5. David Spares the Lord's Anointed (1 Samuel 24-28)

Audio (50:10)

James J. Tissot, 'David and Saul in the Cave' (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'David and Saul in the Cave' (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York. Larger image.

David has two opportunities to kill King Saul, and both times he refuses to kill his arch enemy or allow his men to do so. Why? These accounts reveal something we need to learn about anger, pride, revenge, humility, and submission to the Lord's will. It contains some profound lessons taught against the background of the violence of the Late Bronze Age.

This is a long and complex lesson. If you're teaching it, you might want to divide it into two lessons.

David Hides in the Wilderness of En Gedi (24:1-2)

Chapter 23 closed with Saul coming very close to capturing David, only to be called away to defend Israelite cities against the marauding Philistines. Now Saul is back with an army 3,000 strong.

He has learned from his spies that David is hiding out in the Judean Desert in the rocky fortresses above the oasis of En Gedi or 'Ein Gedi on the west bank of the Dead Sea. David's men are in a rock formation known then as the Crags of the Wild Goats,[98] a natural stronghold, honeycombed with caves, that is easy to defend against attackers.

The name "Ein Gedi" means "spring of the goat," referring to the wild goats that populate this rugged area. Ein Gedi and its year-round stream is one of four major springs in this otherwise parched eastern portion of the Judean Desert. The area includes a steep cliff or escarpment that falls more than 2,000 feet (625 meters) from the plateau of the desert (at about 650 feet, or 200 meters, above sea level) to the Dead Sea (at 1,388 feet, or 423 meters, below sea level).

David Spares Saul's Life in the Cave (24:3-7)

 "[Saul] came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself.[99] David and his men were far back in the cave. 4 The men said, '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."'" (24:3-4a)

We have no record of such a prophecy prior to this, though it was obviously known to David's men.

David's band is completely silent as David stealthy creeps up to where Saul is probably now resting in the privacy and cool of the cave. Saul's 3,000 men are outside; he is vulnerable.

"Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul's robe." (24:4b)

David's action has considerable significance. Taking a portion of the royal robe could have been interpreted in that time as a transfer of power from Saul to David. In addition, David's action may have rendered Saul's robe -- Saul's visible sign of kingship -- non-compliant with requirements of the law by removing tassels from its corner (Numbers 14:38-39; Deuteronomy 22:12). That's why David is "conscience-stricken," since by voiding Saul's claim to kingship in this way, he is moving against "the Lord's anointed." He has to explain this to his men, who are bent on killing Saul when they have this chance. Many of them are under Saul's death sentence, just like David is. The temptation to kill Saul is almost overpowering.

 "6 [David] said to his men, '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.'7 With these words David rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul. And Saul left the cave and went his way." (24:6-7)

If David had indeed killed Saul in the cave, he and his 600 men would have had to face Saul's troops outside the cave. But these troops would have been leaderless -- and many of them realized the validity of David's claim to the throne. Probably David himself  had led some of these troops when he had been one of Saul's generals.

Could David have gotten away with killing Saul and claiming the throne? Probably. But David's refusal to attack Saul isn't based on strategic or even moral grounds. It is based on the profound respect that David has for Yahweh -- the fear of the Lord. God, David reasons, has put Saul into the kingship. For David, rebellion against Saul is tantamount to rebellion against the Lord himself who has anointed Saul.

David Asserts His Loyalty to Saul (24:8-15)

 David waits to confront Saul until the king and his bodyguards are some distance away. Then he prostrates himself before the king. He waves a piece of the king's robe, and indicates that he could have killed Saul except for his own conviction:

"I will not lift my hand against my master, because he is the LORD's anointed." (24:10)

David is not silent. He publicly accuses Saul of wronging him by trying to kill an innocent man, and calls upon Yahweh's justice to prevail.

"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. As the old saying goes,

  'From evildoers come evil deeds,'
  so my hand will not touch you." (24:12-13)

The point of the proverb he quotes is that, if David were an evil doer, Saul would have been long dead. David continues with heavy sarcasm:

"Against whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom are you pursuing? A dead dog? A flea?" (24:14)

The phrase "a dead dog" denotes self-abasement or self-disparagement, as in 2 Samuel 9:8 -- an object of insignificance.[100] The flea, too, is an image of insignificance, in the same way that a mustard seed is figurative of tininess.[101] David says something similar in 26:20 when he takes Saul's spear and water jug while he is sleeping. His point is that Saul is squandering vast national resources fielding an army of 3,000 men to hunt down someone who is no threat to him or to the kingdom -- a loyal citizen. David closes his case with an appeal to God's bar of justice.

