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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

1 Samuel 26

 

 

Introduction

Saul Determines To Seek Out David Once More, And Once More Survives Because Of David’s Mercy (1 Samuel 26:1-25).

After his conflict with Nabal David appears to have returned to his encampment on the Hill of Hachilah, a move which may well have been with a view to furthering his romantic involvement with Abigail, who would not have been able to marry David immediately. Nabal would have had to be buried and a respectable period of mourning would then have been required of Abigail. Thus being on the Hill of Hachilah would have kept him in close touch with his prospective wife, until she was free to marry. It would, however, also have resulted in his once again offending the Ziphites, for it is very probable that, as previously, the presence of David and a large band of men was straining the resources of the area so that the Ziphites suffered accordingly. As a result, being unable themselves to do anything against such a large force, they would again have turned to Saul.

As it happened it would appear that Saul was at this time passing through one of his dark periods. This comes out in that he responded to the call. We should not be surprised at this. While no one at the time would have understood it, his illness was of such a nature that no one would know how he was going to react next, and medically speaking it should be no surprise that he went back on his previous decision. If his paranoia had once again thrust itself to the fore, and his perception of David had once again become twisted in his mind because of his illness, no moral considerations would even have come into play. His reaction would have been automatic. We cannot judge a person with his kind of illness in rational terms. Such a person is not thinking rationally. (We should, however, remember that his rejection for disobedience dates to before he became ill. It was not, therefore, for what he did in his illness that he was condemned by YHWH).

(Some have seen this passage as simply a duplicate of 1 Samuel 24 in view of the similarities between the two, but many others agree that, in the circumstances, those similarities were in fact to be expected as David continued in the same area, whereas they would maintain that it is the dissimilarities that are the most striking and reveal that 1 Samuel 24 and 1 Samuel 26 undoubtedly refer to two different occasions. For further discussion of the question see the note at the end of the commentary on this passage).

Analysis of the chapter.

a David is declared to be encamped on the Hill of Hachilah (1 Samuel 26:1).

b Saul seeks after David with his army and encamps on the Hill of Hachilah (1 Samuel 26:2-4).

c While Saul and Abner sleep David comes with Abishai and steals his ceremonial spear and water vessel but refuses to slay the anointed of YHWH (1 Samuel 26:5-11).

d The reason that they were able to do it was because YHWH had caused a deep sleep from YHWH to fall on the camp (1 Samuel 26:12).

c David chides Abner for allowing two men to steal up to where Saul was sleeping and steal his ceremonial spear and water vessel, thus failing to protect the anointed of YHWH (1 Samuel 26:13-16).

b David asks Saul why he has come out to seek him and Saul admits his fault (1 Samuel 26:17-25 a).

a David returns to his camp and Saul to his own place (1 Samuel 26:25 b).

Note On The Question Of Whether The Incident In Chapter 26 Is Merely A Duplicate Of The Incidents In Chapters 23-24.

Superficially a strong case can be made out for the case that the incident in 1 Samuel 26 is merely a duplicate of the combined but different incidents in 1 Samuel 23-24. Consider for example the following:

· In both incidents Saul is alerted by the Ziphites (1 Samuel 23:19; 1 Samuel 26:1).

· Both refer to David’s connection with the Hill of Hachilah (1 Samuel 23:19; 1 Samuel 26:1).

· In both cases Saul seeks David in the wilderness with ‘three thousand’ men (1 Samuel 24:1-2; 1 Samuel 26:1-2).

· In both cases Saul is at David’s mercy (1 Samuel 24:3-7; 1 Samuel 26:3-12).

· In both cases David refrains from slaying him because he is YHWH’s Anointed (1 Samuel 24:3-7; 1 Samuel 26:3-12).

· In both cases David appropriates a symbol of Saul’s authority, in one case the hem of his robe, 1 Samuel 24:5-6; in the other his spear and water jug, 1 Samuel 26:12).

· In both cases David reveals himself to Saul after the event and displays what he has appropriated (1 Samuel 24:8-11; 1 Samuel 26:14-16).

· In both cases David pleads his case before Saul at some length (1 Samuel 24:9-15; 1 Samuel 26:17-20; 1 Samuel 26:22-24).

· In both cases David likens himself to a flea (a dead dog and a flea, 1 Samuel 24:14); a flea and a partridge (1 Samuel 26:20).

· In both cases Saul repents and speaks of coming success for David (1 Samuel 24:17-21; 1 Samuel 26:21; 1 Samuel 26:25).

At first sight the duplication appears impressive, but once the incidents are inspected in detail the coincidence actually becomes less impressive. Firstly we should notice that David spent some considerable time hiding in the wilderness area west of the Dead Sea, moving from area to area. It would not therefore be surprising if he went back to what may well have been a suitable encampment on the Hill of Hachilah a number of times. And once he had done so it is not surprising that, if at one of those times the Ziphites had complained to Saul with the result that David had been forced to depart, the next time they tried complaining to Saul again because they saw David and his men as a threat and a nuisance and hoped that he would be made to depart again. What is more significant, and counts against the idea of duplication, is that the first time David then fled to the wilderness of Maon, at which point Saul had to cease his search because of the Philistine threat, while the second time David only hides nearby and does not flee, and there is no suggestion that Saul’s withdrawal has anything to do with the Philistines. It should further be noted that in 1 Samuel 23-24 the appeal of the Ziphites and reference to the hill of Hachilah in 1 Samuel 23 strictly have no direct connection with Saul’s later search for David in 1 Samuel 24 which occurs because of anonymous information (1 Samuel 24:1). Thus we would have to suggest that 1 Samuel 26 unnecessarily conflated two narratives and totally ignored the true circumstances.

That Saul had three military units with him each time cannot be regarded as significant. It simply suggests that he constantly operated with three military units, compare also 1 Samuel 13:2.

