I Samuel, 24 David’s Mercy to Saul

I Samuel 24-25: David’s Mercy

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Sept. 28, 2008.

Introduction             Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. I’m afraid that some of my family suffered with a virus for much of the week. It has affected a lot of the students at Wake as well. At times it sounds like I’m teaching in a tuberculosis ward! Things have been a bit quiet at the church. Rev. Christy Clore has been away for continuing education in Scotland. The Moravian ministers had their annual retreat this week, but I’m afraid I had too many commitments to go this year.  Next Sunday night at Wake we the Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, the famous chaplain of Harvard University, will be preaching in Wait Chapel. Gomes is one of the most distinguished masters of the American pulpit and is author of several popular books on the Bible. The service is at 7 p.m. in Wait Chapel. Also next Sunday, Home Moravian Church will be having the annual Clark Thompson lectures featuring Peggy Chamberlen, the President Elect of the National Council of Churches. Peggy will be the second Moravian to serve as president of that august body. You will get to hear her on radio in the Adult Bible Class and she will preach at 11:00 in the sanctuary. There are workshops and lectures for the public scheduled at 4 and 7.

I keep hearing from people around the city who listen to this broadcast each week. Some of them tune in after the early worship service, some listen on the way to church. Many listen on days when they cannot go to church. A few people have told me they listen in the shower and as they get ready for church. I try not to think about that while I’m teaching. So, whether you are dressed in your Sunday best or still in bathrobe and slippers, I’m glad you’ve taken a few minutes out of your week to listen to these lessons. By the way, the lessons are all posted on-line on my blog, which had a spike in interest last week with over 100 hits. Not sure what caused the sudden interest.

Conversation between David and Saul:               Last week we ran out of time as we were discussing the scene where David cut a corner of Saul’s robe rather than killing him. We had a lively discussion after the broadcast, and class members raised a couple of points I’d like to share with the radio audience. One person pointed out that David was wise enough to plan for the future rather than just focusing on the needs of the moment. When he rescued Keilah from the Philistines, he was helping to insure that there would be food for his men months down the road. Another person pointed out that David may have been the leader of a guerilla army, but he is not depicted like so many rogues throughout history. David and his men are not attacking Israelite villages and demanding food and other things. They are trying to protect the people. This part of I Samuel may remind you of one of those Western movies like the Magnificent Seven or the Japanese film the Seventh Samurai, which I’ve never seen but all the movie critics say is very influential. You know the type of film: a small band of outlaws comes to rescue of a village oppressed by powerful warlords. It is an ancient motif, and we see it here in I Samuel.

Last week we saw that David was hard pressed by Saul. Unexpectedly, David was able to turn the tables on his adversary. He had a perfect opportunity to kill the king and seize the throne, but he did not do so. The men were dumbfounded. It looked like God had arranged things so David could end the rebellion and take the throne, but David resisted the temptation. He would not kill the king in order to make Samuel’s prophecies come true. Had he taken the throne through murder, he would never escape violence and the fear of violence. David shows the type of restraint that is needed by strong and successful leaders. When everyone expected him to kill the Lord’s Anointed, he refrained, not out of weakness but out of strength. Fans of Stars Wars might say that David resisted the Dark Side. Like Luke Skywalker, he refused to kill his father even though the Dark Father (Darth Vader) was trying to kill him. In other words, this is an archetypal story.

There is an important lesson in this, but it is a hard one to teach. It is one you have to learn over time. We’ve talked all along about the role of human initiative throughout I Samuel. David was a man of action, but here he chooses not to take advantage of a perfect opportunity. It seems almost out of character, and some scholars speculate that this scene was added to the story later in order to show that David did not usurp the throne. Whatever the historical details, the text that we have teaches an important lesson about wisdom. There are times when you want something very much, and you pray that God will grant it, and almost miraculously you are given an opportunity to get it. It is tempting to throw away your values and convictions and take the opportunity, but it is important to resist such temptation. Had David killed Saul that day, he might have become king, or he may have been hated and rejected by the people. Jonathan might have had a change of heart about his friend when he learned the truth. Though it seemed foolish to his men, David was wise not to yield to the temptation to take the throne by violence. There is no rule that can govern your choices in such matters. You have to rely on your moral compass and recognize that if you use corrupt means to achieve an end, you will corrupt what you achieve.

We’ll pick up the reading of chapter 24 at verse 12. Read 24:12-25

David’s Plea for Reconciliation                This is one of the most vivid and moving passages in Scripture. David, the hunted wanderer, resists the temptation to murder the king, and then he risks his life to speak to the king. It was not enough that he brought back part of the royal robe to show his men that he could have killed Saul and chose not to. He had to talk to Saul so that the king would know that he was still alive because David was merciful. This was too important a moment to let slip by without making some effort to convince Saul to break off his pursuit. You may be familiar with the book or musical Les Miserables, which has a scene probably based on this story in I Samuel. Throughout the book Jean Valjean has been pursued by the merciless policeman Javert. If you grew up watching TV in the 50s you know this story better as the Fugitive. Javert, like Saul, is obsessed with finding the outlaw. Valjean knows that Javert will use the law to destroy him, but there comes a moment when the tables are turned and the escaped convict has the policeman in his power. In the musical version, Javert sings: “all it would take was a flick of his knife, vengeance was his, but he gave me back my life.” Javert was shaken to the core by this act of mercy, and in the end he committed suicide rather than live in the “debt of a thief.”

