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21. A Time to Kill, or Not (1 Samuel 24:1-22)


This incident in the cave could easily be a rerun of the execution of Eglon, King of Moab, as described in Judges 3:12-31. The Moabites are oppressing the Israelites, and God hears the cries of His people. He raises up Ehud as one of Israel’s judges. Ehud, a left-handed Benjamite, goes to Eglon to deliver the “tribute” monies the Israelites are paying to Moab. He wears his custom-made sword on his right thigh, under his cloak. It seems that before Ehud is allowed to enter Eglon’s presence, he is searched, but only on his left side where all right-handed men keep their weapons. When in the king’s private quarters with no one else present, Ehud arrives. He finds the king in his cool roof chamber, where the king's toilet is placed. Ehud slays Eglon and flees, but not out the normal entrance. Instead, he closes the doors to the king’s private chamber and locks them, escaping unseen. The king’s servants grow more and more nervous as time passes and he does not come out of his private chamber -- but no one wants to interrupt him. When they finally unlock the doors, they find their king dead.

The same thing could have happened in the cave where David and his men are hiding, and where Saul decides to relieve himself privately. David could easily have killed Saul at this vulnerable moment, or at least allowed one of his men to do so. Instead, David spares the king’s life, allowing him to leave the cave unharmed, without even knowing that David is near. What David does next is even more surprising, as we shall soon see. Saul’s response to all of this is likewise amazing.

It is a great story we are about to study. The sense of drama is intense. In this account, we find danger, suspense, and surprises. But it is not just a good, well-written, entertaining story. It is a story that has great application to every Christian today. How can this be? David is a man who has been appointed and anointed to be Israel’s next king. The events we are presently studying take place in that intervening period of time between David’s designation as Israel’s next king and his appointment as king.

We who trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and eternal salvation are “kings and priests” to be.

12a If we endure, we shall also reign with Him . . . (2 Timothy 2:12a).

10 “And Thou hast made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth” (Revelation 5:10).

6 Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years (Revelation 20:6).

5 And there shall no longer be any night; and they shall not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them; and they shall reign forever and ever (Revelation 22:5).

This matter of waiting to reign is very important. A number of errors found in Christian circles today (and throughout church history) have to do with the relationship of our present-day living to the future reign of Christ, with his saints. Some err in supposing we can actually “reign” now, enjoying all the future benefits today. Our text, like the rest of the Old and New Testament, is based upon the fact that while we are going to reign in the future, God is presently preparing us through rejection and suffering. Just as God dealt with David in this area, He is also dealing with us in the same area today. Let us listen well then, because this is not mere history we are reading. This text is God’s instruction to us, through the example of saints like David, and even sorry people like Saul.

David Refuses to Cave-in to Peer Pressure

1 Now it came about when Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines, he was told, saying, “Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi.” 2 Then Saul took three thousand chosen men from all Israel, and went to seek David and his men in front of the Rocks of the Wild Goats. 3 And he came to the sheepfolds on the way, where there was a cave; and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the inner recesses of the cave. 4 And the men of David said to him, “Behold, this is the day of which the LORD said to you, 'Behold; I am about to give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.'“ Then David arose and cut off the edge of Saul's robe secretly. 5 And it came about afterward that David's conscience bothered him because he had cut off the edge of Saul's robe. 6 So he said to his men, “Far be it from me because of the LORD that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD'S anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, since he is the LORD'S anointed.” 7 And David persuaded his men with these words and did not allow them to rise up against Saul. And Saul arose, left the cave, and went on his way.

In chapter 23, Saul seems to have David within his grasp. He is closing in on David when a messenger informs him that Israel is under attack, forcing Saul to give up his pursuit of David to engage the Philistines. We do not know how Saul fares in his confrontation with the Philistines, but we do know he returns in one piece, just as zealous to capture David. Someone has informed Saul that David is now in the wilderness of Engedi.108

Saul expects to encounter David in front of the “Rocks of the Wild Goats” (24:2)109 and sets out in that direction. I imagine Saul has learned as much about this general area as possible and concluded that this remote spot in the mountains of Judea would likely be David’s hideout if he knew Saul was in pursuit. It would seem David does just the opposite. Instead of fleeing from the wilderness Engedi to the “Rocks of the Wild Goats,” David heads in the opposite direction, right toward Saul. The paths of the two men cross at some sheep pens, where there is also a cave. Saul feels the urge of nature and begins to look about for a place where he can privately relieve himself.