That Saul was twice found to be at the mercy of an astute David is not really surprising, especially as, while the first time it was accidental, the second time it was specifically by the deliberate choice of David. What happened the first time may well have sparked off David’s adventure in the second. David knew from his experience in 1 Samuel 24 that this was one way in which he could persuade Saul to return home and leave his men alone. It was surely just common sense to try the same method again. But we should note that the place at which it happened was different (the cave of Engedi in the cliffs facing the Dead Sea compared with the Hill of Hachilah in the mountain range near Hebron some way from the Dead Sea), the circumstances were very different (accidentally in a pitch black cave, compared with by David’s choice in the centre of Saul’s camp at night), the objects taken were totally different, fitting in with the difference in each situation (the hem of the robe cut off in a pitch black cave compared with Saul’s ceremonial spear and water jug taken from his camp), the persons involved were very different (David’s men in hiding and then Saul alone, compared with David and two named men who have set off with the intention of spying on Saul’s camp, and then Abner and Saul seen as together) and the spirit in which it happened was very different (in the first case it was by coincidence because David and his men were hiding in a cave in some trepidation, in the second it was a deliberate act of David as he acted fearlessly and decisively in order to bring the situation about).

That David spared Saul’s life both times is what we would expect if he genuinely saw Saul as YHWH’s Anointed (which suggests that he would spare Saul’s life whenever he saw him), and once David had in each case appropriated something of Saul’s which expressed his authority we would expect that the main events which followed would necessarily be duplicated. The whole point of appropriating the very different symbols of Saul’s authority was precisely in order to reveal them to Saul and have a conversation with him.

But even the very conversations are very different. In the first case Saul is obsessed with the question of the kingship, in the second case the idea of kingship does not arise at all. In the first case he discourses at length, in the second case he says little. The kingship does not seem to be a concern. In the first case he admits to his actions being evil compared with David’s good actions, in the second case he quite spontaneously admits that he has sinned and played the fool, and asserts that he will in future do David no more harm. To those who suggest that Saul could not have behaved in a way which was so against character by pursuing David a second time after what he had said the first time we can only point out that the nature of Saul’s illness was such that it is quite explicable. When they take over a person’s mind paranoia and delusion supply their own justification which always seems logical to the person at the time. That is a symptom of the illness. Nor would Saul be the first person who, having made a promise about something he felt deeply about, stewed over it for some time and reneged on that promise because the worst side of his nature got the better of him..

The dual references to a flea only indicate that David regularly saw himself in those terms (living in the circumstances that they did he and his men were probably very familiar with fleas), but in context both are in fact very different pictures. In the first case the flea is paralleled with a dead dog, as a symbol of what is unpleasant, in the second it is seen as hunted down and connected with a partridge in the mountains which was also hunted down.

And finally the emphasis of David is different in each case. In the first case David stresses that the fact that he has spared Saul is proof of his innocence, in the second he indignantly demands to know why Saul is pursuing him and considers that there is a remedy which should have been considered. In the first case he has no thought of leaving Israel, in the second he has clearly made up his mind to do so.

All these differences and different emphases count very strongly against these simply being duplicate narratives, for if they are they have been changed in every detail, while history is in fact full of examples of far greater ‘coincidences’ than these where the fact that different occasions were actually in mind is absolutely certain. We must therefore conclude that the narratives are not mere duplications but are dealing with two totally different incidents which occurred during the long years of Saul’s pursuit of David while he was in hiding in the wilderness areas west of the Dead Sea.

(End of note.)


Verses 1-4

The Ziphites Inform Saul That David Has Returned to the Hill of Hachilah And Saul Again Pursues David (1 Samuel 26:1-4).

The Ziphites were probably annoyed that David had again brought his men into their territory, partly because they saw it as their own preserve and disliked all intruders, partly because they were loyal to their king, and partly because it would result in diminishing resources being available for their own families. In such a wilderness six hundred men with their families could make a huge difference to what was available. They thus sent messengers to Saul informing against David.

Saul, who was going through a period when his illness was accentuated, responded, and, as a result of his paranoia and obsession with the idea of maintaining his dynasty, again took the standing army of three military units and sought to root David out. But when he arrived at the Hill of Hachilah he discovered that David had decamped. It appears that by now David had an efficient system of spies (we remember how he had ‘heard’ about the sheep-shearing and about Nabal’s death).

Analysis.

a And the Ziphites came to Saul to Gibeah, saying, “Does not David hide himself in the hill of Hachilah, which is before the Waste (Jeshimon)?” ’ (1 Samuel 26:1).

b Then Saul arose, and went down to the wilderness of Ziph, having three thousand chosen men of Israel with him, to seek David in the wilderness of Ziph (1 Samuel 26:2).

c And Saul encamped in the hill of Hachilah, which is before the Waste (Jeshimon), by the highway (1 Samuel 26:3 a).

b But David abode in the wilderness, and he saw that Saul came after him into the wilderness (1 Samuel 26:3 b).

a David therefore sent out spies, and understood that Saul was definitely come (1 Samuel 26:4).

Note that in ‘a’ Saul learns from the Ziphites that David is encamped on the Hill of Hachilah, and in the parallel learns that Saul has definitely come to the Hill of Hachilah. In ‘b’ Saul went into the wilderness (mentioned twice) and in the parallel David saw that Saul had come after him into the wilderness (mentioned twice). Centrally in ‘c’ Saul arrives with his army and encamps on the Hill on which David and his men had had their encampment.

1 Samuel 26:1

And the Ziphites came to Saul to Gibeah, saying, “Does not David hide himself in the hill of Hachilah, which is before the Waste (Jeshimon)?” ’

When David and his men returned to the Hill of Hachilah which was south of ‘the Waste’ (Jehimon), a hot and barren area of hills, peaks and precipices west of the Dead Sea (1 Samuel 23:19), he was back on what the Ziphites saw as ‘their territory’. Thus they immediately sent messengers to Saul, hoping thereby to rid themselves of the menace. They did not like trespassers in their area. It may also be that they were fiercely loyal to Saul. Tightly bound, more isolated groups with a strong sense of loyalty often have the strongest traditions of loyalty towards kings who do not bother them overmuch, whatever others may think about them.

1 Samuel 26:2

Then Saul arose, and went down to the wilderness of Ziph, having three thousand chosen men of Israel with him, to seek David in the wilderness of Ziph.’

The result of the activity of the Ziphites was that Saul’s paranoia and delusion again took over and he gathered the three units of his standing army to seek for David in the wilderness of Ziph. He again sought his death.

1 Samuel 26:3

And Saul encamped in the hill of Hachilah, which is before the Waste (Jeshimon), by the highway. But David abode in the wilderness, and he saw that Saul came after him into the wilderness.’

David clearly had advanced notice of his movements, for he and his men moved from their encampment on the Hill of Hachilah before Saul’s arrival, and took refuge in the hot and deserted wilderness. His men would by now have become expert at moving under these conditions, and at fading into the background. Thus David was able to keep watch on the army that had come against him, as it also came into the wilderness to seek him. But the question was, was Saul with it?

The fact that the Hill of Hachilah was ‘by the highway’, the main route through the mountains, may explain why David and his men were there. It is quite possible that they robbed non-Israelite caravans as they made their way through the mountains. This may have given a further reason why Saul felt that he had to act against him. On the other hand it may simply be that they lived off game, but wanted to be in as close a touch with things as possible. David would not feel that he was simply surviving. He knew that he had a future in Israel, and would want to keep in touch.

1 Samuel 26:4

David therefore sent out spies, and understood that Saul was definitely come.’

David then specifically sent out scouts in order to discover whether Saul was with his troops, and as a result discovered that Saul really was among them. The impression given in 1 Samuel 23 & 1 Samuel 24 had been of David and his men in full flight before Saul. Here the impression is very different. David is depicted as confident and in control. It would appear that David’s spy system was now more organised, and that he and his men were now more sure of their ability to move around and keep the situation under control. Having been there for so long this was now his territory. It was rather Saul’s army who were unfamiliar with the terrain. David’s six small ‘military units’ (hundreds) may well also have grown considerably larger.


Verses 5-7

David Pays A Secret Visit To Saul And Enters His Camp (1 Samuel 26:5-7).

David then took two of his best men with him and went to an eminence from which he could observe Saul’s camp, and from there he saw the lay out of the camp, and the place where Saul and Abner slept among the wagons. Then that night, taking one of his men, he evaded the guards and entered the camp, making his way stealthily towards the spot where Saul lay asleep, alongside Abner, his commander-in-chief. Stuck in the ground at Saul’s head was his ceremonial spear, the symbol of his kingship. The situation was totally different from the previous time when they had fled from Saul and been hiding in a cave, with Saul coming into their power by ‘accident’. Here David was in control, and Saul came into his power by design.

Analysis.

a And David arose, and came to the place where Saul had encamped, and David beheld the place where Saul lay, and Abner the son of Ner, the captain of his host, and Saul lay within the place of the wagons, and the people were encamped round about him (1 Samuel 26:5).

b Then answered David and said to Ahimelech the Hittite, and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, brother to Joab, saying, “Who will go down with me to Saul to the camp?” And Abishai said, “I will go down with you” (1 Samuel 26:6).

a So David and Abishai came to the people by night, and, behold, Saul lay sleeping within the place of the wagons, with his spear stuck in the ground at his head, and Abner and the people lay round about him (1 Samuel 26:7).

Note that in ‘a’ Saul was sleeping, along with Abner, among the wagons, with his people around him, and in the parallel he is described as being the same. Central in ‘b’ is David’s decision to enter the enemy camp. Note how the distinctive features of this venture are being accentuated by the use of small chiasmuses. This is the first stage, entry into the enemy camp.

1 Samuel 26:5

And David arose, and came to the place where Saul had encamped, and David beheld the place where Saul lay, and Abner the son of Ner, the captain of his host, and Saul lay within the place of the wagons, and the people were encamped round about him.’

Leaving his troops in hiding, David, more confident now than he had been when Saul had previously hunted for them, took two of his best men, Ahimelech the Hittite and Abishai, the son of Zeruiah (and therefore Joab’s brother), and led them to an eminence from which he could observe what was happening in Saul’s camp. From there he observed the lay out of the camp and exactly where Saul and Abner had their sleeping quarters. This was among the supply wagons, which were parked in the centre of the sleeping army.

1 Samuel 26:6

Then answered David and said to Ahimelech the Hittite, and to Abishai the son of Zeruiah, brother to Joab, saying, “Who will go down with me to Saul to the camp?” And Abishai said, “I will go down with you.” ’

There seems little doubt that Saul and Abner were so confident that David and his men would be fleeing from before them as they had before, that they took few, if any, extra precautions, being quite certain that they would be undisturbed. No doubt sentries were posted, but they felt able to sleep soundly, confident in the security of their camp. After all, who was there to bother them?

This situation was too tempting for a now more confident David. And determining to leave one of his men on watch, so that if necessary he could report back anything that might happen to the others, he asked which of the two men would like to join him on a visit by night to the enemy camp. It would obviously be a risky business but Abishai immediately responded and volunteered.

Ahimelech the Hittite was probably a Hittite native to Canaan, for groups of Hittites (sons of Heth) had been resident in Canaan since before the time of Abraham in this very region (Genesis 23). His familiarity with the region from birth may well have been why he was one of the party. Abishai was one of David’s mighty men. His mother Zeruiah was David’s sister. He was bother to Joab who would later become David’s commander-in-chief. He was not one of the first ‘Three’, but was head of the second ‘Three’ (2 Samuel 23:18-19). He may well have been seen as especially skilled at nocturnal adventures. He would later save David’s life during a battle with the Philistines (2 Samuel 21:17), and was one of the three who spectacularly brought water to David when he was thirsty (2 Samuel 23:17). He was thus a skilled warrior and a daredevil.

1 Samuel 26:7

So David and Abishai came to the people by night, and, behold, Saul lay sleeping within the place of the wagons, with his spear stuck in the ground at his head, and Abner and the people lay round about him.’

The two then made their way into the enemy camp by night, successfully evaded the sentries, and making their way through the hillside camp, came to the spot where Saul was lying among the wagons with his ceremonial spear stuck in the ground at his head. It marked the spot where the king lay so that all the troops would know who lay there. It was the symbol of his authority and presence, just as royal standards would later indicate the same for later kings. Around him lay Abner, his commander-in-chief and cousin, no doubt with his other commanders, surrounded by the whole army.

(David and Abishai would know that hillside like the back of their hands, having been encamped there a number of times. They would thus know all its routes, even in the dark. And once past the sentries there was no reason why anyone should suspect two armed men walking through the encampment. No one was expecting anyone to attempt to enter the camp. There would only be danger for them when they came close up to those who knew them both well).


Verses 8-11

David Restrains Abishai From Smiting The Sleeping Saul Because Saul Is YHWH’s Own, And Instead Commands The Appropriation Of His Ceremonial Spear And Water Jar (1 Samuel 26:8-11).

Having arrived at dead of night by the sleeping Saul Abishai wished to take the opportunity to slay Saul, but David forbade him because Saul was the anointed of YHWH. Instead he commanded him to take his spear, the symbol of his kingship, and his water jar, the symbol of his life, as trophies which would demonstrate both that they could have taken his life, and that they would one day take his kingship (compare how previously this latter had been symbolised by taking part of the hem of Saul’s robe, a hem which signified his kingship- 1 Samuel 24:4; 1 Samuel 24:11).

Analysis.

a Then Abishai said to David, “God has delivered up your enemy into your hand this day, now therefore let me smite him, I pray you, with the spear to the earth at one stroke, and I will not smite him the second time” (1 Samuel 26:8)

b And David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him, for who can put forth his hand against YHWH’s anointed, and be guiltless?” (1 Samuel 26:9).

c And David said, “As YHWH lives, YHWH will smite him, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish” (1 Samuel 26:10).

b “YHWH forbid that I should put forth my hand against YHWH’s anointed” (1 Samuel 26:11 a).

a “But now take, I pray you, the spear that is at his head, and the cruse of water, and let us go” (1 Samuel 26:11 b).

Note that in ‘a’ Abishai wishes to smite Saul with his own spear, taking his life, and in the parallel David rather commands him to steal Saul’s spear and his jar of water, symbolically taking his life. In ‘b’ David points out that Saul is YHWH’s anointed, and therefore inviolate to any but YHWH, and in the parallel stresses that to slay him was forbidden by God because he is YHWH’s anointed.

1 Samuel 26:8

Then Abishai said to David, “God has delivered up your enemy into your hand this day, now therefore let me smite him, I pray you, with the spear to the earth at one stroke, and I will not smite him the second time.” ’

Abishai was delighted to find a sleeping Saul at their mercy and pointed out to David in a quiet whisper that God had delivered Saul into their hands. Indeed he guaranteed that, if granted permission, he would at one stroke of the spear smite Saul so that he lay dead. He would not need to smite a second time. David’s men had by now become confident and highly trained warriors.

1 Samuel 26:9

And David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him, for who can put forth his hand against YHWH’s anointed, and be guiltless?” ’

But David would not permit it. He equally quietly forbade him to harm Saul, on the grounds that Saul was YHWH’s anointed. To strike one who was holy to YHWH, as a result of being set apart for Him by anointing, would be to incur the most grievous guilt. Such a one was in the hands of YHWH to live or to die, not in the hands of men. This is a reminder to us that the prime significance of anointing was that of being wholly dedicated to God. Any power subsequently received was for the purpose of fulfilling that dedication.

1 Samuel 26:10

And David said, “As YHWH lives, YHWH will smite him, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish.”

David then made clear the reason for his decision. YHWH was the living God. Thus He was alone responsible for those who were His anointed. None other must touch them. The consequence was that the smiting of Saul, or otherwise, lay in YHWH’s hands. If YHWH chose he would be smitten, or he would die naturally, or he would perish in battle, the three ways in which a king might expect to die. But all was to be in the hands of YHWH (a sign of the authenticity and integrity of the whole book is that he does not suggest what in fact was Saul’s end, that he kill himself).

1 Samuel 26:11 a

“YHWH forbid that I should put forth my hand against YHWH’s anointed.”

David then recoiled in horror at the thought of putting out his hand against YHWH’s anointed. To do so would be sacrilege. It would be to despoil YHWH. It was God-forbidden. (Nor did he take a way out by allowing his men to do it. He was honest to his convictions).

1 Samuel 26:11 b

“But now take, I pray you, the spear that is at his head, and the cruse of water, and let us go.”

Instead what they were to do was take Saul’s ceremonial spear, the symbol of his kingship, and his water jar, the symbol of his very life (see 2 Samuel 23:16-17), and then leave the camp while they were still safe.


Verses 12-16

The Secret Of The Success Of Their Venture And David’s Rebuke of Abner For Failing To Watch Over Saul (1 Samuel 26:12-16).

We now learn, in a verse which in one sense stands by itself, being itself central to the chiasmus of the whole passage as outlined above, why it was that they had been symbolically able to take both Saul’s kingship and his very life. It was because YHWH had caused a deep sleep to fall on the whole army. This whole situation was thus of YHWH’s doing, because David’s life was in the hands of YHWH. Even Saul’s attempt to hunt David down must therefore be seen as in the hands of YHWH and as contributing towards his own death and David’s reception of the kingship.

This fact is then followed up by David’s taunting of Abner for failing in his responsibility to watch over Saul’s life as he illustrated by means of the spear and the water jar how close Saul had come to being slain.

Analysis.

a So David took the spear and the cruse of water from Saul’s head (1 Samuel 26:12 a).

b And they took themselves away, and no man saw it, nor knew it, nor did any awake, for they were all asleep, because a deep sleep from YHWH was fallen on them (1 Samuel 26:12 b).

c Then David went over to the other side, and stood on the top of the mountain afar off, a great space being between them, and David cried to the people, and to Abner the son of Ner, saying, “Do you not answer, Abner?” (1 Samuel 26:13-14 a).

d Then Abner answered and said, “Who are you who cries to the king?” (1 Samuel 26:14 b).

c And David said to Abner, “Are you not a valiant man? And who is like to you in Israel? Why then have you not kept watch over your lord the king? For there came one of the people in to destroy the king your lord” (1 Samuel 26:15).

b “This thing is not good that you have done. As YHWH lives, you are worthy to die, because you have not kept watch over your lord, YHWH’s anointed” (1 Samuel 26:16 a).

a “And now see where the king’s spear is, and the cruse of water that was at his head” (1 Samuel 26:16 b).

Note that in ‘a’ David takes the spear and jar of water from by Saul’s head , and in the parallel holds it aloft in order to illustrate what has happened. In ‘b’ YHWH had kept watch over David by causing Saul’s army to remain asleep, while in the parallel Abner had failed to keep watch over Saul who was YHWH’s anointed, illustrating that it is better to be watched over by YHWH than by man. In ‘c’ David calls to Abner and asks why he does not answer, and in the parallel describes what Abner has to answer for, his failure to keep watch over the king so that those who would destroy him were able to approach him. Central in ‘d’ is Abner’s question both illustrating their total ignorance of David’s presence, and emphasising the question, ‘who are you?’. Compare Nabal’s question, ‘who is David? (1 Samuel 25:10). The answer in both cases is that he is the one whom YHWH has chosen to be His champion and king of Israel after Saul.

1 Samuel 26:12

So David took the spear and the cruse of water from Saul’s head, and they took themselves away, and no man saw it, nor knew it, nor did any awake, for they were all asleep, because a deep sleep from YHWH was fallen on them.’

As a result of their activities David was able to appropriate both Saul’s ceremonial spear, symbol of his kingship, and Saul’s water jar, symbol of his very life. And the two were then able to steal away, and none knew that they had come and gone, nor did any awake, because YHWH had put them all into deep slumber, a situation no doubt aided by the fact that they were exhausted after their long march in the hot sun. The writer, however, is concerned that we recognise that it was all YHWH’s doing, because YHWH was with David. It was for that reason that YHWH had placed Saul’s kingship and Saul’s life in David’s hands in order that all might know both of David’s loyalty to the king in spite of all, and of the fact that he himself would shortly receive the kingship..

1 Samuel 26:13

Then David went over to the other side, and stood on the top of the mountain afar off, a great space being between them.’

David and Abishai then returned to Ahimelech waiting on the peak on the other side of the plateau or ravine that lay between the two mountain peaks, and having put a suitable space between himself and the enemy camp, turned in order to awaken the camp so as to inform them of what had happened while they all slept. (The space could not, however, have been too great for he expected to be seen and heard, and it would seem that there was probably a ravine between).

1 Samuel 26:14

And David cried to the people, and to Abner the son of Ner, saying, “Do you not answer, Abner?” Then Abner answered and said, “Who are you who cries to the king?”’

Yelling with a strident voice across the plateau David sought to awaken Abner in order to taunt him with his failure to watch over the king. ‘Do you not answer’ was a mocking question indicating that he was aware that Abner was asleep. Awoken as a result of the noise, and possibly also by the sentries, Abner, having been informed that someone was calling to them from another hilltop, asked who it was, informing the caller at the same time if he realised that he was actually awaking the king. It was an indication of the total lack of awareness of Saul and his men of the presence of David and his men so close at hand. They had probably assumed that he had fled southwards as he had done previously

“Who are you who cries to the king?” The question is highly symbolic. We are reminded of how Nabal had asked, ‘Who is David, and who is the son of Jesse?’ Both are questions that the writer wanted answered. Abner meant his question to indicate to whoever it was who had awoken the camp that he should be silent in view of the king’s presence, unless he had something very important to say, his assumption being that whoever it was would not know that the king was there. But the writer intends us to see that the answer to the question was ‘David, the anointed of YHWH and successor to Saul in the kingship’.

1 Samuel 26:15

And David said to Abner, “Are you not a real man? And who is like to you in Israel? Why then have you not kept watch over your lord the king? For there came one of the people in to destroy the king your lord.” ’

David then taunted Abner with the fact that while he was certainly an able warrior, and in fact the highest authority in Israel after Saul, he had failed in that he had not kept proper watch over his lord, the king. Why he did not even appear to realise that there had been intruders in the camp, one of whom had wished to slay the king while they slept, and that when he was supposed to be arranging for watch to be kept.

1 Samuel 26:16

This thing is not good that you have done. As YHWH lives, you are worthy to die, because you have not kept watch over your lord, YHWH’s anointed. And now see where the king’s spear is, and the cruse of water that was at his head.”

He then rebuked Abner for his failure, which he pointed out was not a very good thing at all. Indeed it was a sign of slackness (someone was no doubt later severely punished as a result). Thus he should recognise that he had made himself worthy of death as sure as YHWH was the living God, because he had failed to keep watch over what belonged to YHWH, even over Saul, YHWH’s anointed.

