Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and went to look for David and his men in the direction of the Rocks of the Wild Goats. He came to the sheepfolds beside the road, 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. The men of David said to him, ‘Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, “I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.”’ Then David went and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak. Afterwards David was stricken to the heart because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak. He said to his men, ‘The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to raise my hand against him; for he is the Lord’s anointed.’ So David scolded his men severely and did not permit them to attack Saul. Then Saul got up and left the cave, and went on his way.
Afterwards David also rose up and went out of the cave and called after Saul, ‘My lord the king!’ When Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance. David said to Saul, ‘Why do you listen to the words of those who say, “David seeks to do you harm”? This very day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you into my hand in the cave; and some urged me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, “I will not raise my hand against my lord; for he is the Lord’s anointed.” See, my father, see the corner of your cloak in my hand; for by the fact that I cut off the corner of your cloak, and did not kill you, you may know for certain that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you are hunting me to take my life…
…Saul said, ‘Is that your voice, my son David?’ Saul lifted up his voice and wept. He said to David, ‘You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. Today you have explained how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. For who has ever found an enemy, and sent the enemy safely away? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. Now I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand. Swear to me therefore by the Lord that you will not cut off my descendants after me, and that you will not wipe out my name from my father’s house.’
This graphic story shows David taking an opportunity to confront Saul with evidence that he bears him no ill will; that he, David, is a faithful servant of Saul as the current king. He succeeds in getting Saul to admit that he has been wrong to consider David as his enemy; and Saul appears to want to be reconciled.
The story portrays David as willing to take a personal risk in order to obtain the ‘evidence’ and rejecting suggestions to ‘raise his hand against’ Saul as the way to resolve the situation. David rejects the idea that violence accords with God’s will.
The text presents Saul also acknowledging God’s sovereignty and discerning that the monarchy will pass to David after him; but he also seeks assurances from David about his lasting reputation and the safety of his descendants.
In the ancient world transfer to a new power was often followed by a bloodbath as all possible rivals to the throne were eradicated; and the new king might justify the transition by emphasizing the failings of his predecessor. Sadly such practices continue today, even if no-one actually gets killed.
Reputation extends long beyond a person’s life, or period of service. It is important that we don’t besmirch someone’s reputation unjustly to elevate ourselves, or in an effort to bring about change. It is also right, however, to re-evaluate reputations over time. Demands in our own day to revisit the legacies of slavery are rightly forcing us to look again at those whom our history has honoured. Wrongs should be acknowledged; but before we condemn our ancestors too harshly let us reflect on what future generations will say about our failures with the benefit of hindsight. I don’t just mean the obvious, environmental, ones; but probably some things we currently regard favourably.
Gracious God, we thank you for the stories of old that show us aspects of humanity, good and bad.; and the way you further your purposes through all your servants.
Help us to honour those who acted in good faith in their own day; but open our eyes to recognize where they went astray and to learn new ways of righting wrongs, establishing justice and showing your love. In the name of Jesus, Amen.
The Revd Dr Janet E Tollington A retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge