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David Spares Saul’s Life Once Again

Three weeks ago, we read in 1 Samuel chapter 24 about how David spared the life of King Saul after Saul inadvertently stumbled into the very cave where David and his men were hiding. It was the perfect opportunity for David to kill the man that had been relentlessly hunting him, but David refused to harm the Lord’s anointed King and made a point of proving to Saul (by cutting off a corner of his robe) that even though he could have killed him, he didn’t. When Saul realized how merciful David had been to him, he humbly admitted that David was a better man than he and would one day be a great king over Israel. Saul then stopped his pursuit of David and went home very much humbled. 

That was all in chapter 24. Today, we find ourselves in chapter 26, although we might mistakenly think we’re re-reading chapter 24 because these two stories are strikingly similar. The details are different, but the storyline is almost identical.

In today’s chapter, Saul again resumes his pursuit of David, and again David has a perfect opportunity to kill Saul. But like in chapter 24, David refuses to kill Saul and makes a point of proving to Saul that he has no intentions of harming him in anyway. 

We begin this morning in 1 Samuel chapter 26, starting at verse 1. It reads like this:

Now some men from Ziph came to Saul at Gibeah to tell him, “David is hiding on the hill of Hakilah, which overlooks Jeshimon.”

2 So Saul took 3,000 of Israel’s elite troops and went to hunt him down in the wilderness of Ziph. 1 Samuel 26:1-2

Now if all of that sounds just a little bit familiar to you, that’s great – that means you’ve been paying attention! This is now the second time that the men of Ziph have come to Saul and have ratted out David’s hiding place. You might remember the first time they did that back in chapter 23. In that chapter we read:

19 But now the men of Ziph went to Saul in Gibeah and betrayed David to him. “We know where David is hiding,” they said. “He is in the strongholds of Horesh on the hill of Hakilah, which is in the southern part of Jeshimon. 20 Come down whenever you’re ready, O king, and we will catch him and hand him over to you!” 1 Samuel 23:19-20

That was the first time the men of Ziph betrayed David – and at that time, David narrowly avoided being captured by Saul at the Rock of Escape as Saul had to go home to fight off the Philistines. But now, here again in chapter 26, David has returned to his old stronghold on the hill of Hakilah and again, the men of Ziph have ratted out his location to King Saul. I don’t know what these guys had against David, but they sure seemed determined to sell him out.

As for Saul, when he hears where David is hiding, he gets right back into his old routine and he gathers 3000 of his best troops and heads out to hunt David down in the wilderness of Ziph.

But hold on a second. 

Hadn’t Saul learned his lesson and repented of his evil ways after David had spared his life back at that cave? Remember how Saul had humbly admitted that he was in the wrong to hunt down David and that David was surely God’s choice to be king? Do you remember that? Let me re-read those verses for you… This is back in chapter 24 again…

16 When David had finished speaking, Saul called back, “Is that really you, my son David?” Then he began to cry. 17 And he said to David, “You are a better man than I am, for you have repaid me good for evil. 18 Yes, you have been amazingly kind to me today, for when the Lord put me in a place where you could have killed me, you didn’t do it. 19 Who else would let his enemy get away when he had him in his power? May the Lord reward you well for the kindness you have shown me today. 20 And now I realize that you are surely going to be king, and that the kingdom of Israel will flourish under your rule.

1 Samuel 24:16-20

From what we read in these verses, Saul certainly seemed to be very sincere in what he said, right? He was in tears, acknowledging that David was a better man than he. He humbly stated that David would surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel would flourish under his rule.

But now, just a short time later, we see Saul right back on the hunt – trying to capture and kill David once again! So what do we make of this?

Was Saul just pretending to be sorry? Were the tears and the emotion of Saul just an elaborate show? Was his remorse and sorrow all just a big lie?

Well, no, I don’t believe so. In that moment it certainly seemed that Saul felt genuine sorrow for what he had been doing. He certainly felt guilty and was clearly convicted in his heart for how he had treated David.

But here’s the thing: while Saul felt truly sorry for what he had done – that didn’t mean that he had truly repented of his actions.

And this is an important point. Being sorry and feeling regret for your actions is not the same thing as true repentance.

Sorrow is a feeling – repentance is an action. Sorrow means I feel bad for what I did – repentance means I’m going to change because of it.

