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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 18

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-30



1 Samuel 18:1-30.

THE conqueror of Goliath had been promised, as his reward, the eldest daughter of the king in marriage. The fulfillment of that promise, if not utterly neglected, was at least delayed; but if David lost the hand of the king’s daughter, he gained, what could not have been promised - the heart of the king’s son. It was little wonder that ’’the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." Besides all else about David that was attractive to Jonathan as it was attractive to everyone, there was that strongest of all bonds, the bond of a common, all-prevailing faith, faith in the covenant God of Israel, that had now shown itself in David in overwhelming strength, as it had shown itself in Jonathan some time before at Michmash.

To Jonathan David must indeed have appeared a man after his own heart. The childlike simplicity of the trust he had reposed in God showed what a profound hold his faith had of him, how entirely it ruled his life. What depths of congeniality the two young men must have discovered in one another; in what wonderful agreement they must have found themselves respecting the duty and destiny of the Hebrew people! That Jonathan should have been so fascinated at that particular moment shows what a pure heart he must have had. If we judge aright, David’s faith had surpassed Jonathan’s; David had dared where Jonathan had shrunk; and David’s higher faith had obtained the distinction that might naturally have been expected to fall to Jonathan. Yet no shadow of jealousy darkens Jonathan’s brow. Never were hands more cordially grasped; never were congratulations more warmly uttered. Is there anything so beautiful as a beautiful heart? After well-nigh three thousand years, we are still thrilled by the noble character of Jonathan, and well were it for every young man that he shared in some degree his high nobility. Self-seekers and self-pleasers, look at him - and be ashamed.

The friendship between David and Jonathan will fall to be adverted to afterwards; meanwhile we follow the course of events as they are detailed in this chapter.

One thing that strikes us very forcibly in this part of David’s history is the rapidity with which pain and peril followed the splendid achievement which had raised him so high. The malignant jealousy of Saul towards him appears to have sprung up almost immediately after the slaughter of Goliath. ’’When David was returned from the slaughter of the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of music. And the women answered one another as they played, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands. And Saul was very wroth, and the saying displeased him; and he said, They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed but thousands; and what can he have more but the kingdom? And Saul eyed David from that day and forward." This statement seems (like so many other statements in Scripture narratives) to be a condensed one, embracing things that happened at different times; it appears to denote that as soon as David returned from killing Goliath his name began to be introduced by the women into their songs; and when he returned from the expeditions to which Saul appointed him when he set him over the men of war, and in which he was wonderfully successful, then the women introduced the comparison, which so irritated Saul, between Saul’s thousands and David’s ten thousands. The truth is, that David’s experience, while Saul continued to be his persecutor, was a striking commentary on the vanity of human life, - on the singularly tantalizing way in which the most splendid prizes are often snatched from men’s hands as soon as they have secured them, and when they might reasonably have expected to enjoy their fruits. The case of a conqueror killed in the very moment of victory - of a Wolfe falling on the Plains of Quebec, just as his victory made Britain mistress of Canada; of a Nelson expiring on the deck of his ship, just as the enemy’s fleet was helplessly defeated, - these are touching enough instances of the deceitfulness of fortune in the highest moments of expected enjoyment. But there is something more touching still in the early history of David. Raised to an eminence which he never courted or dreamt of, just because he had such trust in God and such regard for his country; manifesting in his new position all that modesty and all that dutifulness which had marked him while his name was still un- known; taking his life in his hand and plunging into toils and risks innumerable just because he desired to be of service to Saul and his country, - surely, if any man deserved a comfortable home and a tranquil mind David was that man. That David should have become the worst treated and most persecuted man of his day; that for years and years he should have been maligned and hunted down, with but a step between him and death; that the very services that ought to have brought him honour should have plunged him into disgrace, and the noble qualities that ought to have made him the king’s most trusty counselor should have made him a fugitive and an outlaw from his presence, - all that is very strange. It would have been a great trial to any man; it was a peculiar trial to a Hebrew. For under the Hebrew economy the principle of temporal rewards and punishments had a prominence beyond the common. Why was this principle reversed in the case of David? Why was one who had been so exemplary doomed to such humiliation and trial, - doomed to a mode of life which seemed more suitable for a miscreant than for the man after God’s own heart?