Think of yourself as one of David’s men, peering out from that cave, watching Saul and his army draw near, and then stop. I can almost feel the tension as Saul’s eyes turn toward the cave. David’s men crouch low at the back of the cave and silently moan as they see Saul approach them. Little do they know what Saul has in mind. It must look as though they are finished. Saul approaches the cave as David and his men grasp their weapons, ready to defend themselves. What follows need not be described, except to say that it was a relief to both Saul and David’s men.

David’s men are more at ease now, and they begin to ponder the meaning of this moment. It looks to them as though God has given them the opportunity to kill Saul. A prophecy is recited to David, which says,

4 “Behold; I am about to give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you” (verse 4).

In the light of David’s response, one must come to one of several choices. First, one might say this is a false prophecy, which should be rejected (see 1 Kings 22). Second, this may be a prophecy related to someone (some enemy) other than Saul, and wrongly applied to Saul by David’s men. Third, this prophecy may be genuine and related to Saul, but wrongly interpreted and applied by David’s men. I am inclined toward the third option.

David stealthily makes his way toward king Saul, who is oblivious to all that is happening behind him. His robe has apparently been removed and placed out of the way, far enough away that David can reach out and cut off a portion of the edge. Immediately, David’s conscience smites him. There are those who believe this is because such an act was highly significant, somehow challenging or undermining Saul’s right to rule.110 I do not think so. It seems to me that David’s intent is only to obtain proof that he had been able to come within striking distance of Saul, and yet did him no harm. In and of itself, this would not have troubled David, but the fact is that David damages Saul’s garment. In today’s terms, David might have slashed the tires on Saul’s car. It is something like vandalism.

David’s act should not be judged by the amount of damage done, but rather in terms of against whom it is done. A seemingly trivial action would be taken very seriously if it were done to the President of the United States. David’s action was committed against his king. It matters not that the action is a small one, certainly trivial when compared to the assassination his men want. He has raised his hand against his king, and in so doing, he has raised his hand against his God. It is God who has raised up Saul, and it is God who will remove him, in some way that does not include David acting with hostility toward him:

10 David also said, “As the LORD lives, surely the LORD will strike him, or his day will come that he dies, or he will go down into battle and perish” (1 Samuel 26:10).

However Saul is removed, it is God who will remove him, not David. Until God does remove Saul as king, it is David’s duty to faithfully serve his king, and cutting off a portion of his robe was not done to further Saul’s interests. For this reason, David’s conscience troubles him.111

David is conscience-stricken over his taking a portion of Saul’s robe. His men, on the other hand, are plotting much worse things for Saul. David’s success with garment cutting inspires his men to solve the Saul problem once for all. Saul is vulnerable at this moment. His men are out of sight (Saul surely wants to conduct his business in private), and so they can simply do him in.112 This is something they seem intent on doing, and only the most forceful reaction on David’s part turns them from their intended course of action. The translation of verse 7 in most versions is amazingly bland (“persuaded,” NASB), compared to the word the author employs (the marginal note in the NASB indicates that a literal translation would be tore apart).113 114 At the mention of killing the king, David literally tears into his men, fiercely defending the life of the king and demanding that, just as he would not lift his hand against the king, neither will they. While David’s men look at David in wonder, Saul finishes his task, gathers up his (now altered) robe, and goes out of the cave.