"May the LORD be our judge and decide between us. May he consider my cause and uphold it; may he vindicate me by delivering me from your hand." (24:15)

Q1. (1 Samuel 24:1-15) Why doesn't David kill Saul when he has the chance? What motive do David and his men have for killing a king who is trying to kill them? What is David's rationale for sparing Saul? What does this tell us about David's character? About his faith? What does it say about David's leadership ability that he is able to dissuade his men from killing Saul?

This principle of "lifting one's hand against the Lord's anointed" extends beyond an anointed king to any of God's servants. God warns Abimelech king of Gerar not to harm Abraham (Genesis 20:7). He warns Laban not to harm Jacob (Genesis 31:24). The psalmist refers to these warnings:

 "Do not touch my anointed ones;
do my prophets no harm." (Psalm 105:15; cf. 1 Chronicles 16:22)

Jesus taught his disciples:

"He who receives you receives me,
and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.
Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet
will receive a prophet's reward,
and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man
will receive a righteous man's reward.
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones
because he is my disciple,
I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward." (Matthew 10:40-42)

"He who listens to you listens to me;
he who rejects you rejects me;
but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me." (Luke 10:16)

This doesn't mean that Jesus' disciples and servants today can't be called to account. Paul taught both respect for the leader's office and accountability:

"The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.... Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning." (1 Timothy 5:17, 19-20)

Paul also quotes the law:

"Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people" (Acts 23:5b, quoting Exodus 22:28)

I've seen how horribly Christians sometimes speak about their pastors. I've heard of the way people sometimes cruelly treat men and women of God. It is shameful!

Dear friends, we need to have a fear of the Lord in relation to God-appointed leaders. Just like David refused to lift his hand against the Lord's anointed, we need to show respect for the office -- even if the people who fill the office are imperfect.

Q2. (1 Samuel 24:12) How do we apply the principle of not lifting a hand against the Lord's anointed in our day? What provisions are there in 1 Timothy 5:19-20 for calling leaders to account. What do you think God will do to those who slander, persecute, and martyr his appointed leaders?

Saul Repents (24:16-22)

Saul's response is both humble and emotional. He weeps aloud. He acknowledges the righteousness of David's position and calls on Yahweh to reward David for his mercy to Saul. Then he publicly acknowledges that David will be his successor:

"I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands." (24:20)

Finally, he asks David to swear before Yahweh that when David becomes king he will not "cut off my descendants or wipe out my name from my father's family" (24:21). David had already sworn in his covenant with Jonathan to protect Jonathan's offspring (20:15, 42). Now he voluntarily extends this promise to cover all of Saul's descendants. He gives his solemn oath. This is why he does not kill Ish-Bosheth, Saul's remaining son who reigns over Israel after Saul's death (2 Samuel 4:11-12).

 "Then Saul returned home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold." (25:22b)

The stronghold here probably refers to the Crag of the Wild Goats where David and his men had been hiding for protection. David doesn't trust Saul's words enough to return with him. Saul has broken his promises too often for David to trust him now (19:6). People can say many kind things, but their actions show their true heart.

The Death of Samuel (25:1a)

"Now Samuel died, and all Israel assembled and mourned for him; and they buried him at his home in Ramah." (25:1a)

Samuel's death marks the end of an era for Israel. He is the last of the judges, and is no longer present to be Saul's conscience. This report also sets the reader up for Saul's seeking of Samuel's spirit through a spiritist medium in 28:7-25.

Nabal the Carmelite (25:1b-3)

David still doesn't return home; he knows that Saul's heart is false. Instead, he moves his band to the western side of the Judean desert near Maon. Now the narrator gives us a quick pen sketch of Nabal who lives nearby.

"His name was Nabal and his wife's name was Abigail. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband, a Calebite,[102] was surly and mean in his dealings." (25:3)

Nabal is fabulously wealthy, with 1,000 goats and 3,000 sheep. The narrator tells us that Nabal is shearing, a time traditionally celebrated by feasting with plenty to spare.[103]

David's Request for Provisions Is Rudely Rejected (25:4-13)

David sends a delegation of 10 young men to ask Nabal politely for some provisions. They are to remind him how David's men hadn't stolen any his sheep, even when they had the opportunity.

"When your shepherds were with us, we did not mistreat them, and the whole time they were at Carmel nothing of theirs was missing." (25:7)

Later, David recalls aloud how faithful he had been to Nabal -- "all my watching over this fellow's property in the desert so that nothing of his was missing" (25:21). David has acted righteously, not unrighteously. He has only asked the wealthy sheep baron for whatever provisions he can spare.

"Therefore be favorable toward my young men, since we come at a festive time. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them." (25:8)

But Nabal answers rudely, suggesting that David is nothing but a runaway slave, probably a smear at David for having left Saul. Nabal knows who David is, all right, but chooses to insult him instead of giving him what he asks. It is a mistake.

