1 Samuel 24
Vengeance is Mine

Sermon Discussion Questions:

  1. What stood out to you most? What surprises you most about this chapter?
  2. What's the connection between grace and not taking ourselves too seriously? Would people around you (spouse, friends, coworkers) describe you as someone who "takes themselves too seriously"?
  3. Why was David cut to the heart?
  4. Can you think of an example of someone else in the Bible who was tempted to think that God's promises "needed a little help"?
  5. How does a robust understanding of the justice and wrath of God provide the means to love our enemies? See Romans 12:19-21


Our most embarrassing versions of ourselves (I think) come from our Middle School years, so let me share an embarrassing story of my own. When I was in seventh grade, I had about as fragile of an ego as you could: held-together-by-toothpicks-and-dry-leaves kind of fragile. So, like any insecure young man, I overcompensated with bravado and swagger, desperate to project an image of someone tough and resilient. One day on the bus, some kids were goofing off in the back, throwing something—a lunch bag or water bottle, I’m not sure—back and forth. One kid missed the pass and the object hit me in the back of the head. I reared around and yelled: WHO THREW THAT? Everyone pointed at some kid and I screamed: YOU’RE DEAD. Why did I do that? I have not the faintest idea. It just came in a flash. I wasn’t violent or aggressive. I had never been in a fight and was by nature gentle. But I had a reputation I was trying to carefully cultivate on the bus, and when the thing hit my head something flashed through my head: “The kind of person you want to be wouldn’t stand for that.” I charged at the kid who sat there, sheep-like and unphased, apparently not finding my oncoming presence a terribly foreboding one. But once I got to him I stopped. Immediately I realized: (1) I have no desire to hurt him, I know it was just a mistake and (2) he is much bigger than he looked originally. I hesitated for half a second. But I was in too deep at this point, I had to do something. So, I just shook his shoulders limply, the way a mother might scold a child, and said, “HEY…don’t…do that again…or else!” He looked at me with a knowing, Are you serious? look. Everyone on the bus saw that I was just a lot of talk, another puffed up little guy who was more eager than able to prove to the world otherwise. Everyone laughed at me. I made a fool of myself. And it was so good for my soul, so good. We all know that it is an attractive and wonderful thing to respond to offenses with grace, poise, and compassion. To be flexible, not brittle. 

And while it is easy to see how a seventh grade version of myself ought to have done differently, it might be more difficult to see how to do that when we raise the bar on the level of offense. What do we do when someone really hurts us? When it isn't a small thing to brush off?

How do you become a person who can respond to hurt, offense, and sin with grace, compassion, wisdom, and love?

When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, “Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi.” 2 Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel and went to seek David and his men in front of the Wildgoats' Rocks. 3 And he came to the sheepfolds by the way, where there was a cave, and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave. 4 And the men of David said to him, “Here is the day of which the LORD said to you, ‘Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you.’” Then David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul's robe. 5 And afterward David's heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul's robe. 6 He said to his men, “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD'S anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD'S anointed.” 7 So David persuaded his men with these words and did not permit them to attack Saul. And Saul rose up and left the cave and went on his way.
8 Afterward David also arose and went out of the cave, and called after Saul, “My lord the king!” And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the earth and paid homage. 9 And David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Behold, David seeks your harm’? 10 Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the LORD gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the LORD'S anointed.’ 11 See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it. 12 May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. 13 As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes wickedness.’ But my hand shall not be against you. 14 After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! 15 May the LORD therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand.”
16 As soon as David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. 17 He said to David, “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. 18 And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the LORD put me into your hands. 19 For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the LORD reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. 20 And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. 21 Swear to me therefore by the LORD that you will not cut off my offspring after me, and that you will not destroy my name out of my father's house.” 22 And David swore this to Saul. Then Saul went home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.
-       1 Sam 24

At this point, Saul has thrown spears, political traps, and armies at David. He has hunted him the way a hound hunts a fox, the way a warden seeks an escaped convict. But the only crime David has committed so far is exposing just how fragile Saul’s sense of self really is. David, a young clear-eyed man, has only ever seen a simple straight line between where he was and what obedience to God required. He was unaware of the coils of vanity that had wrapped around Saul, how that straight line would cut right through those coils, and how it would jeopardize his own life. 