He then produced Saul’s ceremonial spear and water jar in order to emphasise his point. These made clear that he, or one of his men, had actually approached Saul while he was asleep and had stolen them unobserved. By this he was emphasising that Saul’s kingship and very life had been at his mercy. David was no doubt hoping by this that he might once again persuade Saul to give up his search, and he also wanted it known that David and his men were no longer afraid of Saul and his army.


Verses 17-25

Saul’s Response (1 Samuel 26:17-25).

The difference between this reply and that in 1 Samuel 24:17-21 is striking. In 1 Samuel 24:17-21 Saul had declared that David was more righteous than he because he had repaid good for evil, and admitted that he himself had been at fault in the matter and he expressed his gratitude that David had not killed him when he had had the opportunity. He had then declared his recognition that on his own death the kingship would go to David, and sought an oath that David would not slaughter all the males in his house when he did became king, thus cutting off the name of Saul’s family. He was clearly deeply concerned about the succession.

Here in contrast in 1 Samuel 26:17-25 Saul admitted that he had erred and played the fool in treating David as he had, and expressed his thankfulness that his life was precious in David’s eyes. And he then blessed David and declared that he would do many things and succeed in them. It was as though he gave no hint that he thought that David might succeed him. Thus while he spoke of his coming successful life there was no mention of the kingship, nor specifically of David’s goodness, nor was there any mention of any required oath to do with the succession. Here it was as though Saul did not consider that David was a threat to the succession at all. This striking difference is explainable in terms of a Saul who was sometimes paranoid about the kingship when in his black moods, but was otherwise free from those fears when not in a black mood. It does not fit at all with the idea that they are duplicate narratives.

Analysis.

And Saul knew David’s voice, and said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And David said, “It is my voice, my lord, O king” (1 Samuel 26:17).

b And he said, “Why does my lord pursue after his servant? For what have I done, or what evil is in my hand?” (1 Samuel 26:18).

c “Now therefore, I pray you, let my lord the king hear the words of his servant. If it be YHWH who has stirred you up against me, let him accept an offering, but if it be the children of men, cursed be they before YHWH, for they have driven me out this day that I should not cleave to the inheritance of YHWH, saying, “Go, serve other gods” (1 Samuel 26:19).

d “Now therefore, let not my blood fall to the earth away from the presence of YHWH, for the king of Israel is come out to seek a flea, as when one hunts a partridge in the mountains” (1 Samuel 26:20).

e Then Saul said, “I have sinned, return, my son David, for I will no more do you harm, because my life was precious in your eyes this day. Look, I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly” (1 Samuel 26:21).

d And David answered and said, “See, the spear, O king! Let then one of the young men come over and fetch it” (1 Samuel 26:22).

c And YHWH will render to every man his righteousness and his faithfulness; forasmuch as YHWH delivered you into my hand today, and I would not put forth my hand against YHWH’s anointed” (1 Samuel 26:23).

b “And, behold, as your life was much set by this day in my eyes, so let my life be much set by in the eyes of YHWH, and let him deliver me out of all tribulation” (1 Samuel 26:24).

a Then Saul said to David, “Blessed are you, my son David. You will both do mightily, and will surely prevail.” So David went his way, and Saul returned to his place (1 Samuel 26:25).

Note that in ‘a’ Saul speaks of David as his son, and in the parallel does the same. In ‘b’ David asks what evil he has done, and in the parallel he confirms that he has behaved rightly towards Saul. In ‘c’ he asks whether YHWH has anything against him, and in the parallel declares that in fact he has behaved in such a way that YHWH cannot have anything against him. In ‘d’ David declares that he is as a flea or a partridge in contrast with the king, and in the parallel he humbly hands back to the king the ceremonial sceptre which represents his kingship. Centrally in ‘e’ Saul admits that he has done wrong by David and declares that he will do him no more harm. Saul is at this stage clearly in a good state mentally.

1 Samuel 26:17

And Saul knew David’s voice, and said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And David said, “It is my voice, my lord, O king.” ’

Recognising David’s voice Saul asked ‘is this your voice, my son David?’ The question did not mean that he was doubtful about the fact that it was David for he had asked the same question in 1 Samuel 24:17 when he knew perfectly well that it was David. It was rather an opening greeting indicating conciliation. David replied with great respect that it was indeed his voice, addressing Saul as ‘my lord, O king’. He was taking no chances.

1 Samuel 26:18

And he said, “Why does my lord pursue after his servant? For what have I done, or what evil is in my hand?”

He then asked Saul why he was again pursuing after him. If he knew that he had done anything wrong, or that he intended evil to him, let him declare it. All David wanted to know was what his offence had been. He could never understand why Saul behaved as he did. (Even modern psychiatrists would have had problems with the question)

1 Samuel 26:19

Now therefore, I pray you, let my lord the king hear the words of his servant. If it be YHWH who has stirred you up against me, let him accept an offering (literally ‘let YHWH smell sacrifice’) , but if it be the children of men, cursed be they before YHWH, for they have driven me out this day that I should not cleave to the inheritance of YHWH, saying, “Go, serve other gods.” ’

David then made what was to be his final plea to Saul. They would never meet again. He posited two possibilities. The first was that it was YHWH Who had stirred up Saul against him. If that were the case, and his sin was pointed out, he would gladly admit it, offer up a sin offering and thus deal with the problem once and for all. But if it was men who had maligned him, then let them be cursed before YHWH, for by their activities they had driven him to recognise that he must leave Israel, (‘the inheritance of YHWH’) and go and live in a foreign country where there was no institutional worship of YHWH. Thus they were basically telling him to go and worship other gods. (He did not, of course, have the intention of worshipping other gods. His faith and awareness of God as revealed in his Psalms indicated that he knew that he could worship YHWH wherever he was. But it was not the same thing as being able to worship at the Sanctuary with God’s people). It is clear that at this stage the decision recorded in 1 Samuel 27:1 had already been made.

