Finishing 1 Samuel: Saul’s strife with David

Last week, I wrote about 1 Samuel 1-13, which covered the fall of Eli’s priestly line, the calling of Samuel, and Samuel’s annointing of Saul to be king of Israel. In this post, I will finish out 1 Samuel, which covers Saul’s fall and David’s rise. There is so much interesting in this chapter. The most famous story of course is David’s confrontation with Goliath, but the book is so much more rich than that. I wanted to focus mostly on some of the things that contributed to Saul’s downfall and some of the traits in David that seem to be outside the eye-for-an-eye worldview. I’ll also cover a few of my favorite points surrounding side characters, including the wife of Napal, Abigail, and friend of David and son of Saul, Jonathan.


The evil spirit that came upon Saul

One interesting, and slightly uncomfortable, aspects to Saul’s story is this phrase that pops up multiple times:

But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him. (16:14)

The first time it happens, it’s nothing major. He gets David to play a harp for him, and the evil spirit goes away. Phew. Crisis averted, right? No, next thing he’s trying to murder people in their sleep:

And the evil spirit from the Lord was upon Saul, as he sat in his house with his javelin in his hand: and David played with his hand. And Saul sought to smite David even to the wall with the javelin; but he slipped away out of Saul’s presence. (19:9-10).

Killing people aside, there are two very unnerving implications: first, that Saul’s actions were somehow not completely his own, and he performed them under the influence of an evil spirit. Second, that the presence of that evil spirit is attributed to the Lord. In later centuries, Calvinists would latch on to passages like this as proof that the Lord not only allows evil to occur in this world, but that he actively wills it. I’m sure many religious traditions have some way of explaining this. But how does this fit into the Mormon conception of God, whom we portray as our loving Heavenly Father?

I don’t think we can entirely discard the implications. God does other uncomfortable things in 1 Samuel, including the prophet Samuel’s command to Saul to wipe out an entire people, women and children included. Regardless of their wrongdoing, how do you justify wiping out an entire people?

However, I would like to think that the authors of 1 Samuel perhaps sympathized with Saul. In order to save the character of Saul at least somewhat and not paint him as a monster, they tried to shift some of the blame. We all feel uncomfortable when we realize that we are imperfect, that we lose our tempers, that we alienate ourselves from people we love. It can lead to a lot of self-loathing. Perhaps we do the same thing in our day by giving diagnoses for different mental conditions. It is hard to accept that the mistakes could be our own, because we are afraid that we could be monsters on the inside. I think the story captures how difficult this aspect of mortality is: the reality of a fallen world and how it affects our very natures.


Saul’s jealousy

After Saul’s double mistake making sacrifices to the Lord (in the first case, he was too hasty and didn’t wait for Samuel; in the second case, he kept the booty from a raid to offer sacrifices to the Lord rather than destroying it all as the Lord commanded), you wonder if Saul questions Samuel’s prophesy that the Lord would take his kingdom and give it to another. After David is chosen by Samuel to succeed Saul, Saul isn’t immediately aware of it. But David gets a letter of recommendation to the king for his awesome harp-playing, and soon he is in the king’s court. After David earns the king’s favor for slaying Goliath, Saul starts getting jealous:

And the women answered one another as they played, and said, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.
And Saul was very wroth, and the saying displeased him; and he said, They have ascribed unto David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed but thousands: and what can he have more but the kingdom?
And Saul eyed David from that day and forward. (18:7-9)

Saul suffers from the sin of comparison. When someone else outshines him, he grows envious. It is interesting that it is this flaw that ultimately causes his downfall. Notice that last phrase: Saul begins obsessing over David after that moment, very quickly spiraling down into intent to kill. Comparing ourselves to others can be absolutely fatal to our spiritual well-being. In Elder Benson’s famous address “Beware of Pride”, he quoted C. S. Lewis:

The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others. In the words of C. S. Lewis: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man... It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.”


