1 Samuel 24:1–22 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions
“The Recurring Element of ‘Cutting Off’”
This chapter of our "character traits" novel reveals what happened in the cave in which David and his men were hiding when Saul decided to enter so he could relieve himself privately. David or one of his men could easily have killed Saul at that vulnerable moment. Instead, David spared the king’s life, allowing him to leave the cave unharmed, without even knowing that David was near. What David would do next is even more surprising, as we shall soon see. Incidentally, Saul’s response to all of this is likewise amazing.
As you read and meditate on the text of chapter 24, the incident recorded herein concerns "cutting off" (vv. 4, 5, 11, 21). David had the opportunity and received encouragement to cut off Saul's life but he chose to cut off only his robe's hem; he ended up promising not to cut off Saul's descendants and name. We'll also see that the sense of drama in this novel's "cutting off" chapter is intense. In this account, we find danger, suspense, and surprises. But this isn't simply a well-written, entertaining narrative. It's a story that has great application for every hearty Christian today.
David’s First Sparing of King Saul’s Life (24:1–7)
In our two-part study and discussion of chapter 23 (summarizing 1 Sam. 22:6–23:14 and 23:15–29), Saul appeared to have had David within his grasp, closing in on him when a messenger informed him that Israel was under attack, forcing Saul to give up his pursuit of David so he could effectively engage the marauding Philistines. We don't know exactly how Saul fared in his confrontation with them, but we know that he returned in one piece, ready to resume his pursuit of David. Our chapter begins with someone informing Saul that David was in the wilderness of En Gedi.
En Gedi lay near the Dead Sea's western shore. Even today it's a refreshing oasis with waterfalls, pools, tropical plants, and wild goats. The Hebrew name "Ein Gedi" means "spring of the goat," referring to the wild goats that populate this rugged area. [Note: It may have been, while David was hiding in this cave, that he wrote Psalm 57 and/or Psalm 142 (see their titles).] Saul pursued David with 3,000 of his finest soldiers, which gave him a five-to-one advantage over David, who had only 600 men (23:13). There Saul discovered a sheepfold that evidently encircled the mouth of one of the caves in those limestone hills. The king entered the cave, let's say, to evacuate his bowels; nobody, even his personal bodyguard, would have accompanied him into the cave for that purpose.
Bible scholar W M Thompson ("The Land and the Book," 1873, p. 420) wrote of the nature of visibility within such caves, ". . . these caverns are as dark as midnight, and the keenest eye cannot see five paces inward; but one who has been long within and is looking outward toward the entrance, can observe with perfect distinctness all that appears in that direction. David, therefore, could watch Saul come in and notice exactly where he 'covered his feet,' while he [Saul] could see nothing but impenetrable darkness." Saul was totally unaware of the mortal danger in which he'd placed himself, since David and his men were hiding in the recesses of the same cave.
David's men urged him to kill Saul, arguing that God had given that opportunity to David. They interpreted Saul's vulnerable position as a divine provision allowing David the opportunity to free himself from his enemy (v. 4). Regarding the corner, hem, or edge of a person's garment, in the ancient Near East, that garment portion made a statement about his or her social standing. A king's hem was especially ornate; it identified him as the king. Taking a portion of Saul's royal robe could have been interpreted in those days as a transfer of power from Saul to David. By cutting off that piece of Saul's robe, which Saul likely laid aside as he relieved himself, David suggested that he could cut off Saul's reign just as easily (cf. v. 21). His act constituted mild rebellion against Saul's authority.
David hadn't hurt Saul, but immediately David felt guilty. He felt a duty to be loyal to King Saul, Israel's king and his king. Saul had acted wrongly towards David, but David had no right to act wrongly towards Saul. David had to deal with Saul as if Saul was still a holy man. He quickly realized that his clever trick was inappropriate. Since Saul was king, David had no right to tamper with his clothing. Furthermore, David realized that any attempt to cut off and take away the kingdom from Saul, as he'd cut off the garment symbol of that kingdom, was contrary to God's will. Since Saul was the Lord's anointed (v. 6), it was God's place to remove him, not David's.
David became conscience-stricken over his taking a portion of Saul’s robe. He told his men that it was wrong to oppose Saul, rebuking his men sharply, warning them that they must not hurt Saul. And he confessed that he himself was wrong to have cut the piece of cloth from Saul’s robe. His decision probably shocked his men who were ready to kill Saul, thereby bringing about a sudden end to their troubles. However, David wouldn't allow it. Because he respected God as he did, he appreciated the need to respect Saul as his king.
David Asserts His Loyalty to Saul (vv. 8–15)
David and his men remained safely hidden in the cave. All they needed to do was keep quiet and let Saul leave. They'd then be able to escape successfully in the opposite direction. However, abandoning all efforts at self-protection or evasion, holding the robe remnant, David emerged from the cave and called out aloud to Saul. He addressed him, “My lord the king” (v. 8) and a little later as his “father” (v. 11). David prostrated himself on the ground, showing his reverence for and submission to King Saul (v. 8). He appealed to the king to set aside the things that others had told him and to listen to his words, comparing them with his actions, and then to judge his guilt or innocence for himself. By addressing Saul as his lord (v. 8), his king (v. 8), and his father (v. 11), David expressed respect, submission, and affection.
