A. David’s second opportunity to kill Saul.
1. (1-4) The Ziphites betray David again.
Now the Ziphites came to Saul at Gibeah, saying, “Is David not hiding in the hill of Hachilah, opposite Jeshimon?” Then Saul arose and went down to the Wilderness of Ziph, having three thousand chosen men of Israel with him, to seek David in the Wilderness of Ziph. And Saul encamped in the hill of Hachilah, which is opposite Jeshimon, by the road. But David stayed in the wilderness, and he saw that Saul came after him into the wilderness. David therefore sent out spies, and understood that Saul had indeed come.
a. Now the Ziphites came to Saul: The people of the city of Ziph – had betrayed David’s whereabouts to Saul before (1 Samuel 23:19-23). Now they try to gain King Saul’s favor again, by helping Saul find David once more.
b. Having three thousand chosen men of Israel with him, to seek David: This means Saul went back on his previous repentance shown in 1 Samuel 24:16-21. At that time David had an opportunity to kill Saul but did not take it. When David boldly demonstrated this to Saul, the king was greatly moved emotionally and publicly repented for his murderous intentions toward David. Saul’s repentance was deep, sincere, and emotional – but it didn’t last very long.
i. Three thousand chosen men reminds us that Saul had a great numerical advantage. 3,000 against 600 is a significant advantage.
c. David therefore sent out spies: As a wise and capable commander, David constantly monitored the movements of Saul. David knew where Saul was but Saul did not know where David was.
2. (5-8) David’s second opportunity to kill Saul.
So David arose and came to the place where Saul had encamped. And David saw the place where Saul lay, and Abner the son of Ner, the commander of his army. Now Saul lay within the camp, with the people encamped all around him. Then David answered, and said to Ahimelech the Hittite and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, brother of Joab, saying, “Who will go down with me to Saul in the camp?” And Abishai said, “I will go down with you.” So David and Abishai came to the people by night; and there Saul lay sleeping within the camp, with his spear stuck in the ground by his head. And Abner and the people lay all around him. Then Abishai said to David, “God has delivered your enemy into your hand this day. Now therefore, please, let me strike him at once with the spear, right to the earth; and I will not have to strike him a second time!”
a. Now Saul lay within the camp: The King James Version says that Saul lay within the trench. That translation is accurate from the Hebrew but gives the wrong idea. The idea is that the perimeter of Israelite army camp was marked by the tracks of their wagons, and it was within the perimeter of the camp that Saul slept. Saul lay within the camp is a good translation of the idea.
b. So David arose and came to the place where Saul had encamped: The last time David and Saul met, David was simply hiding from Saul, and Saul happened upon the place where David hid. This time David actively sought Saul out.
i. So David arose means that David himself went. He could send any of his 600 men to do this job, and from a military perspective it made more sense to send someone else. Why should David go on such a dangerous mission? The fact that David did this shows his boldness and courage; the outcome of it all shows God was leading him in it.
c. David saw the place where Saul lay, and Abner the son of Ner, the commander of his army: As the entire army slept, Saul slept near the commander of his army. Then David, with a trusted assistant (Abishai the son of Zeruiah), secretly crept down to where Saul and Abner slept. With Saul’s spear stuck in the ground by his head and all asleep, Saul was completely vulnerable.
d. Then Abishai said to David, “God has delivered your enemy into your hand this day”: As with the last time David could have killed Saul (1 Samuel 24:4), David’s associates pointed out that this circumstance was not an accident but designed by God – and the design was for David to take righteous vengeance upon Saul.
i. Abishai made it easy for David: Please, let me strike him at once with the spear. David would not raise his hand against Saul, but Abishai would do it, and not feel bad about it in the slightest way. David could say to himself and everyone else, “I did not kill Saul.”
ii. Abishai also weaves into the matter an element of poetic justice: the spear used to kill Saul would be the king’s own spear, stuck in the ground by his head. The spear that was thrown at David in attempted murder before (1 Samuel 18:10-11 and 19:9-10) would now be used as the instrument of the LORD’s righteous judgment. It all might have seemed to be perfectly given from the hand of God.
3. (9-12) David’s response to the opportunity to kill Saul.