Despite being on the run, David has what Saul lacks. Saul knows that the Lord is with David, and that it’s just a matter of time before David is king. But, he is terrified by that thought and so becomes irrational; he thinks if he can kill David he can stop God’s plan. So, chapter 23 records Saul clipping at David’s heels, narrowly missing him because of a perfectly timed Philistine incursion he must go deal with (1 Sam 23:27-29). But here, he now returns with “three thousand chosen men out of all Israel,” an elite squad of assassins to get rid of the son of Jesse once for all (1 Sam 24:1-2). But, the mighty king who thinks he can thwart the living God in His tracks is just a man, and his creatureliness shows itself: nature calls. The army stops its pursuit, so the king can go relieve himself inside a cave, but of all the many caves that exist in the wilderness of the Engedi, he selects the cave that harbors the very prey he has been hunting. 

David and his men have sought relief from the heat of the day in the cool dark of the cave when they see a figure walk across the entrance of the cave. Lo and behold, it is Saul himself! Saul, the vile, Saul the cruel, Saul the wicked, and now he has come alone into a cave, preoccupied, guard down. What a ready-made opportunity! The school bully has his shoelaces tied together and doesn’t know it! Surely, this must be God’s divine providence smiling upon David, delivering his enemies into his hand! “And the men of David said to him, “Here is the day of which the LORD said to you, ‘Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you,’” (1 Sam 24:4). We don’t have any previous promise of this given to David, but it’s hard not to see this moment as God throwing David a break, right? Scene after scene after scene from chapters 18-23 have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Saul is rotten to the core, and David is righteous. 

David creeps forward to the unassuming, pathetic Saul. He feels the familiar weight of the blade in his hand and eyes the man who has sworn to kill him; the man he has served faithfully, fought for, bled for, and who has repaid him only with violence. Saul is hunched over, as pitiful as he is repulsive. Doesn’t his very act in the moment seem like a fitting parable of what Saul has become? One who produces defecation, defilement, and death? That’s what Saul has become. How easy it would be, how right it would feel! But then, David notices Saul’s royal robe tossed aside, a symbol of Saul’s kingship not unlike a crown, and, for reasons not given to us, he reaches out and cuts a corner of it off. And suddenly, wham! a blow smites David’s heart! 

He creeps back to his men and as forcefully as whispers allow, he demands his men stand down. David solemnly vows to his men: “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD'S anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD'S anointed,” (1 Sam 24:6). David has a very strong conviction that because Saul is in his position as the king of Israel, anointed by the Lord, he is forbidden from raising a hand against him. This conviction might be coming from Moses: “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people,” (Ex 22:28; cf. 2 Sam 19:21). Do not revile God nor curse a ruler of your people—those are linked because God is the One who installs the rulers over us, which is Paul’s argument of governing authorities in Romans 13. To dishonor them is to dishonor the God who has put them there.

Saul finishes his business and walks away. The opportunity is gone. David takes a calculated risk and runs to the mouth of the cave and cries out to Saul, holding up the corner of his robe as evidence that (1) Saul was in David’s hand and (2) he spared him. He vows that anyone who has been telling Saul that David seeks his harm is a liar (1 Sam 24:9). He will not touch the Lord’s anointed (1 Sam 24:10). He bows before Saul, honors him, and calls him “father.” Now, it is Saul’s turn to be cut to the heart. You can see the clouds clear from Saul’s mind for moment as he speaks, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And Saul lifted up his voice and wept,” (1 Sam 24:16).

Saul admits that David is more righteous than he is, repaying him with good, while Saul has only given David evil. He cannot deny the mercy that David has shown him in the cave—he knows that if the roles were reversed, he would have quickly killed David (1 Sam 24:17-19). And then he confesses, “And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand,” (1 Sam 24:20). For the first time, Saul finally says what he has feared, what he has known all along (cf. 1 Sam 23:17). David vows to preserve Saul’s offspring, and they part ways (1 Sam 24:21-22).