The answer to this question cannot be mistaken now. But that answer was not found so readily in David’s time. David’s early years bore a close resemblance to that period of the career of Job when the hand of God was heavy upon him, and thick darkness encompassed one on whose tabernacle the candle of the Lord had previously shone very brightly. It pleased God, in infinite love, to make David pass through a long period of hard discipline and salutary training for the office to which he was to be raised. The instances were innumerable in the East of young men of promising character being ruined through sudden elevation to supreme unchallenged power. The case of Saul himself was a sad instance of this doleful effect. It pleased God to take steps to prevent it from happening in the case of the distinguished Athenian, was young, Socrates tried hard to withhold him from public life, and to convince him that he needed a long course of inward discipline before he could engage safely and usefully in the conduct of public affairs. But Alcibiades had no patience for this; he took his own way, became his own master, but with the result that he lost at once true loftiness of aim and all the sincerity of an upright soul. We do not need, however, to illustrate from mere human history the benefits that arise from a man bearing the yoke in his youth. Even our blessed Lord, David’s antitype, ’’though He was a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered." And how often has the lesson been repeated! What story is more constantly repeated than, on the one hand, that of the young man succeeding to a fortune in early life, learning every wretched habit of indolence and self-indulgence, becoming the slave of his lusts, and after a miserable life sinking into a dishonoured grave? And on the other, how often do we find, in the biography of the men who have been an honour to their race, that their early life was spent amid struggles and acts of self-denial that seem hardly credible, but out of which came their resolute character and grand conquering power? O adversity, thy features are hard, thy fingers are of iron, thy look is stern and repulsive; but underneath thy hard crust there lies a true heart, full of love and full of hope; if only we had grace to believe this, in times when we are bound with affliction and iron; if only we had faith to look forward a very little, when, like the patriarch Job, we shall find that, after all, He who frames our lot is ’’very pitiful and of tender mercy"!

In the case of David, God’s purpose manifestly was to exercise and strengthen such qualities as trust in God, prayerfulness, self-command, serenity of temper, consideration for others, and the hope of a happy issue out of all his troubles. His trials were indeed both numerous and various. The cup of honour dashed from his lips when he had just begun to taste it; promises the most solemn deliberately violated, and rewards of perilous service coolly withheld from him; faithful services turned into occasions of cruel persecution; enforced separation from beloved friends; laceration of feelings from Saul’s cruel and bloody treatment of some who had befriended him; calumnious charges persisted in after convincing and generous refutation; ungrateful treatment from those he had benefited, like Nabal; treachery from those he had delivered, like the men of Keilah; perfidy on the part of some he had trusted, like Cush; assassination threatened by some of his own followers, as at Ziklag, - these and many other trials were the hard and bitter discipline which David had to undergo in the wilderness.

And not only was David thus prepared for the great work of his future life, but as a type of the Messiah he foreshadowed the deep humiliation through which He was to pass on His way to His throne. He gave the Old Testament Church a glimpse of the manner in which ’’it became Him, by whom are all things and for whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through suffering."