David and Goliath #2115

8 Now afterward David arose and went out of the cave and called after Saul, saying, “My lord the king!” And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the ground and prostrated himself. 9 And David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of men, saying, 'Behold, David seeks to harm you'? 10 “Behold, this day your eyes have seen that the LORD had given you today into my hand in the cave, and some said to kill you, but my eye had pity on you; and I said, 'I will not stretch out my hand against my lord, for he is the LORD'S anointed.' 11 “Now, my father, see! Indeed, see the edge of your robe in my hand! For in that I cut off the edge of your robe and did not kill you, know and perceive that there is no evil or rebellion in my hands, and I have not sinned against you, though you are lying in wait for my life to take it. 12 “May the LORD judge between you and me, and may the LORD avenge me on you; but my hand shall not be against you. 13 “As the proverb of the ancients says, 'Out of the wicked comes forth wickedness'; but my hand shall not be against you. 14 “After whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom are you pursuing? A dead dog, a single flea? 15 “The LORD therefore be judge and decide between you and me; and may He see and plead my cause, and deliver me from your hand.”

To kill Saul is to resist the Lord’s anointed, and such an act cannot be godly. Thus, David’s men’s use of the divine revelation is a wrong, and so David adamantly resists and refuses. David is to do to Saul “what seems good” to him. What seems good to David is to submit to his king and to faithfully serve him, seeking his best interest. This certainly means that David must not oppose Saul or act in any way that will be detrimental to him. Submission to his king means much more than this to David. It means acting in a way that promotes Saul’s best. David’s interpretation of what “is good” in reference to Saul surprises Saul for certain, and undoubtedly everyone else who witnesses the next event.

David and his men are safely hidden in the cave. All they need do is keep quiet and let Saul and his men leave. They can then make their escape in the opposite direction. Abandoning all efforts at self-protection or evasion, David emerges from the cave, calling out to Saul. He addresses Saul as his “lord the king” (verse 8), and a little later as his “father” (verse 11). David prostrates himself on the ground, showing his reverence for and submission to Saul as the king (verse 8). He appeals to the king to set aside the things others have told him, to listen to his words, to compare them with his actions, and then to judge his guilt or innocence for himself.

David challenges the charge that he is seeking Saul’s defeat or death. He is not striving to gain the throne by removing Saul from it. Showing Saul the portion of his robe he cut off, David urges Saul to acknowledge that while he could have killed his king, he did not. Saul is God’s anointed. To harm the king is to act in rebellion against God, who enthroned him. When Saul’s life was in David’s hands, David protected him, keeping his men from killing him. And now, David puts his life into Saul’s hands, and ultimately into God’s hands, for it is to God that David has made his ultimate appeal. It is to Him that he looks for justice. Because of this, he need not act against Saul himself.

David reminds the king that men can be known by their fruits. In the words of the ancient proverb, David quotes, “Out of the wicked comes forth wickedness” (verse 13). David has done nothing wicked toward Saul, and he assures Saul his hand will not be against him in the future (verse 13). He also reminds the king that his fears about David are exaggerated. David likens himself to a dead dog and to a single flea (verse 14). How can such a great man as Saul, with all his military might, can have such fears about David?

David closes his argument by telling Saul that he has committed himself into God’s care. He has left judgment and retribution to God. He looks to God for justice and for protection from Saul’s attacks (verse 15). With this, David rests his case. It is now time for Saul to respond, and that he does.

Saul’s “Repentance” and Request

16 Now it came about when David had finished speaking these words to Saul, that Saul said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” Then Saul lifted up his voice and wept. 17 And he said to David, “You are more righteous than I; for you have dealt well with me, while I have dealt wickedly with you. 18 “And you have declared today that you have done good to me, that the LORD delivered me into your hand and yet you did not kill me. 19 “For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safely? May the LORD therefore reward you with good in return 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 “So now swear to me by the LORD that you will not cut off my descendants after me, and that you will not destroy my name from my father's household.” 22 And David swore to Saul. And Saul went to his home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.

