The Strange Case of the Missing Spear

I Samuel 26

October 15, 2000 | Ray Pritchard

First Samuel 26 tells the story of how David spared Saul’s life. If you have a good memory, you may think to yourself, “I’ve heard this before.” And if you think that, you are almost right because two weeks ago we talked about a similar episode in I Samuel 24. This is not the first time David spared Saul’s life; it is the second. Therein lies the fascination of this chapter. It seems at first glance to be very similar to the story of David and Saul in the cave in En Gedi. When you consider that these two stories occur two chapters apart—one in chapter 24 and this one in chapter 26—you wonder what the writer is up to.

As a matter of fact, because these two stories seem so similar, and because they are so close together, some liberal critics have supposed that they are simply variant versions of the same episode. They suggest that David actually only spared Saul’s life once but somehow when the book was compiled, the proofreader goofed and included both versions. There are at least two reasons to doubt that hypothesis: First, it’s not unlikely that this situation would happen twice. After all, Saul spent many years chasing David in the relatively small region of southern Judah. I can very easily imagine that David had more than one chance to ambush Saul and be rid of him forever. The other reason is even more basic: The two stories are actually very different. One takes place in a cave at En Gedi, the other in an armed camp on the hill Hakilah. In one, David cuts off a bit of Saul’s robe; in the other he takes a spear and a water jug. In one, he speaks to Saul directly; in the other he speaks first to Abner.

There is one other difference that is more important than the rest: In chapter 24 David is hiding in a cave when Saul just happens to drop by. In chapter 26 David initiates a nighttime penetration of Saul’s camp. That difference will prove to be crucial in understanding why I Samuel includes two stories of David sparing Saul’s life.

For the moment it is enough to know that nothing in the Bible is ever wasted and nothing is included just as filler. Every story has its particular purpose and the goal of Bible study is to find that purpose and, having found it, to make a personal application.

Let me tell you right up front that I believe the story in I Samuel 26 is a lesson about loving your enemies. You could state the principle this way: Love finds a way and takes a risk on behalf of those who will never say thanks.

I. David and Abishai: Night Patrol vv. 1-12

With that we turn to the story which is introduced to us in verse 1: “The Ziphites went to Saul at Gibeah and said, ‘Is not David hiding on the hill of Hakilah, which faces Jeshimon?’” Jeshimon was the name for the desolate wilderness in the far southern reaches of Judah. There was a desert in that place called the Desert of Ziph and the Bedouins who lived there were called Ziphites. They were pro-Saul and anti-David. This wasn’t the first time they had turned David in (see I Samuel 23:19).

For years David and his men have been on the run, burning by day, freezing by night, climbing on the rocks like goats, fighting, running, hiding, always staying one step ahead of Saul. Now he comes after them again. This time he takes the standing army of 3,000 men and begins combing the desert for David. At length he camps beside the road on the hill called Hakilah. Evidently there was a field nearby suitable for a bivouac with a deep valley on one side. Verse 4 tells us that when David heard Saul had come after him, he sent out scouts to find Saul’s precise location.

With that background, the drama begins to unfold in verse 5: “Then David set out and went to the place where Saul had camped. He saw where Saul and Abner son of Ner, the commander of the army, had lain down. Saul was lying inside the camp, with the army encamped around him.” This is like a scene from an old Western movie. At night they would circle the wagons, put the women and children inside, with the men on guard outside. In this case, Saul’s army is encamped in concentric circles with the king in the middle.

It’s midnight, maybe a little past, when David pokes his head above the rocks. He is on the hill overlooking the camp. Ten thousand stars fill the desert sky. Down below he can see Saul’s army spread out before him: 3,000 men, their supplies, their donkeys, their wagons all carefully arranged. In the very middle of the sleeping bodies, he spots a spear stuck into the ground. That would be Saul’s spear. It was like a scepter; it said “Here sleeps the king.” Nearby was a water jug in case the king got thirsty. Next to him was Abner, his number one general. Not a sound arises from the camp. Everything is quiet, peaceful, serene.

Suddenly an idea hits David’s mind. He’s going to try to enter the camp. It’s an insane idea, a suicide mission. One man against 3,000. David turns to the two men with him—Abishai and Ahimelech—and says, “Who will go with me?” In the army you learn very quickly never to volunteer for anything, but Abishai lets his loyalty get the best of his common sense, and says, “I’ll go.”