The growth of the malignant passion of jealousy in Saul is portrayed in the history in a way painfully graphic. First, it is simply a feeling that steals occasionally into his bosom. It needs some outward occasion to excite it. Its first great effort to establish itself was when Saul heard the Hebrew women ascribing to David ten times as great a slaughter as they ascribed to Saul. We cannot but be struck with the ruggedness of the women’s compliment. To honour David as more ready to incur risk and sacrifice for his country, even in encounters involving terrible bloodshed, would have been worthy of women, and worthy of good women; but to make the standard of compliment the number of lives destroyed, the amount of bloodshed, indicated surely a coarseness of feeling, characteristic of a somewhat barbarous age. But the compliment was quite significant to Saul, who saw in it a proof of the preference entertained for David, and began to look on him as his rival in the kingdom. The next step in the history of Saul’s jealousy is its forming itself into an evil habit that needed no outward occasion to excite it, but kept itself alive and active by the vitality it had acquired. ’’And Saul eyed David from that day and forward" (1 Samuel 18:9). If Saul had been a good man, he would have been horrified at the appearance of this evil passion in his heart; he would have said, "Get thee behind me, Satan;" he would have striven to the utmost to strangle it in the womb. Oh! what untold mountains of guilt would this not have saved him in after life! And what mountains of guilt, darkening their whole life, would the policy of resistance and stamping out, when an evil lust or passion betrays its presence in their heart, save to every young man and young woman who find for the first time evidence of its vitality! But instead of stamping it out, Saul nourished it; instead of extinguishing the spark, he heaped fuel on the flame. And his lust, having been allowed to conceive, was not long of bringing forth. Under a fit of his malady, even as David was playing to him with his harp, he launched a javelin at him, no doubt in some degree an act of insanity, but yet betraying a very horrible spirit. Then, perhaps afraid of himself, he removes David from his presence, and sends him out to battle as a captain of a thousand. But David only gives fresh proofs of his wisdom and his trustworthiness, and establishes his hold more and more on the affections of the people. The very fact of his wisdom, the evidence which his steady, wise, and faithful conduct affords of God’s presence with him, creates a new restlessness in Saul, who, with a kind of devilish feeling, hates him the more because "the Lord is with him, and is departed from Saul."

The next stage in the career of jealousy is to ally itself with cunning, under the pretence of great generosity. "Saul said to David, Behold my elder daughter Merab, her will I give thee to wife; only be thou valiant for me, and fight the Lord’s battles. For Saul said. Let not mine hand be upon him, but let the hand of the Philistines be upon him." But cunning and treachery are close connections, and when this promise ought to have been fulfilled, Merab was given to Adriel the Meholathite to wife. There remained his younger daughter Michal, who was personally attached to David. "And Saul said, I will give him her, that she may be a snare to him, and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him." The question of dowry was a difficult one to David; but on that point the king bade his servants set his mind at rest. "The king desireth not any dowry, but an hundred foreskins of the Philistines, to be avenged of the king’s enemies. And Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines."

Alas! the history of Saul’s malignant passion is by no means exhausted even by these sad illustrations of its rise and progress. It swells and grows, like a horrid tumour, becoming uglier and uglier continually. And the notices are very significant and instructive which we find as to the spiritual condition of Saul, in connection with the development of his passion. We are told that the Lord was departed from him. When Saul was reproved by Samuel for his transgression, he showed no signs of real repentance, he continued consciously in a state of enmity with God, and took no steps to get the quarrel healed. He preferred the kind of life in which he might please himself, though he offended God, to the kind of life in which he would have pleased God, while he denied himself. And Saul had to bear the awful penalty of his choice. Living apart from God, all the evil that was in his nature came boldly out, asserting itself without let or hindrance, and going to the terrible length of the most murderous and at the same time the meanest projects. Don’t let anyone imagine that religion has no connection with morality! Sham religion, as we have already seen, may exist side by side with the greatest wickedness; but that religion, the beginning of which is the true fear of God, a genuine reverential regard for God, a true sense of His claims on us, alike as our Creator and our Redeemer, - that religion lays its hand firmly on our moral nature, and scares and scatters the devices of the evil that still remains in the heart. Let us take warning at the picture presented to us in this chapter of the terrible results, even in the ordinary affairs of life, of the evil heart of unbelief that departs from the living God. The other side of the case, the effect of a true relation to God in purifying and guiding the life, is seen in the case of David. God being with him in all that he does, he is not only kept from retaliating on Saul, not only kept from all devices for getting rid of one who was so unjust and unkind to himself, but he is remarkably obedient, remarkably faithful, and by God’s grace remarkably successful in the work given him to do. It is indeed a beautiful period of David’s life - the most blameless and beautiful of any. The object of unmerited hatred, the victim of atrocious plots, the helpless object of a despot’s mad and ungoverned fury, yet cherishing no trace of bitter feeling, dreaming of no violent project of relief, but going out and in with perfect loyalty, and straining every nerve to prove himself a laborious, faithful, and useful servant of the master who loathed him.