When David hears of Nabal's insult, he is livid. "Put on your swords!" he angrily commands his men, and he takes 400 of his men to slaughter Nabal and plunder all that he has.

Abigail's Wise and Humble Response (25:14- 35)

Fortunately, Nabal's beautiful wife Abigail hears about Nabal's foolish insults ("Nabal" means fool) -- and immediately takes action. She prepares a great deal of food as fast as she can and loads it on donkeys to take to David.

  • 200 loaves of bread

  • 2 skins of wine

  • 5 dressed sheep

  • 5 seahs of roasted grain

  • 100 cakes of raisins

  • 200 cakes of pressed figs

David has sworn vengeance: "May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!" (25:23) -- a foolish oath!

When Abigail sees David, she prostrates herself at his feet and makes abject apologies for her husband's foolish insults. Then she appeals to David's reputation as a righteous man before Yahweh:

"Now since the LORD has kept you, my master, from bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hands, as surely as the LORD lives and as you live, may your enemies and all who intend to harm my master be like Nabal. And let this gift, which your servant has brought to my master, be given to the men who follow you." (25:26-27)

She offers the food for David's men as a gift -- a bribe, if you will. She has one chance to turn David away from destroying Nabal and his household, and she gives it everything she has.  She asks forgiveness for Nabal. Then she points to the certainty of David's kingship -- if he operates justly and doesn't have blood on his hands!

"The LORD will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my master, because he fights the LORD's battles. Let no wrongdoing be found in you as long as you live.... The life of my master will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the LORD your God.

When the LORD has ... appointed him leader over Israel, my master will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself." (25:28-31)

David is overwhelmed, thanks Abigail, and grants her request to forgive Nabal.

Observe that David doesn't keep his foolish oath (25:22) -- and we have no indication that God is displeased by this. Sometimes in our foolishness we can vow things that are wrong. God is more interested in keeping us from sin, than in making sure that we observe the terms of a foolish vow. An example of carrying vow-keeping too far is Jephthah, who killed his own daughter to keep a foolish vow (Judges 11:30-31).


David recognizes that unless Abigail had intervened he would have been guilty of Nabal's death.

"32 Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. 33 May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands. 34 Otherwise, as surely as the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me, not one male belonging to Nabal would have been left alive by daybreak." (25:32-34)

The moral issue here is bloodguilt, the sin of shedding innocent blood. As we trace this through Scripture, we see the principle enshrined in the Ten Commandments: "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13), that is, commit unlawful killing. The word "murder" (NIV, NRSV) or "kill" is rāṣaḥ, "murder, slay, kill."[104] Of the 35 times it is used in the Old Testament, it is used 14 times in Numbers 35, where the person who has accidentally killed someone can find sanctuary in a "city of refuge," where he can't be killed by a relative, an "avenger of blood," before his case is heard in a court of law, before he "stands trial before the assembly" (Numbers 35:12). Numbers gives guidelines for determining whether a person was killed purposely or accidentally, whether the killer acted with hostility or "malice aforethought" (Numbers 35:21). This chapter concludes:

"Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the LORD, dwell among the Israelites." (Numbers 35:33-34)

This command not to murder, of course, precedes the Ten Commandments. In the beginning, God condemns Cain for killing Abel out of anger (Genesis 4). The Lord also instructs Noah:

"And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting.... From each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." (Genesis 9:5-6)

The command not to murder is rooted in respect for God, in whose image man is made.

The Old Testament does not include in this category of murder three types of sanctioned killing: capital punishment (Genesis 9:6), killing in time of war (in many places), and self-defense (Exodus 22:2-3).

This issue of taking innocent blood is quite important later in David's history. The slayers of Saul's son Ish-Bosheth are guilty of taking innocent blood (2 Samuel 4:11). Joab bears bloodguilt for killing both Abner and Amasa who were rivals, "shedding their blood in peacetime as if in battle, and with that blood stained the belt around his waist and the sandals on his feet" (1 Kings 2:5).

Now, in our narrative of Nabal and Abigail, David is about to kill for a petty insult, which would have made him guilty of murder before the Lord. He is thankful that Abigail's appeal saved him from bloodguilt. His heart is tender before the Lord his God!

Later, when his heart grows callous, he becomes guilty of the murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 12:9). In the great penitential Psalm 51, David calls out to God for forgiveness.

"Save me from bloodguilt,[105]
O God, the God who saves me,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness." (Psalm 51:14)

Nabal's Death and David's Marriage to Abigail (25:36-44)

Abigail returns home to find Nabal drunk. When she tells him in the morning how his life has been saved by her intervention, "his heart failed him and he became like a stone. About ten days later, the LORD struck Nabal and he died" (25:37-28). It sounds like Nabal had a stroke. David interprets it as God's judgment on him.

