem quite far-fetched to believe that these were merely the result of a drug induced state.
  2. Those who take the view that this was a demon have considerable difficulties as well. Advocates of this view are put in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the idea that demons could predict future events with specific certainty. Samuel’s prophecy in verse 19 includes a number of specific details, including the death of Saul, his sons, and the total defeat of Israel’s army. All of these details actually happened just as Samuel said they would. If God is the only one who knows the future, how did the demon come to know that this information was true? We would be left with the notion that the demon put together the circumstances in such a way that he was able to accurately anticipate what would happen the next day.
  3. The third option is not all that convincing either since it seems unlikely that the witch would pronounce such a negative outcome on Saul if she was the one speaking. We are also left with the same situation as with the demon view. We have to attribute knowledge of the future in some way to the witch.
  4. In my view the fourth view has the fewest problems. Consider the following:
  • This is the straightforward reading of the passage. The text repeatedly refers to the mysterious figure as Samuel. We are set-up to expect the real Samuel by the opening statement of narrative which clearly refers to the real Samuel (v. 3). Nowhere in the narrative do we have some sort of qualification that this is a “Samuel-like” person.  
  • The witch seems surprised by Samuel’s appearance. She even shrieks at his appearance and is afraid (vv. 12-13). This reaction suggests that something different was going on here than in her other attempts to summon the dead. She is shocked by Samuel’s appearance.
  • The character of Samuel’s words are completely consistent with previous conversations between Samuel and Saul. The use of rhetorical questions is very similar to the other times Samuel confronted Saul over his sinful actions. The outcome of the conversation is the same. We see Samuel acting like we would expect Samuel to act.
  • Finally, there is no problem with the prophecy of verse 19 if Samuel is actually the one speaking. As a prophet of God, Samuel would have access to God’s knowledge of the future, even in the details. Samuel had made a similar prophecy to Eli about a previous Israelite battle with the Philistines. In 1 Samuel 3 Samuel prophesied judgment on Eli and his family. He told Eli that all that God had prescribed for him would come to pass. Part of that prediction included the death of both of Eli’s sons in battle on the same day (1 Sam. 2:34). That detailed prediction came to pass just as the prophet said. The similarity of this pronounce the other earlier one suggests that this prophecy came from a man of God. Furthermore, the verdict on Samuel’s prophetic life on earth was that “Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground.” It is consistent with that summation that God would not let Samuel’s words fail in this case.


  • This passage is an important reminder for us to live a consistent life of obedience so that sin does not harden our hearts to its presence. Saul had disregarded God’s word so much throughout his life, that it does not occur to him that what he is doing was so terribly wrong. He had gotten to the point when he could easily sin without even thinking twice; his conscience had been seared (cf. 1 Tim. 4:2). We need to be careful that we sin so much that it gets easier for us to sin. 
  • It is helpful to also consider how important obedience is in every area of our lives. While we might not find ourselves consulting a witch like Saul, our disobedience in other areas is just as bad. In 1 Samuel 15:22-23, Samuel told saw that obedience was better than sacrifice, and rebellion was as the sin of witchcraft. Disobedience is a serious matter no matter what the issue is.  
  • This passage also reminds us that wickedness often tries to cover its deed under the cloak of darkness. Recognizing this fact can be a helpful tool in recognizing when we might be doing something wrong. If a certain action requires you to hide your identity or sneak around to complete it, you quite likely are about to engage in something that is not right.
  • The passage is also a good reminder of the Scriptural truth that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Saul’s transgressions of God’s law resulted in his death. First Chronicles 10:13-14 makes this quite clear: “So Saul died for his breach of faith. He broke faith with the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance. He did not seek guidance from the Lord. Therefore the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse.”
  • This passage should help us appreciate the privilege we have in prayer. God does not have to listen to our prayers. He could turn his back on us like he did with Saul. Thankfully for those who have put our faith in Jesus Christ, we have a mediator with the Father (1 Tim. 2:5) who always lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:25).


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David Spares Saul Again (1 Samuel 26)

Introduction: Chapter 26 once again takes us the narrative of the ongoing battle between Saul and David from which we had brief respite in chapter 25. Chapter 26 is significant in that this is the last recorded personal encounter between David and Saul. Once again, David is shown to be better than Saul in his ability to track down his enemy, and in his ability to show restraint. For the second time, David will spare Saul’s life. The similarities in the stories have prompted some commentators, particularly those with a liberal bent, to see chapters 24 and 26 as describing […]

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David Spares Saul Again (1 Samuel 26)


Chapter 26 once again takes us the narrative of the ongoing battle between Saul and David from which we had brief respite in chapter 25. Chapter 26 is significant in that this is the last recorded personal encounter between David and Saul. Once again, David is shown to be better than Saul in his ability to track down his enemy, and in his ability to show restraint. For the second time, David will spare Saul’s life. The similarities in the stories have prompted some commentators, particularly those with a liberal bent, to see chapters 24 and 26 as describing the same event. For instance, Henry Preserved Smith writes:

The section is obviously parallel to 24. And as there is here no reference to David’s repeated acts of magnanimity, there is reason to think that both accounts go back to the same original. With this agrees the fact that the Ziphites are active in both. We have no hesitation, therefore, in assuming that one of them stood in one of the two histories of the period, the other in the other (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel ICC [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1992], 220).

Smith seems to think that for two similar events to be distinguished it is necessary for there to be a stated reference to a multiplicity of events. Is it really necessary to state that a person had repeated acts of magnanimity for that person to have performed repeated acts of magnanimity? Is it not sufficient to tell multiple stories about that person’s valiant deeds? The lack of an explicit statement to this effect simply does not provide good warrant for identifying the two chapters with the same event. Admittedly, there are some similarities, but there are a considerable number of differences in the two stories as well. Note the following:

  • Chapter 24 takes place in the wilderness of En-gedi. Chapter 26 takes place in the wilderness of Ziph.