Down they clamber off the side of the hill. I don’t know if you’ve ever played one of those outdoor games at night where you try to sneak up on someone in the dark without them knowing it. It’s not easy. David and Abishai slip from rock to rock, down one side of the ravine, up the other. Finally they reach the outer lines. Strange, it seems the whole army is asleep. Eventually they come to the center and there is Saul sleeping on the ground, his spear stuck next to his head. All around him is his personal bodyguard, sound asleep.

Verse 8 gives us Abishai’s reaction when he saw Saul fast asleep. “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hands. Now let me pin him to the ground with one thrust of my spear; I won’t strike him twice.” Abishai wants to play his favorite outdoor sport—pin the spear on Saul. He argues that it would virtually be a sin not to kill him since God has given David this great opportunity. Abishai represents the natural impulse in all of us, sort of the world’s Golden Rule: “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

If you think about it, David had at least five good reasons to kill Saul. First, he has the motive. Second, he has the opportunity. Third, he has the weapon. Fourth, he has the encouragement. Fifth, he has the track record—he has already killed Goliath. Everything argues in favor of letting Abishai do the dirty deed and then hightailing it out of there. No one would blame him if he did.

But he didn’t. And that’s where this story gets interesting. In verses 9-11, David gives two reasons why he didn’t kill Saul. First, it wasn’t his place. “Who can lay a hand on the LORD’s anointed and be guiltless?” The answer is, no one can. Even though Saul was a moral degenerate, he was still God’s man and it wasn’t right for David to seek personal revenge against him. Second, it wasn’t the right time. “The LORD himself will strike him; either his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. But the LORD forbid that I should lay a hand on the LORD’s anointed.”

That is why the Bible forbids seeking personal revenge even though we have been greatly and repeatedly wronged. It’s not our place to seek revenge. And we can’t be sure the right time has come. God is perfectly able to take care of righting the wrongs done to us—but in his own time and in his own way.

There is one other little detail. Verse 12 says that before they left, they took with them the spear and the water jug as an unmistakable sign to Saul that they had been there. Back they go through the lines, no doubt with Abishai muttering under his breath, “Come out here in the middle of the night, nearly break my neck on the rocks, risk my life, and for what? A spear and a lousy water jug.”

II. David and Abner: Who’s Got the Spear? vv. 13-16

But David has something else in mind. He and Abishai cross back over the ravine and climb to the top of the hill. Then David starts shouting at the top of his voice “Abner, O Abner. Wake up, sleeping beauty. Time to rise and shine.” David’s voice echoes off the hillside and down into the camp. The soldiers begin to stir, Abner hears his name, mutters a few things I can’t repeat here, and then yells back, “Who are you and what do you want?”

David’s reply in verses 15-16 is one of the great pieces of sarcasm in the Old Testament. He essentially tells Abner, “You are a lousy guard. You fell asleep when you were supposed to be protecting the king. Where were you when I was there? You and all your men deserve to die. And if you don’t believe I was there, just look around. Where is the king’s spear? Where is his water jug?”

What a slam it was on Abner and his men. And the message it sent was unmistakable: So far from being a threat to Saul, David was the most faithful defender of his life, more faithful than his own soldiers.

III. David and Saul: The Final Meeting vv. 17-25

Saul is now awake. He hears David’s voice, and says in verse 17, “Is that your voice, David, my son?” Verses 18-20 give us David’s statement of his own case:

Why is my lord pursuing his servant? What have I done, and what wrong am I guilty of? Now let my lord the king listen to his servant’s words. If the LORD has incited you against me, then may he accept an offering. If, however, men have done it, may they be cursed before the LORD! They have now driven me from my share in the LORD’s inheritance and have said, ‘Go, serve other gods.’ Now do not let my blood fall to the ground far from the presence of the LORD. The king of Israel has come out to look for a flea—as one hunts a partridge in the mountains.”

This brings us to the heart of the chapter. After all these years, David still doesn’t understand why Saul has chased him up and down the land. It makes no sense. David has done him no wrong, yet Saul seeks his life. How true to life this is. You do your best and things don’t work out right. You turn the other cheek only to be hit with a right hook. You go the second mile and people hate you more than before. You try and people question your motives. You say, “Lord, it’s in your hands,” and things promptly get worse. Finally you say, “Lord, why is this happening to me?”

