1 Samuel 26:1–25 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions
“David Again Spares Saul’s Life”
We recently read and discussed the account in chapter 24 of David first sparing Saul's life (see its summary), albeit in a cave's restroom. Today's chapter 26 scene shifts back to Saul, allowing us to see even more of his character traits in action. The writer contrasted his improper attitudes, behavior, and consequences, with David's proper attitudes, behavior, and consequences. There are many similarities between the life-sparing efforts David made in both chapters. Perhaps the most significant difference is that in chapter 24, David was on the defensive, whereas, here in chapter 26 he's on the offensive.
The similarities of chapters 24 and 26 highlight David's getting a second chance. The differences between the two chapters tell us how well David did the second time around. Chapter 26 is the third and final episode in the mini-section about David's treatment of two fools: Nabal and Saul. A prominent theme in our hearty periscope is David's learning to trust God to repay his enemies rather than take vengeance himself.
Here's how today's chapter 26 will play out: Saul will search for David, who'll then respond (vv. 1–5); David will keep his man Abishai from killing Saul (vv. 6–12); he'll then rebuke Saul's man Abner for not protecting Saul (vv. 13–16); in conclusion, Saul will talk to David, who'll then respond (vv. 17–25).
David’s Second Opportunity to Kill Saul (26:1–5)
26:1 The Ziphites went to Saul at Gibeah and said, “Is not David hiding on the hill of Hakilah, which faces Jeshimon?”
Let's immediately put this chapter into perspective. We've met the Ziphites before. In chapter 23, we were told that they went up to Saul at his home in Gibeah, informing him of David’s whereabouts and promising to deliver him to the king (23:19–20). The people of Ziph had previously betrayed David's whereabouts to Saul (23:19–23). They were about to try again to gain King Saul's favor by helping Saul find David. Saul, in hot pursuit of David, soon arrived. When David learned of Saul’s presence, he moved further south, where he was nearly trapped by Saul on a mountain in the wilderness of Maon. Had it not been for the timely arrival of a messenger with a report that the Philistines had attacked Israel, Saul would have captured David (23:24–29).
It was after Saul had returned from following the Philistines that he resumed his pursuit of David. While Saul paused at a rest stop at the very cave in which David and his men were hiding, David secretly cut off a portion of Saul’s robe but he wouldn't allow anyone to harm Saul. He then revealed himself to Saul and demonstrated his innocence by showing the portion of the king’s robe he'd just cut off while inside the cave. Saul “repented” (for the moment); the two men parted peacefully. David then publicly asserted that it would be wrong for him (or anyone else) to harm Saul, since that would destroy God’s anointed. David wouldn't harm his king; he'd seek only his good.
We saw in chapter 25's summary that David's commitment regarding Saul’s wellbeing wasn't extended to Nabal. David sent a delegation of ten men to ask Nabal for a contribution of food, since he was celebrating sheep-sheering time. In his rude refusal, Nabal withheld food; what's more, he heaped insults upon David who became so incensed that he set out to kill Nabal and every male in his household. Through the wise intervention of Abigail (Nabal’s wife), David spared Nabal’s life temporarily, and was thus restrained from acting foolishly. In her appeal to David, Abigail reminded him of the very principles he'd embraced in chapter 24.
In today's opening verses, we again find the Ziphites betraying David to Saul. This time, Saul wasn't in the wilderness of Ziph, threatening the lives of those who'd withhold information about David’s whereabouts; he was at home in Gibeah, having given up the pursuit of David, at least for a time. But with the arrival of these helpful informants, Saul was once again prompted to pursue David. These Ziphites (descendants of Caleb, and thus of Judah) were fellow-Judahites with David; yet they betrayed their future king.
Despite his declarations and promises, Saul returned to the wilderness of Ziph, accompanied by 3,000 of his best soldiers (v. 2). This time he wouldn't let David and his 600 soldiers get away. So he pitched camp on the hill of Hakilah, close to the road while David remained in a more remote area of the wilderness. Saul's soldiers were camped and David would take the initiative to scout out their camp. His spies located it and informed David, who approached with his men, seeing Saul asleep in its center, easily identified by his size, his armor or apparel, and certainly his spear. Next to Saul laid his uncle and commander of the army, Abner. From Saul and Abner in the center, the 3,000 soldiers radiated. [Note this about Saul's spear: Saul had used it to attack David twice (cf. 18:10–11; 19:9–10) and Jonathan, his son, once (20:33) when Saul was upset. It was, therefore, an instrument of death. It was also the symbol of Saul's rule, similar to a scepter (22:6).]
David Said, “Don't Destroy Him!” (vv. 6–12)
Back with his men, David found nephew Abishai willing to volunteer for the dangerous mission of infiltrating Saul's camp. Together the two snuck into it. The narrator tells us:
7So David and Abishai went to the army by night, and there was Saul, lying asleep inside the camp with his spear stuck in the ground near his head. Abner and the soldiers were lying around him.
David's reason for entering Saul's camp wasn't to kill him but to teach him a lesson. By taking Saul's spear, David would teach the king that David had the power of death but chose to spare Saul's life rather than take it. This symbolic act also communicated that the right to rule would be David's eventually. And by taking his water jug, albeit a life-giving vessel, since life in the Judaean wilderness depended on drinking water, David taught Saul that he had the power to take his life.
They were all sleeping, "because the Lord had put them into a deep sleep" (v. 12b). Abishai and David engaged in a hushed argument. Abishai boasted that he'd kill Saul, "With one thrust of my spear. I won't strike him twice" (v. 8). But David wouldn't let him. David's reasoning clearly explains the nature of his faith in Yahweh.
9But David said to Abishai, “Don’t destroy him! Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless?10As surely as the Lord lives,” he said, “the Lord himself will strike him, or his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. 11But the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed (vv. 9–11a).