But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him; for who can stretch out his hand against the LORD’s anointed, and be guiltless?” David said furthermore, “As the LORD lives, the LORD shall strike him, or his day shall come to die, or he shall go out to battle and perish. The LORD forbid that I should stretch out my hand against the LORD’s anointed. But please, take now the spear and the jug of water that are by his head, and let us go.” So David took the spear and the jug of water by Saul’s head, and they got away; and no man saw it or knew it or awoke. For they were all asleep, because a deep sleep from the LORD had fallen on them.
a. Do not destroy him; for who can stretch out his hand against the LORD’s anointed, and be guiltless? It wasn’t that David thought Saul was right. David knew more than anyone that Saul was deeply in sin. But David knew that even a sinning Saul was still the anointed king over Israel (1 Samuel 10:1). That would only change when God changed it; David would not stretch out his hand against the LORD’s anointed.
i. We might think that David had a more righteous reason than ever to kill Saul. Now, Saul went back on a previous promise to leave David alone. In David’s position many would say, “I showed love and let him off once before. I’m full of love, but I’m not stupid. Saul had his chance and he blew it.”
b. The LORD shall strike him, or his day shall come to die, or he shall go out to battle and perish: David knew that it wasn’t “hard” for God to kill Saul. The LORD was more than able to kill Saul at any time. Every breath Saul took was a gift from God. God could allow a wicked man to kill Saul at any time. When it came to striking down an anointed king of Israel, God did not need the services of a godly, righteous man like David.
i. “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (Romans 12:19). If vengeance belongs to God, it does not belong to us, so we are to love our enemies and never repay evil with evil.
c. David took the spear and the jug of water by Saul’s head: David would not kill Saul, but he did take the spear and the jug of water as evidence that he had the opportunity to kill Saul. Probably, David noticed that a deep sleep from the LORD had fallen on them all and knew there was a reason for it.
B. David confronts Saul again with the evidence of his mercy.
1. (13-16) David chides Abner, Saul’s bodyguard.
Now David went over to the other side, and stood on the top of a hill afar off, a great distance being between them. And David called out to the people and to Abner the son of Ner, saying, “Do you not answer, Abner?” Then Abner answered and said, “Who are you, calling out to the king?” So David said to Abner, “Are you not a man? And who is like you in Israel? Why then have you not guarded your lord the king? For one of the people came in to destroy your lord the king. This thing that you have done is not good. As the LORD lives, you deserve to die, because you have not guarded your master, the LORD’s anointed. And now see where the king’s spear is, and the jug of water that was by his head.”
a. Are you not a man? And who is like you in Israel? Why then have you not guarded your lord the king? In this vivid scene, David implied that he cared more for Saul’s life than Abner did.
b. See where the king’s spear is, and the jug of water that was by his head: This dramatic evidence – like the evidence of the corner of Saul’s robe in 1 Samuel 24:11 – was undeniable proof that David had the opportunity to kill Saul but did not do it.
2. (17-20) David calls out to Saul.
Then Saul knew David’s voice, and said, “Is that your voice, my son David?” David said, “It is my voice, my lord, O king.” And he said, “Why does my lord thus pursue his servant? For what have I done, or what evil is in my hand? Now therefore, please, let my lord the king hear the words of his servant: If the LORD has stirred you up against me, let Him accept an offering. But if it is the children of men, may they be cursed before the LORD, for they have driven me out this day from sharing in the inheritance of the LORD, saying, ‘Go, serve other gods.’ So now, do not let my blood fall to the earth before the face of the LORD. For the king of Israel has come out to seek a flea, as when one hunts a partridge in the mountains.”
a. My lord, O king…. my lord…. Please, let my lord…his servant: This phrasing shows that David spoke to Saul with genuine humility. Since David was so right and Saul was so wrong, it would have been easy for David to project a superior attitude towards Saul, but he didn’t.
b. What have I done, or what evil is in my hand? David first asked Saul to consider the facts and to clearly think about what David had done.
c. If the LORD has stirred you up against me…. if it is the children of men: David made it easier for Saul to repent. David knew very well that the LORD or other men had not stirred up Saul but that it came from Saul’s own bitterness, carnality, and jealousy. But he offered these suggestions to Saul to give him an easier way to repent. He could admit that his actions against David were wrong without admitting that they originated with himself.