David was merciful to Saul, but he does not want his actions to be fruitless. It is important to tell Saul what he has done so that the king will have the chance to respond. David honors the king as the king, and he assures the king that he is no rebel. As long as the king lives, David will not claim the throne that God has promised him. More important, David pledges that he will not kill Saul. Although he is leader of a band of outlaws and debtors, David assures the king that he is not a traitor. We can hear the longing for reconciliation in David’s words, and we remember that at one time Saul treated David like a son.

Saul’s Response                   Saul’s response is equally moving. He can hear David’s voice, but apparently he could not see him clearly. Perhaps it was the darkness of the cave or perhaps David was wise enough not to expose himself. Saul may have realized that David’s men probably had their spears aimed at him, but that does not seem to be the reason he did not shout out to his guards to seize David. Instead he responds like an old father who is unsure whether his son is speaking to him. His words remind us of Isaac wondering which son has brought him dinner. “Is that your voice, my son, David?” It is a voice he has not heard in a long time. He has had no direct contact with David since he fled that night from the window. Had he met David in battle with his voice raised in a war cry, Saul no doubt would have easily struck him down. But hearing his voice echoing in the mountain caves in En Gedi, hearing the longing for justice and reconciliation in the words of the younger man, Saul does not respond with fighting words or bravado. He weeps.

When a proud and strong man weeps, it is hard not to cry with him. So far in the story we have seen Saul as the warrior willing to sacrifice his own son in the battles of Israel, but at the sound of David’s voice he breaks down. The author does not explain this weeping for us, but lets the image of Saul’s tears have their own effect on us. Was this merely further evidence of Saul’s descent into madness and impotence? Were these the tears of King Lear, completely unmanned in every sense of the word?  Has Saul broken down completely at the knowledge that David showed him mercy, the way Javert did? Or are these tears of remorse, the tears of Ebenezer Scrooge who suddenly recognizes the stupidity and evil of his wasted life?

Perhaps these are the tears of a man who truly loved David at one time, and now recognizes what he had lost when he drove David from his life. The beauty of the Bible is that all of these may be true. Saul wept in response to David’s words. Perhaps even he did not know why. What the text does make clear is that Saul acknowledged the justice of David’s words and acknowledged his own sin.

Saul publicly acknowledged that David had shown him mercy even though everyone expected him to act differently. Saul was placed in the position of every sinner who discovers that God is merciful when expect wrath. Paul Tillich said that God’s love often appears like wrath to those who are caught up in their sin. I wonder if David’s mercy felt like a punishment to Saul, just as Valjean’s mercy was more damning to Javert than anything a court of law could dictate. The key thing in Saul’s speech is that he acknowledged the extraordinary nature of David’s mercy toward him. Saul now recognizes why David will be the king. He is more than a cunning warrior; he is just and wise. He is more than a bold adversary; he knows when to exercise restraint. David chooses to end the violence between he and Saul, but Saul has to respond in kind. He asks David to promise not to cut off his descendents, which David has already sworn to Jonathan. Then Saul goes home.

Sigmund Freud drew upon ancient literature when developing his psychological theories. Freud famously said that every son must kill his father if he is going to develop fully as an adult. He did not mean this literally, of course. We can view this story of David at the cave in En Gedi as an example of what Freud was talking about. One of the intriguing things about I Samuel is that David seems more like the son of Saul than the son of Jesse, whom we barely meet. In fact, David seems more like Saul’s son than Jonathan does. It is not mere politeness when Saul calls David his son in this scene. When David cut off the bottom of Saul’s royal robe, he symbolically killed his father Saul, but he refused to kill him in reality. From this moment on, we see Saul in decline while David grows ever stronger and more royal. This is one of the crucial turning points in the story psychologically as well as politically.

David on his own                David and Saul swear a truce, but they are not reconciled. David does not return to the court of the king. Instead he stays in the wild areas of Israel with his growing number of followers. He will not take the battle to Saul, but his not going to disarm. This is one of those tricky situations in global politics. Do we negotiate a cessation of hostilities, or do we insist on complete disarmament and punishment of evil doers? There are times when the wise course of action is leave somebody alone hoping they will keep their word, but it is always best to keep an eye on them.

At the beginning of chapter 25 we have the terse statement that Samuel died and was buried at his house in Ramah. The text says that all Israel assembled for the funeral, which is a poetic way of saying that all of the tribes were represented at the ceremonies. It is odd that there is no brief summary of Samuel’s reign as judge or recounting of his deeds. There is merely the notice of his death and the mourning of all the tribes. The era of the judges has ended completely, and this verse points us to the establishment of a dynasty. It is not clear if we are to assume that Saul and David were both at the funeral, but it makes for a nice image.

Chapter 25                It appears that Saul leaves David and his men to pursue their own affairs, and in chapter 25 we have a revealing story from this period of David’s life. In two weeks Dr. Megan Moore of Wake Forest will go into more detail on this story, but we have time today to begin our discussion of it. In chapter 25 we meet one of the most remarkable women of the Bible. I’m surprised she is not more famous since she played a key role in David’s rise to power.


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