Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, July 22, 2018
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Breaking the Cycle of Hatred, Part 1

(1st Samuel 24)

 We’re going to cover a lot of Scripture this morning.  For the last two Sunday’s we’ve been looking at the time of the Judges, the time after the Israelites have come into the Promised Land but before the establishment of a monarchy.  Today we’re going to transition into the time of the Kings.  

 1st Samuel begins with the nation at a spiritual low point.  The high priest is a man named Eli, and while he is a godly man, he has become incompetent.  His sons have taken over the leadership of the nation, and they are corrupt, using their position to exploit other people. 

 The three of them die, and God raises up Samuel.  Samuel is a prophet, a priest, and the last of the Judges.  He is both the spiritual and practical leader of the nation.  He turns back their enemies.  He judges honestly and fairly.  And he turns people’s hearts back to the Lord. 

 But eventually, Samuel also grows old and more and more responsibility falls on his sons.  And just like Eli’s sons, they are not like their father, taking bribes and perverting justice.  And the people cry out to Samuel, “Give us a king so that we will be like the other nations.”

 The irony is that they did have a king; God was their king.  They were repeatedly told not to be like the other nations.  So Samuel resists their request.  But eventually, God tells him to give in to their demands and give them a king “like the other nations,” because it is not Samuel they are rejecting, it is God.  

 Saul is chosen for the job.  He seems a logical choice.  He comes from a rich and influential family.  He is tall and handsome.  He looks the part.  And he seems to have the right temperament for the job.  He doesn’t want to be king.  He resists the calling of God.  After he’s made king, he goes home to his farm, wanting nothing to do with it.  He only assumes leadership when there is a crisis.  And at the start, he is humble and obedient.  He is even gracious toward his detractors.  

 But it doesn’t last.  Perhaps being in a position of power “got to him,” and he became proud, even arrogant.  He took the place of a priest and began offering his own sacrifices.  That was common in other ancient Near Eastern societies; that the king was also the high priest of the nation.  But in Israel, those were separate roles.  And there were other signs of his pride:  He erected a monument in his own honor.  He stopped asking God for help and direction.  

 He became increasingly erratic.  He made bizarre, dictatorial commands.  He even threatened to kill his own son at one point.

 But most of all, he stopped being obedient to God.  He refused to do as God directed.  So God rejected him as king.  When Samuel told Saul of God’s decision and left him, Saul appeared to have a moment of repentance.  He lunged after Samuel and tore the hem of his robe, trying to stop him from leaving.  That’s an important event; remember that.  And Samuel says to him, “The Lord has torn the Kingdom of Israel from you and given it to someone else who is better than you.”  

 And God chooses David as Saul’s successor.  Now David doesn’t seem, outwardly, to fit the part.  He is from a family with a history of faithfulness, but not a history of being rich or influential.  And unlike Saul, who fit the physical paradigm of a king, big, strong, and handsome; David was just a teenage boy.  

 When Samuel goes to anoint him, there’s this wonderful sequence where he knows that he is looking for a son of Jesse.  And Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab comes out.  And Samuel says, “This must be the guy!  Just look at how big and strong and handsome he is!”  And God says, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him.  The Lord doesn’t make decisions the way you do.  People judge by outward appearances, but the Lord looks at a person’s heart, at their thoughts and intentions.”

 So David, though just a young man, maybe 14 years old, is chosen for his heart.  And then he is prepared for the job.  Saul is “troubled” in his spirit, and one of the things that calms him is music.  So David is chosen to be his court musician.  There he gets to see the role of the king up close.  And then there’s a little incident with a guy named Goliath.  David kills him, and he is then chosen to be a captain in Saul’s army.  So he also gains experience in military matters.  

 But before long, Saul’s jealousy gets the best of him.  He doesn’t know that David has been chosen as king, but he is still paranoid about his success.  First he tries to arrange David’s death, and when that fails, he tries to kill him outright.  