Saul is shocked to hear his name called out from behind. He can hardly believe his ears, that it is actually David calling to him. Saul lifts up his voice, weeping, calling David his “son.” How much easier this is after David has called him his “father” in verse 11, and after David bows down to him as a faithful servant to the king. It is obvious that David has Saul’s life in his hands, and he spares it. How unlike himself David is! Saul confesses that David is righteous, but he is not. He has done wickedly toward David, and yet David has done “good” toward him in response. David would not have let him go if he were his enemy, and thus he must be his friend. And so Saul invokes God’s blessings upon David.

Verse 20 is an amazing confession from Saul. For the first time recorded in Scripture, Saul owns up to the truth. He has been told by Samuel that his kingdom will not endure (13:14), that he has been rejected by God as Israel’s king (15:26). In chapter 18 (verses 8-9), Saul indicates that David is so popular, the only thing left is for him to possess the kingdom. In 20:31, Saul tells Jonathan that he will never inherit the throne so long as David is alive. Elsewhere, Saul deals with David as a traitor, plotting to do him in and take over the kingdom (see 22:6-13). But here, for the very first time, Saul acknowledges that God is taking his kingdom away from him and giving it to David. He admits that David’s ascent to the throne is a certainty.

Because of this, Saul petitions David to swear that he will not kill off his descendants (24:21). Saul’s concerns are not entirely groundless. It was common practice for men who ascended to the throne to wipe out every possible heir to the throne, especially the descendants of the king he overthrew or replaced (see 2 Kings 10:11, 15-17; 11:1). The irony of Saul’s request is that this matter was already taken care of in the covenant between David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:14-17, 41-42). Nevertheless, David swears to Saul that he will not destroy all of his descendants.116

The two men part.117 David goes up to the stronghold, while Saul goes back to his home (24:22). David is probably hopeful that his troubles with Saul have ended, but he is no fool. Saul has “repented” before (see 19:1-7), but it did not last long. David will see what Saul’s long-term response is by watching from a distance. The other side of this coin may be that David is actually serving Saul in a backhanded fashion. Are the people turning to David and looking down upon Saul? Then David will keep his distance, staying out of the public eye so that Saul’s popularity may not be undermined.


This is truly an amazing story. Who would ever have thought that “nature’s call” would result in the peaceful parting of David and Saul on such an occasion? God is sovereign. He is in absolute control of all things, and “all things” includes things as basic as the “call of nature.” By means of this very natural (our children would say “gross” or something of the sort) event, some very supernatural things happened. First, David and Saul met and parted, yet without the shedding of any blood. Saul confessed things we would never have expected from him. David not only repented of his act of cutting off a portion of Saul’s robe, he kept his men from killing Saul. And all of this is the result of Saul looking for a pit stop, and finding it in the very cave where David and his men “just happened” to be hiding. God is able to employ “nature” to achieve His purposes. What a marvelous God we serve!

In his book, Spiritual Leadership, J. Oswald Sanders speaks of three principles which govern spiritual leadership:

  • Sovereignty
  • Suffering
  • Servanthood

I believe this dear brother is absolutely right, and that these three principles can be seen in the life of David as God prepares him for spiritual leadership. Let us consider each of the three.


The first factor in spiritual leadership is the sovereignty of God. I attended a meeting in which Sanders told of how God called him to leadership. He was engaged in a very different kind of ministry, as he had been most of his life, when he was contacted about becoming the head of a large missionary organization. It took Sanders (and his wife) a year to recognize the persistence of this organization as an evidence of His sovereign call to leadership. It is God who sovereignly raises up spiritual leaders (see the way God raises up Saul/Paul in Acts).

The sovereignty of God is one of the principle factors in David’s thinking about leadership as well. God sovereignly raised up Saul as Israel’s king. Though Samuel anoints David as Israel’s next king, David believes it is God who will remove Saul and that this is not his task. So long as God keeps Saul in power, to lift his hand against Saul is to lift his hand against God. Circumstances may have been favorable for David or one of his men to kill Saul, but David’s belief in the sovereignty of God keeps him from doing so.