If you were hearty Abishai, it wouldn't take you long to figure out what should happen next. Knowing from the incident in the cave that David had been unwilling to kill Saul, Abishai whispered to David, “God has delivered Saul into your hand today. Now, then, let me finish Saul off with his own spear. It will only take one blow, I assure you.” Abishai reasoned: True, David refused to kill Saul in the cave, but he surely has learned his lesson by now. If David is reluctant to do it, I'll do it. Surely David didn't ask volunteers to come down here with him, to only look at the king and then leave. What an interesting debate it must have been between David and Abishai, as they strongly disagreed while trying to keep from waking up Saul or any of his men.
David forbid Abishai to kill Saul for essentially the same reason he verbalized in the cave, back in chapter 24: No one is to lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed without incurring guilt. In 26:10, David went beyond what he'd said before, assuring Abishai something like this: As surely as God lives, I'll be the One to remove Saul. But David had come for Saul’s spear and water container, nothing more. He'd take both, instructing Abishai to return with him. Abishai probably felt that was a suicide mission! With great risk, they'd tiptoed around Saul, taking only his spear and water jug.
This unbelievable feat wasn't simply a stroke of good luck or a strategic military maneuver. God had miraculously put Saul's 3,000 men to sleep. David and Abishai could have been yelling at each another (perhaps they had) and no one would have been awakened.
David Chides Abner, Saul’s Bodyguard (vv. 13–20)
13Then David crossed over to the other side and stood on top of the hill some distance away; there was a wide space between them. 14He called out to the army and to Abner son of Ner, “Aren’t you going to answer me, Abner?”
Abner replied, “Who are you who calls to the king?” (vv. 13–14).
Once David and Abishai had retreated a safe distance from Saul's army, David began to taunt Saul's general — Abner — for the serious security breach of the king's bodyguard that allowed an enemy to successfully come so close to the king. The person who came to destroy Saul was Abishai (vv. 8, 15). David, rather than Saul's bodyguard Abner, was responsible for sparing Saul's life. Abner deserved to die for his failure in duty, but David spared his life too. He more faithfully defended Saul's life than even Saul's most-trusted servant. Abner was silent. But Saul recognized David's voice and called out to him, "Is that your voice, David my son?" as he'd done previously at the Cave of Adullam (24:16).
Evidently the realization that David or Abishai again could have killed him but didn't, led Saul to respond to David tenderly, calling him his son. Indeed, David had behaved as a loyal son toward Saul. David, however, didn't address Saul as his father, as he had previously (cf. 24:11). He'd come to view Saul less affectionately since he continued to hound David without cause after repeated promises to stop doing so.
In v. 19, David proposed that, if a violation of the Mosaic Law had prompted Saul to hunt him down, he was ready to offer the specific sacrifice the Law prescribed for atonement (v. 19). However, if David's enemies had stirred up Saul's hostility without cause, David prayed that God would judge them for that. No matter, he wanted to live and die in the center of God's will and presence (v. 20). He again compared himself to a mere flea, essentially harmless, but annoying to Saul (v. 20; cf. 24:14). He was making a word play on Abner's question, "Who are you who calls (Heb. qarata) to the king?" (v. 14), by referring to himself as a "partridge" (v. 20, Heb. haqqore, literally a caller-bird). A partridge darts from bush to bush when a hunter pursues it, just as David had been doing, though it tires fairly quickly and can eventually be caught easily. David's point in comparing himself to a partridge and a flea was that Saul's search for such an insignificant person as David was beneath the king's dignity. He appealed to King Saul, Please don't kill me.
David’s Trust in God (vv. 21–25)
To his credit, Saul publicly humbled himself (v. 21). But David wasn't fooled. Saul had made promises before, and though he may have meant them then, he didn't keep them for long. David returned Saul's spear, then called on Yahweh to reward him for his righteousness and faithfulness; Saul certainly wouldn't reward him! He didn't use Saul’s spear against him, but Saul got the point. He recognized his own sin in his dealings with David. In response to Saul’s confession and promise of amnesty, David shouted, “Here is the king’s spear, . . . Let one of your young men come over and get it." Apparently, the spear was a symbol of authority in the ancient world. David didn't presume to keep the symbol of authority that belonged to Saul, so he called for one of Saul’s men to fetch it (v. 22).
While Saul and his men had put themselves in jeopardy by accusing David of being a sinner and a criminal while pursuing him, David was sure that his life was safely in God's hands. Because he'd highly valued Saul's life, he knew that God would highly value his life; thus he was certain that God would indeed deliver him from all his distresses (v. 24).
Saul again confessed that he'd sinned, as he'd done when he'd sacrificed at Gilgal (v. 21) and when David had spared his life in the cave (24:17). He also admitted that he'd played the fool (similar to Nabal) and committed a serious error. David returned Saul's spear to him (v. 22), the symbol of the right to rule. Perhaps David didn't return the water jug to remind Saul that he still had the power to end Saul's life. He felt confident that God would repay each of them eventually; he was determined to wait for him to do so (v. 23). He acknowledged that Yahweh was his real deliverer (v. 24).
Saul’s final words are a pronouncement of blessing on David, with the assurance that he will accomplish great things and that, in the end, David will prevail (v. 25). But his words rang hollow. The two men parted company for the last time. They'll not meet again because the time of Saul’s death drew near. Saul returned to his place, while David went on his way. He knows better than to think Saul’s repentance would last.
It Makes You Wonder . . . .
- Q. 1 Why didn't David kill Saul when he had the opportunity?
- Q. 2 What did he learn from his experience with Nabal?
- Q. 3 What did David call Saul (v. 9) and why? Would you have been able to call him that?