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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 24

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary



(1 Samuel 24:1-22) The Pursuit of David renewed—David Spares Saul’s Life in the En-gedi Cave—David’s Generosity—Saul for a time Regrets his Persecution of David.

Verse 1

(1) When Saul was returned.—How intent Saul was on his bloody purpose with regard to his supposed rival is clear, for no sooner was the Philistine raid repulsed than with sleepless animosity he at once set forth with a force, as the next verse relates, of considerable magnitude to hunt down his foe. Saul was encouraged in this fresh enterprise by the offer of the Ziphites (see preceding 1Sam 1 Samuel 24:19-22). These bitter enemies of David, in the interval of the Philistine war—accustomed to the passes and mountains of the barren region of the south of Canaan—complying with the king’s request (1 Samuel 23:23), had taken careful knowledge of the lurking-places where David was hiding, and were now prepared to act as guides to the well-equipped and disciplined forces under Saul in its marches and counter-marches in the deserts bordering on the south of Judah.

En-gedi.—David and his band were now wandering along a lofty plateau, upon the tops of cliffs some 2,000 feet above the Dead Sea. En-gedi—still known as Ain-jedy, the Fountain of the Kid—is a beautiful oasis, in the barren wilderness to the south of Judah. Its original name was Hazazon Tamar—“The Palm Wood” (see 2 Chronicles 20:2)—and was once an ancient settlement of the Amorites (see Genesis 14:7). It has in all ages been a favourite spot with the possessors of the land. King Solomon appears to have paid peculiar attention to this garden of the wilderness. He planted the hills round it with vines; from the fountain flows a warm limpid stream, delicious to the taste. The remains of ancient gardens tell us that in the golden days of the kings En-gedi was probably a favourite resort of the wealthy citizen of Jerusalem. Solpmon, in his “Song of Songs,” writes of it in a strain which shows how he loved it, when he compares his beloved “to a cluster of camphire in the vineyards of En-gedi.”—Song of Solomon 1:14. Its present condition, as described by modern travellers, more nearly resembles the En-gedi when Saul hunted David among the rocks and caverns than the En-gedi the resort of the Jerusalem citizens, beautiful with gardens and vines of Solomon.—Conder: Tent Life. Dean Stanley and others have described the spot with great care, and left us a vivid picture of the scene. They tell us of the long and weary journey-across the desolate valleys and precipitous barren heights, and of the enchanting scene which lay before them when once Ain-jedy was reached. They describe in flowing language the plentiful and rich vegetation, the trees and fruits, the ruins of the ancient gardens, and remains of the beautiful groves, still inhabited by a multitude of singing birds. In the limestone cliffs are numerous caves, some of them very large and deep, well calculated to be the temporary shelter of large bodies of men.

Verse 2

(2) Three thousand chosen men.—This large and carefully selected force is an indication how thoroughly impressed Saul was with the power of David at this juncture. He, indeed, evidently looked on him as a rival king, who must be met by a numerous and disciplined force.

Upon the rocks of the wild goats.—“Ibex rocks,” so called because probably only these ibexes, the chamois of Syria, would find pasturage on them. Some have suggested that this was a proper name. The ibex is still found among the precipitous cliffs in the neighbourhood of Ain-jedy.

Verse 3

(3) The sheepcotes.—Thomson (The Land and the Book) saw, he says, hundreds of these sheepcotes around the mouth of the caves, of which there are so many in Palestine. In that land and among these Eastern peoples, whose customs change so little, they are as common now as they were then. “These sheepcotes are generally made by piling up loose stones in front of the cave’s entrance in a circular wall, which is covered with thorns as a further protection against thieves and wild animals who would prey on the sheep. During cold storms and in the night the flocks retreat into the cave, but at other times they remain in the enclosed cote. . . . These caverns are as dark as midnight, and the keenest eye cannot see four paces inward; but one who has been long within, and looking outward toward the entrance, can observe with perfect distinctness all that takes place in that direction. David, therefore, could watch Saul as he came in . . . but Saul could see nothing but impenetrable darkness.”

