On Yahweh’s own initiative, then, a complicated transfer of kingship took place. In truth David was now king while in reality Saul remained so. David had been given the bright future while Yahweh had doomed Saul to destruction. This complicated transfer was bound to make Saul’s relationship to David, and David’s to Saul, ambiguous.
At first, Saul’s relationship to David was positive. This evil spirit from Yahweh would occasionally torment Saul (16:16, 23). On the advice of his servants, Saul had them find someone skilled at playing the harp. They returned with David. Whenever David played for Saul, the evil spirit would stop tormenting him (16:23).
Saul admired David even more when David killed Goliath. The Philistines had oppressed Israel for years. To make matters worse, their champion, the giant Goliath (over 9 feet [3 m]) tall, mocked the army of Israel for their cowardice in refusing to send an Israelite champion against him. David was angry that this mere Olympian had been allowed to mock the living God for 40 days. While only a young shepherd armed with nothing more than a sling, David knocked Goliath unconscious with a stone, killed him with his own sword, then chopped off his head. The army of Israel immediately routed the Philistines (17:1-54).
After that, Saul kept David by his side and made him a commander in his army. Saul’s son Jonathan deeply committed himself to David. And it was pleasing in the sight of all the people and also in the sight of Saul’s servants (18:5b).
Then the deep ambiguities began. Israelite women started singing a folk song which ascribed victory over thousands to Saul, as it should, but victory over tens of thousands to David. After that, Saul took a dislike to David which only grew stronger with time (18:9). Even so, Saul never abandoned his love for David.
Now, however, when the evil spirit next came upon Saul, Saul twice tried to murder David while David was playing his harp to comfort him (18:10-11). To further complicate things, Saul grew afraid of David, for [Yahweh] was with him but had departed from Saul (18:12).
Saul then decided to give his daughter Michal to David as his wife. He did this so that he could ask a suicidal price from David for the privilege: 100 Philistine foreskins. Saul was certain David would die trying to pay that price. Yahweh was with David, however, and he quickly returned and gave 200 foreskins to Saul and married his daughter (18:20-28). Then Saul was even more afraid of David. Thus Saul was David’s enemy continually (18:29).
Eventually David had to flee Saul’s presence to avoid being murdered by him. Saul then repeatedly led thousands of armed men to find and murder David. Once, while David and his men were hiding in a cave from Saul and his men, Saul entered that very same cave to relieve himself. David used the chance to secretly cut a piece of fabric from Saul’s robe but let Saul go free. His men thought he had wasted a golden opportunity to rid himself of his implacable enemy. But David said to his men, “Far be it from me because of [Yahweh] that I should do this thing to my lord, [Yahweh’s] anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, since he is [Yahweh’s] anointed” (24:6). David’s honorable act, because of Yahweh, was as right as it is rare.
From a safe distance, David confronted Saul with his narrow yet gracious escape from death. Saul’s response? “Is this your voice, my son David?” Then Saul lifted up his voice and wept. He said to David, “You are more righteous than I; for you have dealt well with me, while I have dealt wickedly with you” (24:16-17). Despite his murderous hatred for David, Saul still loved him.
Again David and his men caught Saul unawares. David’s right-hand man wanted to kill Saul right then. Again, however, David dissuaded him from striking Yahweh’s anointed (26:1-16). David also said, “As [Yahweh] lives, surely [Yahweh] will strike him, or his day will come that he dies, or he will go down into battle and perish” (26:10).
When informed of this second gracious act, Saul said, “I have sinned. Return, my son David, for I will not harm you again because my life was precious in your sight this day. Behold, I have played the fool and have committed a serious error” (26:21).
Soon enough the Philistine army crushed the Israelite army, killed Jonathan, and injured Saul so severely he chose to fall on his own sword and die (31:1-6).
We may learn so much from this example set for us by David. To begin with, despite the murderous malice of the man Saul, David refused to harm him. David’s devotion to Yahweh, and his respect for Saul as a man anointed by Yahweh, were too great. While David deserved vindication, he left the matter in Yahweh’s hands rather than taking it into his own. This is wholly consistent with the advice which, a thousand years later, the apostle Paul would give us: Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
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