The Power of Loyalty

Lesson Focus:  This lesson can help you know that there is a reward for righteousness and loyalty to God, and it can help you commit to living such a life.

Treachery Intended: 1 Samuel 24:20-22; 26:1-2.

[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]  Then the Ziphites came to Saul at Gibeah, saying, "Is not David hiding himself on the hill of Hachilah, which is on the east of Jeshimon?" [2]  So Saul arose and went down to the wilderness of Ziph with three thousand chosen men of Israel to seek David in the wilderness of Ziph.  [ESV]

[20-22]  David’s next haven was in the caves of En Gedi down by the Dead Sea, where water and food was available as well as good hiding places. The writer’s vivid style again comes into play as we see Saul getting closer to David than at any time since the beginning of his search and yet totally unaware of it [24:3]. Hiding at the back of the cave that Saul enters, David’s men are sure that this is a God-given chance for David to deal with Saul. David, apparently at least half-way convinced, creeps forward and cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe. Afterwards David became convicted of the symbolism of the act. He had deliberately exercised power over Saul while Saul was still king over Israel. David still saw himself as in Saul’s service; Saul was his master and the Lord’s anointed. David believed that he would become king in God’s own timing and not as a result of his own grasping of the throne. Avoiding Saul without doing him damage had perhaps become something of a game for David, and he was shocked to realize that for a brief moment he had forgotten the rules. Not surprisingly, his anger with himself becomes transferred to his men and his rebuke of the whole troop is quite strong. For all of us there is a warning here that the battles we think we have won with ourselves can suddenly change direction and an attack come from another front. The fact that David actually noticed what was happening is a measure of how much he reflected on what was going on in his life and helps to explain why he is regarded so highly in the Old Testament. His theology was, at least at his best times, not restricted to his poetry but was worked out in his life day by day. Saul, unaware of all the emotional trauma and analysis of motives that was going on in the cave, calmly went his way back to his own camp. In that terrain sound would travel quite a long way and it seems certain that David allowed Saul to travel to a safe distance before he called out to him. David is consistently portrayed as impulsive and emotional as well as a gifted leader and diplomat. It is not clear what prompted the impulse to make contact with Saul at this point. It could have been a desire to justify himself or maybe a sudden realization that although this could be seen as a God-given opportunity, it was not in fact an opportunity to harm or defeat Saul but to effect reconciliation. Any interpretation of God’s involvement in our circumstances must be based on an awareness of the character of God and on His clearly revealed purposes. David’s speech to Saul is certainly an example of brilliant diplomatic skill. David knows that reconciliation depends on Saul realizing that David poses no threat to his position and he indicates his allegiance to Saul by bowing down to him. David panders to Saul’s vanity by suggesting that it must have been jealous slanderers who persuaded Saul, because surely Saul was too sensible to think that David really was a threat. He completely reinterprets his own action in cutting off the piece of robe, portraying it as a deliberate means of conveying to Saul that he would never harm him even if he had the opportunity. David’s carefully crafted appeal did get through to Saul, who was particularly impressed by the fact that David could have harmed him but did not. In other words, he accepted that David had proved he was not his enemy. He, too, recognizes the relationship between them, calling David my son. He acknowledges the reality of his own rejection by God and for the first time openly accepts not only that it will be David who will replace him as king, but that David will achieve the stability and security that Saul had longed to see in Israel and as yet had been unable to achieve. Like Jonathan he asks only that when David takes over he will be gracious to Saul’s family.

[26:1-2]  Both forces have learned from experience. This time Saul takes his three thousand men quickly to the appointed site. David’s intelligence has remained good and he, having moved to a different site, is awaiting Saul’s arrival. This encounter is by no means accidental. It is possible even that the Ziphites’ information to Saul was this time a deliberate leak. David’s incursion into the main Israelite camp and removing Saul’s spear was clearly a pre-planned strategy. Perhaps the success of his previous speech in restoring Saul’s sense of perspective led him to hope that a repetition of the same tactic would lead to a further breathing space before Saul’s pursuit began again. Given the rough nature of the terrain and the detailed knowledge of it that David’s enforced stays had provided, there would have been no problem in getting within sight of Saul’s encampment. However, proceeding further was a very different matter.