Saul’s lack of internal consistency

When reading the story of Saul, one of the most irritating things for me was the disagreement between his words and his actions, the inconsistency from one moment to another. In one case, David has an opportunity to slay Saul, but instead he spares his life. Saul in this moment talks to David lovingly, even as a son, and acknowledges that the Lord is going to establish him as king:

And it came to pass, when David had made an end of speaking these words unto Saul, that Saul said, Is this thy voice, my son David? And Saul lifted up his voice, and wept. And he said to David, Thou art more righteous than I: for thou hast rewarded me good, whereas I have rewarded thee evil. And thou hast shewed this day how that thou hast dealt well with me: forasmuch as when the Lord had delivered me into thine hand, thou killedst me not. For if a man find his enemy, will he let him go well away? wherefore the Lord reward thee good for that thou hast done unto me this day. And now, behold, I know well that thou shalt surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in thine hand. Swear now therefore unto me by the Lord, that thou wilt not cut off my seed after me, and that thou wilt not destroy my name out of my father’s house. (24:16-21)

But then immediately after this personal encounter, Saul is again hunting David down to kill him:

And the Ziphites came unto Saul to Gibeah, saying, Doth not David hide himself in the hill of Hachilah, which is before Jeshimon? 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. (26:1-2)

I don’t think that Saul’s conciliatory words to David were made merely because he felt vulnerable, or that if he said something confrontational, that David would kill him. I think that he had a deep sense of regret, that in this moment, he was able to see his own position before the Lord. But the moment he was out of a spiritual zone and his mind was left to his own devices, he resorted again to his murderous ways.

In our own lives, we must do all that we can to live in congruence with what we believe. What would have happened if, instead of turning again to vengeance against David, Saul had repented? I think that this was an option open to Saul. He wasn’t somehow doomed. Perhaps he would have still lost the kingdom. But he remained in a state of indecision, not knowing whether he truly wanted David dead, or whether he should be reconciled to him. This is captured beautifully in a passage by Paul Tournier in “The Meaning of Persons”:

Prolonged indecision is a poison as far as the person is concerned. It always arises from some inner conflict which one has not had the courage to resolve, or even to become aware of. It is common among those who have been kept in a state of dependence by domineering parents. It can persist throughout life long after the death of the parents. Such people will tell us quite openly that they do not even know what their tastes, their beliefs, and their aim in life are. As soon as they have made a decision they begin wondering if they have not made a mistake. If we run away from the first choices we are faced with, we sink into a twilight in which we no longer see clearly the decisions that have to be made.


Saul realizes and denies that he is fighting against the Lord

At first, Saul seeks to pass blame on someone for David’s actions. David has not sought Saul’s throne. In fact, he fled because he knew Saul was trying to kill him. Saul just assumes that David is going to take action against him. Saul tries to find someone to blame. The priest Ahimelech aided David by giving his soldiers food on their flight:

Then the king sent to call Ahimelech the priest, the son of Ahitub, and all his father’s house, the priests that were in Nob: and they came all of them to the king.
And Saul said, Hear now, thou son of Ahitub.
And he answered, Here I am, my lord.
And Saul said unto him, Why have ye conspired against me, thou and the son of Jesse, in that thou hast given him bread, and a sword, and hast inquired of God for him, that he should rise against me, to lie in wait, as at this day?
Then Ahimelech answered the king, and said, And who is so faithful among all thy servants as David, which is the king’s son in law, and goeth at thy bidding, and is honourable in thine house? Did I then begin to inquire of God for him? be it far from me: let not the king impute any thing unto his servant, nor to all the house of my father: for thy servant knew nothing of all this, less or more.
And the king said, Thou shalt surely die, Ahimelech, thou, and all thy father’s house.

Ahimilech speaks directly to Saul’s conscience. He confronts Saul with the fact that David is not only blameless, but seeks to serve Saul. But Saul will have none of it. He refuses to believe in David’s innocence, and puts more blood on his own hands by slaying Ahimilech and his priests. Saul doesn’t seem to realize that he is the one driving events forward, that he is the one hastening his own demise. David isn’t out to get him, and yet he must have him killed.