David has the wisdom to see in Abigail a worthy wife. He asks for her hand in marriage, and she accepts, attended by her five maids. She is David's second wife. You can see David's other wives and descendants in Appendix 3, "Genealogy of the House of David."

Q3. (1 Samuel 25) What do we learn about David's character in this incident with Nabal and Abigail? What do we learn about Abigail's character? Nabal's character? Why do you think this story was included in 1 Samuel? What important knowledge does it add to our understanding?

Polygamy in the Bible

It's difficult for many of us in the twenty-first century to see how the Bible seems to  pass over polygamy so easily. Does God approve of multiple wives?

Monogamy is expressed as God's intention in the earliest chapters of Genesis:

"The man said, 'This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man.' For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." (Genesis 2:23-24)

Jesus quoted this passage when he discussed divorce to reinforce God's intention for marriage to continue between a man and a woman as "one flesh."

"So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." (Matthew 19:6)

While there are provisions in the Torah to regulate polygamy (Deuteronomy 21:15-17), the ideal marriage in Israel consists of one man and one woman (Malachi 2:13-16). The only exception to this is the Levirate marriage with a brother's widow.

Reasons why polygamy was more common in some Biblical periods probably include the preponderance of females vs. males because of war, providing for destitute widows, and to maintain the culture's working force. Of course, lust was a primary driver. Polygamy was tolerated among the rich, who could afford multiple wives, but it wasn't considered Israel's ideal.

 The New Testament presupposes monogamy. The bond between husband and wife is seen to typify the relationship of Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:22-33). Church leaders are required to be monogamous (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6), as are widows whom the church supports (1 Timothy 5:9).

Polygamy in our day can be seen in break-off Mormon sects and in the African church. The unnatural character of polygamy in some Mormon sects is seen in the requirement that most of the young men are driven out of the polygamous community when they are teenagers so that the young women can be possessed by the older men. In Africa today, it is not uncommon for church leaders to have more than one wife, in accord with tribal customs. In spite of the examples of polygamy seen in our day and in the Bible, God's plan has always been for the union of one man and one woman.

Polygamy in David probably should be understood in the way that Jesus explained a provision for divorce in the Mosaic Law:

"Moses permitted you ... because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning." (Matthew 19:8)

David Has a Second Chance to Kill Saul (26:5-10)

Through his marriage to Abigail, David is probably entitled to Nabal's lands and servants.[106] But he can't settle down because of Saul. He and his wives are still on the run. They travel north east from Abigail's home in Maon into the Desert of Ziph, to one of David's old haunts on the hill of Hakilah[107] (23:19-24a). And again, spies from Ziph betray David's location. Despite his declarations and promises, Saul pursues David there with his army. It's Saul's army of 3,000 again against David's 600, an established king against his presumed rival, the establishment seeking to crush the loyal subject who has been declared an outlaw.

But David is a wily foe. He doesn't remain in one place, but decamps to the wilderness until his scouts tell him that Saul himself has arrived. David does some scouting himself, and sees Saul and his army sleeping and vulnerable. Back with his men, he finds his nephew Abishai willing to volunteer for the dangerous mission of infiltrating Saul's camp. Together the two sneak into Saul's camp. The narrator tells us:

"There was Saul, lying asleep inside the camp with his spear stuck in the ground near his head. Abner and the soldiers were lying around him." (26:7)

They were all asleep, the narrator tells us: "They were all sleeping, because the LORD had put them into a deep sleep." (26:12b)

Abishai and David engage in a hushed argument. Abishai boasts that he will kill Saul "with one thrust of my spear. I won't strike him twice!" (26:8). But David won't let him. Look carefully at David's reasoning, since it clearly explains the nature of his faith in Yahweh:

"9 Don't destroy him! Who can lay a hand on the LORD's anointed and be guiltless? 10 As surely as the LORD lives, the LORD himself will strike him; either his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish. 11 But the LORD forbid that I should lay a hand on the LORD's anointed." (26:9-11a)

David knows that he himself has been anointed by the Lord. But he realizes that this doesn't give him the right to kill another person God has anointed. He trusts God to take care of Saul on his own, rather than take matters into his own hands.

When you think about it, this is what separates David from any other local warlord of his time. David is not a mere opportunist. He is a man of devout faith.

Many times you and I are tempted to do the expedient thing rather than the right thing. We are tempted by power, by money, by sex, and when an opportunity comes to advance our own cause we take it. That's what Satan's followers do, not Christ's disciples. David, who is a type of Christ, provides an amazing Old Testament example of Jesus' obedience to the Father. The Apostle Paul wrote:

"3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in very nature God,
   did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
   7 but made himself nothing,
   taking the very nature of a servant,
   being made in human likeness.
   8 And being found in appearance as a man,
   he humbled himself and became obedient to death --
   even death on a cross!
   9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
   and gave him the name that is above every name...." (Philippians 2:3-9)

Dear friend, what do you do when you are tempted to get great gain, even if it means taking a shortcut that you know is out of God's will?

