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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 26

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



The critical canard that would relegate this chapter to the status of a “mere variation” of that other report of Saul’s life being spared by David (1 Samuel 24) is an example of the same kind of “scholarship” that might identify the Battle of New Orleans with the Battle of Waterloo! Oh, but those battles were at different times, different places, involving different personnel and with different results. The same differences mark these two accounts of David’s refusal to kill Saul when he had an excellent opportunity to do so. It is true, of course, that a limited number of the personnel participated in both events, those battles, and these two Biblical episodes, but that is no license to claim that these events are contradictory accounts of only one event or only one battle. The only alleged reason for this radical critical claim is that given by Canon Cook, “The incident is of a nature unlikely to have occurred more than once.”(F1) Indeed! If that was true, why would the Sacred Text have included both narratives?

Verses 1-5


“Then the Ziphites came to Saul at Gibeah, saying, “Is not David hiding himself on the hill of Hachilah, which is on the east of Jeshimon”? So Saul arose and went down to the wilderness of Ziph, with three thousand chosen men of Israel, to seek David in the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul encamped on the hill of Hachilah, which is beside the road on the east of Jeshimon. But David remained in the wilderness; and when he saw that Saul came after him into the wilderness, David sent out spies, and learned of a certainty that Saul had come. Then David arose and came to the place where Saul had encamped; and David saw the place where Saul lay, with Abner the son of Ner, the commander of his army; Saul was lying within the encampment, while the army was encamped around him.”

Porter stressed some remarkable differences here as contrasted with the event in 1 Samuel 24. “In the first encounter Saul went alone, unarmed and by chance, into a cave where David and his men were; here David and Abishai were reconnoitering in search of Saul, finding him at night where he was sleeping with Abner his commander. The first incident happened in the day time, this one at night. In the first event, David cut off part of Saul’s robe; here they took Saul’s spear and the jar of water that was beside him. The conclusion supported here is that there were two occasions.”(F2) D. F. Payne also supported “The historicity of both accounts.”(F3) “Jeshimon is the barren country between the hills of Judah and the dead sea. The Hill of Hachilah is perhaps El-kolah, six miles west of Ziph and on the eastern edge of the wilderness where it begins to fall toward the Dead Sea.”(F4)

“With three thousand chosen men of Israel” “This is the number of men that Saul always had in attendance with him (1 Samuel 13:2; 1 Samuel 24:2; 1 Samuel 26:2).”(F5) This so-called “similarity” between the two narratives is of no consequence. Saul always had that number of men with him.

“When he saw that Saul came after him” This is an idiomatic expression meaning that David had heard that Saul was coming after him. If he had seen Saul doing so, he would not have needed to send out spies.

“David sent out spies and learned of a certainty that Saul had come” David’s reluctance to believe that Saul had actually come out with an army to hunt him on this occasion, and which he would not believe until his spies confirmed it, proves the truth of the previous narrative. After all that Saul had said then, David could hardly believe the reality of this additional attack.

“David saw the place where Saul lay, with Abner… commander of his army” Willis suggested that David must have arrived in daylight; but as both the king and Abner were asleep, it appears more likely that a brilliant moonlight enabled, not David, but the spies he sent to come back with this report. The word “saw” here is idiomatic as in 1 Samuel 26:4. David did not enter Saul’s camp until later in the night.

Verses 6-12


“Then David said to Ahimelech the Hittite, and to Joab’s brother Abishai, “Who will go down with me into the camp to Saul”? And Abishai said, “I will go down with you.” So David and Abishai went to the army by night; and there lay Saul sleeping within the encampment with his spear stuck in the ground at his head; and Abner and the army lay around him. Then said Abishai to David, “God has given your enemy into your hand this day; now therefore let me pin him to the earth, with one stroke of the spear, and I will not strike him twice.” But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him; for who can put forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless”? And David said, “As the Lord lives, the Lord will smite him; or his day shall come to die; or he shall go down into battle and perish. The Lord forbid that I should put forth my hand against the Lord’s anointed; but take now the spear that is at his head, and the jar of water, and let us go.” So David took the spear and the jar of water from Saul’s head; and they went away. No man saw it, or knew it, nor did any awake; for they were all asleep, because a deep sleep from the Lord had fallen upon them.”

“Ahimelech the Hittite” This man and Uriah are the only Hittites named in First Samuel. Esau had Hittite wives, whose names are not given. Those people were one of the seven great nations displaced by Israel in their occupation of Canaan.

“Abishai” along with Joab and Asahel were children of Zeruiah, who according to 1 Chronicles 2:16 was a sister of David. David, being the youngest in the family of Jesse probably had a number of cousins his own age or older. “Abishai saved David’s life in one of the Philistine wars (2 Samuel 21:17), was implicated in the murder of Abner (2 Samuel 3:30) and remained faithful to David during the rebellion of Absalom.”(F6)

“There lay Saul, with his spear stuck in the ground at his head” “The lance standing upright is still the sign of the Sheik’s quarters among the Arabs.”(F7)

Abishai here eagerly wanted to kill Saul, but David forbade it, because Saul was “the Lord’s anointed.” This establishes the fact, as mentioned by Paul, that “The powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1), and regardless of how wicked and tyrannical a duly-authorized head of government may be, he should not be murdered by his subjects.

“The Lord shall smite him, or his day shall come to die” This from the mouth of David was a prophecy, fulfilled eventually in the death of Saul in battle. At this point in David’s life, he was honoring the prohibition in the Pentateuch against one’s taking vengeance into his own hands, a lesson which was emphasized in his ears by Abigail.