When David asks that question, only two answers come to mind. Either he is actually guilty of some sin and God is using Saul to punish him, or evil men are inciting Saul to turn on David. Look at how David puts it in verse 19: “If the LORD has incited you against me, then may he accept an offering.” That means, “If I really am guilty, and God is behind all of this, then I am willing to confess my sin, make an offering, and have the matter settled.” Then the other side, “If, however, men have done it, may they be cursed before the LORD!”

Somehow it all begins to get to Saul. Evidently, there is still some kindness buried inside. I think in his better moments he still likes David. In verse 21 he says, “I have sinned. Come back, David my son.” Was he sincere? Yes. Did he mean it? Yes. Should David go back? Let’s put it this way, would you go back under those circumstances? Neither would David.

But he was willing to send the spear back. After all, the spear was the symbol of the throne and David would not keep it out of respect for Saul’s position. Verse 23 explains the secret of David’s attitude toward Saul. “The LORD rewards every man for his righteousness and faithfulness.” In the moment of crisis, it all comes down to this: Either you believe in God or you don’t. If you believe in God, you’ll do one thing. If you don’t believe in God, you’ll do something else. It’s as simple and profound as that. That’s why revenge is fundamentally for those who don’t believe in God. For if you don’t believe there is a God who rewards righteousness and faithfulness, what motive is there for being righteous and faithful? Why be good if being good is never rewarded?

For the last several years I’ve talked a lot about the First Rule of the Spiritual Life: He’s God and We’re Not. Nothing is more fundamental than this. Once you decide that God is God, you can step back and let him handle revenge and getting even and paying back your enemies. But as long as you play God, you’re on your own, which means you’ve got to seek revenge because you can’t trust God to take up your cause. David believed in God and that made all the difference. If a man believes in God, it changes the whole picture. He doesn’t have to take matters in his own hands; he can wait for God to work out his situation.

Here are the final words of Saul, strangely prophetic and stranger still coming from Saul’s lips. “May you be blessed, my son David; you will do great things and surely triumph” (I Samuel 26:25). He virtually says, “You are a better man than I, and you are going to win in the end.”

With that they parted and went their separate ways. It was the last time David would see Saul alive.

One Loose End

So the story comes to an end. Only one loose end remains to be tied up. Why does I Samuel include two stories of David sparing Saul’s life? On the surface this episode does indeed seem very similar to the earlier incident in the cave at En Gedi. I said earlier that the key difference between the two stories is how they came about. In chapter 24, David is hiding in a cave when Saul just happens to come in. It was an unplanned encounter. In chapter 26, David finds out where Saul is and goes out of his way to enter Saul’s camp. What he did, he did on purpose. He infiltrated Saul’s camp intentionally, deliberately, purposefully, and that made all the difference.

We might say it this way: In the cave at En Gedi, God was teaching David the importance of sparing his enemies. To put it in New Testament terms, David was learning a negative lesson—don’t return evil for evil (Romans 12:17). That’s a crucial lesson of the spiritual life and one we all need to learn. But that will hardly suffice to explain why David, at great personal risk, slips into Saul’s camp, takes the spear, slips back out, calls out to Saul, and eventually returns the spear. It doesn’t make sense to do all that just to make the same point he made in the cave—that he won’t kill Saul. No, something much more powerful is going on here.

The question might be framed this way: Why did David go out of his way to create an opportunity to spare Saul’s life a second time? I suggest the answer to the question is found in the very last thing David says to Saul in verse 24: “I valued your life today.” At first glance that might appear to mean that David was simply saying, “I didn’t kill you when I had the chance.” That’s true, but David didn’t have to go to all that trouble just to prove that. He already proved it in the cave at En Gedi. When David says, “I valued your life today,” he is explaining why he risked his life in the first place. To put it simply, David did what he did because he was concerned for Saul. He cared about what was happening to him. David went into the camp not to kill him but to turn him back to God. No matter how it might appear to us, taking the spear was not some teenage stunt. It was David’s way of saying, “Saul, God made you king and gave you the right to have this spear but you have turned away from God.” It was a picture of what had happened in Saul’s life.

The final irony of this story is that despite all that Saul had done, David still loved him, and he was willing to risk his life to prove it.

Who is My Enemy?

Do you remember what Abishai called Saul in verse 8? He called him, “your enemy.” And what did Saul call David? He called him “my son.” When we think of our enemies, we may think of those terrorists in Yemen who blew a hole in the Navy ship and took the lives of 17 American sailors. That was a truly dastardly deed, and they deserve the punishment they get. But in the biblical sense those evil men are not my personal enemies. No, my enemies are much more likely to be people close to me. Most of my enemies will come from my own family, from my circle of close friends, my fellow church members, my buddies at work, the people who know me best.

That at last brings us to what this story is all about. It is about loving your enemies. Saul, a man David loved, had become his enemy. And even though Saul tried to kill him, David loved Saul and in this final encounter still values his life. In New Testament terms, David was learning the positive lesson of Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

That explains why there are two stories of David sparing Saul. David had two lessons to learn. First, he had to learn to spare his enemies (chapter 24). Second, he had to learn to love his enemies (chapter 26).

Loving Our Enemies

We often wonder what it means to love our enemies. That seems such a hard thing to do. If it means that we have to feel affection for them, most of us can never do it. But love is more than just an emotional feeling. In this case, loving our enemies means seeing a good opportunity and putting ourselves at personal risk to help someone who doesn’t like us.

The truth is, most of us would be perfectly happy if we didn’t have to mess with our enemies at all. Just leave them alone, and they leave us alone. How neat, how tidy, how convenient. This story is in the Bible so that we will know that option is not open to us. Loving our enemies means more than putting them in some airtight, hermetically-sealed compartment where they won’t bother us anymore. It means more than saying, “Good riddance.” If we are going to love our enemies, then we are going to have to take some risks, to go into the camp at midnight, and lay it on the line for the sake of those who are trying to hurt us.

That might mean some phone calls we don’t want to make, it might mean some letters we don’t want to write. It might mean some face-to-face confrontations we would rather avoid. It will certainly mean some difficult moments. But that is what God is calling us to do. And to be perfectly frank, I cannot guarantee you success because I cannot guarantee how your enemies will respond. I do guarantee that God will bless you when you dare to obey his word. Jesus never said, “Love your enemies as long as they love you back.” No, he simply said, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Period. No strings attached.

From Enemies to Friends

Did you see the Gospel in this story? It’s right there on the surface. Saul, that bitter, angry man, represents all of us apart from God. He lives to get even, hatred guides his every step, and envy has rotted his bones. When confronted with his evil deeds, he can only say, “I have sinned.” David is a picture of the Lord Jesus Christ. When he said, “I valued your life today,” he was really saying, “I risked my life for you.” That sounds a lot like what Jesus said in the Upper Room: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). But Saul was no friend of David, you say. True, and neither were we when Jesus died for us. Romans 5:10 says, “When we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.” Here is the wonder of the Gospel: Through the death of Jesus Christ, God takes his enemies and makes them his friends.

What Do You Need to Do?

I’m sure many of us need to take some definite steps in response to this message. It may be that you’ve cut someone out of your life because they hurt you and God is saying, “You need to take care of some unfinished business.” Maybe you’ve gloated while your enemies have suffered and now God is saying, “You need to reach out to them.” It may be that you need to begin praying for a good opportunity to show love to someone who has turned against you. When I preached this, I mentioned in passing that most of us will have more than one enemy. A woman came up and said with a smile, “You were talking to me when you said that. I needed extra room on the paper to make my list.” And most of us don’t need to look very far. Our closest enemies come from our family and closest friends: a husband, a wife, an ex-husband, an ex-wife, our children, our in-laws, our parents, a relative who turned against us, a friend who let us down, a fellow Christian who made a false accusation, and so on. This is where we need to begin in taking an inventory of our enemies. They are usually people we loved who hurt us in one way or another. Deep inside, we still love them, and yet they are truly enemies because we are not reconciled.

The decision about what to do will be different for each of us. Some of us know exactly who we need to see and what we need to say. Is there someone in your life you need to talk to? Someone who would be easier to simply leave alone? If the answer is yes, then the question God is asking is, What are you going to do about it?

Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” It won’t be easy, but we have no other choice. And if we love them, who knows? Some day they may become our friends once again.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?