July 19, 2020
David’s path to the throne certainly wasn’t a straight line! Nonetheless, he resisted the temptation to grab for himself what God alone could give. Rather than kill Saul when he was within reach and caught unawares, David cut off only a piece of the king’s robe as evidence. Alistair Begg explains how this gesture honored the Lord and appeared to soften Saul’s heart. When life’s path doesn’t seem to make sense, we, like David, can trust God to order all our ways.
I invite you to follow along as I read from 1 Samuel and chapter 24. First Samuel 24 and reading from the first verse:
“When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, ‘Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi.’ 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. 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. 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. And afterward David’s heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. 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.’ 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.
“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. And David said to Saul, ‘Why do you listen to the words of men who say, “Behold, David seeks your harm”? 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.” 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. May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. As the proverb of the ancients says, “Out of the wicked comes wickedness.” But my hand shall not be against you. After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! 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.’
“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. He said to David, ‘You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. 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. 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. And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. 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.’ And David swore this to Saul. Then Saul went home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.”
Your Word, Lord, reminds us that all the things that were written down concerning the past have been recorded for our encouragement, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have the hope about which we’ve just been singing. And we pray now that our study in this twenty-fourth chapter of 1 Samuel will fasten us to the Rock that is higher than ourselves, even to Christ himself. For we pray in his name. Amen.
Well, if you’re looking for a summertime read, a book that you can enjoy, let me suggest to you a book called The Meaning of Everything. It was written by Simon Winchester. It’s not a book about science. It’s actually a book that concerns the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary—I think some of you are probably already taking that off your list rather than putting it on, but it is very fascinating—under the editorship of a Scotsman by the name of James Murray, who was called Professor James Murray, although he was never a professor. Anyway, I won’t spoil the book for you. You will only be interested if you share my interest in the origin of words—etymology, as it’s called, technically—and particularly the way in which the meanings of words often change with the passage of time. For example, the verb to grab. To grab. That word comes out of Middle Dutch, or Middle German, in the sixteenth century. And the meaning of the word—its essential meaning—is to seize something forcibly or roughly, or to get something by unscrupulous methods.
Now, allow that to settle in your mind, and then acknowledge with me that it is quite common today to be invited, for example, if you have attended a church service, and someone says to you, “If you do not have a bulletin, why don’t you grab one right now?” Or, “Why don’t you wait for a moment,” says the waitress, “and I will grab for you a menu?” Now, depending on your age and your cultural context, you may have been taught not to grab, but instead to wait until you’re served, so that in family life, you remember your mother saying, “Now, don’t grab from your sister. Wait until she gives it to you.”
Now, the reason for this brief introduction is in order that we might note that this passage gives us an indication of how David refuses to succumb to the temptation to grab something which is only God’s to give. He refuses to grab at it, recognizing that it is only God’s to dispose. You see how important it is that our understanding of the verb to grab is in concurrence with this unfolding story. You have it, actually, in relationship to the priesthood in Hebrews, where the writer to the Hebrews says of the priesthood, “No one takes this honor for himself,” or “no one grabs this,” “but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” So that’s the principle.
Now, in this twenty-fourth chapter, all of the action is in the first seven verses, and then what you have in the balance of it is a conversation. Or, if you like, the drama is in verses 1–7, and the dialogue follows in verses 8 to the end.
First of all, we recognize that here we’re told that Saul renews his pursuit. We have been following along as David has been chased from one place to another, and most recently, he and his men had made their way up from the Dead Sea into the caves that are in the region of Engedi. And Saul, who had been diverted from his pursuit because of a war with the Philistines, has now apparently dealt with the Philistines. Incidentally, it was his legitimate task to deal with the Philistines. It was entirely illegitimate for him to be doing what he was doing, which is seeking to kill the Lord’s anointed.
And so, out of 23 and into 24, the scene moves from the Rock of Escape to the Wildgoats’ Rocks. And if you have had the privilege of visiting Israel, you will have this scene very firmly in your mind, because it would be surprising if your guide did not take you here, up in the region from the Dead Sea up to Engedi, where a perennial spring pours out and down that hillside, offering respite to the parched travelers who are trying to make their way to the top, and dotted all around it a variety of caves.
We’re told that Saul has taken “three thousand chosen men out of all Israel.” If you remember at all, it will take you all the way back to 13, when that is how the whole story of Saul begins, with him taking hold of three thousand chosen men. And in some ways, not much has moved on, and yet a whole lot has moved on. You see the disparity between the force that he is able to amass and the six hundred people that David now has, a variety of losers and vagrants and misfits. And so, when you look at that on the basis of simply the numbers alone, it appears very clearly that Saul and his men have the upper hand. But as we’re about to see, things are different from that.
And Saul chooses to use one of these caves as a toilet. This is a detail that doesn’t often come into the Scriptures, and so it comes very purposefully, because it is a key part of the narrative—a reminder that even kings have to go to the bathroom. Little did he know that the cave that he had chosen was the exact cave in which David and his men were sequestered. You see that in the text: that he went in there, and “David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave.”
It’s a really quite funny picture, isn’t it? In he goes, he’s completely oblivious to this, and I imagine that somebody says, “It looks to me that someone has just come into the cave,” looking out from the depth where they find themselves. Someone says, “Well, can you see him?” And the person says, “Well, actually, he has his back to me at the moment. Oh, but wait a minute. It looks like… It looks like Saul!” “Saul!” says someone. “This is perfect! This is ideal! Surely this is the day of which the Lord has spoken. Here is our chance,” looking at David, “to eliminate him!”
And you can see there in verse 4 that the men of David seek to interpret the circumstances as being a clear indication of the plan of God. They’re the ones who apparently know what David should do. And what they’re actually doing is they’re collating what they had heard previously. If you look back to chapter 23—it’s easy for me, it’s an open page here—in 23:4, “David inquired of the Lord again. And the Lord answered him, ‘… Go down to Keilah, for I will give the Philistines into your hand.’” Well, that was the word that God had spoken: “I will give the Philistines into your hand.” And David’s men, I think, are putting two and two together, and they’re saying, “Well, the Philistines are your enemy, and Saul is your enemy; he’s your enemy continually. And therefore, it seems only right, David, that you should go and do to him as it shall seem good to you.” Let me just pause and say, let’s be careful about taking counsel from people. Just because there’s a lot of them all saying the same thing doesn’t mean they’re right.
And so, what happens is that David then arose in response to this circumstance, in the balance of verse 4, and he “stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s robe.” Now, every time we have a mention of the robe, our ears should prick up. You remember that we had in 15, in that dramatic moment, the tearing of the robe of Samuel. If you go way, way back to the very beginning, you remember that Hannah made for Samuel, as a boy, a robe. And the story of Samuel and his robe will appear again before we get to the end of the book. We remember, too, in chapter 18 that it is the robe that Jonathan is wearing, as the one who is the heir to the kingdom, that he removes and places then on David. And so it is a very significant thing here that David does as he does by cutting off a corner of the robe.
Now, compared to what he could have cut off, this seems pretty tame. And it seems to me that his men were saying to one another, “Well, goodness gracious, if you’re not going to do this, then why don’t we just take care of it for you?” I think that’s the significance of verse 7, where he has to persuade his men and grant them no permission to go and get ahold of Saul.
Now, in relationship to this, a couple of things to observe. How this has actually taken place—whether his cunning and his stealth is such, and the sharpness of his sword, makes it possible for him to execute this while the robe is still on Saul’s back, or whether Saul had removed his robe in order to go about his business—we don’t know. All that we know is he cut off a corner of the robe.
Now, in light of that, how do we account for verse 5? “And afterward[s] David’s heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s robe.” I mean, our immediate reaction is to say, “Well, surely it’s no big deal. I mean, he didn’t do what the men said.” And we don’t even know whether, when he went towards Saul, he even had it in his mind to do. What we do know is his reaction to it.
You see, David knew that although the Spirit of God had departed from Saul, he was still the Lord’s anointed king . And he knew that the anointed of the Lord should never be cursed or killed. And so his conscience is immediately burdened by what he’d done. It’s his conscience that gets him here. The men must have been mystified when he said to them, “The Lord forbid that I should do this … to my lord, the Lord’s anointed.” You see, what he is actually doing is he is cutting off—cutting off, as it were, symbolically—the kingdom.
Conscience is a very important part of our lives, isn’t it? In fact, there is a sense in which we could view this story in terms of a hardened, seared conscience, as found in Saul, and a sensitive conscience, as found in David.
