Do you remember Humphrey Bogart’s line in Casablanca? “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” I wonder if he stole that line from David in this story.
“Of all the caves, in all of En Gedi, in all of the Judean Desert, Saul walks into mine!”
What are the odds that Saul would pick the one cave in all of the Judean desert where David and his band are hiding out? Not very good. Unless, of course, God orchestrated this awkward reunion.
Eugene Peterson describes the scene:
On the run from King Saul, David and a few of his men hide in one of the caves overlooking the Dead Sea. The day is hot and the cave is cool. They are deep in the cave, resting. Then there is a shadow across the mouth of the cave. They are astonished to see that it is King Saul. They didn’t know that he was that close in his pursuit. Saul enters the cave but doesn’t see them: fresh from the hard glare of desert sun, his eyes haven’t adjusted to the darkness and don’t pick out the shadowy figures in the recesses of the cave. Besides, he isn’t looking for them at that moment; he has entered the cave to respond to a call of nature. He turns his back on them.
When David and his men see what is going on, they know that Saul, oblivious to their presence, is as good as dead. The men are ready to pounce, but David silently forbids them to kill him. Instead, he moves along the wall of the cave to where the king’s garment has been tossed, cuts off a piece of it, and then slips back with his men. In a short while King Saul pulls on his garment, straps on his sword, and leaves.
As Saul was outlined from the opening of the cave against the cobalt blue of the Dead Sea, with the red cliffs of Moab beyond, David saw something his companions didn’t see: David saw not an enemy but the magnificent, albeit flawed, king anointed by God. (adapted from A Leap Over the Wall)
Now, let’s listen to the rest of the story:
Afterward David was stricken to the heart because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak. He said … See, my father, see the corner of your cloak in my hand…
Saul said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” Saul lifted up his voice and wept. He said to David, “You are more righteous than I…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.” So David swore this to Saul. Then Saul went home; but David and his men went up to the stronghold. (1 Samuel 24:5ff)
Did you hear what David called Saul? “My father!” Do you hear the tenderness? “My father…I could have killed you. But I did not! I am guilty of no wrongdoing; no rebellion. God knows this is true. I am nothing for you to worry about!
And did you notice Saul’s response? “Is that your voice, David my son?” The voice I have known so well? The voice that offered to fight Goliath when no one else would? The voice that comforted me with songs in my times of depression? The voice that counseled me? The voice that spoke words of love to my daughter and words of friendship to my son? Is it that the voice I am hearing?”
We read this passionate exchange and say, “Wow, what a wonderful end to the story. David is merciful. Saul is sorry. They shake hands and leave as friends. The end.” Right? Not quite.
Two chapters later virtually the same thing occurs. Saul repents of his repentance. He’s chasing David again. Trying to kill him, again. And during the night, David sneaks into Saul’s camp and steals his spear. Perhaps the spear that Saul kept trying to use to turn David into shish kebab? David steals that spear, sneaks across the valley to the hill on the other side…and calls out to Saul. Again! He holds up Saul’s spear, mocks his bodyguards and repeats himself. “I could have killed you. Again! Look…here’s the proof. Your spear from right beside your bed. But I didn’t do it. Again! Because I am your loyal servant. So, please Saul, back off! Stop trying to kill me.”
And, again, Saul repents. Again, Saul is sorry. Again. But David never believes Saul. He never feels safe. And despite Saul’s words about David being the real king, until Saul dies by his own hand.
Troubled, twisted Saul.
Have you ever known someone who did bad stuff, said he was sorry, went out and did the same bad stuff again?
The husband who strikes his wife, apologizes tearfully, but does it again and …again. The woman who promises to stop drinking…and keeps drinking herself right into destruction. The child who promises to stop lying to her parents…but keeps right on lying. The dad who promises not to work so much…promises to make time for his wife and kids …and keeps right on working. The guy who promises God that he will stop looking at porn…and keeps looking.
Call it the “Saul Cycle.” Sin, sorrow, sin, sorrow…
If you love someone who is stuck in a Saul-cycle, sooner or later, you reach a broken-hearted point where you don’t believe them anymore. You don’t believe they will ever stop; that they will ever be better. Even if they promise to.
I don’t know what was going on with Saul. Perhaps he was mentally ill. The Bible says that God took HIS Spirit away from him…and sent an evil spirit upon him. That is a very troubling passage but the clear teaching is this: Saul reached a point of supreme, habitual wickedness where the Lord finally said, “Fine… you want to be that kind of person. I will let you be that kind of person. In fact, I will confirm it in you!”
I’ve known people locked in the Saul Cycle: Sin—Sorry, Sin—Sorry, Sin—Sorry. But, then one day it is: Sin—Sorry, Sin—sin, Sin—sin, Sin—sin…and they stopped being sorry.
Humble, merciful David.
I wonder if David considered doing what his men had urged him to do. Cut off more than a piece of cloth! I think David was tempted to really cut corners… not the corner of a robe… but to cut the corner on his journey to the throne.
When David cut the corner of the robe, it was a sign that he refused to cut the corners that mattered. There are a lot of things about David that are disturbing in these stories…lies, doubt, fear… but one of the places he shines through is right here: he will not, will not, will not lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed. He will not kill Saul so that he can hurry up what he believes even God wants to get done. If God wants to make him king, God will have to deal with the king who presently occupies the throne. Because David isn’t going to do it.
I preached my first sermon in 1978 and it was horrible. I was 22 years old. But I felt God had called me to preach and I have always struggled with impulse control issues and the discipline of delayed gratification. People were kind to me after hearing my first sermon, but I knew it was horrible. So, what did I do? I found a cassette tape of a preacher I admired and transcribed his sermon word for word, listened to it over and over and not only did I steal his words, stories, research, but even his delivery; plagiarized the tone and tenor of his voice, his rate of speech and volume. When he got loud, I got loud, when he whispered for effect, I whispered for effect.
When I preached that sermon the response was mind-boggling. There was no polite but stayed affirmations. I received full-throated accolades about me being the next Billy Graham. And then I became addicted to that affirmation that came my way about preaching. Iit was quite a while before I felt confident enough in my own abilities to write my own sermons. I rationalized what I was doing. I was advancing the Kingdom, people were coming to faith and the Church was growing. But it was all based on a lie.
I had cut corners.
Many years ago I made a promise to the Lord that I would wrestle with the Scripture and write my own sermons even if it meant that they were bad and my Church wouldn’t grow and folks stopped asking me to speak. I would not cut corners anymore. If lives were going to be changed or influenced, He would have to do it through the gifts I offered up on Sundays that came from my own hands.
Ready, willing you.
Can you think of one area in your life where you are tempted to cut corners? To speed things along? Maybe to cheat or fib or fudge a little bit to get what you want? To get what might even be good?
I wonder what David did with the corner of Saul’s robe. I’ll bet he kept it for the rest of his life…as a reminder that he was not going to cut corners to get to what God wanted.