Saul continues to receive divine reminders that he is fighting against God, kicking against the pricks. In one telling instance, Saul sends messengers to Samuel where he suspects David is hiding. But the messengers keep coming back empty-handed, instead, prophesying. So Saul keeps sending messengers instead of getting the message himself:

And Saul sent messengers to take David: and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as appointed over them, the Spirit of God was upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied.
And when it was told Saul, he sent other messengers, and they prophesied likewise. And Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they prophesied also.
Then went he also to Ramah, and came to a great well that is in Sechu: and he asked and said, Where are Samuel and David? And one said, Behold, they be at Naioth in Ramah. And he went thither to Naioth in Ramah: and the Spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on, and prophesied, until he came to Naioth in Ramah. And he stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say, Is Saul also among the prophets? (19:20-24)

If you have ever seen The Prince of Egypt, this is the same feeling I get when I see Pharoah going after Moses and the Isrealites in his chariots after his people just suffered ten horrible plagues; did Pharoah really not realize what he was up against?

The last scene I wanted to use as illustration was the spookiest of all. Saul is worried, because he realizes that the Lord is no longer speaking to him, and the Philistines are going to destroy his people. In desperation, he seeks out a witch to summon the spirit of Samuel to ask for advice:

And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart greatly trembled. And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets. Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and inquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at En-dor. (28:5-7)

If Saul realized that he had chosen evil, why does he still try to turn to the Lord? Perhaps this seems ominous; doesn’t the Lord always give you another chance? But Saul wasn’t petitioning the Lord to ask for forgiveness; he was petitioning the Lord out of self-preservation, what the Book of Mormon calls the sorrowing of the damned. It shows this odd mix of faith and wickedness, where belief in God still exists, but one is actively choosing evil. This is one of the lowest places you can be, and this is where Saul meets his end.


David’s respect for the Lord’s anointed

Now to turn to some positive aspects of the story; if Saul gives us what not to do, what can we learn from David about how we should act?

The first thing that absolutely impressed me was how David responded to Saul, even after Saul attempted to murder him. David could have easily considered Saul a fallen king. But to the very end, David acknowledged Saul as the Lord’s anointed. In the first instance where David had a chance to kill Saul, he chooses otherwise:

And he came to the sheepcotes by the way, where was a cave; and Saul went in to cover his feet: and David and his men remained in the sides of the cave. And the men of David said unto him, Behold the day of which the Lord said unto thee, Behold, I will deliver thine enemy into thine hand, that thou mayest do to him as it shall seem good unto thee. Then David arose, and cut off the skirt of Saul’s robe privily.
And it came to pass afterward, that David’s heart smote him, because he had cut off Saul’s skirt. And he said unto his men, The Lord forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord.

I believe this comes from two impulses in David. First, I believe David loves Saul like a father. He spent many years in Saul’s household, and I am sure he is surprised at how things deteriorated. Second, I believe David respects and honors the Lord. The easy and justifiable way out would be to condemn Saul and be done with it. That kind of moral indignation today is so common in society and in the Church. But it David had chosen another path, would he also be kicking against the pricks? I believe we have an obligation to stand for what is right, but we don’t have to engage in evil-speaking of the Lord’s anointed when doing so.


David refuses to let the ends justify the means

On a theme continued from David’s respect for the Lord’s anointed, David also refused to engage in sin regardless of the worthiness of the apparent aims. Could he not have brought Israel to peace and righteousness a lot quicker if he just killed Saul? It could have saved them so much grief– potentially staving off a terrible loss of the Israelites to the Philistines. Here are David’s words to Saul after he spared his life:

David also arose afterward, and went out of the cave, and cried after Saul, saying, My lord the king. And when Saul looked behind him, David stooped with his face to the earth, and bowed himself.
And David said to Saul, Wherefore hearest thou men’s words, saying, Behold, David seeketh thy hurt? Behold, this day thine eyes have seen how that the Lord had delivered thee to day into mine hand in the cave: and some bade me kill thee: but mine eye spared thee; and I said, I will not put forth mine hand against my lord; for he is the Lord’s anointed. Moreover, my father, see, yea, see the skirt of thy robe in my hand: for in that I cut off the skirt of thy robe, and killed thee not, know thou and see that there is neither evil nor transgression in mine hand, and I have not sinned against thee; yet thou huntest my soul to take it. The Lord judge between me and thee, and the Lord avenge me of thee: but mine hand shall not be upon thee. As saith the proverb of the ancients, Wickedness proceedeth from the wicked: but mine hand shall not be upon thee.