David Takes Saul's Spear and Water Jug (26:11-20)

But David has a noble purpose: to redeem his good name. Saul has, no doubt, been smearing David as a dangerous rebel and outlaw, in order to justify his paranoid -- and expensive -- pursuit. So David says to Abishai,

"Now get the spear and water jug that are near his head, and let's go." (26:11b)

The spear seems to be Saul's symbol of kingly authority, something like a scepter[108] that he often holds or keeps nearby (18:10) -- perhaps as a protection against assassins. We read earlier:

"Saul, spear in hand, was seated under the tamarisk tree on the hill at Gibeah, with all his officials standing around him." (22:6)

Saul always seems to have his spear at his side, both indoors and out. He had thrown his spear at both David (18:10-11; 19:10) and Jonathan (20:33) when he was upset.  In fact, Saul's spear is unique in Israel, since in this early Iron Age culture, the Philistines have a monopoly on ironsmiths, so only Saul and Jonathan possess iron-tipped spears (13:19, 22).

Thus, when David takes Saul's spear (representing his kingly power) and his personal water jug (representing life-sustaining resources), David is symbolically stripping Saul of both social standing and life.[109]

Once David has retreated from Saul's army a safe distance, he begins to taunt Saul's general, Abner, for the serious security breach of the king's bodyguard that would allow an enemy so close to the king's person. Abner is silent. But Saul recognizes David's voice and calls out to David as "my son."

David presents his case publicly before Saul and before his entire shamed army:

  1. David is innocent of any plot against the king (25:18), proved by not killing him when he has the chance.
  2. David has been unjustly deprived of Yahweh worship, "my share in the Lord's inheritance" (25:19b). Saul has driven him away from worship at the tabernacle at Nob.[110] (Soon he will have to leave Israel entirely, to take refuge with the Philistines.) Exclusion from the sanctuary is intensely painful to David. In the Desert of Judah he writes longingly, "I have seen you in the sanctuary
    and beheld your power and your glory" (Psalm 63:2). David pleads with Saul: "Now do not let my blood fall to the ground far from the presence of the LORD" (26:20a).
  3. Saul's expensive expedition is irrational. I am no threat, David contends. He humbly refers to himself as an insignificant flea, while Saul is mercilessly pursing him like hunters on a partridge hunt -- with 3,000 men. What a waste of time, men, and money! And while employing the army in this irrational quest, Saul is leaving Israel's towns and villages unprotected from the Philistines.

Saul Repents -- Again (26:21-25)

Saul, to his credit, publicly humbles himself:

"I have sinned. Come back, David my son. Because you considered my life precious today, I will not try to harm you again. Surely I have acted like a fool and have erred greatly." (26:21)

David isn't fooled. Saul has made promises before, and though he may mean them at the time he makes them, he doesn't keep them for long. David returns Saul's spear, and then David calls on Yahweh to reward him for his righteousness and faithfulness -- Saul certainly won't reward him!

"As surely as I valued your life today, so may the LORD value my life and deliver me from all trouble." (26:25)

Saul blesses David -- still calling him "my son" -- and returns home. "You will do great things and surely triumph," he says. But his words ring hollow. David "accepted the king's words for what they were -- sincere, deadly lies."[111]

David Seeks Asylum with the Philistines (27:1-7)

David knows he'll never be safe as long as Saul is alive.

"David thought to himself, 'One of these days I will be destroyed by the hand of Saul. The best thing I can do is to escape to the land of the Philistines. Then Saul will give up searching for me anywhere in Israel, and I will slip out of his hand.'" (27:1)

So David once more seeks asylum with Achish, king of the Philistine city of Gath, in the area just west of the Judean hill country. The first time David had sought refuge in Gath, he came alone and fled when he realized how vulnerable he was (21:10-15). This time he comes to Achish as a vassal, a warlord with 600 warriors. As a vassal of King Achish, he will be protected by Achish, but he will owe tribute to Achish and be required to defend Gath and fight with the Philistines when they go to war.

Achish welcomes him on the simple basis that "my enemy's enemy is my friend." And it has the desired effect: "When Saul was told that David had fled to Gath, he no longer searched for him" (27:4).

Achish must be struggling to feed David's 600 men and their families in Gath. And David doesn't like being so closely under Achish's eye. After all, he doesn't exactly share the Philistines' religion and values. So David brings a request to Achish:

"If I have found favor in your eyes, let a place be assigned to me in one of the country towns, that I may live there. Why should your servant live in the royal city with you?" (27:5)

Map: David Spares Saul's Life (1 Samuel 24-27).
Map: David Spares Saul's Life (1 Samuel 24-27). Larger map.