From this thorny fence, so universal in the countless sheepcotes of Palestine, was very possibly derived a quaint simile in the strange passage on “Death” in the Talmud:—
“The hardest of all deaths is by a disease (some suppose quinsey), which is like the forcible extraction of prickly thorns from wool. . . . The easiest of all deaths is the Divine kiss, which is like the extracting of hair from milk. Moses, Aaron, and Miriam died by this Divine kiss.”—Treatise Berachoth, fol. 8, Colossians 1:0.

Where was a cave.—The well-known traveller Van de Velde wishes to identify the cave in question with an immense cavern in a rock with many side vaults, near the ruins of Chareitum; the difficulty is, however, that this vast cavern is fifteen or twenty miles from Ain-jedy. In this cave all David’s band could well have been gathered: not only his 600 fighting men, but the camp followers and women also. In Pocock we read that the Arabs call this cavern Elmaama (hiding-place), and relate how on one occasion thirty thousand people hid themselves in it to escape an evil wind (the simoom). It is, however, quite possible that the incident about to be related, connected with Saul and David, took place in one of the much smaller caves close to En-gedi. It is not necessary to assume that all David’s band were with him in one cave. A hundred or so of his more special companions were probably with him on this occasion, the remainder of the little army being dispersed in other similar refuges in the immediate neighbourhood.

And Saul went in to cover his feet.—The meaning of this disputed passage is quite simple. Saul, fatigued with the morning’s march, some time about midday withdrew—probably with a very few attendants composing his personal staff—to take a short siesta, or sleep, in one of those dark, silent caves on the hill-side, which offered a cool resting-place after the glare and heat of a long and fatiguing march along the precipitous paths of the region. He lay down, no doubt, near the cave’s mouth, and one of his faithful attendants threw lightly over the king’s feet the royal many coloured mantle (m’il). The king and his attendants little suspected that in the dark recesses of their midday resting-place were concealed the dreaded freebooter and a great company of his devoted armed followers. As explained in the Note above, in these great rock recesses, coming from outside, from the glare of daylight, not five paces forward can be seen, but those already inside, and accustomed to the darkness, can, at a considerable distance within the cave, see distinctly all that takes place in the neighbourhood of the cavern mouth. The sharp eyes of David’s sentinels, no doubt, far in the cave, quickly saw the little party of intruders. The tall form of the king, his jewelled armour, and perhaps his many-coloured brightly-tinted cloak, betrayed to the amazed watchmen of David the rank of the wearied sleeper.

This interpretation of the words. Saul went in to cover his feet”—namely, “to sleep”—is adopted by the Peshito Syriac Version, Michaelis, and of late, very positively, Ewald. The ordinary interpretation of the words, besides being an unusual statement, by no means suits the narrative; for it must be remembered that considerable time was necessary for the sentinel to inform David, and for David to have approached and cut off the hem of the royal garment, and again to have retired into the recesses of the cave.

In the sides of the cave.—That is, in the side vaults and passages which exist in the largest of these natural refuges.

Verse 4

(4) Behold the day of which the Lord said unto thee.—This was the version by David’s men of such predictions as 1 Samuel 15:28; 1 Samuel 16:1; 1 Samuel 16:12. Jonathan’s words (1 Samuel 20:15; 1 Samuel 23:17) show clearly that these predictions were known; and the version of them here given was a very natural one in the mouth of David’s men (Speaker’s Commentary). It is, however, quite possible that a prophet such as Gad had predicted publicly, in the hearing of David’s band of followers, that the days would come when their now outlawed captain, the son of Jesse, the “Anointed of Jehovah”—all his enemies being overthrown—would reign in peace and glory over all the land.