Trust Applied: 1 Samuel 26:7-12.

[7]  So David and Abishai went to the army by night. And there lay Saul sleeping within the encampment, with his spear stuck in the ground at his head, and Abner and the army lay around him. [8]  Then said Abishai to David, "God has given your enemy into your hand this day. Now please let me pin him to the earth with one stroke of the spear, and I will not strike him twice." [9]  But David said to Abishai, "Do not destroy him, for who can put out his hand against the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless?" [10]  And David said, "As the LORD lives, the LORD will strike him, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish. [11]  The LORD forbid that I should put out my hand against the LORD’s anointed. But take now the spear that is at his head and the jar of water, and let us go." [12]  So David took the spear and the jar of water from Saul’s head, and they went away. No man saw it or knew it, nor did any awake, for they were all asleep, because a deep sleep from the LORD had fallen upon them.  [ESV]

This particular mission did not warrant large numbers and David took with him just one volunteer, his nephew Abishai, Joab’s brother. He may not have been the wisest choice for a task that required stealth and self-control, but there was no doubting his bravery or his commitment. If it did come to a fight, he would be an excellent partner to have. Saul and his army were asleep. That the whole lot, presumably including the guards who might have been expected to notice the arrival of the two outsiders, were so deeply asleep is seen as a result of the Lord’s direct intervention. This explains how David was able to get so close and reinforces the fact that God was behind David, supporting his actions rather than protecting Saul. Abishai may or may not have been told of David’s plan in this instance and he may or may not have been with David in the cave on the previous occasion, but his reaction mirrors that of the soldiers there. Having come so close to the sleeping Saul without problem, surely this was a God-given opportunity to kill him The confident Abishai knows he can do it with one thrust. This time David is not even tempted. Perhaps his previous experience coupled with his encounter with Nabal and Abigail had reinforced his conviction that it should be God Himself and not any action on the part of David or his men that brings an end to Saul’s reign. Saul’s death may come from a supernatural act of destruction, in the middle of a battle or just in the natural course of life’s journey, but it would not be at David’s instigation. It is interesting that David understands God to be at work in all these different ways. Diseases, ageing and foreign armies can be as much a part of the way that God works in His world as any apparently miraculous intervention. The lack of such intervention is certainly not to be seen as the lack of interest or involvement on God’s part, nor as a sign that individual members of God’s community should take precipitate action which is beyond their responsibility. David has come solely to collect Saul’s spear, the symbol of his kingship that Saul apparently never let out of his sight. This time, David, being clear about his own motivation and knowing that he intends to hand the spear back, has no trouble with his conscience. Whether the water jug was a particularly noteworthy one that could be recognized from a distance or whether it was just taken because David was thirsty is not made clear.

Loyalty Rewarded: 1 Samuel 26:21-25.

[21]  Then Saul said, "I have sinned. Return, my son David, for I will no more do you harm, because my life was precious in your eyes this day. Behold, I have acted foolishly, and have made a great mistake." [22]  And David answered and said, "Here is the spear, O king! Let one of the young men come over and take it. [23]  The LORD rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness, for the LORD gave you into my hand today, and I would not put out my hand against the LORD’s anointed. [24]  Behold, as your life was precious this day in my sight, so may my life be precious in the sight of the LORD, and may he deliver me out of all tribulation." [25]  Then Saul said to David, "Blessed be you, my son David! You will do many things and will succeed in them." So David went his way, and Saul returned to his place. [ESV]

