The greatest of human tragedies is not to live for self, but the tragedy of unrepentance. Every human being is born selfish, hostile toward God. It is only through God’s grace that we are brought near through the blood of Jesus.
The story of 1 Samuel records two equal and opposite reactions to King David. We find the sacrificial loyalty of Jonathan, but we also find the deep-seated hatred of King Saul. The contrasting reactions were meant to give readers pause: How do you react to God’s chosen King? For the original readers of these stories, this meant how they reacted to the line of kings who came from David onward. For those living in the age of the Church, this means how we react to the true King: Jesus, who also comes from the line of David.
In 1 Samuel 19, we find the story reaching critical mass. Saul’s earlier indirect attempts to assassinate David had proved unsuccessful, so now the gloves come off. Fortunately, Jonathan remains committed to his friend David, and pleads his case before his father:
And Saul spoke to Jonathan his son and to all his servants, that they should kill David. But Jonathan, Saul’s son, delighted much in David. 2 And Jonathan told David, “Saul my father seeks to kill you. Therefore be on your guard in the morning. Stay in a secret place and hide yourself. 3 And I will go out and stand beside my father in the field where you are, and I will speak to my father about you. And if I learn anything I will tell you.” 4 And Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father and said to him, “Let not the king sin against his servant David, because he has not sinned against you, and because his deeds have brought good to you. 5 For he took his life in his hand and he struck down the Philistine, and the Lord worked a great salvation for all Israel. You saw it, and rejoiced. Why then will you sin against innocent blood by killing David without cause?”6 And Saul listened to the voice of Jonathan. Saul swore, “As the Lord lives, he shall not be put to death.” 7 And Jonathan called David, and Jonathan reported to him all these things. And Jonathan brought David to Saul, and he was in his presence as before.
Unfortunately, this peace wasn’t meant to last. In fact, we might even wonder if Saul is just “playing nice,” biding his time until the next opportunity. A short while later, an evil spirit once again settles on Saul—the third time this is recorded (cf. 16:14; 18:10). David had evaded Saul’s attacks before, now he would have to escape them entirely:
8 And there was war again. And David went out and fought with the Philistines and struck them with a great blow, so that they fled before him. 9 Then a harmful spirit from the Lord came upon Saul, as he sat in his house with his spear in his hand. And David was playing the lyre. 10 And Saul sought to pin David to the wall with the spear, but he eluded Saul, so that he struck the spear into the wall. And David fled and escaped that night.
11 Saul sent messengers to David’s house to watch him, that he might kill him in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife, told him, “If you do not escape with your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed.” 12 So Michal let David down through the window, and he fled away and escaped. 13 Michal took an image and laid it on the bed and put a pillow of goats’ hair at its head and covered it with the clothes. 14 And when Saul sent messengers to take David, she said, “He is sick.” 15 Then Saul sent the messengers to see David, saying, “Bring him up to me in the bed, that I may kill him.” 16 And when the messengers came in, behold, the image was in the bed, with the pillow of goats’ hair at its head.17 Saul said to Michal, “Why have you deceived me thus and let my enemy go, so that he has escaped?” And Michal answered Saul, “He said to me, ‘Let me go. Why should I kill you?’”
Like Jonathan, Michal’s devoted love protects David from harm. She creates a ruse to fool Saul’s messengers—using a household idol to create the illusion of David in bed, sick.
But we might ask a critical question: why would David’s house contain an idol? In the ancient world, sometimes these household idols were specific statues that you’d inherit—passed down like some bizarre family heirloom. But it’s hard to imagine that Michal—or anyone in this premodern society—could completely separate family tradition from pagan worship. The text doesn’t specify just who owned this idol, nor does it give us reason to throw rocks at David for permitting such an object in his home. Yet it reminds us that he inhabited a world full of misplaced faith—trusting in lesser gods for security or wealth.
Now that David had escaped, the text describes the further descent of Saul:
18 Now David fled and escaped, and he came to Samuel at Ramah and told him all that Saul had done to him. And he and Samuel went and lived at Naioth. 19 And it was told Saul, “Behold, David is at Naioth in Ramah.” 20 Then Saul sent messengers to take David, and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied. 21 When it was told Saul, he sent other messengers, and they also prophesied. And Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they also prophesied.22 Then he himself went to Ramah and came to the great well that is in Secu. And he asked, “Where are Samuel and David?” And one said, “Behold, they are at Naioth in Ramah.” 23 And he went there to Naioth in Ramah. And the Spirit of God came upon him also, and as he went he prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah. 24 And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Thus it is said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”
Do you remember hearing that last line before? Is Saul among the prophets? was a question posed earlier (1 Samuel 10:12) when Saul was first anointed. It’s as if the writer is trying to get us to think back to the day that Saul’s kingship began—and just how far he’d fallen.
And so we now see the radical difference between Jonathan and Saul. Jonathan gave his clothes to David as an act of self-sacrifice (1 Samuel 18:1-5). Saul stripped his clothes as an act of self-destruction. What did he “prophesy?” It makes little difference. At this point he was far from God, a man who’d gone from splendor to shame through a series of poor choices. And those are the final consequences of every person’s reaction to God’s chosen king: you either bare your soul in love, or be stripped bare in shame. This is why Jesus would later warn the religious leaders that “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:3). And that’s horrifying—until we consider that our only other recourse is to lay ourselves bare before the great physician and unmask our secrets and our shame. We will be clothed in Christ’s mercy, or covered in the shame and scandal of a life lived for self.
What about us? What about the “long haul?” Is it possible to start out like Jonathan—full of love for God and for Jesus—and only end up like Saul? Experience tells us the answer is a haunting “yes.” We can easily name those who have been “on fire” for God, only later to walk away from faith. Still more painfully, we can name those who walked to their graves without having publicly turned back toward God.
There are many Godly, intelligent Christians who love Jesus deeply and believe that you can lose your salvation. I am not one of them. I believe that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). I believe that “those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). I also believe there are two critical elements in this passage that we need to think deeply about:
- The presence of the Spirit. In Saul’s day, the Holy Spirit came upon select individuals for the purpose of leadership. In the age of the Church, the Holy Spirit comes upon all believers to empower them the live on mission (Acts 1:8). So while Saul saw the Spirit leave, Christians do not share this same fear. And as he departed, Jesus promised that “I will be with you until the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
- The object of faith. Michal’s home contained idols. And—again—while we needn’t throw rocks, we recognize that David inhabited a world of imperfect trust and divided beliefs. Often, I hear people say: “I just don’t know that much about the Bible,” or “I just wish I could pray more.” But God so regularly rescues idolatrous people that we have no choice but to conclude that I am acceptable to God not because of the quantity of my faith, but the object of my faith. If God saves me at all, it says more about his goodness than my own.
But surely we can’t afford to be lazy? Surely not. The writer of Hebrews challenges his readers to “run the race set before you” (Hebrews 12:1). Good works are never the basis of faith—but they are the expression of faith. Every follower of Jesus is challenged to daily take up the cross and follow Jesus in a hostile world, that one day we might not be stripped in shame but clothed in glory.