How To Behave in a Cave
I Samuel 24
October 1, 2000
When last we met David, he was in the Forest of Hereth. Since then he has rescued the village of Keilah from the Philistines. In appreciation for his heroism, the citizens of Keilah report his whereabouts to King Saul who almost catches David again. David and his men move to the Desert of Ziph where Jonathan comes to encourage him. Later he narrowly escapes capture in the Desert of Maon when Saul breaks off the chase when he hears that the Philistines have invaded Israel. (All of this is recorded in I Samuel 23.)
On the run again, David and his men—some 600 strong—come to a place called En Gedi, an oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea. There the barren mountains rise almost straight up from the shore. The mountains are limestone, laced with steep ravines, honeycombed with caverns. It was made to order for a man running from the law. If you ever take a trip to the Holy Land, your tour bus will pass by En Gedi on the way to Masada. When you are there, look over to the right and you will probably see wild goats on the mountainside.
One more detail. David and his men have found a cave large enough for all 600 of them. They are hiding in the angles and passageways back from the entrance. With that we pick up the story in verses 1-3: “After Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines, he was told, ‘David is in the Desert of En Gedi.’ So Saul took three thousand chosen men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats. He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave.” Saul hears the call of nature and steps inside the nearest cave. Little does he know that the man he seeks is only a few yards away, hidden by the rocks and by the darkness.
Eyes in the Darkness
While Saul attends to his business, 600 pairs of eyes watch from the darkness. A whisper spreads though the men. This is the moment David has been waiting for. Here’s a good test. Ask your friends what you should do the next time your enemies are vulnerable. Unless your friends are very unusual, they will say, “Stick it to him. Get him while you have the chance.” That’s what David’s men do. Only they cover their desire for revenge with a thick coat of religious varnish. “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish’” (I Samuel 24:4). They believe it is God’s will for David to kill Saul. After all, Saul’s been trying to kill David. “Do God a favor and waste him right now.”
So David did something that must have seemed funny at the time. While Saul was preoccupied, David crept up and cut off the corner of his robe. Just a practical joke, really. No harm done. When Saul puts his robe back on, he’s going to be wearing a miniskirt. But it was wrong to do it. “Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe” (I Samuel 24:5). And here is his explanation to his own men in verse 6, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” It was wrong because it made the king look bad. It was wrong because it showed a lack of respect. It was wrong because it wasn’t David’s place to get even. It was wrong because cutting his robe was the first step to murder. It was wrong because Saul was still the Lord’s anointed. Cutting off a corner of the royal robe was an act of physical and spiritual vandalism. It was an attack on Saul and on Saul’s right to be king.
David feels bad because he shouldn’t have done it. His men are mad because they wanted him to kill Saul. Meanwhile Saul leaves the cave to rejoin his men. He doesn’t have a clue that anything unusual has happened. The rest of I Samuel 24 contains two speeches—one by David in verses 8-15 and one by Saul in verses 16-21. The chapter ends in verse 22 with these words, “Then Saul returned home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold.” (The “stronghold” is most likely a reference to Masada.)
One Crucial Question
The most important fact in the whole story is that David refused to kill Saul even when he had a golden opportunity. But that raises a crucial question: Why didn’t David get revenge while he had the chance? In his sermon on this passage, Chuck Swindoll calls revenge “Life’s Most Subtle Temptation,” and indeed it is. For who among us has not felt the sting of unfair criticism? Who here has not been surprised sometime in your life by the conduct of your friends? Who here has not been disappointed by someone close to you? It may have been at work when you were denied a promotion for which you were clearly qualified. It may have been a coach who passed you over for a starting role even though you know you deserved it. It may have been when your husband or wife walked out on you. It may have been when people you thought were friends turned on you.
We have no control over things like that. We wish we did, we wish no one would ever let us down, no one would ever disappoint us, no one would ever turn against us. It happens. And it happens to all of us. That’s a fact. We just don’t know when the hammer is going to fall.
I want to lay down a principle right here: We have no control over how people treat us, what they say and what they do. But we do have complete control over how we respond. We’ll never stop people from attacking us. We’ll never stop people from breaking their word. We’ll never stop people from trying to replace us. That’s a fact of life whether you are a teacher, an architect, or a pharmacist, or anything else.
How should we respond when we’ve been hurt? There are two options and only two. We can try to get even or we can do what David did in I Samuel 24. From the first part of I Samuel 24, we know what David did—or more specifically we know what David didn’t do. When he had the chance to kill Saul, he didn’t take it. What we don’t know is why. David’s speech in verses 8-15 gives us three reasons why he didn’t take revenge.