Sincerely, David challenged the charge that he'd sought Saul’s defeat or death, further that he wasn't striving to gain the throne by removing Saul from it. Showing Saul the portion of his robe that he'd cut off, David urged Saul to acknowledge that, while he could have killed his king, he refused, because Saul was God’s anointed. To harm the king would have been an act of rebellion against God, who'd enthroned Saul. With Saul’s life in David’s hands, David protected him by keeping his men from killing him. And now, he put his life into Saul’s hands, and ultimately into God’s hands, since he'd made his ultimate appeal to God, to whom he'd sought justice. As a result, he had no need to act against Saul.
In the end, David hadn't harmed Saul; he assured him that his hand wouldn't be against him in the future (v. 13); he also reminded the king that his fears about David were exaggerated. He may have compared himself to a dead dog and a single flea (v. 14) to help Saul realize that he viewed himself as harmless and insignificant. After all, how could such a great man as Saul, having military might, fear David? He closed his argument by telling Saul that he'd committed himself to God’s care, leaving judgment and retribution to God, while looking to Him for justice and protection from Saul’s attacks (v. 15). With this, David rested his case and awaited Saul's response.
David’s Promise Not to Cut Off Saul’s Descendants and Name (vv. 16–22)
16“When David finished saying this, Saul asked, “Is that your voice, David my son?” And he wept aloud. 17“You are more righteous than I,” he said. “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly. 18You have just now told me about the good you did to me; the Lord delivered me into your hands, but you did not kill me. 19When a man finds his enemy, does he let him get away unharmed? May the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today. 20I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands. 21Now swear to me by the Lord that you will not kill off my descendants or wipe out my name from my father’s family” (vv. 18–21).
Saul was shocked to hear his name called out from behind. He could hardly believe his ears that it was actually David calling to him. He lifted up his voice, weeping, calling David his “son.” How much easier this became for him, since David had called him his “father” in v. 11 and after David bowed down to him as a faithful servant to the king. Saul confessed David's superior righteousness (v. 17) and goodness (v. 18). There's no more powerful tribute than one that comes from an adversary. It was obvious that although David had Saul’s life in his hands, he spared it. Saul likely realized that David wouldn't have let him go if he were his enemy, so he must have been his friend. As a result, Saul invoked God’s blessings upon David (v. 19b).
Saul's response was both humble and emotional. In v. 20 is Saul's amazing confession. For the first time recorded in Scripture, Saul owned up to the truth. He wept aloud and acknowledged the righteousness of David's position, calling on Yahweh to reward David for his mercy to Saul. He then confessed that he realized that David's ultimate succession to the throne of Israel was inevitable, publicly acknowledging that David would be his successor (v. 20). Finally, he asked David to swear before Yahweh that when David would become king he wouldn't "cut off my descendants or wipe out my name from my father's family" (v. 21). It was common practice for men who ascended to the throne to wipe out every possible heir to the throne, especially the descendants of kings he'd overthrown or replaced. Ironically, David had already sworn, in his covenant with Jonathan, to protect Jonathan's offspring (20:15, 42). Now he voluntarily extended this promise to cover all of Saul's descendants. He gave Saul his solemn oath to do so.
What an encouragement for David it must have been to hear these words from Saul's lips. Saul knew that David would, indeed, be king someday, taking his place. Hearing this from Saul likely encouraged David in his darkest hours. He and his men had been hiding for their protection; they didn't trust Saul's latest admission enough to return with him, since he'd broken his promises too often for David to trust him now (19:6). In reality, people can say many kind things, but their actions show their true heart.
Let's review a few key points: Some of David’s finest moments took place when Saul sought to kill him. He showed his true colors when he had the opportunity to kill Saul and when his men urged him to seize the moment. You can imagine how it must have felt for him to see the king so close and to know that his men were nearby. If Saul had known they were inside that cave, he'd have easily trapped them. David’s men told him that the Lord had given him this opportunity to kill Saul, but David refused. Saul was deeply touched by David’s actions and asked David to promise that he wouldn't destroy his whole house after he became king. David promised that to Saul and they parted. Unfortunately, Saul’s change of heart was temporary. His remorse was evidently genuine, but David had learned that it would probably wouldn't last. Consequently when Saul departed and returned to Gibeah, David again sought protection in "the stronghold."
22So David gave his oath to Saul. Then Saul returned home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.
This chapter helps us deal with the common temptation to "cut off and get even." It shows us David's example of trusting God by not retaliating. It also deals with how we should view securing what God has promised us. David let God determine how and when he'd become king. He refused the temptation to take matters into his own hands by determining his destiny. We see David growing in this chapter. He began by threatening the king, then backing off and declining to kill him. Finally he determined to trust God to control Saul's descendants, as well as Saul himself, and to preserve Saul's memory in Israel. God presumably rewarded David for his trust and obedience by immediately giving him a peace-filled conscience, later giving him safety, when David's son Absalom would rise up powerfully against David (2 Samuel 16–19).
It Makes You Wonder . . . .
- Q. 1 What motives do David and his men have for killing a king who's trying to kill them?
- Q. 2 What does David's rationale tell us about David's character? About his faith?