“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” This is a paraphrase from a Robert Burns’ 18th-Century poem. Others have defined frustration as the distance between expectation and reality. When my plans fail to unfold the way I desire, it’s devastating. So when I think about David, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to know God’s promises, only to live in the absence of their fulfillment. David spent something like 10 years on the run from Saul’s vicious pursuit. David was not without his supporters (roughly 600 men), but they remained far outnumbered by Saul’s superior forces (3,000 men).
So when an opportunity presented itself to turn the tide, David must have faced an overwhelming temptation:
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. (1 Samuel 24:1-7)
David faced a crisis. He had only to extend his sword and his troubles would be over. There will be many times when you and I will face a wilderness all our own. For some it’s a season of prolonged difficulty at work. Or at home. Maybe a season—or even a lifetime—of singleness. Childlessness. Solitude. When such circumstances endure, it’s only natural to want a way out. And it’s hard to deny something that “feels right.” Singles end their search for “Mr./Mrs. Right” in favor of the “Right Now.” Those pursuing a promotion at work might be tempted to see an opportunity for advancement—but only if it means shirking their responsibilities toward their wife and kids.
David’s cutting off of Saul’s robe—a symbolic gesture testifying toward David’s threatening Saul’s leadership—only panged David’s conscience. Why? Because David understood something altogether basic: immediate solutions do not satisfy ultimate hopes. Career advancement, a new relationship, a chance at happiness—surely these things seem so good that it’s hard not to think that God might be in this. But only later do we realize that those pursuits only contradict God’s good and perfect will. David understood that God’s plan wouldn’t be accomplished by stooping to Saul’s level. And if we seek to follow Jesus, then it means being satisfied in God’s plans—even if they come at the expense of our own happiness. Commitment will always be a greater challenge than convenience—but it also brings the promise of greater joy.
DAVID AND SAUL
Following this scene David and Saul have a verbal encounter—from a safe distance, of course.
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.” (1 Samuel 24:8-14)
David’s speech reflects supreme devotion—though ultimately not to Saul, but to God. Saul’s response seems—at least superficially—seems to be one of gratitude. In fact, it’s the only time when we actually see Saul cry.
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.(1 Samuel 24:16-22)
But Saul’s words ring mightily hollow. In his commentary on David’s life, Eugene Peterson regards Saul’s speech as “a classic instance of a sentimentalized spirituality:”
“Saul concedes that David is right and attests that he knows David is the rightful king who will eventually take over. He acknowledges all that the circumstance in the cave reveals as the truth of their respective kingships. There is nothing in the account that suggests that Saul does not feel and believe what he is saying while he is saying it. But there is no character to back it up, no covenant (as there is between [Jonathan] and David) on which to build a life of repentance and prayer, relationship and obedience. Saul displays exquisite religious emotions, but his life does not change in the slightest degree.” (Eugene H. Peterson, First and Second Samuel, p. 118)
Surely David must suspect this. David’s men are probably voicing it in their ranks. The most shocking thing about the gospel is that Jesus loves the unlovely. To the church in Rome, Paul writes:
“while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:8-10)
Christ died for his enemies, and at the hands of his enemies. Jesus died for me before I ever gave hint at commitment to him. That’s not convenience—that’s grace. And like David, Jesus’ greater commitment is to his Father’s glory and plan. To live within that plan means abandoning our immediate solutions in favor of ultimate joy.