Reason #1: David did not seek revenge because he respected Saul’s authority over him.
In verse 8 David called him, “My lord the king.” He recognized that Saul was still the king no matter what he did or how he did it. It was not an issue of whether or not Saul treated him right. As long as Saul was the king, he deserved respect by virtue of his position. In particular, that meant that David was not free to get even or to take revenge in any form even though Saul mistreated him.
In the army they have a saying that “you don’t salute the man, you salute the rank.” The colonel may be an absolute jerk but that doesn’t matter. You salute him by virtue of his position. That’s precisely the principle here. David owed Saul his respect by virtue of Saul’s position as king.
The matter is stated in another way in verse 10, “I will not lift my hand against my master, because he is the Lord’s anointed.” Who chose Saul to be king? God did. By what authority does Saul occupy the throne of Israel? By God’s authority. Therefore, to attack Saul is to indirectly attack God himself. If a man is God’s anointed—good or bad—he is not to be touched.
Please understand. David had every reason to get even with Saul. The man was a killer, a psycho on the throne, a malevolent madman whose fits of rage and paranoia drove him over the edge. David would be doing the world a favor and no one would ever blame him. But still he didn’t do it. Why? Because he recognized Saul’s authority over him.
Reason #2: David did not seek revenge because he was willing to wait for God to vindicate him.
David’s second reason is stated plainly in verses 11b-12: “Now understand and recognize that I am not guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life. May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you.”
There are two interesting facts here: The first is that David was not shy about pointing out the truth. He plainly says that Saul has wronged him. Sometimes in our hurry to reconcile we overlook the fact that wrong has been done. It’s rarely true that “we’re both right and we’re both wrong.” That implies a kind of neutrality that cancels the need to make moral judgments. Such a position is useful only for those who live in a fantasy world. Saul was wrong, David knew he was wrong, and he plainly says so.
But David understood a second fact that many of us never grasp. When it comes to revenge, God is much better at it than we are. That’s because he looks down from heaven and sees all sides of every issue. He knows who is right and he knows who is wrong. So often our perspective is clouded and our judgment faulty. We see our side and only our side. But God knows. And he will not forget to avenge the wrongs done to his children.
James Russell Lowell wrote these famous words: “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.” That’s the way it often seems these days: Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. In this topsy-turvy world, the bad guys seem to keep on winning. But it is true—and you can count on it—God stands in the shadows keeping watch above his own.
David understood that God was ready, willing, and able to take care of him. And whenever God got ready, Saul would be out of the way and David would ascend to the throne. If God wants Saul removed, there are 10,000 ways he can do it. God didn’t need David’s help. Even when David was clearly the better man, even when Saul had gone nuts, even when God had rejected Saul, he still didn’t need David‘s help.
How many sins are committed because we are in a hurry, because under pressure we give in to our passions, because in the crunch we cut corners we would never cut otherwise. How many stupid decisions we make because we aren’t willing to wait for God.
I take great personal comfort in this—God is not so unjust as to forget his children. And when we suffer for doing what is right, God sees and he remembers. That’s a promise you can take to the bank.
Reason #3: David did not seek revenge because he did not want to descend to Saul’s level.
The third principle is found in verse 13: “As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds,’ so my hand will not touch you.” This sounds like something your mother used to tell you. David is saying, “If I attack him, I’m only sinking down to his level.” I’ve heard it said this way: Never wrestle with a pig. You’re bound to get dirty, and the pig loves it. There are times when you need to walk away from an argument because if you open your mouth, you’ll soon be wrestling with a pig.
The saddest part about trying to get even is it makes you a perpetual victim of the person you hate. Revenge makes you go through the hurt over and over again. You never really get over it. Ultimately, it drags you down to the sewer where your enemies dwell. And the moral filth that covers them soon covers you as well. And while you are staying up late at night stewing in your juices, they are out on a yacht on Lake Michigan, having a party. When you give in to the temptation to get even, your enemies have won twice: When they hurt you the first time and now when you can’t get it out of your mind.
Three Steps in the Right Direction
Put it all together and what do you have? This chapter tells us that when David had the chance he refused to kill Saul. He did it for three reasons: First, because he recognized Saul’s authority over him. Second, because he was willing to wait for God to vindicate him. Third, because he did not want to descend to Saul’s level.
Let me repeat what I said earlier: We cannot control what people say about us or do to us. In this world we’re going to be hurt again and again. People are going to fail us, some will misunderstand us, others will doubt our integrity, and some will judge us a threat. For every David, there’s a Saul lurking somewhere in the shadows. Since we can’t do anything about our enemies, the one thing we ought to concentrate on is how we respond. That makes all the difference in the world.