  • The events of chapter 24 take place in a cave; the events of chapter 26 take place in Saul’s camp.

  • In chapter 24, David cuts off part of Saul’s robe while he was relieving himself. In chapter 26, Saul is sleeping.

  • In chapter 24, there is no mention of either Abishai or Abner. Chapter 26 mentions both.

  • In chapter 24, David cuts off a portion of Saul’s robe. In chapter 26, David takes Saul’s spear and water jug.

Differences such as these lead me to believe that we should take the text as it stands and recognize two separate events with the same point—David is better than foolish Saul.


Verses 1–5: Despite the mercy David had shown Saul back in chapter 24, Saul once again acts in a way that is contrary to normal reason and sets out to kill David. The Ziphites reports to Saul that David is hiding on the hill of Hakilah (v. 1). Saul takes his 3000 man army to pursue David once again (cf. 24:2) and makes camp near where David was reported to be (v. 3). The latter part of verse 3 says that David “saw” (so kjv, nkjv, nasb, niv, esv) that Saul had followed him, but David’s “seeing” here should be understood figuratively (cf. nrsv’s“learned”) in light of the fact that he sent spies to confirm his suspicions in verse 4. After Saul’s approach had been confirmed, David personally went out to see Saul’s camp. From a military standpoint, Saul’s position seemed impregnable. He was lying in the midst of his army with the captain of the army close beside (v. 5).

Verses 6–12: At this point in the narrative, David does something quite remarkable. Taking Abishai with him, he sneaks into the camp and goes right up to where Saul is sleeping. Much like we read in chapter 26, David is encouraged by one of his men to take Saul’s life (v. 8), and once again David refuses to put his hand on the Lord’s anointed (vv. 9–11). David’s statements here are significant in light of previous passages and passages that will follow. David refuses to take any sort of vengeance on Saul because “the LORD will strike him down; or his day will come to die; or he will go down into battle and perish” (v. 10). The first part of this statement brings to mind what happened to Nabal in the previous chapter. Abigail had made statements to effect that those who were seeking David’s life would become like Nabal (see 25:26). Nabal had been struck down by God (see 25:38). David recognizes that it is not his place to seek revenge on someone who has wronged him and realizes that God could just as easily strike down Saul as He had Nabal. The latter part of the statement anticipates what will actually be Saul’s end—death in battle (see ch. 31). In between these two possible deaths is the possibility of natural death. David does not know how the Lord will bring about Saul’s death, but he know that it will happen one day and that it will be the Lord’s doing not his own.

Instead of killing Saul, David takes his spear and water jug. Taking Saul’s spear and water jug were symbolic acts not unlike David’s cutting off the corner of Saul’s robe in chapter 24. The corners of garments in the Ancient Near East were symbolic of kingly presence, and Saul’s spear is also symbolic of Saul’s position as the head of Israel’s army (It is ironic that David passes over the chance to kill Saul with the very spear that Saul had twice used to throw at David). The jar of water is also symbolic in the chapter, referring to that which gives life. David takes Saul’s “life,” but only in a figurative sense. David was able to do all this without being detected because God had put a deep sleep on everyone in the camp (v. 12, cf. Gen 2:21, 15:12).

Verses 13–16: As soon as David had left the camp, he turned around and called out to Abner, Saul’s commander-in-chief. He scolded Abner for not protecting Saul and voiced the fact that his inattention is worthy of death (vv. 15–16). According to David, someone had come into the camp to take the king’s life. We should not understand David to be referring to himself, here, but to Abishai. Unlike Abner, David had prevented someone from assassinating the king.

Verses 17–25: All the shouting must have awakened Saul, who immediately recognizes David’s voice (v. 17). We have the last recorded conversation between David and Saul. David, like he did in chapter 24, asks Saul why he is trying to kill him. David presents two possible scenarios (v. 19). First, it was possible that God had stirred him up to pursue David. If this was the case, David hopes that God would accept a sacrifice to atone for his sin. Second, if other men had prompted Saul to go after David, David calls a curse down on them. David’s reason for cursing these unnamed men was the fact that he had been forced from the place of God’s blessing. Since he was living in exile, David was incapable of participating in the ceremonial aspects of Israelite life. It was as if he had been forced to “serve other gods” (v. 19). He begs Saul not to let him die away from the presence of the Lord (v. 20). In verse 20, David subtly accuses Saul of doing what he is describing in verse 19. David knows full-well that no one has prompted Saul to carry on this pursuit. Saul is doing this entirely on his own. Apparently, Saul gets the hint as he responds with an acknowledgement of sin (v. 21). It is highly doubtful that Saul’s statement in verse 21 is sincere. That David himself does not believe Saul is evident from the fact that he does not take Saul up on his offer to return with him (v. 25). Before Saul and David part ways, David returns Saul’s spear (v. 22). David also points out an important theological truth and then applies it to himself. The truth is that “The Lord rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness”(v. 23). The principle David talks about here is similar to Paul’s discussion about sowing and reaping in Galatians 6. David prays that God will reward him with protection from Saul because David had been righteous and faithful in his dealings with Saul.


This whole story shows David’s faith that God would bring about what He had promised him in terms of him becoming king of Israel. David did not feel the need to take matters in his own hands by killing Saul to take the throne. David recognized that God would give him the kingdom in His good providence. He did not know how it would happen, but he knew it would. David’s example reminds us of the need to wait patiently on the Lord in regard to the things He has promised us. We may not always know when or how God will work all things together for good for those who love him, but He will do it.

David also reminds us of the principle of sowing and reaping. God rewards those who are righteous and how faithfully live their lives in accordance with the principles set forth in God’s word.

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