“Let YHWH smell sacrifice.” This is simply an anthropomorphic way of indicating God’s acceptance with pleasure of men’s offerings (compare Genesis 8:21). Some see in it a reference to the daily offerings made by Israel, others the possibility of a personal offering. The main point is that if YHWH has been offended He has made a way by which David could come back and be restored to His favour.

1 Samuel 26:20

Now therefore, let not my blood fall to the earth away from the presence of YHWH, for the king of Israel is come out to seek a flea, as when one hunts a partridge in the mountains.”

So he pleaded that Saul would leave him along so that when he died his blood would fall on Israel’s soil, on the inheritance of YHWH. He did not want to die outside YHWH’s inheritance, and away from the Sanctuary where He had established His Name. After all surely he was simply the equivalent of a flea which men searched out because it was irritating them, or a partridge (a rock partridge) which men hunted in the mountains. Why then should Saul take such trouble over him when he was just a minor irritant? You did not call out the standing army of Israel to find a flea or a partridge. (Like all godly men David never fully recognised just how influential he was).

The flea appears to have been a favourite description of David. Compare 1 Samuel 24:14. No doubt in their wilderness life he and his men suffered from fleas more than most and were aware of how much irritation they could cause. But note that in 1 Samuel 24:14 the flea is associated with a dead dog, not compared with a partridge.

The mention of the partridge here was a word play on Abner's question, "Who are you who calls (Hebrew qarata) to the king?" (verse 14). David’s reply was that he was like a "partridge" hunted in the mountains (1 Samuel 26:20, Hebrew haqqore, i.e. a caller-bird). Furthermore he and his men would no doubt have hunted many a rock partridge in the mountains in their search for food, but few who lived under normal conditions would have sought for partridge in the mountains, for there would be partridge much nearer to hand. Thus to look for a partridge in the mountains was to go to a great deal of effort for little reward.

1 Samuel 26:21

Then Saul said, “I have sinned, return, my son David, for I will no more do you harm, because my life was precious in your eyes this day. Look, I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly.” ’

In contrast with 1 Samuel 24:16-21 Saul made no reference to the kingship or to his fears that David would take it from his house, which is all the more significant because the kingship was one of the writer’s emphases. Here Saul is seen as free from his paranoia and delusion. His illness has left him for a while, and he is no longer obsessed with the idea of kingship. Rather he now admitted that he had behaved wrongly, and that he had ‘played the fool and erred exceedingly’. Note the comparison with Nabal ‘the fool’ although the Hebrew word is a different one. David’s generosity in again sparing his life and therefore treating it as precious had, in his present state, moved him deeply, and had made him realise what a fool he had been. He probably did not even understand himself.

“Return, my son David.” It was seemingly a promise to restore David to his former position. But it was not one that David was willing to take seriously. He knew how rapidly Saul’s mood could change.

1 Samuel 26:22

And David answered and said, “See, the spear, O king! Let then one of the young men come over and fetch it.” ’

David responded by offering him back his ceremonial spear which was the symbol of his kingship, the equivalent of a royal sceptre. But he would not approach the king himself. He had suffered too much at Saul’s hands to trust the genuineness of his repentance. Let one of Saul’s young men come over and collect it. Thus he did not take the request for him to return as reliable.

1 Samuel 26:23

And YHWH will render to every man his righteousness and his faithfulness; forasmuch as YHWH delivered you into my hand today, and I would not put forth my hand against YHWH’s anointed.”

Instead of trusting in Saul’s repentance he would put his trust in YHWH. Let YHWH work out events and give to every man what he was worthy of. And he was confident that YHWH would reward his own righteousness and faithfulness in not putting out his hand against the one who was consecrated to YHWH

1 Samuel 26:24

And, behold, as your life was much set by this day in my eyes, so let my life be much set by in the eyes of YHWH, and let him deliver me out of all tribulation.”

Indeed he applied to himself the maxim ‘what a man sows, that will he reap’ (Galatians 6:7; compare Proverbs 20:22; Proverbs 24:29). He asked that just as he had treated Saul’s life as important because he was the anointed of YHWH, so YHWH would treat his life as important because he too was the anointed of YHWH, even to such an extent that he would deliver him out of ‘tribulation’, that is, out of trouble and distress. He had a firm confidence that if he was faithful to YHWH, YHWH would be faithful to him.

1 Samuel 26:25 a

‘Then Saul said to David, “Blessed are you, my son David. You will both do mightily, and will surely prevail.”

Saul humbly replied by blessing ‘my son David’, and assuring him that he would surely yet do mighty things, and would prevail in all to which he set his hand. That at least was sure.

1 Samuel 26:25 b

‘So David went his way, and Saul returned to his place.’

And then they parted for the last time. David ‘went on his way’, for he had no settled place to go to, while Saul returned to his palace-fortress at Gibeah.

Note On The Question Of Whether The Incident In Chapter 26 Is Merely A Duplicate Of The Incidents In Chapters 23-24.

Superficially a strong case can be made out for the case that the incident in 1 Samuel 26 is merely a duplicate of the combined but different incidents in 1 Samuel 23-24. Consider for example the following:

· In both incidents Saul is alerted by the Ziphites (1 Samuel 23:19; 1 Samuel 26:1).

· Both refer to David’s connection with the Hill of Hachilah (1 Samuel 23:19; 1 Samuel 26:1).

· In both cases Saul seeks David in the wilderness with ‘three thousand’ men (1 Samuel 24:1-2; 1 Samuel 26:1-2).

· In both cases Saul is at David’s mercy (1 Samuel 24:3-7; 1 Samuel 26:3-12).

