“See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it. May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you. As the proverb of the ancients says, ‘Out of the wicked comes wickedness.’ But my hand shall not be against you. After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea! May the Lord therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you, and see to it and plead my cause and deliver me from your hand.”
As soon as David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. He said to David, “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the Lord put me into your hands. For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. And now, behold, 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 offspring after me, and that you will not destroy my name out of my father’s house.” And David swore this to Saul. Then Saul went home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold. – 1 Samuel 24:11-22 ESV
There are those who struggle with the Bible’s references to David being “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). After all, this is the man who committed adultery with Bathsheba, then had her husband killed so he could marry her. He was far from perfect morally or spiritually. So why the lofty designation as a man after God’s own heart? Today’s passage provides us with a glimpse into the very heart of David. Under the worst of conditions and after a great deal of stress and emotional duress, David reveals his true heart, and provides a stark contrast to the dark and hardened heart of Saul.
David has just passed on the opportunity to take Saul’s life. He had the motive, the means, and the full support of his men. But he refused to act, telling his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this to my lord the king. I shouldn’t attack the Lord’s anointed one, for the Lord himself has chosen him” (1 Samuel 24:6 NLT). He allowed Saul to walk out of the cave with his life, but missing a small section of the hem of his royal robe. When Saul stepped out of the cave and into the light of day, David followed and confronted him. He called out to Saul, addressing him as “My lord the king!” (1 Samuel 24:8 ESV). David treated Saul with honor and respect. There was no screaming. No angry accusations. No claims to holding the moral high ground. All David wanted to do was to assure Saul that he had nothing to fear from David. He was not attempting to usurp his throne or take his life. He was still a loyal servant of the king and recognized Saul as the Lord’s anointed (vs. 10).
David started out his address to Saul by referring to him as king. But then he shifted his emphasis, calling Saul, “father” (vs. 11). David was Saul’s son-in-law, but he also viewed Saul as mentor. He had been Saul’s armor bearer and court musician. He had lived in the palace, served at the king’s side, and ministered to Saul in some of his most dark and lonely moments, playing his lyre in order to calm Saul’s tormented heart. David had proved himself faithful, serving as one of Saul’s commanders and successfully defeating countless numbers of the nation’s enemies, even while on the run. He had faithfully served Saul even while Saul was obsessively seeking to kill him. So David told Saul, “May the Lord judge between me and you, may the Lord avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you” (1 Samuel 24:12 ESV). This is where we are given what is probably the most vivid explanation for David’s designation as a man after God’s own heart. In spite of all he had been through and the countless reasons he may have had to justify being angry with and taking action against Saul, he responded with restraint. He focused his attention on God, rather than Saul. At no point does he judge or accuse Saul. David even gave Saul the benefit of the doubt, excusing Saul’s actions as nothing more than the result of bad advice. David was going to leave any judgment up to God. And if there was a need for any avenging to be done, as far as David was concerned, that was God’s purview, not his. David was going to trust God. And the heart of David is best seen in the psalms of David. Psalm 57 was written during the days in which David was hiding in the caves, seeking refuge from the relentless pursuit of Saul.
Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy!
I look to you for protection.
I will hide beneath the shadow of your wings
until the danger passes by.
2 I cry out to God Most High,
to God who will fulfill his purpose for me.
3 He will send help from heaven to rescue me,
disgracing those who hound me.
My God will send forth his unfailing love and faithfulness. – Psalm 57:1-3 NLT
Psalm 142 was written during the same period of David’s life.
4 I look for someone to come and help me,
but no one gives me a passing thought!
No one will help me;
no one cares a bit what happens to me.
5 Then I pray to you, O Lord.
I say, “You are my place of refuge.
You are all I really want in life. – Psalm 142:4-5 NLT
David had a heart for God. He sought after God. He trusted in God. In his darkest moments, he called out to God, seeking deliverance and direction from God. And he let Saul know that he had nothing to fear from him. As far as David was concerned, Saul was the king and would remain so until God deemed otherwise.
It is interesting to note that Saul was moved by David’s words. He was legitimately moved by what he heard. Even he saw the stark contrast between his heart and that of David. Perhaps it was the words of the ancient proverb that David quoted: “Out of the wicked comes wickedness.” Saul may have been given a sobering glimpse into the darkness of his own heart. The Proverbs of Solomon say, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23 ESV). Jesus told His disciples, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:18-20 ESV). As David stood before Saul that day, he provided Saul with a less-than-flattering reminder of all that he had become. David served as a stark counterpoint to Saul’s godlessness, heartlessness, faithlessness and self-centeredness. And he could not help but respond, “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil” (1 Samuel 24:17 ESV).
These two men, one the anointed king of Israel and the other, the anointed king-elect of Israel, could not have been more different. But the greatest contrast between the two of them was not external, but internal. It was the spiritual conditions of their hearts. David was committed to seeing his life through the lens of God’s sovereignty. He was going to trust in God’s will and leave his life in God’s all-powerful hands. Saul had been committed to preserving his own legacy, at all costs – even attempting to thwart the revealed will of God. He was a man after his own heart, not God’s. He was self-consumed and overly obsessed with doing whatever he had to do to protect his way of life. And when he stood there that day, in a face-to-face encounter with David, he got a glimpse into the condition of his heart. He would be convicted. He would show remorse. He would feign repentance. And he would walk away. But his heart would remain unchanged.
In His sermon on the mount, Jesus spoke these words concerning false prophets, but they apply to the situation between Saul and David as well.
“You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.” – Matthew 7:16-20 NLT
David’s actions revealed the true nature of his heart. And Saul’s heart had been exposed as what it really was: Dark, diseased, and devoid of a healthy relationship with God.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.