When Saul had repulsed the Philistines, he resumed his designs against David. The opportunity seemed favorable; for, although for various reasons he may have hesitated to call out the national force, in addition to his bodyguard, expressly against David, it would be in his power to retain for this service a portion of the men who had joined him in his march against the Philistines. Thus it is mentioned, that the force with which he returned to the pursuit of the fugitive band, amounted to no less than three thousand men.
The king obtained intelligence that David had meanwhile retreated into the wilderness of Engedi, and abode “among rocks of the wild goats,”—that is, among the high rocks and precipices, in which these animals delight. This wilderness is everywhere of limestone formation, with a large mixture of chalk and flint. The surface is broken into conical hills and ridges, from two hundred to four hundred feet in height, and gradually sloping towards the Dead Sea. Some stunted shrubs are found in the highest part of this wilderness; further down, occasionally a little grass is seen, and then, to a great extent, the aspect of the region is one of utter sterility and desolation. Here the beden, or mountain goat, still starts up on the approach of the traveller, and bounds along the face of the rock before him. On all sides the country is full of caverns, which might well serve as lurking places for David and his men, as they do for outlaws at the present day.
One day, when closely pursued by Saul, David and his men lay in the innermost darkness of one of the largest of these caverns, when, to their great amazement, they beheld Saul enter there (his people remaining respectfully in the vale below), and composed himself to the usual short rest during the afternoon heat. Being between them and the light at the entrance of the cave, they could observe all the king’s movements, while they were themselves screened from view by the inner darkness. Now, then, was the opportunity of vengeance for great wrongs—of turning against Saul’s own life the sword which he aimed at theirs—of ending by one stroke all these hardships and wanderings—and of removing what seemed the sole obstacle between David and his promised throne. So the men viewed it. As the king slept, they whispered eagerly to their leader—“Behold the day of which the Lord said to thee, I will deliver thine enemy into thy hand, that thou mayest do to him as shall seem good unto thee.” We read of no such promise, nor should we have known of it, had it not been thus incidentally mentioned. It did not indicate to David what he should do, when this opportunity was placed in his hands. It gave him the power of doing whatever his heart prompted; but what he did, would show what manner of man he was. It was an occasion afforded him of vindicating the Lord’s choice of him, by showing to all Israel his faith, his patience, his nobleness—by once more bringing forth the true greatness of his character, and proving his exemption from all vindictive feelings, and all low ambitions. So he viewed it. The Lord had delivered his enemy into his hands, not that he might destroy him, but that he might forgive him. “The Lord forbid,” he said, “that I should do this thing unto my master, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch forth my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord.” This rightness of feeling, so frequent in the history of David—this spontaneous, undeliberating truthfulness of expression and action, only possible to the man whose heart is essentially right, falls refreshingly upon the sense, like the gush of waters to one who plods thirstily along the dry and dusty ways of life.
To the comparatively coarse minds of his followers, the relinquishment of so signal an advantage must have seemed, and did seem, like mildness; and it needed all the authority he had established over their rough natures, to compel their submission to his view of the case. Yet this conduct of David was not only noble and true in feeling, but, although he then thought not of that, it was politically wise. Indeed, that which is in feeling truest, is always wisest in the long run; and this is so clearly shown in the history of David, that some have perversely argued from it as if the spontaneous impulse of a generous and noble spirit were the results of sagacious political calculation. But the sole and simple maxim of David was, do right, and leave the results to God; and that the results thus left to God were so generally favorable to him, was not because of his political astuteness, but because his spirit, under Divine enlightenment, so generally led him the right way. Many men, while wishing to do right, often hesitate and deliberate as to what is right. But it was not so with David. He at once, as by an inspiration, saw what was right, best, and truest; and without hesitating—with all the confidence which experience gives, committed himself to the instant impulse of that truthful spirit, which never, when heeded, led him wrong, and seldom suffered him to stray.
It is not the less true, that had David suffered the king to be slain under these circumstances, the result could not but have been most discouraging to himself. Would the people willingly have consigned the scepter to the hands stained with the blood of Saul? Would not Jonathan himself have been stung into open war against the slayer of his father; and, instead of submitting to the exultation of his friend, would he not rather, with the approval and sympathy of all Israel, have stood up for his own rights? Besides, by this act, David would set an example of disregard for the character and condition of the “Lord’s anointed,” which might be turned most dangerously against himself when exalted to the throne.
