When Saul returned from following the Philistines, he was told, “Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi.” Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel and went to seek David and his men in front of the Wildgoats’ Rocks. And he came to the sheepfolds by the way, where there was a cave, and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave. And the men of David said to him, “Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you.’” Then David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. And afterward David’s heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord’s anointed.” So David persuaded his men with these words and did not permit them to attack Saul. And Saul rose up and left the cave and went on his way.
Afterward David also arose and went out of the cave, and called after Saul, “My lord the king!” And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the earth and paid homage. And David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Behold, David seeks your harm’? Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord‘s anointed.’” – 1 Samuel 24:1-10 ESV
Distracted by the surprise attack by the Philistines, Saul was forced to call of his pursuit of David, allowing him time to escape to the wilderness of Engedi. But it was not long before Saul was back on the war path, accompanied by 3,000 highly trained soldiers. His mission: Capture and kill David. But chapter 24 is going to provide a striking contrast between Saul, the current king of Israel, and David, the God-appointed king- elect of Israel. Time and time again we have read of Saul’s relentless pursuit of David and his obsessive compulsion to take his life. Now we will see the tables turned. This time around, David will have the chance to take matters into his own hands and eliminate the threat of Saul once and for all.
As David and his men were hiding in one of the caves in the wilderness of Engedi, Saul entered, seemingly alone, and placing himself in a very vulnerable position. Little did he know that the very man he pursued was there in the darkness watching his every move. And when David’s men saw Saul walk into their hideout, they spied what they believed to be a God-ordained opportunity.
“Now’s your opportunity!” David’s men whispered to him. “Today the Lord is telling you, ‘I will certainly put your enemy into your power, to do with as you wish.’”– 1 Samuel 24:4 NLT
Their assessment of the situation was quick and incredibly clear – at least to them. God had obviously sent Saul into the cave for the sole purpose of David taking his life. What else could it be? The timing was perfect. Saul was alone. He was defenseless. Of all the caves in the wilderness of Engedi, he had chosen this one. What else could it be but a divinely ordained opportunity for David to out an end to this nightmare?
There was only one problem: Nowhere in the text does it indicate that God had given His permission for David or anyone else to take the life of Saul. Regardless of the picture-perfect circumstances and the seemingly divine nature of the opportunity, what was missing was the divine authority for David to lift a finger against Saul.
But David, emboldened by the advice of his men, crept forward and in the darkness of the cave, sliced off a section of Saul’s robe. He had chosen to spare Saul’s life, but his action was intended to send a deliberate and crystal-clear message to Saul that he could cut his reign short at any time. What David did was an act of rebellion, and he soon had second thoughts. The text tells us:
But then David’s conscience began bothering him because he had cut Saul’s robe. He said to 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.” So David restrained his men and did not let them kill Saul. – 1 Samuel 24:5-7 NLT
His action had been presumptuous and without divine authority. God had not given him permission to take matters into his own hands. Earlier, when Jonathan had told David, “You shall be king over Israel” (1 Samuel 23:17 ESV), those words must have registered in David’s mind and given him the confidence to believe that God had anointed him to be the next king of Israel. But God had not told David when or how his reign would come about. Saul was still the king. Technically, he was the anointed sovereign over the nation of Israel. Saul had been chosen by God, and at no time had God given David permission to take his life in order to speed up the process of his coronation. David was susceptible to the same thing we all face as followers of God: To believe that the end justifies the means. It was far too easy for David to assume that if he was to be the next king, then getting rid of the current king must be part of God’s plan. But God had not disclosed to David the means by which He was going to bring about the transition of power from one man to the next. That was God’s concern, not David’s.
The Scriptures are full of warnings about confusing our plans with those of God.
Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.
– Proverbs 19:21 ESV
We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps. – Proverbs 16:9 NLT
We can make our own plans, but the LORD gives the right answer. – Proverbs 16:1 NLT
LORD, we know that people do not control their own destiny. It is not in their power to determine what will happen to them. – Jeremiah 10:23 NET Bible
David had no shortage of well-meaning friends providing well-intended advice. But what he really needed was a word from God. The opportunity may have looked right, but without God’s approval, the outcome was going to turn out all wrong. It is interesting to note that David would eventually admit to Saul, “the Lord gave you today into my hand in the cave” (1 Samuel 24:10 ESV). This is not an admission on David’s part that he believed God had given him permission to kill Saul. He was simply saying that this encounter had not been a coincidence. He had been put to the test by God. And David’s own men had made that test even more difficult by counseling David to take Saul’s life. But he didn’t. David even saw his cutting off of the section of Saul’s robe as an act unsanctioned by God. He had overstepped his bounds.
Opportunity means nothing without God-given authority. In fact, there is an interesting side story that involves Saul himself. In the early days of his reign, when he had been king for only two years, he found himself besieged by the Philistines. He was outnumbered. He had 3,000 men, but was facing 6,000 Philistine cavalry, 30,000 chariots and infantry “as the sand which is on the seashore in multitude” (1 Samuel 13:5 ESV). Needless to say, his troops were terrified. In fact, the passage tells us:
When the men of Israel saw that they were in danger (for the people were distressed), then the people hid in caves, in thickets, in rocks, in holes, and in pits. And some of the Hebrews crossed over the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. – 1 Samuel 24:6-7 ESV
Here’s the point. Saul had been instructed by Samuel the prophet to wait in Gilgal for seven days. When the seven days passed and the prophet was nowhere to be found, Saul took matters into his own hands. He was facing a formidable foe with demoralized troops. Saul seized the opportunity. He commanded his servants, “‘Bring a burnt offering and peace offerings here to me.’ And he offered the burnt offering. Now it happened, as soon as he had finished presenting the burnt offering, that Samuel came” (1 Samuel 13:9-10 ESV). Saul thought that he had done the right thing. They were in trouble. The prophet wasn’t there. Somebody needed to offer a sacrifice to God before the battle ensued. But while Saul had the opportunity, he did not have the authority. And he would have to suffer the consequences for his disobedience.
When confronted by Samuel, Saul explained, “‘The Philistines will now come down on me at Gilgal, and I have not made supplication to the Lord.’ Therefore I felt compelled, and offered a burnt offering” (1 Samuel 13:12 ESV). Saul’s compulsion was not to be confused with God’s permission. His urge to do something was situation-induced and self-authorized. And as a result, his offering brought God’s wrath, not blessing. Acting on behalf of God, but without the permission of God, is a sign of disobedience, not faithfulness. God had a plan. Saul got impatient. He took matters into his own hands. But just because an opportunity presents itself does not mean God is in it or has given His permission for it. God’s will can only be done God’s way. Opportunity without authority will almost always result in calamity.
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.