I expect that Achish is quite happy to send David a safe distance away.

"So on that day Achish gave him Ziklag, and it has belonged to the kings of Judah ever since. David lived in Philistine territory a year and four months." (27:6-7)

The exact location of Ziklag is unknown, though it's surely a settlement in the Negev desert. It has been identified with Tell esh-Sherîʿah, about 20 miles ESE of Gaza. Others identify it as Tell el-Khuweilfeh, about 14 miles north of Beersheba,[112] but that may be too far east for the descriptions we have.[113] The Philistines control this area, so Achish gives the town over to David and his men and families as a base of operations.

David, as a Philistine Vassal, Raids Israel's Enemies (27:8-12; 28:1-5)

"Now David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites,[114] the Girzites,[115] and the Amalekites. (27:8)

David would annihilate the enemy population and plunder their livestock, clothing, etc. The Amalekites, especially, were enemies of the Israelites. They had attacked them when they were being led by Moses in the Wilderness and the Israelites never forgot it.

When David brings Achish tribute and is asked about his raids, David tells him that he had raided the desert areas populated by people of the tribe of Judah (his own tribe), the clan of Jerahmeel,[116] or the clan of the Kenites.[117] (See Appendix 6. Considering David's Deceit.) As a result, Achish trusts David. He says to himself: "He has become so odious to his people, the Israelites, that he will be my servant forever" (27:12).

David has served as a vassal or servant of the Philistine king Achish of Gath for nearly a year and a half when active war breaks out between Saul's army and the Philistines. As you may recall, the Philistines were led by a confederation of five cities -- Gath, Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron. As one of Achish's vassals, David is called up with his men to fight with the Philistine confederation against Israel. We'll consider David's dilemma and the outcome in the next lesson.

Saul Seeks a Medium (28:7-14)

We conclude this lesson, however, with Saul. When he sees the Philistine armies begin to assemble in the Jezreel Valley at Shunem,[118] he is deathly afraid. "Terror filled his heart" (28:5).

Though Saul seeking a medium isn't technically part of David's life, we'll include it here, since it raises important questions about séances, spiritism, and channeling that Christians wonder about today.

God has forsaken Saul. He has given the Israelites several ways to receive guidance from God, but these are no longer available to Saul..

The Spirit has left Saul so he doesn't receive dreams from the Lord (16:13-14). He has killed the priests who could inquire of the Lord for him. And Samuel, the prophet Saul has relied on for counsel, has died.

So Saul, desperate to determine the future of this coming battle with the Philistines by any means, turns from the Lord to illicit means, thus damning him further (1 Chronicles 10:13).

"Saul then said to his attendants, 'Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.' 'There is one in Endor,'[119]] they said. So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman." (24:7-8a)

Occult Practices in the Ancient Near East

  1. Hepatoscopy, divination by inspecting the liver of a sacrificed animal (Ezekiel 21:21), a widespread practice. Archaeologists have found clay models of livers at Megiddo and elsewhere.
  2. Hydromancy, divining by water, perhaps seen in Genesis 44:5.

  3. Rhabdomancy, divination using a divining rod (Hosea 4:12).

  4. Belomancy, divination by casting of arrows (Ezekiel 21:21).

  5. Teraphim, household gods or images, widespread in the ancient Near East, used as a symbol of authority, land ownership, and for divination (Ezekiel 21:21; Zechariah 10:2).
  6. Astrology, common in Babylon, seeking the future in the stars and planets (Isaiah 47:13; Jeremiah 10:2).
  7. Necromancy, consultation with the dead to determine the future, as is practiced by the "witch of Endor."[120 The word "medium" (NIV, NRSV), "familiar spirit" (KJV) that occurs in 28:7, 9 is ʾôb, "spirit of the dead,"[121] which occurs in the feminine gender in Hebrew. The word is often paired with yidde'ônî (as in 28:9), which occurs in the masculine gender in Hebrew.[122] Together they probably refer to females and males who conduct occult practices.[123] The prophet Isaiah describes how perverted people have become in his day, who prefer mediums and wizards to true prophets.

"When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists,
who whisper and mutter,,
should not a people inquire of their God?
Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?" (Isaiah 8:19)

The Mosaic law is clear that the Israelites were to stay away from these occultists, and to stone them (Leviticus 19:31; 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:10-11). We Christians, too, must stay away from any kind of sorcery or necromancy that seeks the future by occult means or by consulting the dead, a practice common in the New Testament world (Acts 8:9-24; 13:6-12, 16-18; 19:18-19; 1 Corinthians 10:20-21; Revelation 9:21; 21:8; 22:15).