Then David arose.—For a moment the “king to be” listened to the seductive voice of the tempter; and we may imagine him, with the sword of Goliath naked in his hand, advancing towards his unconscious adversary, sleeping in the cave’s mouth, resolved with one good blow to end the long, cruel war, and then, his great rival being gone, to seat himself at once on the empty throne which he knew the Eternal meant him one day to occupy—but only for a moment; for through the soul of David rapidly passed the thought that the helpless sleeping one was, after all, the “Anointed of Jehovah.” How could he, himself “an anointed king,” touch another of the same order to do him harm? So with a matchless generosity, unequalled, indeed, in those rough days, he spared the man who so ruthlessly and so often had sought his life, and even at that moment, with all the power of the land, was trying to do him to death; and David the outlaw bent over the sleeping king who hated him with so deep a hate, and deftly cut off the skirt, perhaps some of the golden fringe which edged the royal m’il, and as he bent over him, and saw once more the face of Saul—from whose brow so often his minstrelsy had chased the dark clouds of madness—we can fancy the son of Jesse once more loving the great hero of his boyhood: loving him as he did in the old days when he played in the king’s dark hours.

There is no doubt but that one of the most beautiful characteristics of David’s many-sided nature, was this enduring loyalty to Saul and to Saul’s house. No jealousy, or even bitter injuries done in after years could affect the old love, the old feeling of loyal reverence, the more than filial affection; it was even proof against time. Years after Saul was in his grave. David gave the most conspicuous proof of his faithful memory of his old, devoted friendship for Saul and his house, when he pardoned Mephibosheth, the grandson of Saul, for his more than suspected treason, in the matter of the revolt of Absalom, and restored to him a large portion of his forfeited lands (2 Samuel 19:24-29).

Verse 5

(5) David’s heart smote him.—Not for what he had done to Saul, but his conscience smote him for the momentary thought that had stained his soul of slaying the Lord’s Anointed. This is better than with Clericus to say, “David was afraid that Saul would take this, though a clear sign of his [David’s] magnanimity, in bad part, and regard it as a violation of his royal majesty.” There is no sign at all of David’s even regretting he had cut off the fringe of the king’s garment. It was the far more terrible thought of slaying the God-anointed king which troubled David. The words of the next verse show us clearly what was passing in his mind when he gravely rebuked his men, and evidently restrained them, with some little trouble, from rushing upon Saul, even after he had left the sleeping form, with the piece of the mantle in his hand. The Hebrew word rendered “stayed” is a forcible one, and, literally, would be crushed down. There is a curious Note, however, in the Babylonian Talmud on this passage in the Book of Samuel which tells how David cut off a piece of Saul’s robe, in which the act is evidently very strongly condemned. Rabbi Yosi ben Rabbi chanîna on the words, “Then David arose, and cut off the skirt of Saul’s robe privily,” said, “Whoever treats clothes slightingly will at last derive no benefit from them, for it is said (1 Kings 1:1), ‘And they covered him [David] with clothes, but he gat no heat.’”—Treatise Berachoth, fol. 62, Colossians 2:0.

This is evidently one of the “cryptographs,” of which there are such innumerable instances in the Talmud. The lesson intended to be taught by the famous Rabbi was probably intense reverence for the teachers and guides of Israel, here represented by Saul; any act of disrespect shown to one of these, even by injuring the clothes they wore, would be punished by God sooner or later.

Verse 8

(8) And cried after Saul.—The outlaw suffered the king and his companion to proceed some little way—possibly down the deep ascent which led up to the cave’s mouth—and then called after Saul, but with an address of the deepest reverence, accompanied too (see next clause) with an act of the profoundest homage which an inferior could pay to a superior. He would show Saul at least he was no rival king.

Verse 9

(9) Wherefore hearest thou men’s words?—David had many deadly enemies at the court of Saul, who evidently laboured with success to deepen Saul’s jealousy, and to widen the breach which already existed between the king and David. Doeg has been already mentioned as one of the more prominent of these slanderers; another was Cush the Benjamite, who was alluded to in the inscription which heads the seventh Psalm. The Ziphites and their representatives at the royal residence also belonged to this class of malicious foes spoken of here.

Verse 10

(10) Thine eyes have seen.—David and a crowd of armed men around him were standing at the entrance of the cave which King Saul had just left; thus the king’s eye had seen—nay, was seeing that very moment—that his life had been in his enemy David’s hand.

