“David said to him, ‘How is it you were not afraid to put out your hand to destroy the Lord ‘s anointed?’ Then David called one of the young men and said, ‘Go, execute him.’ And he struck him down so that he died. And David said to him, ‘Your blood be on your head, for your own mouth has testified against you, saying, “I have killed the Lord ‘s anointed.”’” (ESV – Read the chapter)
I’ll be honest: I’ve been wrestling with this little story. I’m still not totally sure what to do with it. There are several different things to consider when trying to make sense of it. The truth is, though, sometimes even after we’ve considered all the different factors, we still can’t fully get our heads and hearts around a particular hard passage, and that’s okay. Here’s what I have so far.
David had just gotten the news that the Philistines had defeated Saul’s army and in the process had killed both Saul and Jonathan. I suspect this news left him with a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, but for the rejection of the Philistine commanders, he and his men would have been in that battle, fighting on the side of the Philistines. Now, if they had been there, perhaps they could have saved the lives of Saul and Jonathan, and that thought probably occurred to him.
Still, the news of Jonathan’s death alone probably broke him. They were best friends and loved each other deeply. And, we should keep in mind that David had twice refused to kill Saul himself when given the chance because of his firm belief that he shouldn’t move to strike someone whom God Himself had put into his position.
Also playing into the outcome here was the fact that David and his men had just gotten back from destroying an Amalekite tribe for razing their home base and kidnapping all their women and children. It was no doubt not lost on him that the young man whose death he demanded here was an Amalekite (possibly a slave of a now-deceased member of Saul’s army).
As for the young man’s part, we can only guess at his motives. Perhaps he was trying to curry favor with the man he knew would be the next king by coming to report the news of his rival, the man who had been hounding him relentlessly to destroy him before he could have a chance at the throne for several years. It certainly would have been a political move that made sense to most everyone back then (and for a long time going forward in fact). If I come and report the demise of your arch-rival, there’s a chance you’re going to be so excited you’ll reward me for bringing the news with some kind of a high-ranking position.
Unfortunately for him, he didn’t know David very well. He assumed he was just like Saul or any other ruler back then. He wasn’t. He was something different. He was righteous in a way most people never came close. He was passionately committed to the Lord. In fact, David’s sense of justice and righteousness were probably stronger now than at normal times because he had so recently come back to the Lord after straying from him for a season with the Philistines.
All of these different things were in the background of these three verses. The young man brings David this news that he thought was going to make him happy, but then watches in utter confusion as the whole group mourns the death of the man who had been out for their blood. His confusion then changes to horror when David commands his execution. That’s where things fall off the wagon for me.
All of these other factors having been considered, I just can’t figure out how to justify David’s command to have him killed. Davis was acting in grief, which can be dangerous. And, this young man had openly confessed to ending Saul’s life. He killed the king. Had David let that stand, he would have left in place the notion that killing the king—which he was soon going to be—was not a crime punishable by death. As the soon-to-be king, that’s not really an idea to which you want to give any credence. But still, this killing just doesn’t seem justified.
What I think is happening is that I’m seeing this passage through the lens of the cross. While that’s exactly how we as followers of Jesus should look at the Old Testament, the result of such a lens will be our struggling with passages like this one. The Old Testament was not lived through the lens of the cross. If we use the cross to understand it, there are many places that will be awfully hard to reconcile; places where it seems upside-down to what we know is true through Christ. And I think that’s okay.
The fact is, the Old Testament presents a lot of things as having happened and which seem to us (again, through the lens of the cross) as not being examples worth following, but for which no moral commentary is offered in one direction or the other. They are just presented, not evaluated. This is one of those.
And when we come up against these places, we need not let them throw us too badly off course. Even when we can’t get our hearts and minds all the way around some passage, we can still trust in the character of the God being revealed by the whole. We can trust that He is loving and just even when the people who follow Him are not. We can trust that because we’re not always loving or just and yet we don’t have any impact on the character of God by our actions.
The Scriptures tell the story of people through whom God worked to reveal Himself and His plans to the world. It neither lionizes or idealizes them. It presents them honestly and shows how God is consistently able to accomplish His plans in spite of them. That should give us a lot of hope for our own lives. If He could work through them, then He can work through us. We can’t interrupt His good plans, and if we’ll stick with Him, even though we occasionally (or even regularly) blow it, we’ll get to experience their glorious outcome. That’s the kind of God we serve.