“And it came to pass, when Saul was returned from following the Philistines, that it was told him, saying, Behold, David is in the wilderness of Engedi. Then Saul took three thousand chosen men out of all Israel, and went to seek David and his men upon the rocks of the wild goats. And he came to the sheepcotes by the way, where was a cave; and Saul went in to cover his feet: and David and his men remained in the sides of the cave. And the men of David said unto him, Behold the day of which the LORD said unto thee, Behold, I will deliver thine enemy into thine hand, that thou mayest do to him as it shall seem good unto thee. Then David arose, and cut off the skirt of Saul’s robe privily. And it came to pass afterward, that David’s heart smote him, because he had cut off Saul’s skirt. And he said unto his men, The LORD forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the LORD’S anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the LORD. So David stayed his servants with these words, and suffered them not to rise against Saul. But Saul rose up out of the cave, and went on his way” (1 Samuel 24:1-7).
After the Philistines had been repelled, Saul once again took up his pursuit of David. We should not think of the king as weak or unable to command an army, or how did he manage to deal with the enemy? This does not infer that God was with him. “Human success is not proof of Divine approbation” (Arthur Pink).
When Saul learned where David was camped, he came with 3,000 men against David’s 600. We can see the wicked determination in Saul’s mind here, for to get to Engedi he had to pass through some of the roughest and forbidding terrain in Israel. It “shows Saul’s pertinacious hatred of David” (R. P. Smith). Maybe he thought that the defeat of the Philistines was an indication that he could destroy David, for if he was in error, why did not God have him killed in battle? But he forgot that judgement does not always come immediately. “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
When Saul arrived in Engedi he went to “cover his feet” in one of the caves. This is a euphemism for “going to the toilet.” Saul did not realise that this was the very cave David and his men were hiding in. Some commentators suggest that the term only means to “go to sleep” – “To sleep there: Saul being a military man, used to sleep with his soldiers upon the ground. And it is not improbable, that being weary with his eager and almost incessant pursuit, first of David, then of the Philistines, and now of David again, he both needed and desired some sleep, God also disposing him thereto, that David might have this eminent occasion to demonstrate his integrity to Saul, and to all Israel” (John Wesley). This idea was formulated because of Naomi’s advice to Ruth concerning Boaz, “Thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down” (Ruth 3:4), but different words and meanings are used for both the covering and feet in the texts. Literally “cover his feet” means that Saul used his garment as a screen while he went to the toilet. The same expression is used in Judges 3:24 where Eglon’s servants thought he was relieving himself in the lavatory.
We may wonder why he was not able to detect that there were over 1,200 eyes watching him relieving himself, but the “caverns are as midnight … Saul could see nothing but impenetrable darkness” (R. P. Smith). Those in the cave could see clearly what the king was doing because they were looking towards the entrance and the light. So in this situation Saul was at the mercy of David. Saul was a “sitting duck”.
David’s men reminded him that God promised to deliver his enemies into his hands. Surely the Lord was offering David an easy target and a simple way to get to the throne. There will always be a way that leads to “rapid success” but usually it “is not the true way” (Charles Chapman). This is basically the same temptation that Satan used on the Lord Jesus, “Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:8-9).
The temptation was very strong because David has 600 men backing him up if he decided to assassinate Saul. Not only that, they quoted chapter and verse to David to prove that God had ordained the moment. Satan is always quick to quote the Scriptures, though out of context. “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone” (Matthew 4:6). It was up to David to choose to kill Saul or not, but he was doing so under great pressure.
It is likely that David changed his mind as he crawled towards Saul, so instead he simply cut of a portion off the king’s skirt. He probably realised that there were no shortcuts to success. Even this caused David to grieve, so we wonder how he would have felt if he had actually killed Saul. His men would have seen nothing to be sorry about because it was such a small thing. “It is a good thing to have a heart within us smiting us for small sins that seem little; it is a sign that the conscience is awake and tender, and will be a means of preventing greater sins” (Matthew Henry).
David confessed his fault to his men. They still seemed eager to get rid of Saul, but David was able to calm them down. As we can imagine, this conversation must have been conducted with “sign language” but with great passion. Somehow David got them to see that King Saul was still “anointed” until God removed him. “Touch not mine anointed” (Psalm 105:15). The word “stayed” comes from a Hebrew word (shaca), which means to “strongly upbraid”, so we see that David had to stop his men taking matters into their own hands.
Saul rose up and exited the cave. This may have maddened David’s men, but he knew that it was not God’s plan to kill Saul by his hands. He would have got a result if he had assassinated the king, but the end does not always justify the means. Too many of God’s people do things to get results. They think that God must be in it, and have Scriptures to back up their notions. We, like David, must submit ourselves to God’s leadership and direction; otherwise we will destroy ourselves and other we are trying to influence. It is interesting to note that Psalms 57 and 142 were written as a memorial to this event.