d. They have driven me out this day from sharing in the inheritance of the LORD, saying, “Go, serve other gods”: David revealed his own heart’s struggle under the pressure from Saul’s relentless persecution. What hurt David the most was that he couldn’t go to the house of God and openly be with the people of God, living his life after the LORD as he longed to. The pressure of all this tempted David to consider leaving Israel altogether and to go among those who worshipped other gods.
e. So now, do not let my blood fall to the earth before the face of the LORD: David concluded his appeal to Saul with a simple request. “Saul, please don’t kill me!”
i. “There is a vast deal of dignity in this speech of David, arising from a consciousness of his own innocence. He neither begs his life from Saul, nor offers one argument to prevail upon him to desist [stop] from his felonious attempts, but refers the whole matter to God, as the judge and vindicator of oppressed innocence.” (Clarke)
f. As when one hunts a partridge in the mountains: “It is worthy of remark that the Arabs, observing that partridges, being put up several times, soon become so weary as not to be able to fly; they in this manner hunt them upon the mountains, till at last they can knock them down with their clubs. It was in this manner that Saul hunted David, coming hastily upon him, and putting him up from time to time, in hopes that he should at length, by frequent repetitions of it, be able to destroy him.” (Clarke)
3. (21) Saul apologizes to David.
Then Saul said, “I have sinned. Return, my son David. For I will harm you no more, because my life was precious in your eyes this day. Indeed I have played the fool and erred exceedingly.”
a. I have sinned: The last time Saul was in this situation he was overcome with emotion. His feelings seemed right but his life was not changed (1 Samuel 24:16-21). This time there is something cold and mechanical about Saul’s words. The words seem right but the feelings aren’t there.
b. For I will harm you no more…. Indeed I have played the fool and erred exceedingly: It seems– both from the “feel” of the verse and Saul’s subsequent actions – that Saul wasn’t repentant but only regretful, bitterly realizing that once again David got the better of him. His words in 1 Samuel 26:25 express this also: You shall both do great things and also still prevail.
i. “The Apostle makes a great distinction, and rightly, between the sorrow of the world and the sorrow of a godly repentance which needeth not to be repented of. Certainly Saul’s confession of sin belonged to the former; while the cry of the latter comes out in Psalm 51, extorted from David by the crimes of after years.” (Meyer)
ii. Morgan on I have played the fool: “In these words we have a perfect autobiography. In them the complete life-story of this man is told.”
4. (22-25) David explains to Saul why he did not kill him.
And David answered and said, “Here is the king’s spear. Let one of the young men come over and get it. May the LORD repay every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness; for the LORD delivered you into my hand today, but I would not stretch out my hand against the LORD’s anointed. And indeed, as your life was valued much this day in my eyes, so let my life be valued much in the eyes of the LORD, and let Him deliver me out of all tribulation.” Then Saul said to David, “May you be blessed, my son David! You shall both do great things and also still prevail.” So David went on his way, and Saul returned to his place.
a. May the LORD repay every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness: David trusted in God who blesses the righteous and the faithful. David knew the truth of Hebrews 6:10 before it was written: For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name.
i. David understood the principle Jesus spoke of in Matthew 7:2: With the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. David wanted the large measure of God’s mercy for himself, so David gave Saul the large measure of mercy. That generous measure of mercy will be a great blessing to David later in his life.
b. So let my life be valued much in the eyes of the LORD: David wanted to fulfill his call to be the next king of Israel. But he wanted both the throne and the blessing of God. He refused to take the throne through murder or rebellion. He would wait until it came to him God’s way. In this, David trusted that God would protect him when he did eventually come to reign over Israel.
i. David held on to this principle, and when he became king, he recognized that his righteousness was rewarded (Psalm 18:20-27).
c. David went on his way: Saul invited David to return (1 Samuel 26:21) but David did not take the invitation. He waited to see if the repentant words Saul spoke showed genuine repentance in his life. But as David went on his way he was faced with the temptation he spoke of in 1 Samuel 26:19 – tempted to flee Israel all together and live among the ungodly.
i. “Knowing Saul’s unstable and deceitful heart, he would not trust to any of his professions or promises, but kept out of his reach.” (Poole)
ii. “Since now there is nothing more to be said, David and Saul part, never to see each other again.” (Youngblood)