 Two of Saul’s own children, his son Jonathan who has become David’s best friend and his daughter Michal who has become David’s wife, both help David to escape from Saul.  After going from place to place seeking safety, David finally flees into the Judean wilderness.  Saul continues to hunt him, killing anyone who aids David, whether they did it willingly or unknowingly.  

 But in the wilderness, people are drawn to David, especially those who have been “disaffected” by Saul or by society at large.  Soon David has 600 armed men who are fiercely loyal to him.  Great men always attract a following.  

 The matter comes to a head at a place called En Gedi.  And that brings us to our text for this morning:  1st Samuel 24

 En Gedi is one of the few springs in the Judean Wilderness.  It is just west of the Dead Sea, in a region filled with caves.  In fact, the spring itself emerges out of a cave, and many scholars think it may be the very cave where this story took place.  I didn’t have a chance to see it myself when I was in Israel back in 1996, but my Old Testament professor at seminary showed us pictures of the place.  Inside the cave, there is a small first chamber, and above and behind that, a large second chamber.  It may be that Saul went into the first chamber to “relieve himself,” and was unaware of David and his men hiding above him in the second chamber.  

 So here is Saul, “caught with his pants down.”  He is unaware of danger and unable to defend himself.  The tables are turned and David is in a position of power.  To be in power always tempts to do violence to one’s enemies, just as David’s men urge him to do.  “It’s God’s will.  He said he would put Saul into your power.”  For the record, the Bible never mentions God saying that to David!  But it sounded good!  

 And it certainly was a temptation for David.  Saul has put David through so much.  He’s been on the run for his life.  He’s separated from his family and worried about their fate.  Saul has murdered innocent people for helping David.  

 But what if he killed Saul?  First, he would have set a terrible precedent of taking the throne by force.  Second, he would likely have turned his wife and best friend against him.  They probably wouldn’t think much of David murdering their father, regardless of what Saul had done.  And of course, David would have just continued the cycle of violence.  

 So instead David cuts off the corner of Saul’s robe.  But even that bothers his conscience.  Why?  Well, remember the earlier incident when Saul tore Samuel’s robe.  A person’s robe was a symbol of their status and position.  Saul’s robe was a royal robe, showing his kingship.  By cutting it, David was symbolically taking away the kingdom.  And he knew that was over-stepping his bounds.  God would one day give him the kingdom, but it was not his to take.

 I think it shows the difference in character between these two men.  Saul was paranoid and suspicious, impulsive and vindictive.  But David was more thoughtful and deliberate.  He was not motivated by personal malice.  He didn’t hate Saul, in spite of Saul’s actions.  And he was always willing to admit his own wrongdoing and repent of it.  

 He still considered Saul to be God’s anointed king, and he respected the position of king, even if the person in that position lacked moral fiber.  Who is Saul?  Is he David’s enemy or is he God’s chosen king?  The answer is both, but while David’s men focused on the first, David focused on the second.  

 After Saul leaves the cave, David reveals himself.  “I am not trying to harm you, my father.”  He reminds Saul that they are family, and later even Saul remembers it and calls David, “My son.”  David makes it clear that he is leaving the matter in God’s hands.  God will judge between them.  Only God can judge impartially, and only forgiveness can break the cycle of violence and hatred.

 David’s words open up Saul’s hardened heart to receive a moment of clarity.  Temporarily freed from his paranoia and jealousy, he sees that David is a better man.  He understands that David will one day be king.  He even blesses him.  

 All he asks is that David will not harm his family.  It was all too common in monarchical societies that when there was a new royal line, the surviving members of the old line were summarily murdered so that none of them could make a claim on the throne.  But David promises to protect Saul’s family, a promise he kept.  

 David’s act of forgiveness allowed for the possibility of a new beginning.  It couldn’t erase the past.  Human forgiveness has its limits.  When the scene ends, David still goes back to the wilderness.  He can’t go home to Jerusalem with Saul, not after everything that’s happened.  

 But sadly, Saul does not move forward.  Instead, he goes backward.  He gives his daughter Michal to another man, ending his family relationship with David.  And before long he’s back in the wilderness trying to kill him again.  But for the rest of the story, we’ll have to wait for next week.  

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