I don’t doubt that Saul felt sorrow for what he had done. We can see that he was brought to tears – he was feeling deep and painful sorrow. But we can clearly see by the fact that he once again gathered his troops and headed out to hunt down David that he had not experienced true repentance.

And I think many of us can relate. I think we often experience sorrow – we feel guilt and remorse and we feel convicted of our sin…. But how often do we actually repent? How often does our sorrow actually drive us to change our ways?

God doesn’t want us just to be sorry, He wants us to repent. In fact, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 7:10….

10 For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.

2 Corinthians 7:10

That’s a pretty serious statement. Worldy sorrow, without repentance, results in spiritual death.

If you are continually sorry for the same thing – over and over again – that should be a significant warning sign for you. You’re experiencing worldly sorrow, but not repentance because you’re still doing that thing that you’re continually sorry for – and Paul says that results in spiritual death – which of course, makes perfect sense.

By not truly repenting and changing your ways, by not turning away from your sin, you’re actually holding on to that sin – and sin separates us from God. And that, by definition, is spiritual death – separation from God.

If we only feel sorry for our sin and we refuse to truly repent and change our ways, then the result is going to be an ever increasing separation from God – spiritual death. And so I would strongly encourage you, that when God convicts you of your sin and you feel regret and sorrow for what you have done – don’t just stop there. Choose to repent of your sin. Make a decision in your heart and a plan in your head for how you will change your ways and put an end to that sin.

Because when you do that – when you actually repent – the result is the opposite of spiritual death. Repentance results in spiritual life! You’ll experience a renewed connection and closeness with God – and renewed sense of joy and peace in your heart. Certainly, repentance is not always easy – but it is always worth it.

I wonder how different Saul’s story would have been if he had truly repented, but as it was, his sorrow did not lead him to repentance, but only to more sorrow, as we are going to see as the story continues.

And so to get back to our story, Saul and his 3000 troops head off to hunt down David once again. Verse 3 says….

3 Saul camped along the road beside the hill of Hakilah, near Jeshimon, where David was hiding. When David learned that Saul had come after him into the wilderness, 4 he sent out spies to verify the report of Saul’s arrival.

5 David slipped over to Saul’s camp one night to look around. Saul and Abner son of Ner, the commander of his army, were sleeping inside a ring formed by the slumbering warriors. 1 Samuel 26:3-5

You can envision this like the covered wagon trains of the old west. Every night the settlers would circle the wagons, forming a wall of protection for everyone as they slept. Well, this is exactly what’s happening here. In order to keep the king safe and sound, all the troops would sleep in a circle around him. That way no one could get to the king without first going through the troops! Verse 6 continues:

6 “Who will volunteer to go in there with me?” David asked Ahimelech the Hittite and Abishai son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother.

“I’ll go with you,” Abishai replied. 7 So David and Abishai went right into Saul’s camp and found him asleep, with his spear stuck in the ground beside his head. Abner and the soldiers were lying asleep around him.

1 Samuel 26:6-7

This is a pretty gutsy move by David – sneaking into Saul’s camp in the middle of the night – walking right into the centre of the camp where Saul was sleeping. This was quite different from his last close encounter with Saul – which was completely unplanned by either of them. At that time, Saul just had to go to the bathroom and happened to wander into the very cave where David and his men were hidden – no body planned that meeting expect for God!

But this time, David deliberately, and at great risk to himself, walked right into this very precarious position. And he took with him Abishia – who, by the way, happened to be David’s nephew. (We don’t see that information here, but we read about that in 1 Chronicles 2.) And so far, this is the first we’ve heard of this young man, but it won’t be the last. Abishia becomes quite a key figure in David’s story and will eventually become one of David’s mighty men – in fact, we see him remain by David’s side loyally for the rest of David’s life.

But at this point in the story, we don’t know much about this young guy, however as we read through the rest of 1 & 2 Samuel, we’ll find out that his character is much like Peter in the New Testament. He’s zealous and eager – maybe a bit impulsive and reckless. And actually, some of that comes through even in this story. Take a look at this next verse:

8 “God has surely handed your enemy over to you this time!” Abishai whispered to David. “Let me pin him to the ground with one thrust of the spear; I won’t need to strike twice!” 1 Samuel 26:8

Even though Abishai knew that David refused to kill Saul back at the cave, perhaps now, after Saul obvious hadn’t repented and changed his ways, perhaps now David would see that God handed Saul over to him. And to make things even easier for David, Abishai volunteered to do the job himself. David wouldn’t have to get blood on his hands (figuratively or literally) and Abishia would see to it that Saul would never bother David again.