Satan rebelled against the sovereign rule of God. He was not willing to serve God, but wanted to lead, like God. Sin is rebellion against God, against his sovereignty. It is seeking to rise above God. David submits to the sovereignty of God. And he does so by leaving vengeance to God. John Murray’s comments on Romans 12:19 are most pertinent:

“Here we have what belongs to the essence of piety. The essence of ungodliness is that we presume to take the place of God, to take everything into our own hands. It is faith to commit ourselves to God, to cast all our care upon him and to vest all our interests in him. In reference to the matter in hand, the wrongdoing of which we are the victims, the way of faith is to recognize that God is judge and to leave the execution of vengeance and retribution to him.”118


The second factor in spiritual leadership is suffering. Oswald Sanders spoke of one of his first sermons (some 65 years earlier!). He said that after his message, he could not help but overhear two women discussing his sermon. One woman asked the other, “Well, what did you think?” The second woman responded, “Not bad, but he’ll be much better when he has suffered.” Sanders then went on to describe how God brought him through suffering by the death of two wives and one niece. When I hear many contemporary Christian musicians, I feel like that woman who heard Sanders’ first sermon. I believe they will be better after they have tasted suffering. They often write and sing their music as very young and inexperienced people. Most have not tasted the cup of suffering and sorrow. Suffering has a way of changing you and your message.

From the time David is anointed king to the time he is appointed king, David endures a great deal of suffering. Most of his suffering comes from the hand of Saul. David’s ascent to the throne is not in spite of his suffering, but by means of it. Suffering is the means by which God prepares David for leadership. And this is no exception. Joseph’s suffering at the hand of his brothers prepared Joseph to lead and prepared a way of deliverance for his family. Israel’s suffering in Egypt prepared the people of God for the exodus and their life as free men and women. Our Lord’s suffering prepared Him for the ministry which He will have as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Our suffering accomplishes exactly the same thing.

David’s men are tempting him to shortcut his sufferings and to hasten his rule as king by killing Saul. Their temptation is little different from the temptation of our Lord by Satan in the wilderness at the beginning of his public ministry (see Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12). We too are tempted to avoid suffering and to get right into the glory, but suffering is God’s appointed means of bringing us to glory. David is willing to suffer in order to obey God, even though it seems to be inconsistent with his future reign.


The final factor Sanders describes in relation to spiritual leadership is servanthood. Servanthood and submission are very closely related in my mind. Both are very much involved in God’s preparation of David for kingship. A servant is one who faithfully serves another. David is Saul’s faithful servant, even when Saul is seeking to take his life. Submission is subordinating your own personal interests to serve another.

David serves his master, Saul, faithfully. His conscience troubles him when he cuts off a portion of Saul’s robe. This is not serving Saul faithfully. He refuses to consider killing Saul, or to let his men do so. This is not serving Saul. Suffering is the price David is willing to pay to serve Saul faithfully. Saul is, in a sense, David’s enemy, and God has put his life in David’s hands. But David believes that in order to do what is good in his sight, he will have to serve Saul, not slay him. And in order to serve Saul, he will have to endanger his own life. So David lets Saul go and then reveals himself to Saul outside the cave. David goes so far as to submissively rebuke Saul, pointing out that he is not his enemy, and that he has done only good toward him. David never ceases to serve Saul in submission, as long as he is alive and as long as he is God’s king. David does “good” toward Saul, as Saul himself confesses, and this David does by suffering at Saul’s hand, by serving Saul, and by submitting himself to Saul, looking ultimately to the sovereign God for justice and retribution.

These guiding principles of sovereignty, suffering, and servanthood enable David to discern the will of God in his circumstances. David’s men (1 Samuel 24:4), much like Saul (1 Samuel 23:7), discern God’s will on the basis of favorable circumstances: God gives them the opportunity to kill Saul, and thus it must be God’s will for them to do so. David discerns God’s will on principle. He chooses to fight Goliath, not because it looks as though he is sure to win (though he does have this certainty, no one else does), but because this man is blaspheming God. David is not willing to take advantage of his circumstances because he is thinking like a spiritual leader, thinking in terms of the sovereignty of God, suffering as a part of God’s will and servanthood.