· In both cases David refrains from slaying him because he is YHWH’s Anointed (1 Samuel 24:3-7; 1 Samuel 26:3-12).

· In both cases David appropriates a symbol of Saul’s authority, in one case the hem of his robe, 1 Samuel 24:5-6; in the other his spear and water jug, 1 Samuel 26:12).

· In both cases David reveals himself to Saul after the event and displays what he has appropriated (1 Samuel 24:8-11; 1 Samuel 26:14-16).

· In both cases David pleads his case before Saul at some length (1 Samuel 24:9-15; 1 Samuel 26:17-20; 1 Samuel 26:22-24).

· In both cases David likens himself to a flea (a dead dog and a flea, 1 Samuel 24:14); a flea and a partridge (1 Samuel 26:20).

· In both cases Saul repents and speaks of coming success for David (1 Samuel 24:17-21; 1 Samuel 26:21; 1 Samuel 26:25).

At first sight the duplication appears impressive, but once the incidents are inspected in detail the coincidence actually becomes less impressive. Firstly we should notice that David spent some considerable time hiding in the wilderness area west of the Dead Sea, moving from area to area. It would not therefore be surprising if he went back to what may well have been a suitable encampment on the Hill of Hachilah a number of times. And once he had done so it is not surprising that, if at one of those times the Ziphites had complained to Saul with the result that David had been forced to depart, the next time they tried complaining to Saul again because they saw David and his men as a threat and a nuisance and hoped that he would be made to depart again. What is more significant, and counts against the idea of duplication, is that the first time David then fled to the wilderness of Maon, at which point Saul had to cease his search because of the Philistine threat, while the second time David only hides nearby and does not flee, and there is no suggestion that Saul’s withdrawal has anything to do with the Philistines. It should further be noted that in 1 Samuel 23-24 the appeal of the Ziphites and reference to the hill of Hachilah in 1 Samuel 23 strictly have no direct connection with Saul’s later search for David in 1 Samuel 24 which occurs because of anonymous information (1 Samuel 24:1). Thus we would have to suggest that 1 Samuel 26 unnecessarily conflated two narratives and totally ignored the true circumstances.

That Saul had three military units with him each time cannot be regarded as significant. It simply suggests that he constantly operated with three military units, compare also 1 Samuel 13:2.

That Saul was twice found to be at the mercy of an astute David is not really surprising, especially as, while the first time it was accidental, the second time it was specifically by the deliberate choice of David. What happened the first time may well have sparked off David’s adventure in the second. David knew from his experience in 1 Samuel 24 that this was one way in which he could persuade Saul to return home and leave his men alone. It was surely just common sense to try the same method again. But we should note that the place at which it happened was different (the cave of Engedi in the cliffs facing the Dead Sea compared with the Hill of Hachilah in the mountain range near Hebron some way from the Dead Sea), the circumstances were very different (accidentally in a pitch black cave, compared with by David’s choice in the centre of Saul’s camp at night), the objects taken were totally different, fitting in with the difference in each situation (the hem of the robe cut off in a pitch black cave compared with Saul’s ceremonial spear and water jug taken from his camp), the persons involved were very different (David’s men in hiding and then Saul alone, compared with David and two named men who have set off with the intention of spying on Saul’s camp, and then Abner and Saul seen as together) and the spirit in which it happened was very different (in the first case it was by coincidence because David and his men were hiding in a cave in some trepidation, in the second it was a deliberate act of David as he acted fearlessly and decisively in order to bring the situation about).

That David spared Saul’s life both times is what we would expect if he genuinely saw Saul as YHWH’s Anointed (which suggests that he would spare Saul’s life whenever he saw him), and once David had in each case appropriated something of Saul’s which expressed his authority we would expect that the main events which followed would necessarily be duplicated. The whole point of appropriating the very different symbols of Saul’s authority was precisely in order to reveal them to Saul and have a conversation with him.

But even the very conversations are very different. In the first case Saul is obsessed with the question of the kingship, in the second case the idea of kingship does not arise at all. In the first case he discourses at length, in the second case he says little. The kingship does not seem to be a concern. In the first case he admits to his actions being evil compared with David’s good actions, in the second case he quite spontaneously admits that he has sinned and played the fool, and asserts that he will in future do David no more harm. To those who suggest that Saul could not have behaved in a way which was so against character by pursuing David a second time after what he had said the first time we can only point out that the nature of Saul’s illness was such that it is quite explicable. When they take over a person’s mind paranoia and delusion supply their own justification which always seems logical to the person at the time. That is a symptom of the illness. Nor would Saul be the first person who, having made a promise about something he felt deeply about, stewed over it for some time and reneged on that promise because the worst side of his nature got the better of him..

The dual references to a flea only indicate that David regularly saw himself in those terms (living in the circumstances that they did he and his men were probably very familiar with fleas), but in context both are in fact very different pictures. In the first case the flea is paralleled with a dead dog, as a symbol of what is unpleasant, in the second it is seen as hunted down and connected with a partridge in the mountains which was also hunted down.

And finally the emphasis of David is different in each case. In the first case David stresses that the fact that he has spared Saul is proof of his innocence, in the second he indignantly demands to know why Saul is pursuing him and considers that there is a remedy which should have been considered. In the first case he has no thought of leaving Israel, in the second he has clearly made up his mind to do so.

All these differences and different emphases count very strongly against these simply being duplicate narratives, for if they are they have been changed in every detail, while history is in fact full of examples of far greater ‘coincidences’ than these where the fact that different occasions were actually in mind is absolutely certain. We must therefore conclude that the narratives are not mere duplications but are dealing with two totally different incidents which occurred during the long years of Saul’s pursuit of David while he was in hiding in the wilderness areas west of the Dead Sea.

(End of note.)

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 26:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/1-samuel-26.html. 2013.

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