“A deep sleep from the Lord had fallen upon them” This was no ordinary sleep. It was God’s providential protection of David. As Young said, “The same term is used of the sleep of Adam while the Lord created Eve from a rib taken from Adam’s side while he slept.”(F8)

A passage in one of the Psalms seems applicable to what happened here, although the usual interpretation applies it to the destruction of the army of Sennacherib.

The stouthearted were stripped of their spoil;
They sank into sleep;
All the men of war were unable to use their hands.
At thy rebuke, O God of Jacob,
Both rider and horse lay stunned.
- Psalms 76:5-6 (RSV).

“How easily can God weaken the strongest, befool the wisest, and battle the most watchful! Let all of God’s friends therefore trust him and all his enemies fear him.”(F9)

Verses 13-16


“Then David went over to the other side, and stood afar off on the top of the mountain, with a great space between them; and David called to the army, and to Abner the son of Ner, saying, “Will you not answer, Abner”? Then Abner answered, “Who are you that calls to the king”? And David said to Abner, “Are you not a man? Who is like you in Israel? Why then have you not kept watch over your lord the king? For one of the people came in to destroy the king your lord. This thing that you have done is not good. As the Lord lives, you deserve to die, because you have not kept watch over your lord, the Lord’s anointed. And now see where the king’s spear is, and the jar of water that was at his head.”

“With a great space between them” Here is a very important difference from that other occasion of David’s sparing Saul’s life. There, David followed Saul out of the cave rather closely; here David took no such chance but called to Abner from the top of an adjoining mountain.

“Who are you that calls to the king?” David was not calling Saul, but Abner; but Abner apparently meant, “Who disturbed the king’s repose”?(F10) It is very remarkable that, just a little while previously David’s conversation with Abishai had not awakened anyone; and now, the voice of a man far away on the top of a distant mountain is easily heard by Abner. This is proof enough that the sleep that enabled David’s exploit here was due to the direct intervention of God who induced the sleep of Saul’s army.

“Who is like you in Israel?” This was indeed a high compliment that David paid to Abner, and it was sincere, “Which is fully borne out by David’s dirge at Abner’s death (2 Samuel 3:31-34; 2 Samuel 3:38).”(F11)

“As the Lord lives, (Abner) you deserve to die.” Of course, David very well knew that the hand of God was in Abner’s failure; but, as Keil wrote, “These words were designed to show Saul (who heard them) that David was the most faithful defender of the king’s life, even more faithful than his closest friend and most zealous servant.”(F12)

Verses 17-20


“Saul recognized David’s voice, and said, “Is this your voice, my son David”? And David said, “It is my voice, my lord, O king.” And he said, “Why does my lord pursue after his servant? For what have I done? What guilt is on my hands? Now therefore let my lord the king hear the words of his servant. If it is the Lord who has stirred you up against me, may he accept an offering; but if it is men, may they be cursed before the Lord, for they have driven me out this day that I should have no share in the heritage of the Lord, saying, `Go serve other gods.’ Now therefore, let not my blood fall to the earth away from the presence of the Lord; for the king of Israel has come out to seek my life, like one who hunts a partridge in the mountains.”

“It is my voice my lord O king” There is a dramatic difference in David’s reply to Saul here as contrasted with that other occasion at Engedi. There David addressed Saul as “My father” (1 Samuel 24:11), and Saul here sought the same kind of response from David, but David no longer used that terminology. Saul had given his wife Michal to Palti, and there were no grounds whatever, either for Saul’s words, “My son,” or for David’s responding with, “My father.” It was this, perhaps, that enabled David instantly to see that Saul’s words were those of a confirmed hypocrite. There are many irreconcilable differences in these two accounts in which Saul’s life was spared by David.

“They have driven me out… that I should have no share in the heritage of the Lord.” Every Jew felt that the presence of God pertained especially to the land of Israel, and no Hebrew wanted to die away from it, but, “It is unnecessary to infer that David believed that God was operative only in the land of Israel. Such a view is ruled out by 1 Samuel 30:7-8.”(F13) “Here David pleaded with Saul for some opportunity that would prevent his having to leave his own people and the land of Israel.”(F14) The failure of Saul to provide any answer that David could trust was at once followed by David’s leaving the land of Israel for that of the Philistines. This, of course, was a far different result from that which followed the first sparing of Saul’s life by David.

“Like one who hunts a partridge in the mountains” The older versions use the word “flea” instead of “partridge” here, and critics love to cite this as one of the similarities with the event at Engedi, but, as H. P. Smith wrote, “This reading gives a sense more in accord with the context.”(F15)

Verses 21-25


“Then Saul said, “I have done wrong; return, my son David, for I will no more do you harm, because my life was precious to you this day; behold, I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly. And David made answer, “Here is the spear, O king! Let one of the young men come over and fetch it. The Lord rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness; for the Lord gave you into my hand today, and I would not put forth my hand against the Lord’s anointed. Behold, as your life was precious this day in my sight, so may my life be precious in the sight of the Lord, and deliver me out of all tribulation.” Then Saul said to David, “Blessed be you, my son David! You will do many things and will succeed in them.” So David went his way, and Saul returned to his place.”

“Return, my son David” If one wonders why David did not trust Saul here, the answer lies in his hypocritical use of the words “my son,” not only here, but in 1 Samuel 26:25. They were proof enough that Saul was lying in his teeth, and David instantly knew it.

“I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly” There is nothing that resembles this response in that other occasion at Engedi. “This answer is very different from that of 1 Samuel 24:17-21. Here there is a sense of vexation and of annoyance, not only because his purpose had been frustrated but because his own military arrangements had been so unsoldierlike.”(F16) These expressions of Saul do not appear to be the words of one truly penitent.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 26". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-samuel-26.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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