Years ago a story appeared in Reader’s Digest. It was written by a clerk at a grocery store who often assisted elderly customers. “One woman shopped nearly every day, asking for just a few items each time. After a month, she said to me, ‘I suppose you wonder why I’m here so often. You see, I live with my nephew. I can’t stand him, and I am not going to die and leave him with a refrigerator full of food.’ ”
Then there’s the story about the university professor who answered his telephone at 3:00 A.M. “This is your neighbour, Mr. Smith,” said the voice. “Your dog is barking and keeping me awake.” The professor thanked him kindly and hung up. The next morning Mr. Smith’s telephone rang at exactly 3 A.M. “This is the professor,” said the caller. “I just wanted you to know that I don’t have a dog!”
Stories of revenge—Shakespeare thought it was a much a part of us as breathing. “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? (Shylock, Merchant of Venice, Act 3 Scene 1)
Surely if anyone could be justified in taking his revenge it would be David. Yet our text today clearly points us in the direction of allowing God to sort out such matters. Let’s have a look at what is being said in today’s story about us taking control of something that belongs to God.
It’s good for us to be reminded of what is going on in this part of the story. David has been anointed by Samuel as the next king of Israel, but the current king, Saul, is still very much alive and very much in control and still of the opinion that if he can get rid of David he can then establish a dynasty—in other words, Jonathan would be the next king.
David and his band of rebels are on the run. David thinks that a good place to avoid Saul’s pursuit will be the wilderness of En-gedi. The study Bible that I use tells me there were numerous caves in the mountains of this area, some large enough to hold as many as a thousand people. That’s a big cave! It is one such cave that David and his men have hidden from Saul.
I’m not sure how we are to take the next part of the story. Spies have been part of war ever since there have been wars to fight—in other words, there have always been spies. Word has gotten to Saul that David is in this particular region, but this spy has not been able to nail down exactly where. At one time I thought this part of the story was meant to be funny, but now I don’t think so. Rather, it is told in a matter-of-fact sort of way. The original is circumspect: Saul went into the cave to “cover his feet.” This is a biblical euphemism. The NRSV tells it as it is: Saul went in to relieve himself. Obviously he was not aware that this was the cave in which David and his men were hiding.
We need to do a bit of work this morning. According to our text, The men of David said to him, “Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you.’ “ I think we ought to look up where this word from God first comes to David. You have Bibles on your chairs; please look up Hezekiah 6:14.
Has anyone got it yet? If you do you are the most inventive and imaginative one among us. There is no book of Hezekiah in the Old Testament, and nowhere does scripture record that the Lord God made any such statement to David or his men. Here then, I think, is a God-given caution for us. You see Baptists have always been “people of the Book.” The Bible has been throughout Baptist history recognized as “a sufficient guide for faith and practice.” Let’s be sure then that we know what in fact the Bible says and what it does not say. This appears to David’s men to be a God-given opportunity for David to eliminate Saul. Instead, somehow David understands it to be an opportunity for mercy and a way to show that David’s heart was right and true.
What happens next is quite interesting. I tread carefully here because we are certainly in danger of trespassing in the territory of “too much information.” But it appears as if Saul was either so pre-occupied with his responsibilities or so convinced he was totally alone that David was able to get close enough to cut off the corner of Saul’s cloak without being noticed.
Verse five of our text tells us Afterward David was stricken to the heart because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s cloak. Let’s play with that idea for a few minutes. Here’s what I think happened that day. According to Wikipedia, it is possible that David had a pair of scissors with him in that wilderness cave. Scissors were most likely invented around 1500 B.C. in Egypt. However, the word scissors never appears in the Bible; the word sword appears 408 times. I think we can be almost certain that the implement David used to cut off the corner of Saul’s cloak was a sword and not a pair of scissors.
Why is David stricken to the heart? It is, I believe, because it was only as he got within striking distance of Saul that his mind and heart changed. It was only as he came close to the king that he realized there is no such thing as a God-given opportunity for revenge.
What happens next shows the wisdom of David’s choice. David is not a coward. By doing the right thing he is given an even greater degree of holy boldness. Saul leaves the cave. No sooner has he rejoined his troops when David appears at the entrance of that very same cave.
David calls into question the advice Saul has been receiving. Here’s that part of the story from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message: Then David stood at the mouth of the cave and called to Saul, “My master! My king!” Saul looked back. David fell to his knees and bowed in reverence. He called out, “Why do you listen to those who say ‘David is out to get you’? This very day with your very own eyes you have seen that just now in the cave God put you in my hands. My men wanted me to kill you, but I wouldn’t do it. I told them that I won’t lift a finger against my master—he’s God’s anointed. Oh, my father, look at this, look at this piece that I cut from your robe. I could have cut you—killed you!—but I didn’t. Look at the evidence! I’m not against you. I’m no rebel. I haven’t sinned against you, and yet you’re hunting me down to kill me. Let’s decide which of us is in the right. God may avenge me, but it is in his hands, not mine. An old proverb says, ‘Evil deeds come from evil people.’ So be assured that my hand won’t touch you” (1 Samuel 24:8–13).
We must use great care when we take a story from the Bible and use it as a picture or symbol or parable of how God may choose to act in our lives. David did, I believe, choose to do the right thing. His heart was stricken because he almost did the opposite. He got close enough to Saul to cut off the corner of his cloak.
Because David has done the right thing, God is able to take even this slight bit of treachery and use it to David’s advantage. When David calls out to Saul from the entrance to that cave, only one thing is certain—David was in the cave. When he waves that piece of cloth and when Saul grabs the corner of his cloak only to find that a corner is missing, this is absolute proof of what David is saying—if there is any avenging to be done, I am going to leave that up to God. Saul has no choice but to admit that David is in the right. We know that David is far from perfect but he has left the redress of any balance up to the perfect judgement of God. This is where such matters should be left.
What is to be learned from this part of David’s story? Friends I think there are these insights to be gained. You and I need to decide whom we are going to trust. Will it be Shakespeare or will it be God? I know what I would say; I am confident I know what you would also say: what a ridiculous question, of course we trust God. But do we trust God to know what is in fact the most natural thing for us?
Shakespeare was a great observer of human nature, no doubt of that. When stabbed we bleed, when tickled we laugh, when poisoned we die. Just as those things are true, so also is it true that when wronged we seek revenge. Is that it? Or is the Bard of Avon simply telling us what he has seen of our behaviour? That may not necessarily be what is best for us or anyone else.
You see, I think all of us are called to live according to the best lights to which our lives have been exposed not the worst. Let me tell you a story.
In 1984 Sir Anthony Berry, a Conservative Member of Parliament was killed by an Irish Republican Army bomb detonated at the Tory Party conference in Brighton. Berry’s daughter, Jo, was 27 years old at the time. Jo remembers knowing that she did not want to blame and become bitter. She knew that she wanted to find a way to bring something positive out of the death of her beloved father.
Berry tells that she started a journey with no map but with a trust that step-by-step she would find her way. In November 2000 she met Patrick Magee, the man responsible for her father’s death. He had been released from prison as part of the Good Friday Peace Agreement.
When Jo looks back on that day, she remembers being scared. Would she regret meeting him? Then the door opened, Patrick arrived and they sat and talked together for three hours. Although there were many difficulties, Jo and Patrick continued their meetings and became friends. This made a profound change in both of them. Jo came to realize that if she had lived Patrick’s life, she might have done what he did. Patrick came to realize how many innocent victims were created by his violence.
This friendship has been healing for both Jo and Patrick. They now travel the world telling their stories for an organization in Britain called The Forgiveness Project. Listen as the retired Archbishop of South Africa, Desmond Tutu, talks about forgiveness.
Not the easy way; not the soft way, but the witness of many is that forgiveness is part of the better way, God’s way.
There’s one more thing. Did you take note of one of the things David said. “Saul, you are getting bad advice.” The Bible never breaks this down for us. Did Saul surround himself with a bunch of “yes” men who simply told him what they thought he wanted to hear? Or were his advisors simply such poor judges of character that they consistently misread David’s intentions? I don’t know. What I do know is this. David admitted to the possibility that there was a big picture to this scene that only God’s perspective could take in.
Some of you will laugh at me, I’m sure, but one person who models this for me is former Prime Minister, Joe Clark. When the PC Party showed Joe what loyalty meant to them, he decided, in my opinion, to be the better person and served as a capable and effective Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs under Brian Mulroney. There was a bigger picture here; the country could still be served and he did it.
Maybe the reason this story is included in the Bible is to give us insight into what it means that David was called “a man after God’s own heart.” We know it does not mean he was perfect. Perhaps part of what it means is this: at his best David was content to leave God’s business in God’s hands.