God is out to get you
The king of mercy establishes his kingdom not by killing his enemies, but by forgiving us. And then we see how badly we have misjudged him.
1 Samuel 24:1-22
1 When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, “Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi.” 2 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. 3 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. 4 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. 5 And afterward David’s heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. 6 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.” 7 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.
8 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. 9 And David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Behold, David seeks your harm’? 10 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.’ 11 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. 12 May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. 13 As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes wickedness.’ But my hand shall not be against you. 14 After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! 15 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.”
16 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. 17 He said to David, “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. 18 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. 19 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. 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.
This chapter narrates one of the most important moments in the conflict between Saul and David, and between their kingdoms. On the heels of betrayal, deprivation and pretending to be deranged, David’s next move seems truly insane.
Saul was an evil, murderous ruler who deserved to die. But David, this strange new kind of king, had something else in mind.
As a reader, it’s easy to identify with David’s men in this vivid scene. Of all the places Saul could have relieved himself, he chooses the one cave where his enemies are hiding in an attempt to avoid him. The team immediately sees what’s going on: “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’”
And they are exactly right, this is that day. The very thing Saul feared—David “lying in wait” to ambush him—has come to pass. David creeps through the darkness, knife in hand. His men must have been giddy. The blood of their enemy would flow, and their man would become king.
But instead of cutting his throat, David cuts off the corner of his jacket—and then confesses to his men how guilty he feels about that!
A merciful king is something new and strange in the world. Counter to the expectations of the men who loved and trusted him, this is how his kingdom is established.
David comes out of the cave to confront Saul, with the evidence of his mercy in hand. Saul’s reaction speaks volumes: The fog of his delusion clears, he cries out in sorrow and concedes defeat. The fatal blow to Saul’s kingdom comes in the form of David’s refusal to kill him.
David himself later wrote of this conflict, saying, “My eyes have looked in triumph on my foes”1—with no apparent victory in sight.
Centuries later, another king of Israel would prove that forgiveness is the strangest thing this world has ever seen. Nothing about Jesus makes sense until you see his mercy.
On the cross, Jesus established his kingdom and was able to say, “My eyes have looked in triumph on my foes”—with no apparent victory in sight.
The moment after we receive mercy from Christ is when we realize how badly we have misjudged him. When we see him in the light of the cross, it’s like seeing him for the first time.
As sinners, we feel like God is out to get us. And he is—just not in the way that we thought. For all of our fear of judgment, how many times have we been ambushed by grace instead?
This is not only how Christ’s kingdom is established in the world. It’s also how his kingdom is established in our hearts. Confronted by this mercy, we can pray Saul’s words back to Jesus:
17 You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.
18 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.
19 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.
20 And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.
1 Psalm 54:7