David is a professional soldier; he has killed many. Why does David spare Saul? Why does he show him mercy? Is David being foolish? Two perspectives:

“A man loses power when he pities,” taught Nietzsche. To pity someone is to be in a position of power over them yet restrain yourself, to hold back. “On the whole, pity thwarts the law of evolution…It preserves that which is ripe for death…Nothing is more unhealthy in the midst of our unhealthy modernity, than Christian pity,” (Nietzsche, The Antichrist, aphorism 7). Nietzsche views the Christian ethic of pity—its care for the poor and sick and love of enemy—as a kind of plague that prevents humanity from progress. 

In the Lord of the Rings, Frodo speaks with Gandalf about the repulsive Gollum character who was spared by Frodo’s uncle, Bilbo. Frodo tells Gandalf, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!” Gandalf wisely replies, “Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need.”

“I am sorry, but I do not feel any pity for Gollum…He is an enemy. He deserves death.”
“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Nietzsche represents the viewpoint of a consistent Darwinian materialism, while Tolkien represents the viewpoint of Jesus Christ, who teaches us to bless those who curse us, to love our enemies, and to reserve judgment for God alone. 

Now, if you aren’t a Christian in here, just curious: which world would you rather live in? If you say Tolkien’s world, yet claim that there is no God, then Nietzsche will argue that you still are functionally acting like a Christian, even while denying it; a “sheep in wolves clothing.” If we find the ethic of love and care for the downtrodden to be attractive, plausible, then we must consider the theological foundations it rests on.

When we look at the story we find three reasons why David spares Saul:
David didn’t take himself too seriously
David trusted God’s Promise
David trusted God’s Justice

David Doesn’t Take Himself too Seriously

“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense,” (Prov 19:11).

The more important you are, the harder it is to let an offense go. If you walk around with a “I’m kind of a big deal” mentality, then you’ll find grievances ten times more difficult to overcome. In David’s interaction with Saul, we get a couple of clues that demonstrate that David didn’t take himself too seriously. When he confronts Saul, he begins with bowing to the ground and paying homage to him (1 Sam 24:8) and then asks Saul, “After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea!” (1 Sam 24:14). And lest we think that David is just blowing smoke to schmooze Saul off his trail, David exhibited similar humility when he was twice approached by servants of Saul to marry one of his daughters (1 Sam 18:18; 23). Remember, David was the runt of the litter, the eighth son, the little one. He knows that he doesn’t have any secret sauce. 

Have you ever noticed that when someone hurts you, if you find yourself stating your resume and title, the hurt suddenly becomes more severe? I can believe she would talk to me like that when I’ve been nothing but good to her…I’m her Father, for goodness’ sake! As we say it, the hurt deepens and hardens. A second voice in our head responds with: Wow, I can’t believe they would treat you like that.

But if you don’t have that commentary? You are free. Inflated egos are fragile and sensitive (Example A: Saul). But humility is relaxing. You can let it go, not take it so personally, and even forgive. But how can David think so little of himself? Don’t they sing songs about him? Isn’t he the Goliath slayer? What does David know about himself? I’m nothing special. He knows that all his victory and success has been by the grace and mercy of God, not the might of his hand (1 Sam 17:37).  Until you realize that you realize that everything you have is a gift, that it’s all grace, as long as you think that you’ve earned your spot, you’ll never be able to respond with the flexibility that grace engenders.

David Trusted God’s Promise

David’s cutting of the corner of Saul’s robe is significant and pregnant with meaning for us as readers. The robe is used a symbol of royalty (cf. 1 Sam 18:4), and most importantly it is Saul’s tearing of Samuel’s robe back in chapter 15 that is interpreted as a picture of what will happen to Saul’s kingdom: “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you,” (1 Sam 15:28). Here, in the cave, the neighbor “who is better” than Saul stands with his robe torn in his own hands. The kingdom is David’s.

Yet, as his knife tears through the robe, remorse tears through his heart. The only other place we are told that David’s heart is struck is when he sins by taking the census near the end of his life, and confesses, “I have sinned greatly,” (2 Sam 24:10). One commentator writes: “…one has the impression that he is most devastated by what he might have done…David has acted with compassion, but he has stared into the abyss of violence. He knows how close he was to raising his hand against the Lord’s anointed one…He is overwhelmed by what he has discovered within himself,” (NIB).