But of course, David’s convictions about never harming the Lord’s anointed one hadn’t changed – even though Saul had gone back on his word. And so we read in verse 9:

9 “No!” David said. “Don’t kill him. For who can remain innocent after attacking the Lord’s anointed one? 10 Surely the Lord will strike Saul down someday, or he will die of old age or in battle. 11 The Lord forbid that I should kill the one he has anointed! But take his spear and that jug of water beside his head, and then let’s get out of here!”

12 So David took the spear and jug of water that were near Saul’s head. Then he and Abishai got away without anyone seeing them or even waking up, because the Lord had put Saul’s men into a deep sleep.

1 Samuel 26:9-12

And it’s that last little phrase that shows us once again that God is at work, watching over and protecting David. It’s not David’s stealth and sneakiness that allows him to get in and out of Saul’s camp undetected. It’s God who has put everyone into a deep sleep.

And I just wonder how often we think that it’s our brilliant planning or our hard work or our wise decisions that bring us success, when all the while, it’s been God who’s been silently working the background to keep us safe and to help us succeed. I expect we take a lot more credit for our successes than we deserve.

God is always working in our lives and we need to remember to thank God for all that He does – even for the things that we don’t even know that He’s doing!

Well, after David and Abishia made their way safely out of Saul’s camp, we read in verse 13:

13 David climbed the hill opposite the camp until he was at a safe distance. 14 Then he shouted down to the soldiers and to Abner son of Ner, “Wake up, Abner!”

“Who is it?” Abner demanded.

15 “Well, Abner, you’re a great man, aren’t you?” David taunted. “Where in all Israel is there anyone as mighty? So why haven’t you guarded your master the king when someone came to kill him? 16 This isn’t good at all! I swear by the Lord that you and your men deserve to die, because you failed to protect your master, the Lord’s anointed! Look around! Where are the king’s spear and the jug of water that were beside his head?”

1 Samuel 26:13-16

This is not good for Abner. One of Abner’s chief responsibilities was to keep Saul safe, and the missing spear & water jug were proof that he had failed. And of course, in those days, that was an offence punishable by death! David was quite right in saying that Abner and his men deserved to die! That was the typical consequences for that type of failure.

However, getting Abner killed was not David’s purpose in stealing the spear and water jug. David was really looking to get Saul’s attention – and by this point, I’m sure he had Saul’s undivided attention! We see that in verse 17:

17 Saul recognized David’s voice and called out, “Is that you, my son David?”

And David replied, “Yes, my lord the king. 18 Why are you chasing me? What have I done? What is my crime? 19 But now let my lord the king listen to his servant. If the Lord has stirred you up against me, then let him accept my offering. But if this is simply a human scheme, then may those involved be cursed by the Lord. For they have driven me from my home, so I can no longer live among the Lord’s people, and they have said, ‘Go, worship pagan gods.’ 20 Must I die on foreign soil, far from the presence of the Lord? Why has the king of Israel come out to search for a single flea? Why does he hunt me down like a partridge on the mountains?”

1 Samuel 26:17-20

Now of course, this is all very similar to David’s speech to Saul back in chapter 24, but there is on new element in these verses. Here David talks about how he is no longer able to live among the Lord’s people – how he’s been driven to a foreign land far from the presence of God. 

Now of course, God was still with David even out there in the wilderness of Ziph. But we need to remember that for an Israelite in those days, being able to go and worship and sacrifice to God at the tabernacle was central to their faith – it was central to their identity as children of God.

At that time, they still lived under the law of Moses and their obedience to the law (through their rituals and sacrifices and all the laws that God gave them) was how they maintained a right relationship with God.

If David can’t be among God’s people and have access to the presence of God at the tabernacle, then how can he can fulfill his duties as an Israelite? How can he maintain his right relationship with God? He says in verse 19: 

I can no longer live among the Lord’s people, and they have said, ‘Go, worship pagan gods.’ 1 Samuel 26:19b

I don’t know if anyone literally said those words to David – “Go, worship pagan gods.” – but that what it felt like to David. By being driving away from his land and away his people – away from the tabernacle, he feels he has also been driven away from his God.

David didn’t just long for home – he longed to be in presence of God.

