The Triumph of Magnanimity
1 Samuel 24.
David has opportunity, in the absence of Saul, who has gone to meet the Philistines, to remove from the threatened hiding-place of Ziph to a new asylum among the strongholds of En-gedi. When we remember that all of this took place in the wilderness of Judah, David's own tribe, it increases the pathos of his position. He had in a certain sense come unto his own, and his own had not received him. It might be added, "Even his brethren did not believe on him." This, however, is of course only speaking of him as a type of a Greater than himself.
His refuge now is En-gedi, "the fountain of the goat." The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats, and this rugged mountain tract no doubt afforded shelter for many of these climbers; and David too was like a goat — may we say, a scapegoat sent into a land cut off? But here, amid the frowning crags with their frequent caves, is the fountain still. He is not cut off from that refreshment which is here suggested. How blessed it is that the child of God, in all his conflicts and efforts to escape from the assaults of the flesh, never need depart from that up-springing well which is for him! Indeed, our Lord's own promise to the woman of Samaria reminds us that faith carries this fountain with it wherever it goes. Faith may have to leap, as it were, from crag to crag of harsh peaks, with scant footing, all the while pursued by bitter hatred, and yet it has with it the well of water springing up unto everlasting life, which insures freshness of spirit.
David at this time doubtless wrote a number of his sweetest psalms, and we can think of Psalm 63 as being the expression of his soul: "O God, Thou art my God; early will I seek Thee: my soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is." No water for nature, but, as we have just been seeing, a refreshing spring for faith. In this psalm David looks back to the displays of God's power and glory as he had seen them in the sanctuary, in that quiet enjoyment, perhaps, of communion with Samuel and the prophets at Naioth, or with the priests at Nob. Those times are over, for the present at least; but even here, as he muses upon the unchanging grace of God, his soul is satisfied with marrow and fatness, and his mouth praises Him with joyful lips. He can go further; and, as he thinks of past deliverances at Keilah or in the wilderness of Ziph, he can say, "Because Thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of Thy wings will I rejoice." Still surrounded by evil, he adds, "My soul followeth hard after Thee." If Saul was following hard after him, he in his turn would flee all the more swiftly to Him who would not elude his longing search, but whose right hand would uphold him in the midst of sorest difficulties.
The historical setting gives significance to the closing part of the psalm we are dwelling upon. "Those that seek my soul, to destroy it, shall go into the lower parts of the earth. They shall fall by the sword: they shall be a portion for foxes." A solemn prophecy of the doom which awaited Saul! "The king," he adds, "shall rejoice in God" — not now poor Saul who had forfeited all right to the title, but himself, the anointed of Jehovah, and looking forward to the true King who shall reign in righteousness. "Every one that sweareth by Him shall glory: but the mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped." The liar par excellence is the Antichrist, "the man of sin" — "who opposeth and exalteth himself"; and if David is a type of the true Anointed of Jehovah, so Saul has the "bad eminence" of representing the Antichrist.
Saul's campaign against the Philistines, like all his work, was of but a partial character. In fact, we do not learn of any details here, or whether there was a real clash of arms. As soon as he can turn away from the Philistines, he resumes the more congenial task to which he had set himself, of seeking David's life. And now it would seem that nothing could keep the hunted fugitive from falling into his hands.
Just here, however, where evil reaches its most triumphant height, it falls most signally before that faith whose weapons are not carnal, but mighty through God. David and his men have hidden in the recesses of one of the caves which abound in the chalk cliffs of the land; Saul himself enters the very cavern in which they have found refuge; but he was alone; and now, when the two were brought in contact, in the providence of God, it is not the triumphant host of Saul that masters the trembling flock of David, but the solitary king who puts himself in the very grasp of him whom he was calling his bitter enemy.