As David looks down at the robe in his hand, what is he thinking? God has promised the kingdom to me—it is in my hand. Is it right to snatch the kingdom forcefully? 

No matter how understandable it would seem, despite all his men telling him to do otherwise, David’s heart is sensitive, he listens to his conscience, so he turns away from temptation. If Saul is going to be disposed of, it will be the Lord’s doing; he need not take matters into his own hands. God’s promises don’t need to be helped along, and David knows that if he strikes Saul down, he will have circumvented the path of promise that God has laid out for him. He knows, “I cannot sin my way into God’s blessing.” God’s promise to David undergirds David’s ability to keep God’s Law.

Picture David, years from now, sitting down with his grandchildren around a fire, and they all say, “Grandpa, grandpa, tell us the story of how you became the king!” What story does David want to tell them? Well kiddies, picture old king Saul squatting in a cave, and I saw my golden opportunity, so I grabbed my knife and stuck him like a pig…if you want to get ahead in life, you got to be willing to do whatever it takes. Or, does he want to say, God was faithful to fulfill His promises—so I kept my integrity and trusted in the living God. Assassinating your political rival while his pants are down is not the kind of story that makes listeners think: Wow, God must be real! But maintaining your integrity, trusting in God’s promises, when all of the circumstances around you make it seem impossible not to—that underscores the beauty of faith. 

This can be applied in any set of circumstances in your life where deviating from God’s Law looks tempting. Can God’s promises be trusted? But let’s look specifically at the command to love your enemies:

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 37 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Luke 6:35-38)

David Trusted God’s Justice

“I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it. May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you.,” (1 Sam 24:11b-12). 

Here, we see that David isn’t only trusting in God’s promise of the kingdom, but he is also trusting in God’s justice. He is confident that God will stand between him and Saul and judge fairly, will bring vengeance. Saul has done some morally outrageous things. He has used and abused the people around him, hunted David’s life, slaughtered whole cities of innocent people, and dragged God’s name through the mud. David knows this. David doesn’t have some sycophantic perspective of Saul, he isn’t wearing rose-colored glasses. Hey, no big deal, Saul! That isn’t why he spares his life. He is free to withhold judgment because He knows that Someone much more qualified and capable will. 

Forgiveness isn’t pretending that everything is fine. It is acknowledging that God alone can judge. When Joseph’s brothers, at the end of Genesis, come to him trembling and ask for forgiveness for all of the terrible things that they did to him, he replies, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?” (Gen 50:19). Judgment, vengeance, punishment—those belong to the Almighty, not us.

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” (Rom 12:19-21).

Often, skeptics of religion will claim that this teaching is a way that the powerful keep the weak under the yoke of bondage. Don’t worry about justice now, just wait for heaven. 

But do you see how a robust understanding of the wrath of God actually provides the key to stopping the cycle of vengeance? One person hurts another. They strike back. Their family retaliates. So, the tribe retaliates back. At each turn, the vengeance amplifies, slaughter takes place, and wars roll on. Nat Turner was a slave in 1831 who led a slave-rebellion in Virginia that resulted in the mass murder of 57 people, mostly women, infants, and children. After the militia put down the rebellion, there was an outbreak of mass lynchings across the south and more than 200 hundred black men and women, slave and free, were tortured, burned, and decapitated. 

When someone really hurts you, really does wrong, and there is no final judgment, no recourse, no account that the perpetrator will face, then vengeance is the only the option. But if there is an omnipotent holy God? 

God is a righteous judge,
and a God who feels indignation every day.
12 If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and readied his bow;
13 he has prepared for him his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts. 
-       Ps 7:11-13

“The small and the vulnerable own a protection great enough, if you could but see it, to melt you into jelly,” (Leif Enger, Peace Like a River). If there is a God like that, then I don’t need to pick up the sword. In fact, I am so free from that, that I can pick up food and feed my enemies, care for them, and overcome evil with good. In fact, even more than that, because the final judgment isn’t the only place where sin is dealt with. There are two places where the punishment of sin will be dealt with: Hell or the cross. Because Jesus died for sin, that means the enemy standing before me—if he or she brings that sin to Jesus—could turn out to be my brother or sister, one who is just as dependent on the grace and mercy of God as I am.