After Saul returned from fighting the Philistines, he was told that David had gone into the wilderness of En-gedi. So Saul chose 3,000 elite troops from all Israel and went to search for David and his men near the rocks of the wild goats.
At the place where the road passes some sheepfolds, Saul went into a cave to relieve himself. But as it happened, David and his men were hiding farther back in that very cave!
“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.’” So David crept forward and cut off a piece of the hem of Saul’s robe.
But then David’s conscience began bothering him because he had cut Saul’s robe. “The LORD knows I shouldn’t have done that to my lord the king,” he said to his men. “The LORD forbid that I should do this to my lord the king and 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.
After Saul had left the cave and gone on his way, David came out and shouted after him, “My lord the king!” And when Saul looked around, David bowed low before him.
Then he shouted to Saul, “Why do you listen to the people who say I am trying to harm you? This very day you can see with your own eyes it isn’t true. For the LORD placed you at my mercy back there in the cave. Some of my men told me to kill you, but I spared you. For I said, ‘I will never harm the king—he is the LORD’s anointed one.’ Look, my father, at what I have in my hand. It is a piece of the hem of your robe! I cut it off, but I didn’t kill you. This proves that I am not trying to harm you and that I have not sinned against you, even though you have been hunting for me to kill me.
“May the LORD judge between us. Perhaps the LORD will punish you for what you are trying to do to me, but I will never harm you. As that old proverb says, ‘From evil people come evil deeds.’ So you can be sure I will never harm you. Who is the king of Israel trying to catch anyway? Should he spend his time chasing one who is as worthless as a dead dog or a single flea? May the LORD therefore judge which of us is right and punish the guilty one. He is my advocate, and he will rescue me from your power!”
When David had finished speaking, Saul called back, “Is that really you, my son David?” Then he began to cry. And he said to David, “You are a better man than I am, for you have repaid me good for evil. Yes, you have been amazingly kind to me today, for when the LORD put me in a place where you could have killed me, you didn’t do it. Who else would let his enemy get away when he had him in his power? May the LORD reward you well for the kindness you have shown me today. And now I realize that you are surely going to be king, and that the kingdom of Israel will flourish under your rule. Now swear to me by the LORD that when that happens you will not kill my family and destroy my line of descendants!”
So David promised this to Saul with an oath. Then Saul went home, but David and his men went back to their stronghold. — 1 Sam 24:1-22
I really enjoyed hearing and reading this Bible story when I was a kid. There was the swashbuckling adventure, David and his mercenaries running around in the hills, chased by murderous King Saul; there was the high drama of David’s impassioned plea, and Saul’s tearful reply – it’s good fun. Though I have to say, I enjoyed it the most as a kid because the image of King Saul pooping in a cave was hilarious to six-year-old me. And you know, it must’ve been pretty intense, or maybe David just had crazy ninja skills, that he could creep up to Saul and cut off a piece of his robe unnoticed. Such is the mind of a six year-old boy. Maybe six year-old girls think like that too. Maybe you’re thinking like that now. I’m not judging.
As I grew older and (slightly) more mature, I read this story differently. I tried to draw more meaning out of it, I tried to learn from the morals of the story. How should a man of God act? What should a man of God do, when he’s falsely accused of this or that? How does a man of God act with honour? The answers I drew were pretty good. We should be faithful like David. We should be brave like David. We shouldn’t repay wrong for wrong, but instead we should repay right for wrong, just like David.
Now that’s all well and good, but I started running into problems. Gradually, even though I stopped reading this as a story about King Saul pooping in a cave (which is a good thing), I started reading it in a way that was equally unhelpful. This mastercrafted, nail-biting story started being all about me. I stopped thinking about King David, running for his life while trying to remember the promise God made to him while he was a boy; I stopped thinking about mournful King Saul who had just wanted to be a good King, but instead turned into a monster; I stopped thinking about God who was trying to rescue his people while working with such a frustrating King Saul – I forgot all that, and I focused on me.
How does this story relate to me? What do I get out of it? How do I become a better person?
And from there the spiralling continued – if this story about King David is about how to become a good person, wouldn’t this apply to the whole Bible? Now the Bible is a catalogue of good people. Look at all their good examples – you’d better be like them, or else.
This is not a good way to read the Bible. It’s not the Gospel. Gospel means good news. And when we read the Bible like a catalogue of good people, it’s not good news. It’s really bad news. It’s bad news if the Bible is all about good behaviour. It’s bad news if we have to be like those people – how could we possibly meet those standards? And it’s bad news because for the most part, a lot of these supposedly good people weren’t actually all that good, they ended up doing bad things. King David is the good guy in this story – later on he’s going to murder his friend and steal his wife.
So what is good news?
The good news grows out of the bad news – God sets perfect standards for us, yes. Just like he set perfect standards for all those folks in the Bible. A lot of them failed. All of us will fail God’s perfection at some point. Maybe we fail his perfection regularly. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we’re not even good people, nevermind perfect people. But that’s the truth. And if we end the story there, it’s bad news.
But the good news grows out of the bad news – you and I, we can’t meet those standards, but somebody else has met those standards for us. He’s the main character of the Bible. He’s Jesus. The Bible calls him the Son of David. He is God’s chosen King – so was David. He suffered for doing what was right – so did David. He helped God’s people and saved them – so did David. But where David was later selfish and murderous, putting his own desires before everyone else’s, Jesus acted differently. He gave himself up for you and me. He’s the King who saves God’s people, in a way that David just couldn’t.
That’s what the Bible is about – not good people versus bad people; not a catalogue of good behaviour for you to follow. It’s the story of how God has saved us from sin and death, and he’s making all things new, all of it through Jesus Christ his Son, who knows you better than you know yourself, who loved the murdering, wife-stealing King David, and paid the price for his sin, and yours, and mine. That’s the good news – how do we respond to it? Do we giggle at a weird story, like six-year-old me? Do we double down and just try really hard to be a good person, like current me? Or do we trust Jesus to be the good King, not us?