So how should we respond to mistreatment and the temptation to get even? Here are three practical suggestions.
A) Watch Your Words
Angry people say things they later regret. Under pressure we may blurt out something that will end a friendship forever. Or we may say words that wound all out of proportion to the original offense. Or we may escalate the problem until it blows up in front of us. Angry people say things they later regret. Under pressure we may blurt out something that will end a friendship forever. Or we may say words that wound all out of proportion to the original offense. Or we may escalate the problem until it blows up in front of us. You will rarely regret the things you don’t say, but you will often regret the things you do say. When you are angry, take to heart the words of Proverbs 10:19, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.”
B) Focus on the Lord Jesus Christ
We are called to be like our Master who, when he was reviled, reviled not again, when he was cursed, cursed not in return, when he was abused, refused to repay in kind, when he was mocked, he did not retaliate, who when he hung between two thieves, crucified for crimes he did not commit, prayed for those who killed him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Of all people, he had every right to seek revenge, but he chose instead to submit to the Father’s will. When you feel tempted to give in to anger and bitterness, remember the words of I Peter 2:21, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”
C) Lay Your Burden Down
Sooner or later you have to stop fighting the battle. Sooner or later you have to put down your weapon. Some people are chained to the past because they will not let go of remembered hurts. In the end the desire for revenge hurts you more than it hurts anyone else. After I preached this sermon, a friend shared the following with me: “Seeking revenge is like drinking poison and praying for the other person to die.” It’s an all-consuming emotion that destroys you from the inside out.
I read a story about a wise older monk and his young apprentice who were walking together along a forest trail. Their monastery had a rule forbidding all contact with women. Coming to a river with a fast-flowing current, they saw an old woman weeping near the shoreline. She asked for help, saying that she couldn’t cross the river on her own. Without a word, the older monk picked up the woman and carried her to the other side. She went on her way while he and his young colleague continued on their journey. Two and a half hours passed without a word being spoken, but the young monk was seething on the inside. When he could contain himself no longer, he blurted out, “My Lord, why did you carry that woman across the river? You know that we are not supposed to touch a woman.” The wise older monk looked down at the young man and said, “I put her down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
Good question. Why are you still carrying the burdens from the past? Isn’t it time to put them down once and for all?
Let me say frankly that it’s not easy to return good for evil, to refuse retaliation when it lies within our power, to refrain from bitter words, and to appeal to our adversary’s nobler side even at the cost of our own dignity. It’s not easy or natural. But we are called to exactly that kind of supernatural life. And there’s no guarantee it will work out. Sometimes our enemies stay that way until the day we die. That may not be good news but it is reality.
It’s Time to Lay That Burden Down
Some of us are walking around with a heavy load of bitterness and frustration. Perhaps you find it easy to get angry with someone for what they have done to you. Maybe you are carrying a burden of third-party resentment—that is, maybe you are angry about how someone else you care about has been mistreated. It’s time to lay that burden down. God never meant for you to carry it around like you do. Maybe it’s resentment toward your parents or toward your employer. Maybe there’s someone who has done you wrong and it’s been eating your lunch. Day and night you dream of a chance to get even. Maybe it’s a friend who let you down in a big way. Maybe it’s someone you trusted who walked all over you. Whatever it is, it’s time to lay that burden down.
Right now, I want you to focus on the one person you want to get even with. I want you to think about a particular person and get a name fixed in your mind. Most of us won’t have any problem thinking of the one person we’d most like to get even with. It’s time to let go and let God take over. It’s time to be set free from bitterness. The key is this: You have to call it what God calls it—sin. If you are willing to do that, then you can be set free.
Here’s a simple prayer that may help you lay your burden down. I have included a space for you to insert the name of the person or persons who have hurt you in some way.
Heavenly Father, I thank you that Jesus Christ took my sins when he didn’t deserve them. I confess to you that I am resentful toward __________________. Even though Jesus Christ died for my sins, I am angry because of what ___________________ has done. Father, I ask you to do what you think is best in this situation. Please forgive me for harboring anger and bitterness. Set me free from this bondage and please keep me from it for the rest of my life. Teach me to forgive as Jesus did. I pray this in the name of Jesus who forgave me all my sins, Amen.
Now, Lord, hear us as we pray. May the healing begin this very moment. Forgive us for our many excuses and rationalizations. Lord, go down deep and expose the taproot of bitterness within. Thank you for Jesus Christ who showed us how to respond when unfairly accused. Thank you for the Holy Spirit who gives us the power to overcome the temptation to revenge. May a revival of love and forgiveness sweep through our midst—and may it begin today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.