And some bade me kill thee.—The literal translation here would be Jehovah delivered thee to-day into mine hand in the cave, and bade [me] kill thee. And this rendering has been explained by assuming that God’s allowing Saul to choose the very cavern for his midday slumber where David and his company were lodging was tantamount to directing David to slay his bitter foe, thus given over helpless into his hands; but this is contrary to the spirit of the whole narrative. The English Version has followed the Syriac and Chaldee Versions here, and by supplying “some”—better, perhaps, one—before “bade me kill thee,” has given us the sense in which the Hebrews have always understood the passage. The Vulg. here, with a very slight change in the vowel points, renders “I thought to kill thee.”

But mine eye spared thee.—The English Version supplies an obvious subject in “mine eye.” Clericus suggests more happily, “my soul,” or “my hand,” before “spared thee.”

Verse 11

(11) My father.—Not in the sense of “my father-in-law.” The Princess Michal before this time probably had been given to Phalti. The time when this wicked act was carried out by Saul is left quite indefinite in the notice of 1 Samuel 25:44; but the relations of David and Saul were evidently far more bitter before than after the En-gedi incident, hence the probability of Michal’s being given to Phalti before this meeting is great. The expression “my father” is simply the reverence (pietas) of the young to the old—of the loyal subject to the sovereign. It is so used in the beautiful lines of Browning already quoted.

See the skirt of thy robe.—Doubtless at this juncture holding up the piece of the royal m’il he had so carefully cut off when the king was sleeping in fancied security. “See this, how near thou wast to death had I been pleased to take thy life when I cut this off.”

Verse 13

(13) The proverb of the ancients.—Clericus, quoted by Lange, explains these words: “David means to say, that if he had been guilty of conspiracy against the king, he would not have neglected this favourable opportunity to kill him, since men usually indulge their feelings, and from a mind guilty of conspiracy nothing but corresponding deeds could come forth.” So Grotius, who writes how “actions usually correspond to the quality of the mind.” Erdmann quotes a Greek proverb: “From a bad raven comes a bad egg.

Verse 14

(14) After a dead dog, after a flea.—These homely but vivid similes are very common in Oriental discourse. David certainly, in his protestations of loyalty, could scarcely humble himself more than by drawing a comparison between the king of Israel in his grandeur and power and a poor dead dog—evidently an object held in special loathing by the Hebrews. “After a flea”—the original is even stronger, after “one flea” (a single flea)—“against a single flea,” which is not easily caught, and easily escapes, and if it is caught, is poor game for a royal hunter.—Berl. Bible and Lange.

Verse 15

(15) The Lord therefore be judge, and judge between me and thee, and see, and plead my cause, and deliver me out of thine hand.—Shall I lay these hands on the Lord’s Anointed? God forbid. No; I will not do it for a kingdom. Such wicked feats I leave for wicked men to act. God can and will in His own due time make good His own promise without my sin. I shall be content to wait His leisure, and remain in the sad condition I now am in, till it shall please Him to bring me out of it.—Bishop Sanderson, in Wordsworth.

Verse 16

(16) These words.—L. Philippson (in the Israelitish Bible, Leipzig) sums up strikingly the general effect of David’s moving but natural words to Saul. “This appeal possesses so much natural eloquence, such warmth, such true earnestness, that no one who has any love for the simple beauties of the Bible can read it unmoved. There is a striking grandeur, too, in the whole scene. We see David standing on some peak in this wilderness of rocks, holding up the trophy of his romantic generosity, gazing at and addressing the melancholy Saul, whom he loved as a father, paid homage to as a king, and reverenced as the Lord’s Anointed, but who, for his part, hated him without a cause, and hunted him down with a restless, murderous zeal; and (as David stood there and gazed on Saul) he seized the opportunity, and tried to touch his royal enemy’s heart with words, hurried, indeed, and quickly spoken, but breathing the intense earnestness of his inward feeling. He was overwhelmed with the consciousness of a sorrow too deep for words, yet he spoke as one inspired with the knowledge of a noble deed just done.”

And Saul lifted up his voice, and wept.—And for a time the words, but still more the forbearance, of David in the cave touched Saul to the quick. He not only spoke kindly to the hated David, but even wept. There is nothing strange in this sudden change of feeling in one so nervous and excitable as was Saul. It is clear that for the moment Saul meant to alter his conduct to David, but the sad sequel shows that the impression made was only transitory; and David, by his conduct, clearly saw this, for he made—as the last verse of the chapter shows us—no effort to return to his old home and position with Saul, but maintained his independent, though precarious, position as an outlaw.