Saul had rightly banished mediums from his realm, but they had only gone underground. With a bit of inquiry, Saul's attendants are able to find one rather quickly.

Saul asks the woman to "bring up Samuel" for him. She does so, but what happens is nothing like what she suspected -- that's why she shrieks at the top of her lungs and realizes that her client is none other than King Saul.

  1. Psychological. This was real, but the product of psychological impressions, so real that the medium herself is convinced by them.
  2. Hoax. This is a hoax perpetrated by the medium upon Saul. But the medium herself is terrified by it, since it is out of the ordinary.
  3. Demonic. A demon or Satan impersonates Samuel (2 Corinthians 11:14).

  4. Genuine. This is a genuine appearance of Samuel brought about by God himself to declare again his judgment upon Saul.[124]

Though the last interpretation troubles us because necromancy was forbidden by God, it seems to fit the text the best. Bergen observes:

  1. The text says the medium did in fact see Samuel.

  2. The medium reacts to Samuel's appearance as though it were a genuine experience.

  3. The speeches attributed to Samuel contain allusions to a prior exchange between Samuel and Saul.
  4. Samuel's role and message as a prophet is unchanged in his encounter with Saul here.[125]

Nevertheless, this passage should not be considered an endorsement of the practice of necromancy, because (1) necromancy is specifically prohibited in Scripture -- here and elsewhere, and (2) it is clear that this event wasn't normal at all! Baldwin says,

 "The incident does not tell us anything about the veracity of claims to consult the dead on the part of mediums, because the indications are that this was an extraordinary event for her, and a frightening one because she was not in control.";[126]

Dear friend, if you've been involved in communicating with the dead through séances channeling, etc. -- even Ouija boards -- I urge you to repent before God and ask forgiveness. These are dangerous practices that can harm you spiritually![127]

Q4. (1 Samuel 28:7-14) Why do you think God condemns occult practices of communicating with the dead and channeling spirits of the dead? How might such practices open Christians to victimization and oppression by evil spirits? What should you do if you've been involved in such practices in the past?

Samuel's Apparition Condemns Saul (28:15-25)

  1. A rebuke. Why do you consult me through a medium?

  2. A fulfillment. As God had said, because of your disobedience, Yahweh in his wrath has transferred the kingdom to David.
  3. A prediction. The Philistines will defeat the Israelites in battle; Saul and his sons will be killed.

Saul is terror-stricken. The lady feeds him; then he and his men go out into the night. Saul realizes that the next day he will be killed and face God alone -- a pretty sobering situation for anyone.

Praise God, that when we stand before God, we have an advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous One, who has died for our sins (1 John 2:1-2). If you have put your trust in Jesus Christ and become his disciple, your name is written in the Lamb's Book of Life (Revelation 20:11-14). You have a Friend who will stand with you on that Day. Hallelujah!

Lessons for Disciples

  1. Respect. We are to respect the leaders that God has appointed over us, even if they aren't perfect -- which they never are (Hebrews 13:17a). David had respect for Saul as the Lord's anointed. God will judge those who rebel against His leaders, slander them, or speak evil of them (Acts 23:5b; Exodus 22:28).
  2. Appeal. We can, however, respectfully disagree with our leaders, as David did before Saul, and appeal to their reason. And we can also appeal to God when a leader is out of line. God, who put the leader in place can (and perhaps will) remove that leader. Leaders must answer to God! (Hebrews 13:17b).
  3. Humility. When we humble ourselves before a leader about to make a mistake, like Abigail did before David, and speak clearly and boldly, we can sometimes influence the outcome positively. Humility is appropriate for two reasons. First, leaders often struggle with pride. Second, we don't see everything the leader sees and may be wrong in our assessment.
  4. Steadfastness. When God shows us one of his principles, we must stand up for it,  even if others don't understand us or criticize us, as David's men did when he spared Saul. We aren't to cave in under pressure.
  5. Faithfulness. When we make a promise, we must do our very best to be true to our word, not like Saul, whose promise not to harm David was made and broken again and again. Neither God nor man have respect for a person who makes a promise and then changes his mind and does the opposite.
  6. The Occult. We are to stay away from occult practices of any kind, and thoroughly repent of any involvement in the past that may have contaminated us spiritually or made us vulnerable to Satan's deception or oppression.
Life of David, Discipleship Lessons in 1 and 2 Samuel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

In this lesson, we've traced David during his Wilderness wanderings. He has been challenged, he has seen God's mercy, and he has grown stronger in the process. In the next lesson, we'll watch as David faces one of the greatest challenges of his life.


