And the men of David said unto him, Behold the day of which the LORD said unto thee, Behold, I will deliver thine enemy into thine hand, that thou mayest do to him as it shall seem good unto thee. Then David arose, and cut off the skirt of Saul’s robe privily.
And it came to pass afterward, that David’s heart smote him, because he had cut off Saul’s skirt.
And he said unto his men, The LORD forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the LORD’S anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he had cut off Saul’s skirt. (I Samuel 24)
To Saul it must have appeared as nothing less than what would be called today a plain case of “rotten luck.” To David and to us who observe in faith from history’s sideline, it was a clear case of God’s providence overshadowing and keeping a servant whom
He loved. For the first time, it appeared as though Saul had David shut up in an inescapable trap. All that remained was for him to close in and stamp out that curse which David had become to his life. But it was not to be. In the last moment, a messenger appeared to inform Saul that the Philistines had invaded the land. There was no choice left but to hasten to that front, while David was left free to flee. As it had been from the time of Babel on, the strife of the nations had been used again for the purpose of sparing one of God’s elect.
The relief that David obtained, however, was only temporary. No sooner had Saul driven the Philistines back behind their own borders than he returned to the wilderness to take up his pursuit of David. David and his men had time only to locate and establish for themselves a more suitable hiding place. But this time the place which they did find was much more suited for their needs. In the wilderness of Engedi there were numerous caves that went back into the limestone cliffs, some of them very far. From their entrances one could hardly determine how deep these caverns were, how Jarge their capacity was, nor if anything was in them or not. One such cave David located, which, although very ordinary appearing at its entrance, was able to helter all of his company of men and keep them safely hidden in its remote recesses. From the cavern’s entrance, it was quite impossible to tell that it was any different from countless others in the area.
The most amazing fact was, though, that through this all David had not become bitter toward his persecutor. He did feel badly about the actions and attitude of Saul, of course; and we know from the Psalms that he felt very deeply the injustice of that which he had to suffer. He even realized that the reason for Saul’s actions was to be found in the fact that he was trying to prevent David from obtaining that which God had ordained for him to have, the very throne of Israel itself. Yet through it all, he could not come to really hate Saul personally and to want any revenge. Through long years of instruction and dedication in faith, he had come to recognize in respectful awe all those who had been appointed by God to serve in the rule of Israel. Even though he had received from the Lord the promise that he would himself someday sit upon the throne, he felt no immediate desire to obtain it. He was quite satisfied, if only he might, to serve faithfully in the capacity of a humble servant until such a time as the Lord should see well to give to him a higher place. Thus, even after all he had gone through at the hand of Saul, there was nothing that he would have desired more than to be reconciled to his king. Surely he could find in his heart not the least desire to hurt him. This became quite evident there in that cave at Engedi.
Coming back as he did to continue his pursuit of David, Saul found himself quite at a loss to know just where to go. He knew the general area in which David had to be, but of the specific location he could find no trace. But Saul was determined, even to the point of taking three thousand of his choice men and sending them out to search the land in quest of David. In fact, so heavily did this whole matter weigh upon the mind of King Saul that he himself joined this party of searchers to tramp through the hot and dry valleys of that wilderness region in search of some indication of where David and his men had gone.
How long the search continued, we do not know; but it happened one day as Saul was tramping through a hot, dusty valley that he came to a group of deserted sheep pens which at times were used by shepherds who grazed their sheep in the area. They were conveniently located near to some caves in the hillside where the shepherds could themselves live during the times that they spent in the district. To Saul the sudden appearance of those caves so conveniently located seemed most fortunate. The afternoon was hot and the search so far had proved quite futile. The only cool place one could find anywhere about was in caverns such as these. A short nap in one of these caves would no doubt go unnoticed by the other men and would be most refreshing for him. Quickly Saul slipped into the mouth of the nearest one and went to sleep.
Little did Saul realize how the providence of God had once again guided his step. For the cave in which Saul now slept was one of those that went deep into the hillside to open up into a vast cavern—it was the very one in which David and his men were now hiding. Each move that Saul made was carefully watched by many attentive eyes. He had been seen already when first he entered this valley by the guards of David stationed at the cavern’s mouth. Only when Saul’s footsteps turned directly to their cave itself had they backed up into the darker recesses to watch while with suppressed glee a message was quickly sent to David to inform him of the good fortune that had come his way. Soon, much sooner than had been expected, David would be able to sit upon the throne of Israel—so it seemed to the men that carried the report. There was nothing now that could prevent David from ending his enemy’s life. “Behold,” they exuberantly whispered in his ear, “The day of which the LORD said unto thee, Behold, I will deliver thine enemy into thine hand, that thou mayest do to him as it shall seem good unto thee.”