Verse 20

(20) And now, behold, I know well that thou shalt surely be king.—Clericus (in Lange) says: “From this great magnanimity of David, Saul concluded that a man who was much superior in soul to kings could not but reign.” This is a good comment, and doubtless expresses something of what was in Saul’s mind on this occasion; but more must have been behind to have induced the king to make such a speech to David. Never had he for one moment forgotten his old friend’s words—the words of Samuel, whom he too well knew was the prophet of the Most High—when he with all solemnity announced to him, as a message from heaven, that the Lord had rent the kingdom from him, and had given it to a neighbour that was better than he (1 Samuel 15:21). Since that awful denunciation, the unhappy Saul was only too sensible that the blessing of Jehovah of Hosts no longer rested on his head, no longer blessed his going out and coming in, while the strange, bright career of the son of Jesse seemed to point him out as the neighbour on whom the choice of God had fallen. Rumours, too, of a mysterious anointing must have long ere this reached Saul; this, joined to the passionate advocacy of Jonathan, and the quiet, steady friendship of Samuel, no doubt convinced King Saul that in the son of Jesse he saw Israel’s future monarch. Strong, therefore, in this conviction, and for the time humiliated and grieved at the sorry part he had been playing in this restless persecution of one destined to fill so great a position, the king positively entreats the outlaw to swear to him the strange promise contained in the next (21st) verse.

Verse 21

(21) Swear now therefore unto me.—So strongly was Saul convinced at this moment that David would at no distant period of time occupy the throne of Israel that he entreated him, when that day should come, not to destroy all his (Saul’s) children. This barbarous custom has been always too common a practice in the jealous East. It seems to have been equally dreaded by Jonathan, who made—it will be remembered—this condition of mercy to be shown by David in his day of power to his (Jonathan’s) children a part of the solemn covenant concluded between them. (See 1 Samuel 20:15.) In the frequent dynastic changes which took place in the kingdom of Israel, we have instances of such wholesale massacres of the royal family of the fallen house. (See 1 Kings 15:29, where Baasha slew King Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, and took his throne. Then Baasha, we read, “smote all the house of Jeroboam; he left not to Jeroboam any that breathed; “and in 1 Kings 16:11, where Zimri murdered his master, King Baasha. Zimri, “as soon as he sat on his throne, slew all the house of Baasha: he left him not one, neither of his kinsfolks, nor of his friends.”) A similar massacre is described, only with more ghastly details, in 2 Kings 10:0, where “Jehu slew all that remained to Ahab in Samaria.” There the story is peculiarly an Oriental scene of history, with the seventy baskets containing the seventy heads of princes presented as an acceptable offering to the new stern king of Israel—Jehu. It was, therefore, no vain dread of what might happen in the future which made King Saul ask this of David. Doubtless the fear of some such awful catastrophe happening to his own loved children and friends was no small part of the punishment of Saul.

Verse 22

(22) And David sware unto Saul.—The generous son of Jesse at once complied with Saul’s curious request, and for a time, at least, the persecution and pursuit of David ceased. Stricken with remorse, the gloomy king left him to himself; no word, however, seems to have passed as to restoring the exile to his home or rank. Bishop Wordsworth quotes here a characteristic passage from one of Chrysostom’s eloquent homilies, in which the Patristic method of allegorising all these famous scenes of Old Testament history is well exemplified.

“Meditate on the example of David, and do thou imitate it: imitate it in his self-control and in his love of his enemy. The cave in which he was became like a Christian Church, and he became like a Christian bishop, who first preaches a sermon and then offers the sacrifice of the altar.
“So David preached a sermon by his example, and offered a true sacrifice—the spiritual sacrifice of himself and of his own anger; he became as it were a priest, a sacrifice, and an altar, and having offered his victims, he gained a glorious victory.”—St. Chrysostom, tom. 4, p. 761.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 24". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-samuel-24.html. 1905.
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