The ends do not justify the means. David kept himself on the moral high ground by refusing to kill Saul. He offered Saul a chance to repent. He foreshadows Christ’s command to love thine enemies and to do good to those who despitefully use you and persecute you.


Jonathan’s love for David

One of the highlights of the story of David and one of my absolute favorites is the friendship of David and Jonathan. Jonathan was the son of Saul. He was the heir to the throne, and Saul counted on him to carry on the kingship. When David joins the king’s household, Jonathan and David build a lasting friendship:

And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day, and would let him go no more home to his father’s house. Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle. (18:1-4).

This goes beyond the superficial ideas of friendship we have today. Sometimes we hang out, we play video games. We’re friends on Facebook, but that’s about it. It has a spiritual basis to it. Two things show how strong this friendship was. First, David and Jonathan remain friends even when they should be enemies. Second, Jonathan has a lot to lose by remaining friends with David, and he acknowledges that the kingdom rightfully belongs to David.



Abigail’s intercession for David

The last story involves Abigail, the wife of Nabal. Nabal was a local leader who was fairly well-off. David had done him a great service by providing him protection in uncertain times. But Nabal refused to provide David’s men with food for their work. David is incensed, and is marching towards Nabal to do him in. When Abigail here’s this, she responds:

And when Abigail saw David, she hasted, and lighted off the ass, and fell before David on her face, and bowed herself to the ground, And fell at his feet, and said, Upon me, my lord, upon me let this iniquity be: and let thine handmaid, I pray thee, speak in thine audience, and hear the words of thine handmaid. Let not my lord, I pray thee, regard this man of Belial, even Nabal: for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him: but I thine handmaid saw not the young men of my lord, whom thou didst send. Now therefore, my lord, as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, seeing the Lord hath withholden thee from coming to shed blood, and from avenging thyself with thine own hand, now let thine enemies, and they that seek evil to my lord, be as Nabal. And now this blessing which thine handmaid hath brought unto my lord, let it even be given unto the young men that follow my lord. I pray thee, forgive the trespass of thine handmaid: for the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house; because my lord fighteth the battles of the Lord, and evil hath not been found in thee all thy days. Yet a man is risen to pursue thee, and to seek thy soul: but the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord thy God; and the souls of thine enemies, them shall he sling out, as out of the middle of a sling. And it shall come to pass, when the Lord shall have done to my lord according to all the good that he hath spoken concerning thee, and shall have appointed thee ruler over Israel; That this shall be no grief unto thee, nor offence of heart unto my lord, either that thou hast shed blood causeless, or that my lord hath avenged himself: but when the Lord shall have dealt well with my lord, then remember thine handmaid.
And David said to Abigail, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, which sent thee this day to meet me: And blessed be thy advice, and blessed be thou, which hast kept me this day from coming to shed blood, and from avenging myself with mine own hand. (25:23-33)

This story was new to me. I have read the Old Testament before, but I suppose I never saw the beauty and significance of this gesture. In another favorite book, The Hidden Christ: Beneath the Surface of the Old Testament, James Ferrell explains how this story reflects on an aspect of the Atonement of Christ:

When we think of the Atonement, we most often think about how the Savior filled in the gaps for our own sins, which he surely did. That is, we are all sinners, and someone had to bridge for each of us the otherwise impassable chasm between us and eternal life that we have created through sin. So normally we think of the Atonement as something that Christ has done for us—for ourselves. But Abigail invites us to look at the Atonement from a different angle—not from the perspective of how Christ has atoned for our own sins, but rather from the equally true perspective that he has atoned for the sins of others. And part of that Atonement, Abigail suggests, is the idea that the Lord offers to those who have been harmed or potentially harmed by the sins of others the help and sustaining they need to be made whole. Those deprived of love can receive his love. The companionless can find a companion in him. Those with a cross to bear can find another who carries and makes it light.


David isn’t perfect either, and we know that he too falls when he gets his own story. But I don’t think the moral of the story is that falling is inevitable. Samuel, for example, in contrast to Saul and David, remained in the Lord’s favor. I think it warns us of the danger of power, of where our priorities should be, and asks us to learn from their example. Repentance is possible, but we need to be willing to change the course we are on. We are the ones who need to make the first move.

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