Even though Saul was prone to paranoia and madness once it became clear that David was going to take his place on the throne of Israel, there were times when he came to his senses and thought clearly. Today’s passage describes one of these lucid moments, which occurred after David spared Saul’s life.
After David’s escape from Saul in the wilderness of Maon because Saul was called away to fight the Philistines, David and the men following him set up camp at Engedi on the west side of the Dead Sea (1 Sam. 23:24–29). Engedi is known for having several large caves, and as chapter 24 opens, we see that David and his men were hiding in the innermost parts of one of the caves (v. 3). Saul entered the cave to relieve himself, and David snuck up behind him and cut off a small piece of his robe (vv. 1–4). He would later show the piece of the robe to Saul in order to prove that he was not looking to kill Saul and replace him on the throne of Israel (vv. 8–15).
David’s actions were quite remarkable. As his men told him, he had the opportunity to put an end to Saul’s threat once and for all. Yet, David spared Saul’s life, because he did not have any right to kill the Lord’s anointed (vv. 3–6). David knew that the kingdom had been given to him by the Lord (16:1–13); however, he knew also that the throne had to come to him in God’s appointed timing. He was not permitted to take it by force. God never told David to assassinate Saul, and for David to do so would mean that the kingdom would come to him by illicit means. Saul, as we have seen, was willing to hold on to his throne by murder, but David understood that it is better to live away from the palace in obedience to God than it is to violate God’s will and sit on a throne. He was content to rest in the Lord’s sovereignty and to let God exact vengeance on Saul at the proper time, for vengeance belongs to the Lord (Deut. 32:35). Truly, David was a man after God’s own heart.
By sparing Saul’s life, David convinced the king temporarily to stop fighting against him (1 Sam. 24:16–22). More importantly, his actions revealed the work of the Lord in his life. Only one transformed by divine grace could stay his hand in such a situation. Matthew Henry comments, “David had a fair opportunity to destroy Saul, and, to his honor, he did not make use of it; and his sparing Saul’s life was as great an instance of God’s grace in him as the preserving of his own life was of God’s providence over him.”