The question of David’s marriage is a somewhat difficult one, appearing to involve some contradictions. First of all we read that a daughter of Saul, along with great riches, had been promised to the man who should kill Goliath. But after David kills him, there is no word of this promise being fulfilled, and even afterwards, when the idea of his being the king’s son-in-law is brought forward, there is no hint that he ought to have been so before. Are we to understand that it was an unauthorized rumour that was told to David (1 Samuel 17:25-27) when it was said that the victor was to get these rewards? Was it that the people recalled what had been said by Caleb about Kirjath-sepher, a town in that very neighbourhood, and inferred that surely Saul would give his daughter to the conqueror, as Caleb had given his? This is perhaps the most reasonable explanation, because when David came into Saul’s presence nothing of the kind was said to him by the king; and also because, if Saul had really promised it, there was no reason at the time why he should not have kept his promise; nay, the impulsive nature of the king, and the great love of Jonathan toward David, and the love with which David inspired women, would rather have led Saul to be forward in fulfilling it, and in constituting a connection which would then have been pleasant to all. If it be said that this would have been a natural thing for Saul to do, even had there been no promise, the answer is that David was such a stripling, and even in his father’s household occupied so humble a place, as to make it reasonable that he should wait, and gain a higher position, before any such thing should be thought of. Accordingly, when David became older, and acquired distinction as a warrior, his being the king’s son-in-law had become quite feasible. First, Saul proposes to give him his elder daughter Merab. The murderous desire dictates the proposal, for Saul already desires David’s death, though he has not courage himself to strike the blow. But when the time came, for some reason that we do not know of Merab was given to Adriel the Meholathite. David’s action at an after period showed that he regarded this as a cruel wrong (2 Samuel 3:13). Saul, however, still desired to have that hold on David which his being his son-in-law would have involved, and now proposed that Michal his younger daughter should be his wife. The proposal was accepted, but David could bring no dowry for his wife. The only dowry the king sought was a hundred foreskins of the Philistines. And the hundred foreskins David paid down in full tale.

What a distressing view these transactions give us of the malignity of Saul’s heart! When parents have sacrificed the true happiness of their daughters by pressing on them a marriage of splendid misery, the motive, however selfish and heartless, has not usually been malignant. The marriage which Saul urged between David and Michal was indeed a marriage of affection, but as far as he was concerned his sin in desiring it, as affording facilities for getting rid of him, was on that account all the greater. For nothing shows a wickeder heart than being willing to involve another, and especially one’s own child, in a lifelong sorrow in order to gratify some feeling of one’s own. Saul was not merely trifling with the heart and happiness of his child, but he was deliberately sacrificing both to his vile passion. The longer he lives, Saul becomes blacker and blacker. For such are they from whom the Spirit of the Lord has departed.

We may well contrast David and Saul at this period of their lives; but what a strange thing it is that further on in life David should have taken this leaf from Saul’s book, and acted in this very spirit towards Uriah the Hittite? Not that Uriah was, or was to be, son-in-law to the king; alas! there was an element of blackness in the case of David which did not exist in that of Saul; but it was in the very spirit now manifested by Saul towards himself that David availed himself of Uriah’s bravery, of Uriah’s faithfulness, of Uriah’s chivalrous readiness to undertake the most perilous expeditions - availed himself of these to compass his death. What do we learn from this? The same seeds of evil were in David’s heart as in Saul’s. But at the earlier period of David’s life he walked humbly with God, and God’s Spirit poured out on him not only restrained the evil seed, but created a pure, holy, devoted life, as if there were nothing in David but good. Afterwards, grieving the Holy Spirit, David was left for a time to himself, and then the very evil that had been so offensive in Saul came creeping forth drew itself up and claimed that it should prevail. It was a blessed thing for David that he was not beyond being arrested by God’s voice, and humbled by His reproof. He saw whither he had been going; he saw the emptiness and wickedness of his heart; he saw that his salvation depended on God in infinite mercy forgiving his sin and restoring His Spirit, and for these blessings he pled and wrestled as Jacob had wrestled with the angel at Peniel. So we may well see that for anyone to trust in his heart is to play the fool; our only trust must be in Him who is able to keep us from falling, and to present us faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy. "He that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit, for without Me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth as a root and withered, and men take them and cast them into the fire and they are burned.’’

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 18". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/1-samuel-18.html.
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