Here indeed is a situation, an opportunity at last, of which David's men would be quick to avail themselves. Here is now a chance for him to be rid once and for all of this unrighteous persecutor. His men even quote the words of the Lord as justifying David in taking his case into his own hands. Exactly when these words were uttered we do not know; most probably in one of the psalms to which we have already referred. David may have often repeated or sung these inspired and inspiring strains to his lonely followers in some dark hour; and now they may have turned his own words back upon himself and said, "See, the hour is come when your enemy has fallen into your hands; and shall you not now fulfill that promise of God which you yourself have made known to us — that He would overthrow him?"
What a temptation it was! And did not all seem most providential? Who would fail to justify this hunted man in delivering himself from the grasp of such hatred? We do not read, however, that there was the slightest movement on David's part to follow the advice of his men. He does, however, creep so close up to Saul that he can cut off a part of the skirt of his garment — most likely with the trusty sword he held in his hand. Even this act touches the sensitive conscience and heart of this beloved man, who would not dishonor even in this way the dignity of him whom he ever calls "the Lord's anointed."
But how easy it would have been to plunge his sword into the bosom of Saul! No such thought, however, is in his mind. Our Lord, when Judas and the officers of the law closed in upon Him in the garden of Gethsemane, showed His almighty power in that they went backward and fell to the ground. Peter, after the manner of David's men, might draw the sword and cut off, not a bit of the skirt, but the ear, only to have his holy Master disclaim any fellowship with the act. He touches the ear, and heals it. It is sweet to see the mind of the Master in the heart of His type. We may be sure it was but the anticipative fruit of a grace which our Lord has given, not to David only, but to all who follow Him.
But the little bit of the king's robe cut off by David might suggest to us the removal of the entire garment from the king who failed to wear it aright, a garment which should fall upon David. He would not now take it by force. One day, however, he would wear it in kingly dignity and righteousness; but David will wait until the time when the robe is given to him: but until then his heart would smite him even in taking the smallest portion of royal prerogative.
How beautiful are his words: "The Lord forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the Lord's anointed, to stretch forth my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord." Saul was still his master and the Lord's anointed, and nothing would induce David, either directly or through the instrumentality of others, to harm a hair of his head.
Little realizing where he had been, Saul arises and goes forth out of the cave, doubtless still intent upon seizing David. It is now we have a most dramatic scene, one which cannot fail to stir the coldest heart. David, who had been fleeing from Saul all this time, boldly now casts himself before him. He would heap coals of fire upon the king's head, and give him such an object-lesson of his loyalty that even the hard heart of Saul is for the moment softened. It is the self-abandonment and courage of love, which intuitively grasps the situation, and makes fullest use of it. There could scarcely be a more powerful appeal made to the heart and conscience of Saul — surely an appeal which we may well believe our gracious God permitted, who would even yet bow that proud heart in true penitence.
David lays the blame of Saul's pursuit upon others, rather than upon the king himself: "Wherefore hearest thou men's words, saying, Behold, David seeketh thy hurt?" Magnanimously he passes over the enmity so well known both to himself and to Saul, and singles out only the cowardly treachery of those who incited the king. These doubtless were sharers with him in his wickedness, although, of course, Saul was not thereby exonerated.
Had David listened to his advisers, he could have taken the life of Saul. How all this must have appealed to the proud king, and brought the blush of shame to his cheek! Touchingly, too, David addresses him as his "father," perhaps including in that title not only his kingly position as "sire" — the whole people looked upon as his family — but the more direct personal relation that existed between them. There could be no room for doubt. David held in his hand the witness that he could have slain Saul — a witness of his own integrity and of Saul's perfidy.
He now takes higher ground, and appeals his whole case to the Lord to judge between them; and goes further to speak of the solemn time of vengeance which must fall if Saul persists in his course; but David leaves it all in God's hands, illustrating that word, "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves; for it is written, Vengeance is Mine; I will recompense, saith the Lord." He too had been heaping coals of fire upon his enemy, and overcoming evil with good.
