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.