Little did the men realize it, but their words struck deep and painfully into David’s heart. If there was one thing that he had always feared, it was the possibility that some day that he might find himself under the necessity of fighting against his own countrymen, and especially of inflicting harm directly upon the royal family of Saul. He could not forget that the king of Israel was appointed by God and must be respected as God Himself. Again and again he prayed to God to prevent a direct conflict between his forces and those of Saul, lest he should find himself under the necessity of inflicting harm upon the people of God. Now as he crouched in the back of that cave watching the sleeping Saul, he was only too thankful that Saul was unaware of their presence, and he was satisfied to leave it at that.
It was evident, however, that David’s men were not. To them the presence of Saul was as a sign from God that the time had come for David to strike back. They would never be satisfied if David merely let Saul depart again without doing anything at all. And, as David thought about it, it struck him that maybe some good use could be made of this opportunity after all, maybe he could use it to prove to Saul once and for all how completely one-sided and unjustified was his hatred of David. Slowly and silently David arose, took his sword, and crept toward the sleeping king while his men with bated breath eagerly watched his every move. But David’s intent was far from what they were anticipating. Coming to the prostrate king, David took his sword only to reach down and cut a small swatch of cloth from the edge of the royal robe. That was all, and with the piece of cloth in his hand David retreated to the back of the cave again. Yet, even as he did so, David’s conscience began to pain him. Somehow there was something symbolic of rebellion in willfully damaging the royal robe of the king. His action has been impulsive, and now that it was done he knew it was wrong.
No sooner had David returned to the back of the cave, however, than it became evident how completely different was his thinking from that of his men. They were utterly dismayed by the triviality of David’s gesture. Here was surely an opportunity which would never be repeated. What reason could there be for failing to put an end to this meaningless, wicked conflict? Surely, if anyone deserved to die at David’s hand, Saul was the one. Or at least he could be taken as a hostage until some fair and permanent guarantee of safety would be given. And, of course, from the point of view of all human logic, the men were quite right. But with David there was something deeper and more decisive than mere logic; it was the way of faith in the will of God. David was left with no choice but to use his authority to still the restiveness of his men. With a finality that forbade any further debate, he said, “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the LORD’S anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the LORD.”
Nevertheless, David was not as yet through with the matter. Still there lingered in the back of his heart the hope that something might be done to heal the relationship between him and Saul; at least, he was determined to do all that he could to bring this about. Patiently he waited until Saul awoke and left the cave, then he followed. Coming to the opening of the cave he called to the departing Saul, “My lord the king,” and when Saul turned he bowed himself to the ground in a gesture of humble submission. Then, before Saul had a chance to grasp the meaning of it all, he added, “Wherefore hearest thou men’s words, saying, Behold, David seeketh thy hurt? Behold, this day thine eyes have seen how that the LORD had delivered thee to day into mine hand in the cave: and some bade me kill thee: but mine eye spared thee; and I said, I will not put forth mine hand against my lord; for he is the Lord’s anointed. Moreover, my father, see, yea, see the skirt of thy robe in my hand: for in that I cut off the skirt of thy robe, and killed thee not, know thou and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in mine hand, and I have not sinned against thee; yet thou huntest my soul to take it. The LORD judge between me and thee, and the LORD avenge me of thee: but mine hand shall not be upon thee. As saith the proverb of the ancients, Wickedness proceedeth from the wicked; but mine hand shall not be upon thee. After whom dost thou pursue? after a dead dog, after a flea. The LORD therefore be judge, and judge between me and thee, and see, and please my cause, and deliver me out of thine hand.”
Nothing could have hurt Saul more than these words of David and the deed which proved them. Suddenly there was no more pretense, no more hiding; all the wickedness of his heart stood exposed. As accustomed as Saul was to denying the truth, he stood now as though naked in his shame. The words of David were as coals of fire upon his head so that with flushed and completely unnatural humility he could only think to answer, “Thou art more righteous than I: for thou hast rewarded me good, whereas I have rewarded thee evil. And thou has shewed this day how that thou hast dealt well with me: forasmuch as when the LORD had delivered me into thine hand, thou killedst me not. For if a man find his enemy, will he let him go well away? wherefore the LORD reward thee good for that thou has done unto me this day. And now, behold, I know well that thou shalt surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in thine hand. Swear now therefore unto me by the LORD, that thou wilt not cut off my seed after me, and that thou wilt not destroy my name out of my father’s house.” These were hard words for Saul, the most painful he could ever be asked to utter, and the pain of them even the willing promise of David could not alleviate. All he had ever found worthy of living for was his own pride, and now he stood humbled. For the moment there was nothing more that he could do than turn from the mouth of that cave and call his forces home. But the pain of that moment would never forsake him. Because of it he would come to hate David even more bitterly than he had before.