He also quotes a proverb, perhaps well known not only to himself, but also to Saul, who could make his own application: "Wickedness proceedeth from the wicked; but My hand shall not be upon thee." It would be hard indeed for Saul to escape from the thought that he was the wicked one from whom nothing but wickedness had as yet proceeded. David also gives him the assurance that the magnanimity already shown will be continued as long as the persecution lasts. He had committed his case into the hands of a higher power, and personally he should be pure from the blood of Saul.
He next speaks of the pitiableness of the whole scene. Here is the king of Israel, the commander of the hosts of the Lord, the anointed of God to lead His people valiantly against their enemies; and here were Philistines ever threatening the liberties of the Lord's people and the occupation of their inheritance, with other enemies ready to press in on every side; and he is concentrating all his energies upon one who, humanly speaking, is as insignificant as a dead dog or a flea. How contemptible, and well-nigh ludicrous, was it all! calculated, indeed, to stir any lingering embers of self-respect which might remain among the ashes of the desolate hearth of Saul's cold heart.
Saul seems melted and broken. What memories would that voice awaken of loyal cheer in that day of Goliath's mighty power — of gladness and hope when the dark cloud of the evil spirit pressed upon his soul — of songs of praise that told of the care of the Great Shepherd for the least of His sheep! How many a weary night had been soothed by that voice! He recalls, too, the relationship, as David had already done, possibly with the same twofold significance that we suggested there: "Is this thy voice, my son David? and he is melted down to tears. Gracious drops indeed! Only, something more than sentiment or tender recollections is needed to melt the hard heart of pride; and what alembic can change the essential character of the flesh?
There seems to be an acknowledgment of David's righteousness, and his own sin: "Thou hast been more righteous than I." David had rewarded good for his evil. He could not deny the proofs that were before him, when even God Himself had delivered him into the hands of David. What a great moral victory for the son of Jesse! Who could deny that if an enemy falls into one's hands, he would wreak vengeance upon him, if that were really in his heart? Saul can but call down God's blessing in righteous recompense upon David for his mercy, and in that connection acknowledges that he will be king. So real is this to him that he takes occasion to elicit a promise from David that he will not cut off his house or his family name from Israel. Of this David assures him with an oath; and thus they part, Saul to return to his house, and David not to his, but again to those strongholds which had thus far proved his shelter. This in itself would show that the breach had not been healed, and that David realized it would be impossible fully to trust one who had shown such perfidy in times past, and who still refused to bow to God in the whole solemn matter.
It would be well for us if we realized that a fair show of friendliness by fleshly men cannot be construed as a permanent reconciliation. The flesh and the spirit are contrary, the one to the other, and it is impossible that they should go on side by side without ever-recurring conflict. So too with those who have prominently identified themselves with evil, and who are not delivered from that which holds them in bondage. They must ever act according to the behests of their master; and while there may be temporary lulls in the conflict between the ungodly and the children of God, these by no means show a change on the part of the former.
Thus Rome has ceased its persecutions largely because it has had no power to carry them on. It would be a great mistake, however, to think that her enmity had changed, or that it was an impossibility that the fires of persecution should again be lighted. The same may be said as to the persecutions of Judaism, the hostility of the world — in fact, all that manifested itself at the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. There, all power was arrayed against Him. His accusation was written over the cross in letters of Hebrew — the religious world; of Greek — the polite and educated world; and of Rome — the political power. All alike united in one thing — their common rejection of Christ. Since that time the world has often spoken fair to the children of God; often, indeed, it has seemed as though some of the glowing promises as to the millennial kingdom were to be fulfilled in this day. Sometimes the saints have been deceived by this soft blowing of the south wind, and have let their little craft loose upon the treacherous sea of worldly approval, only to find, a little later on, the fierce storms beating against them.
No; we can thank God when the enemy ceases to persecute, but we cannot accompany him back to his house, nor settle down at ease in the world, which is as much at enmity with Christ as ever. The stronghold is our only place until "these calamities be overpast." Let us then be ever on our guard, and await patiently that day when there shall be no need for wearing the armor, and when we can ungird the loins, and recline at the feast which celebrates the final victory over evil, and our entering into our eternal rest.