I see much less of David’s discernment of God’s will today than I do of Saul’s or of David’s men. I hear many Christians think and teach that suffering is not God’s will, and that true faith will be rewarded by immediate blessing and the absence of pain. I find that many discern God’s will by looking only at favorable circumstances, rather than living by faith in God’s word, and not by sight. I see many Christians getting their guidance from other misguided Christians, rather than standing alone on biblical principle. Let us be like David in this regard, and not like his men who only want to end the pain by killing God’s anointed. Such self-serving is precisely what we see in the scribes and Pharisees (along with the masses, including the Romans), when they rejected Christ and crucified him, releasing Barabbas instead.

I see in David’s life, as described in 1 Samuel, an example and illustration of many biblical texts on the subjects of suffering, servanthood, and submission. Though we cannot consider them now, let me simply list some texts for your further consideration: Psalm 7; Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:17, 19; 1 Peter 2:11-22; 4:12-19. Let us all seek to be men and women, like David, who have a heart after God’s own heart, to His glory and for our good.

107 I often get input from members of our congregation. This title was the suggestion of 13-year-old Eric Ritchie, who also has drawn some fine cartoons, based upon a biblical passage.

108 A report came to Saul that David was in the wilderness of Engedi, “an oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea, favored with a perennial spring located several hundred feet up a large cliff.” Dale Ralph Davis, Looking on the Heart: Expositions of the Book of 1 Samuel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), vol. 2, p. 103.

109 From what I read, no one really knows the location of this place, but from Psalm 104:18, we can infer that it was a very high, remote spot, where wild goats would thrive, and where soldiers would not fare well in their pursuit of David.

110 Davis, for example, writes: “David’s act may have been a symbolic declaration of revolt. Only such heavy symbolism explains David’s remorse . . . .” Dale Ralph Davis, vol. 2, p. 105.

111 At this point in the text, the New Geneva Study Bible has a very fine insert on the conscience, which I would encourage you to read.

112 I am not quite certain how they think they will get away with this. They are still trapped inside the cave, or so it seems. Do David’s men think that once their king is dead, Saul’s men will simply scatter?

113 This term is employed in Judges 14:6: “And the Spirit of the LORD came upon him mightily, so that he tore him as one tears a kid though he had nothing in his hand; but he did not tell his father or mother what he had done (emphasis mine).

114 “One would never know it from our Bible versions, most of which allege in verse 7 that David ‘persuaded,’ ‘rebuked,’ or ‘restrained’ his men with words. But the Hebrew text reads, ‘So David tore apart his men with the words,’ suggesting that David had to resort to violent and threatening language to cool their blood. Many commentators (and seemingly some ancient versions) think the word is too strong, but I do not see why. It is the writer’s very point: David had to ‘tear them up’ or ‘cut them down’ with his words in order to prevent the spilling of Saul’s blood.” Dale Ralph Davis, vol. 2, pp. 105-106.

115 At this point in David’s life, Saul is virtually another Goliath. In my mind, it takes as much courage to stand before Saul here as it did to stand up to Goliath.

116 I understand that David is here covenanting with Saul not to kill off all of his descendants, thus keeping Saul’s family (and thus his name) from being carried on after his death. I do not understand David to be promising that he will not kill any of his descendants. Thus, when we come to 2 Samuel 21, David will execute seven of Saul’s descendants to rectify Saul’s slaughter of the Gibeonites. David executes two sons of Rizpah, one of Saul’s concubines, and five sons of Merab, Saul’s daughter, who almost became David’s wife. He does not execute any of Saul’s sons nor any of Jonathan’s children. Thus he keeps his oath to Saul and his covenant with Jonathan.

117 The parting of David and Saul in 24:22 is somewhat parallel to the parting of David and Jonathan in 23:18. I am not really certain what the relationship between these two partings is, but it does seem that they are related somehow.

118 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 2 vols. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965], 2:141-142. As cited by Dale Ralph Davis, vol. 2, p. 108, fn. 10.

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