If I may just pause for a moment and say a couple of things concerning conscience. Now, don’t look to Freud and those who have followed him to explain this. Conscience, the Bible says, is a basic building block of our very humanity. And it’s because of that, if you think about it… Why is it that even from infancy—why is it from infancy—we know the experience of guilt or of shame; we know, when our conscience is set right, the joy of innocence and of peace? Why is it that even when you’re a tiny boy or a girl and you reflect on your words or you reflect on your actions, you attribute to them a moral evaluation? Why do people do that? Of course, Freud and those who follow him say, “Well, that’s just a problem. They’re influenced by events outside of them, the expectations of society, and so on.” But no! Children will come to you and say, “I’m sorry, that was a wrong thing to do,” or “I’m so glad that I did the right thing.”
Now, we mustn’t delay on this, but if you want to follow up on it, you should. And consider the fact that when Paul addresses this aspect in Romans chapter 2, where he has spoken about the law of God—how the law of God, the natural law, is written into the human heart—and then he goes on to say, “But even people who don’t know anything about the Ten Commandments, if you meet them, they also operate on the basis of this natural law.” Peterson, paraphrasing a couple of verses in Romans 2: when we react in this way, we “show that God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into”—“woven into”—“the very fabric of our creation … something deep within [us] that echoes God’s yes and no, [his] right and wrong.”
A guilty conscience is a heavy burden. In fact, conscience, and a guilty conscience, lies at the very heart of mental health. And it is in Jesus that conscience is settled. Walt Chantry, in a wonderful sentence, says, “Conscience is a friend to hurry you into the arms of the only Saviour from the broken law and its curse.” David had a sensitive conscience. Saul had a seared conscience. What kind of conscience do you have?
Now back, and quickly, to the text. Notice that in verse 3 we’re told that Saul went into the cave, and in verse 7, he came out of the cave, so that all that we have in the intervening verses he was completely unaware of. He was unaware of the fact that he was so vulnerable, because the sword that cut the corner of his robe could easily have taken over his life.
But with verse 7 the action ends and we go to the conversation. Essentially, what we have are two speeches: one made by David, whereby he gives to Saul an explanation, and then one by Saul, by which he gives to us a virtual confession.
Verses 8–15. Picture the scene. Saul is now on his way to join his men, and as he makes his way out of the cave and down the hillside, he hears his name being called—actually, not just his name but his title: “My lord the king!” And when he turns, he sees his archenemy standing outside the entrance to the very cave that he had just used as a bathroom.
And so, here we have this pivotal moment. Not only does the Lord know when a sparrow falls to the ground, but he knows when Saul goes to the bathroom—and frankly, he knows when you go too. Saul might have looked and said, “I can’t believe it, that you would stand there, you rascal, you crazy rascal! Do you realize that I have got three thousand men here that I can call, and we’ll take care of you in an instant!” It’s interesting he doesn’t do that. But he’s got a history with David, doesn’t he? I mean, at the very beginning, when none of his great soldiers, none of his army of three thousand, would go out to fight Goliath, it was a boy, a shepherd boy, who had explained, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and … the paw of the bear will deliver me.” Maybe that reverberated in Saul’s mind as he looks at him there.
So, consider David’s greeting. Respectful: “My lord the king.” His posture: he bows in homage. His question, verse 9: “Why do you listen to the words of those who seek to steer you wrong? Why are you listening? Why are you taking advice from the wrong people, from the people who tell you, ‘You have a real problem, because David seeks your harm’?” He has reason to say to him, “You know, I was on the receiving end of bad advice just earlier today, but I rejected it, and you should have rejected it too. They told me to kill you. But I spared you. I spared you—even though the Lord had given me into your hands; even though God, in the mystery of his providence, had so worked that by your own free choice you ended up in the particular cave in which all of us were hiding. But I spared you.”
“And here’s my evidence, Saul.” You can see him holding up a corner of the robe. “See, my father.” See his tenderness again? “See, my father.” This is not playacting by David. This is sincere. He has a sincere view of God. He has a sincere view of the servants of God, and even the flawed servants of God. “See, my father. And you can consider, by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you can realize that I am not a rebel. You can understand that my hands are guiltless. And yet, although I am not seeking to do this to you,” the end of verse 11, “you are hunting my life to take it.” He’s very straightforward, isn’t he? He’s quite brave, I would say. It’s one thing to say, “I haven’t been looking for you,” but then to challenge him in this way and say, “but I know that what your plan is, what you want to do, is to eliminate me.”