And this is where things are a little bit different for us today. We don’t need to be in a certain place to be in the presence of God. We don’t need a tabernacle or a temple or even a church building to be in the presence of God. We don’t need a place – we need a person. And that person is Jesus Christ. Jesus said in John 14:6…

6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. 

John 14:6

You see, the tabernacle was really just a foreshadow of Jesus. It was a symbol that looked forward to the day when Jesus would give us access to presence of God through his death and resurrection.

Today, we can have a right relationship with God and can joyfully enter in his presence simply by putting our faith in Jesus. In fact, when we do that, God’s presence comes and lives within us. His Holy Spirit fills us and goes with us wherever we go.

What a privilege it is for us to always be in the very presence of God!

But being before the time of Jesus, David didn’t have that same experience and He longed to be in the presence of God.

And so David pleads with Saul, asking why are you chasing someone so insignificant as me anyway, keeping me away from my home and from the presence of God?… Well, like in chapter 24, after David’s convicting speech, Saul can’t help but acknowledge that he is once again in the wrong. He responds in verse 21.

21 Then Saul confessed, “I have sinned. Come back home, my son, and I will no longer try to harm you, for you valued my life today. I have been a fool and very, very wrong.”

1 Samuel 26:21

Again, we see that Saul is filled with sorrow, but unfortunately, this will still not result in true repentance. In the very next chapter we’ll see that Saul doesn’t stop chasing David until David actually leaves the land of Israel and goes to live among the Philistines.

Despite Saul’s appearance of humility here, there is still no true repentance, no real change. And it almost seems that David kinda expected that. He’s all too familiar with the shifty character of Saul, and as the story concludes, we get the idea that David has not spared Saul’s life simply for the purpose of trying to change Saul (David probably figured that would’t happen anyway…), but David spared Saul’s life more for the purpose of just doing what is right and honouring the Lord. David says in verse 22…

22 “Here is your spear, O king,” David replied. “Let one of your young men come over and get it. 23 The Lord gives his own reward for doing good and for being loyal, and I refused to kill you even when the Lord placed you in my power, for you are the Lord’s anointed one. 24 Now may the Lord value my life, even as I have valued yours today. May he rescue me from all my troubles.”

25 And Saul said to David, “Blessings on you, my son David. You will do many heroic deeds, and you will surely succeed.” Then David went away, and Saul returned home.

1 Samuel 26:22-25

You’ll notice in all of this that David does’t have any demands or even requests of Saul. He didn’t spare Saul’s life so that he could barter with him or try to make a deal. He didn’t do this to get anything from Saul. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll see that he didn’t even ask Saul to stop chasing him.

David’s underlying motivation is simply to please and honour the Lord. He says in verse 23 – The Lord gives his own reward for doing good and for being loyal… And then in verse 24 – Now may the Lord value my life, even as I have valued yours today. May he rescue me from all my troubles.”

Even if Saul didn’t honour David’s actions and reward him kindness for kindness, David trusted that God would. By doing what was right, David trusted that God would reward him. God would take of him and value his life, just as he had valued the life of Saul.

It seems that David was living out the principles that Jesus taught in Luke 6:35… Jesus said….

35 “Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked.” Luke 6:35

If ever there was an enemy who was unthankful and wicked, Saul was the guy! But like our Heavenly Father, David determined to love his enemies. To do good to those who made his life miserable. Not that Saul would ever return the favour – but David trusted that God would. It might not happen right away, but David trusted that God would reward him in his own way and in his own time.

I’m reminded again of that passage in Galatians chapter 6 that we read a few weeks ago.

7 Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. 8 Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. 9 So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. 10 Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith.

Galatians 6:7-10

You know, if anyone was likely tired of doing good, it was probably David. All his life he had been nothing but good and loyal to King Saul – and Saul had repeatedly repaid his good with evil. But as this passage remind us, the justice of God would eventually ensure that both David and Saul would reap what they had sown. 

And so I would encourage you today – to mimic the actions of David,  to mimic the actions of your Heavenly Father. Do not become weary in doing good, because the Lord will reward you. You will reap what you sow. Despite how others may treat you, continue to plant goodness, kindness, forgiveness, generosity and all those other things that you’d like to harvest.

David was confident that God would repay him for his kindness and loyalty to King Saul. He would reap a harvest of blessing if he continued doing good. And as we continue reading David’s story through the rest of 1 & 2 Samuel, we’ll see God does exactly that.

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