Father, David's incredible faith allowed him to spare Saul -- twice. Give us that kind of conviction and faith that we might stand against our great temptations. We seek your will. We renounce and repent of any occult practices. Forgive us for our sins and cleanse us, we pray. Teach us to walk close to you. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"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." (1 Samuel 24:12)2)

"David said to Abigail, 'Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me. May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands.'" (1 Samuel 25:32-33)

[98] We're not sure of the exact location of the "Crags of the Wild Goats," except that it is a rock outcropping near the Dead Sea.

[99] This is a Hebrew idiom, literally it is "to cover his feet." It refers to the Israelite practice of disposing of human excrement in a sanitary manner through covering it over with dirt (Deuteronomy 23:13; Bergen 1&2 Samuel, p. 238, fn. 113).

[100] Tsumura (1 Samuel, p. 571) cites McCarter to the effect that "dog," "dead dog," and "stray dog" are also found with this meaning in Akkadian and in the Lachish letters.

[101] Parʿōsh, BDB 829.

[102] Caleb, one of the faithful spies of Canaan under Moses (Numbers 13-14). During the Conquest, he conquered the walled city of Hebron and was given territory around it (Joshua 14-15; 21:12). David's later marriage into this Calebite family probably gave him greater political strength when it came time for the elders of Judah to anoint him king in Hebron (2 Samuel 5:1-3; so Klein, 1 Samuel, p. 248).

[103] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 147.

[104] William White, rāṣaḥ, TWOT #2208. Its use in Numbers 35 "makes clear that rāṣaḥ applies equally to both cases of premeditated murder and killings as a result of any other circumstances, what English Common Law has called, "man slaughter."

[105] Dām, literally, "blood."

[106] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, pp. 152-153.

[107] Jeshimon is a general word describing the barren desert east of the mountains.

[108] In ancient times, the scepter derived from a full-length staff held by the king.

[109] Bergen, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 245.

[110] Baldwin (1 and 2 Samuel, p. 155) observes: "David is not really in doubt that Saul's motivation come from within himself, but he tactfully suggests otherwise," that the motivation might have come from the Lord or from his counselors.

[111] Berger, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 258.

[112] Oxford Bible Atlas, p. 142

[113] Tsumura, 1 Samuel, pp. 611-612. A.F. Rainey, "Ziklag," 4:1196. Student Map Manual shows it as Tell Sera (7-5, 7-6). It is listed as a city of Judah in Joshua 15:31, belonging to the Negev province. Ziklag, had been assigned to the tribe of Simeon at the Conquest under Joshua, but never been conquered (Joshua 19:5; 15:31).

[114] P.C. Hughes, "Geshur," ISBE 2:449. A tribe bordering the Philistines on the south (Joshua 13:2), raided by David.

[115] R. K. Harrison, "Girzites," ISBE 2:472. An otherwise unknown people living between the Philistines and the Egyptian border, not to be confused with Gezer.

[116] The Jerahmeelites (mentioned here and in 30:29) were a clan descended from Jerahmeel, who was a descendant of Judah by Tamar his daughter-in-law (1 Chronicles 2:9, 25-27, 33, 42; Genesis 38), considered as part of the tribe of Judah (R. K. Harrison, "Jerahmeel," ISBE 2:984).

[117] The Kenites were a tribe of nomads, perhaps smiths or metalworkers, who apparently lived in the mountains south of the Dead Sea and in the Sinai Peninsula. Moses' father-in-law is called a Kenite in some places (Judges 1:16; 4:11), so the Midianites and Kenites may have had a close relationship. Jethro's descendants went up with the people of Judah into the wilderness of Judah in the Negev near Arad (Judges 1:16) (John Arthur Thompson, "Kenites," ISBE 3:6-7).

[118] B.R. and P.C. Patten, "Shunem," ISBE 4:497. Scholars identify it with Sôlem, a village 9 miles N of Jenin, overlooking the Valley of Jezreel.

[119] Endor ("fountain of dwelling") is a town assigned to western Manasseh, identified with the modern village of Endor, on the northern slope of the hill of Moreh (J. F. Prewitt, "Endor," ISBE 2:80).

[120] This section draws on Davis, Kingdom, p. 95; and David E. Aune, "Divination," ISBE 1:-971-974; Ann Jeffers, "Magic and Divination," DOTHB, pp. 670-674.

[121] ʾÔb, Holladay 6.

[122] Yidde'ônî is derived from the root "to know" (yādaʿ).

[123] Robert L. Alden, ʾôb, TWOT #37a.

[124] Discussed by Davis, Kingdom, pp. 96-99.

[125] Bergen, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 267.

[126] Baldwin, 1-2 Samuel, p. 159.

[127] It's pretty common for people to speak to their departed loved ones and even feel their presence. That's not what I'm talking about. But when we seek to communicate through occult practices, we open ourselves to demonic influences. Beware!

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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