And then notice in verse 12: he says, “Let’s leave it to the Lord to decide this matter. May the Lord judge between me and you. May the Lord avenge me against you. If he chooses to do so, fine, but my hand shall not be against you.” Now, notice, he says that twice, there at the end of verse 12, and then again at the end of verse 13: “My hand shall not be against you. You should hear this, Saul. You should understand this.” And those two statements provide the bread, as it were, and the center of the sandwich is this ancient proverb, “Out of the wicked comes wickedness.”
Now, David is very skillful here. Because what he actually does is apply it to himself. He doesn’t immediately say, “And you’re wicked, and I’m not wicked.” No. What he essentially says is, “If I was wicked, I would have acted wickedly. And I would have done what I have chosen not to do—namely, to take matters into my own hands.”
We could pause here for a while, but we won’t. And some of us have made a career out of phraseology like this: “Well, I just took matters into my own hands.” “Well, I knew a shortcut to take.” “Well, I cut through the things that everybody else says are important.” You don’t find any of that in him at all: “If I was wicked, I would have acted wickedly.”
“Wickedness comes out of the wicked.” You see that? Out of the wicked comes wickedness. And then he says, “After whom has the king of Israel come out?” You see what he’s doing? Now he pushes the envelope. “After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea!” You see what he’s saying? “I don’t represent much of a threat. You’re the one with three thousand. I’m in a cave here with six hundred men. If I introduced you to them, you wouldn’t be impressed with hardly any of them at all.” And so, once again, leave it to God: “May the Lord,” verse 15, “therefore be the judge. May he give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand.”
You notice that David is not saying, in contemporary terms—and this is another word that has been parlayed into interesting service—he’s not saying, “Whatever.” He’s not saying that. He’s not saying, “Leave it to God. Who knows?” No, no. He says, “Let’s leave it to God, and I would actually like God to act right now and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand.”
Now, what is happening here? Well, having chosen not to seize by force what is his by promise—namely, the throne—he then, like another shepherd king, whom we meet in the New Testament, commits his cause to him who judges justly. That’s for homework: 1 Peter chapter 2, Peter uses that when he’s talking about the difficulties of life and of when we are persecuted and when we are reviled, and then he says, “And if you want an example of how to deal with this, let’s look to he who is the Shepherd King, for when he was reviled, he did not revile in return, but he committed his cause to him who judges justly.” A very hard thing to do! But many an issue would be settled—many an issue would be settled—if we would refuse to try and cut the corners, if we would refuse to try and take matters into our own hands, if we would refuse to try and avenge ourselves. It’s the way of David. It’s the way of Jesus. It’s the way of the Master.
You may recall, actually, that when the person brings forward David as a potential for the kingdom and introduces him in all of his various elements of usefulness, one of the things that is said of him is that he is a young man who is “prudent in speech.” “Prudent in speech.” And if we had no other place to illustrate that than here, we certainly have it confirmed.
Well then, we turn to the final section, whereby Saul in his response gives us something of a confession: “As soon as David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, ‘Is this your voice, my son David?’”
Now, we’ve noted in the past that he doesn’t like calling anybody by their name; it kind of puts them on a level with him. And so he’s been referring to him all along as “the son of Jesse,” in a sort of disarming and disregarding way. But now, no: “My son David, is this your voice?” Have his eyes flooded with tears so that he cannot see clearly? And what would produce tears in the big king, filled with animosity? Not the sword of David, but the sweetness of David. If you think about that: “Who knows but that God’s kindness would lead you to repentance?” Kindness! Through his tears.
Now, what’s going on here? Is this the stirring of his conscience? Or is this just the chilling sense of all that has gone? Suddenly, in the moment, he realizes what could have been—all of the regret, all of the failure, all of the disappointment just flooding his heart? And then he has to be honest and, in verse 17, tell David, “You know, you’re more righteous than I. For you repaid me for good, and I repaid you with evil. You didn’t try and kill me, even though every day I try and kill you. And you even had the opportunity to do so, when I was so vulnerable and didn’t even know it. Because,” he says, “if a man,” verse 19, “finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe?”
But see, here’s the thing: David was Saul’s enemy, but Saul wasn’t David’s enemy. Saul wasn’t gonna let him go away safe. As we’re going to see, the story continues. But you see, David was the one upon whom God had set his heart, that David might be the king.