[13-17]  The two men made their escape. Once they were some distance away, they shouted across and woke up the camp. David calls out, addressing not Saul but Abner, expressing surprise that a man with a reputation like Abner’s has been so slack as to risk Saul’s life by allowing intruders into the camp. If it had been someone without the loyalty to Saul felt by David, then the results could have been very different. It is Abner, not David, who might be thought of as deserving to face the death-penalty for not caring about Saul’s safety. The evidence of the spear and the water jug is irrefutable. Clearly David’s approach is a ruse. Abner now drops out of the picture and Saul, for whom the interchange had presumably been intended all along, recognizes David’s voice. Perhaps the early morning light or the distortion caused by distance had made it difficult for Abner to recognize David, but Saul knew the voice better or realized that nobody else would be likely to behave in this way. Saul’s immediate reference to David as my son must have reassured David that his ploy was likely to be successful. This reference, coming before rather than after David’s speech in his own defense, makes more sense if the encounter described in chapter 24 had taken place and Saul’s memory of it was reawakened by David’s voice again calling from across the hillside.

[18-20]  Saul’s support may already be won, nevertheless David reiterates his arguments. He has done nothing wrong, therefore someone must have incited Saul to think that he had. If Saul’s opposition to David really was God-provoked, then the best way forward was to bring a sacrifice. However, if human beings were responsible, then they deserve to be cursed before the Lord. The implication is still there that surely Saul could not have turned against David without some provocation, but there is also the sense now that if the antipathy came from Saul himself, then he also was among those deserving to be cursed. David was beginning to think, as is made plain in 27:1, that if things were to continue in the same way, then he really would have to leave the country. Thus those who turn Saul against him are in effect driving him away from the covenant community and from easy access to the shrines where the God of Israel is worshipped. David again closes his speech by referring to himself as a harmless flea, beneath the interest of the king of Israel and not a fit subject for a hunting expedition.

[21-25]  Saul’s full response is even more positive towards David and more humbly recognizant of his own sin than on the previous occasion. His reference to himself as acting like a fool is perhaps deliberately drawing attention to parallels with Nabal’s behavior in the previous chapter. He again calls David his son, promises not to harm him and invites him back into the court. David ignores these overtures, knowing only too well that Saul’s good intentions are unlikely to last long. This time he does not even acknowledge a relationship with Saul, calling him not, ‘my father’, but simply the king. He arranges for Saul’s spear to be returned. He could have taken the kingship from Saul as he had taken this symbol of kingship, but by returning it in this way he made it clear to Saul and to all his entourage that he actually supported Saul’s right to rule, at least for now. David again makes clear his confidence that God is in control. As far as he was concerned it was God who had provided him with an opportunity not, as Abishai had thought, to kill Saul but to show that he had no intention of so doing. He had valued Saul’s life and he asked, not that Saul in turn would value his life – by this stage he was apparently far too skeptical for that – but that the Lord Himself would do so. After this point there is no further record of Saul’s pursuit of David. It is just possible that this time Saul’s repentance and change of heart towards David were real. But for David it was too late. There comes a point in a relationship where trust has been so damaged that it can never be repaired, and perhaps that point had been reached for David. The final words in this final encounter between Saul and David are given by Saul, perhaps at last exercising his role as king. His words provide another intriguing glimpse of how different things might have been. Given David’s omission of the term ‘father’, Saul rather sadly perhaps calls David his son for the third time and gives him his fatherly blessing. If Saul really had been able to accept David as his son, then, in spite of his own failure, and particularly given Jonathan’s glad recognition of brotherhood with David, he could have still, in one sense at least, been seen as the father of a dynasty. Saul was indeed the source of his own destruction.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         In these passages, David is given two different opportunities to kill Saul and become king. Contrast the attitudes of David’s soldiers with that of David. Why didn’t David take advantage of these opportunities and kill Saul? What does David’s actions show about his relationship with God?

2.         David teaches us an important lesson in these passages. Any interpretation of God’s involvement in our circumstances must be based on an awareness of the character of God and on His clearly revealed purposes. David’s men interpreted the events as God providing them the opportunity to kill Saul, their tormenter. But David interpreted the events according to God’s character and His word. How can you put this lesson into practice in your Christian walk?  


1, 2 Samuel, Robert Bergen, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Samuel, Mary Evans, Intervarsity Press.

1 Samuel, Dale Ralph Davis, Christian Focus.

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