But although, under the influence of the master-hand which held back the fierce outlaws, Saul was suffered to escape unscathed from that dangerous cave, David was willing to secure some evidence of the fact, that Saul’s life had been in his power. He therefore approached him softly as he slept, and cut off the skirt of his robe. No sooner, however, did Saul arise and leave the cavern, and his men began to laugh at the ridiculous figure the sovereign presented in his skirtless robe, than David’s heart smote him for the indignity he had been instrumental in inflicting on the royal person. Yielding to the impulse of the moment—which again was right, though it might have been in common calculation most dangerous, he went boldly forth to the entrance of the cave, and called to the king as he descended into the valley—“My lord, the king!” Well did the king know that voice. A thunderclap could not have struck him more. He looked up; and David bowed himself very low, in becoming obedience to his king. He spoke. In a few rapid and strong words, he told what had happened—he described the urgency he had resisted—he held up the skirt in proof how completely had been in his hand the life he spared—saying, “I have not sinned against thee; yet thou huntest my life 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.” Behold, how that stern heart is melted. The hard wintry frosts thaw fast before the kindly warmth of that generous nature. He weeps; the hot tears—the blessed tears, fall once more from those eyes, dry too long. “Thou art more righteous than I,” he cried, in the agony of his self-conviction—“for thou hast rewarded me good, when I have rewarded thee evil.… The Lord reward thee for the good that thou hast done unto me this day.” Nor was this all. In the presence of the man whom he recognized as worthier than himself, his proud heart yielded for the moment to acknowledge him as destined to inherit his crown, and he humbled himself to ask of him—to make him swear, that in the coming time he would spare his family, and not doom it to extirpation. This request painfully reminds us of the antiquity of the eastern custom, which has subsisted to our own time, for a new ruler to destroy all those of the previous family, whose claims might by any possible circumstances be brought into rivalry with his own.
Although relieved from the immediate pursuit of Saul, David was too well acquainted with his character to forego the safeguards which his present mode of life afforded. Nor had he miscalculated; for, after an uncertain interval of time, during which occurred the affair with Nabal, we find the king again upon the track of David, in a different part of the wild regions towards the Dead Sea. This relapse of Saul into his old inveteracy, this forgetfulness of that noble forbearance which had once so deeply impressed him, would have thrown many men—even right-minded men, off their guard of patience and moderation. It was a hard test, but David stood it. He lost not one jot of heart or hope; and would not consent that the wrong of Saul should make him wrong also. An opportunity was again afforded him of showing the invincible truth of his character, and his immeasurable superiority to the man who hunted his life through the mountains.
Having received from his scouts certain intelligence of Saul’s movements, David went down one night to the place where the royal party had bivouacked, accompanied by two faithful friends, one of whom was his nephew, Abishai. They found the whole troop sunk in sleep—the king in the midst, with Abner and the men round about him. The position of the king was clearly marked in the dimness of the night to the visitants, by the spear stuck into the ground—a practice by which the tent of the chief, or his plane in the open air, is still marked among the Arabians. This precluded all mistake as to the person, and Abishai begged David’s permission to pin Saul’s body at once to the earth on which he lay. “I will not,” he whispered, with ferocious significance, “smite him a second time.” But David withheld his hand. There was, besides the spear at the king’s head, a pitcher of water within his reach, from which he might drink, if he awoke athirst. These things—the pitcher and the spear—David was content to remove as proofs of his visit. When they had got to the top of a hill at some distance, David shouted to Abner by name, and taunted him for the lax watch he had kept over the king’s safety, telling him to look for the spear and the pitcher which had stood at the king’s head. David had not declared himself; and in the darkness and distance his person could not be recognized. But the king knew his voice—and called out, with returning admiration, “Is this thy voice, my son David?”—the first time that, as far as we know, he had ever bestowed that tender name upon him. By this David knew the frame of mind to which he had been brought, and remonstrated with equal force, but with even more tenderness and respect, than on the former occasion. He delicately supposed that all this persecution was owing to the malicious misrepresentations of others; he demanded to know what evil he had done, and appealed to the undoubted proofs he had given of his respect for the king’s life and person. Saul was greatly impressed. Pride and hatred fled his heart for the time, and his confession of wrong-doing was most humble: “Behold, I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly.” He also promised that he would no more do him harm; and said finally, “Blessed be thou, my son David; thou shalt both do great things, and also shalt still prevail.”
His prophecy was true. How great the pity that the beams which now and then penetrated thus through the rents of his ruined spirit, had no abiding for light or warmth in the darkened chambers of his heart!