It’s really quite wonderful. It’s a precious moment in Holy Scripture, isn’t it? Because what we’re really listening to is the voice of a broken man. And when God breaks into a life, it’s a moment of opportunity. And it can be seized, and it can lead on to forgiveness and reconciliation and glory. And here there is a moment of reconciliation, but there is no relationship that is reestablished. It’s a passing moment.
And Saul, recognizing what’s going on, he says, “Well, I know that you shall surely be the king, that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.” Do you remember back in chapter , that is what Jonathan said? He said, “You know, my father knows this.” But this is the first time that from the lips of Saul it’s been acknowledged.
But you know, what is sad about this is that his response, as genuine as it may be in the moment, is clearly ultimately superficial. It is in some measure sentimental, and it’s definitely short-lived. It’s very hard, as we get to the end of the chapter, not to recognize the sense of self-preservation that is part of this man Saul. If you remember back in chapter 15, when, in that encounter with Samuel, and he tears Samuel’s robe, and Samuel says to him, “You’re done, you’re finished,” and then he’s so concerned that he will preserve something for himself and for those who come after him. And that’s what he’s doing here in verse 21: “Swear to me therefore by the Lord that you will not cut off my offspring.” In other words, “David, you’ve cut off my robe, but please don’t cut off my future.” Is he really concerned about his place in history? Yes. Has he any idea of how he will be viewed? No. In contemporary terms, he wants his own library, not realizing that when people in subsequent generations go into his library, he will be remembered as a malevolent king who sought out the Lord’s anointed.
David, if he was like me, he would have said, “You know what? I shoulda killed you right there in the cave. I think I’ll kill you now.” But David swore to Saul. Why? Well, because he’d already made a covenant with Jonathan, his dear buddy, his best friend in the world. You remember Jonathan had said to him, “If I am still alive, show me the steadfast love of the Lord, that I may not die; and do not cut off your steadfast love from my house forever, [for] when the Lord cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth, [please don’t do that.]” So his sweet response to Saul, who doesn’t deserve it, is on the basis of a covenant that he had made with his dear and best of friends.
So “Saul went home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.” Why? There’s going to be more fields to furrow, more walls to mend, more chases to elude.
Let me finish in this way. David’s pathway to the throne as we’re following it is clearly a long and a winding road. As we watch him, he’s chosen not to try and cut the corners. He has chosen not to take matters into his own hands and try and speed the process. It becomes very, very clear that in his life, what we’re dealing with is not a series of accidental events, but that God is working his purpose out. Actually, if you allow yourself to go all the way back to the beginning and catch up again, and you go back to Hannah’s prayer in chapter 2, it was there that Hannah, as she prays, says God is the one who raises up and God is the one who brings things down. David—look at him—was prepared to wait for God’s time and was prepared to rest in God’s providence. And like him, and in turn like Jesus, we learn, then, to leave God to order all our ways.
Is that what you’re doing in these days? Is that what I’m doing? With the things that threaten us, the things that annoy us, the people that challenge us? Do you want to cut the corners? Do you want to take it into your own hands? You want to say, “I’m bigger than this, I’m better than this”? Or do you want to acknowledge that you are weak and that all your strength is found in God alone? In the words of Jesus, am I prepared to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and trust that all these other things that are my preoccupations or my passions—all these other things—will be taken care of by God?
Leave God to order all your ways.
Well, a brief prayer before our closing song:
In your time, in your time,
You make all things beautiful
In your time.
Lord, please show me every day,
As you[’re] teach[ing] me your way,
That you do just what you say
In your time.
Lord, help us to take our hands from the steering wheel and to rest in your divine, providential care. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 See Romans 15:4.
 Hebrews 5:4 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 13:2.
 See 1 Samuel 15:27.
 See 1 Samuel 2:19.
 See 1 Samuel 18:4.
 See Exodus 22:28.
 Romans 2:14 (paraphrased).
 Romans 2:14–15 (MSG).
 Walter J. Chantry, David: Man of Prayer, Man of War (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2007), 92.
 See Matthew 10:29.
 1 Samuel 17:37 (ESV).
 1 Peter 2:23 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 16:18 (ESV).
 Romans 2:4 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 23:17 (paraphrased).
 See 1 Samuel 15:27–31.
 1 Samuel 20:14–15 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 2:6–8.
 See Matthew 6:33.
 Diane Ball, “In His Time” (1978).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.