Returning Good for Evil

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1 Samuel 24:1-22 (David Spares Saul)

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is on David and Saul, and this morning we come to the first of three chapters where David spares the lives of evil men. So far in our study Saul has been trying to kill David, but in today’s passage the tables get turned. Now David is presented with the opportunity to kill Saul. How will he respond? How would you respond? (Read 1 Samuel 24:9-12 and pray)

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When someone hurts us, we naturally want to strike back. When someone does evil against us, our natural instinct is to seek revenge. However, God doesn’t want us to live in the natural but in the supernatural. And today’s passage along with other Scriptures make God’s position on this perfectly clear. As Christians, not only should we not return evil for evil. We should actually return good for evil. And that is not easy for us to do.

As I was studying our passage for this week, I noticed how closely it paralleled another passage of Scripture: Romans 12:17-21. Romans 12 so closely follows this passage in sequence and thought, it is almost as if Paul was thinking about 1 Samuel 24 when he was writing Romans 12.

Whether Paul was actually thinking of this chapter is impossible to know, but it is instructive for us to look at the two passages together. In fact, if you look at your sermon outline this morning, you will notice that all the supporting Scriptures comes from Romans 12, and each lesson under each part of the outline comes directly from the verses of Romans 12.

We are going to look at our passage from 1 Samuel in three sections today: 1) David spares Saul; 2) David seeks to reconcile with Saul; and 3) Saul confesses his wrong. And as we work our way through the passage, we will keep referring to Romans 12 as a running commentary on the passage, teaching us how we are to respond in these situations.

I. David spares Saul (1-7)

So, let’s get started with the first section where David spares Saul. The two lessons from Romans 12 for us in this section are: 1) Do not repay anyone evil for evil; and 2) Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.

   A. Do not repay anyone evil for evil (1-4)
      – Romans 12:17a

So first, lesson number one: Do not repay anyone evil for evil. We find this lesson in 1 Samuel 24:1-4:

After Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines, he was told, “David is in the Desert of En Gedi.” 2 So Saul took three thousand chosen men from all Israel and set out to look for David and his men near the Crags of the Wild Goats. 3 He came to the sheep pens along the way; a cave was there, and Saul went in to relieve himself. David and his men were far back in the cave. 4 The men said, “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’ ” Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. (1 Samuel 24:1-4)

If you remember from last week, Saul had broken off his pursuit of David to attend to the Philistines. But now, as soon as he finishes with the Philistines, he is right back at it with David.

David and his men are in the Desert of En Gedi. En Gedi is located on the western shore of the Dead Sea, about thirty-five miles southeast of Jerusalem. It is a wild place of cliffs and caves and wilderness but also of springs. So, David and his men have gone here for shelter, water and protection.

Now when Saul learns that David is in the Desert of En Gedi, he takes three thousand chosen men from all Israel and sets out after David. Chosen men refers to the best of the best, the military elite. So, Saul has three thousand trained soldiers going after David and his motley crew of six hundred men.

While they are in the desert hunting for David, nature calls, and Saul goes into a cave to relieve himself. But unknown to him David and his men are hiding far in the back of the cave. So, here is Saul all alone in the cave and in a very vulnerable position. Saul has been looking for an opportunity to kill David. Now David has the opportunity to kill Saul!

In fact, that’s exactly what David’s men encourage him to do. They even tell him, “God has provided this opportunity for you!” But instead, David just sneaks up and cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe. The Bible tells us Saul is relieving himself, which means he is using the facilities as it were, and perhaps resting and taking a brief nap as well. He would probably have removed his robe either way, and so David could cut off a corner of the robe unnoticed.

Saul has been trying to kill David and would strike at the first opportunity. Now David has the opportunity to kill Saul and refuses to do so. And that’s where our first lesson comes in. Romans 12:17 says: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” (Romans 12:17a)

This is a very hard lesson for us to learn and obey. When someone treats us bad, we naturally want to return the favor. If someone is mean to us, we want to be mean back to them. If someone yells at us, we want to yell at them. If someone cheats us, we want to cheat them. If someone steals from us, we want to steal from them.

But God says don’t repay evil for evil. Why not? Because then you would be doing evil! Just because someone has done you wrong doesn’t give you the right to do wrong also. Two wrongs don’t make it right. Someone mistreating of you does not justify you mistreating them. That’s the first lesson. Don’t repay evil for evil.

   B. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody (5-7)
      – Romans 12:17b

And then the second lesson is this. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. Look at 1 Samuel 24:5-7:

Afterward, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. 6 He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” 7 With these words David rebuked his men and did not allow them to attack Saul. And Saul left the cave and went his way. (1 Samuel 24:5-7)

David is careful to do what is right in his men’s eyes. After cutting off the corner of Saul’s robe, David is conscience-stricken even for doing such a minor thing. He rebukes his men and won’t allow them to attack Saul, telling them that it would be wrong to lift a hand against the Lord’s anointed.

David has great respect for Saul as the Lord’s anointed. God was the one who put Saul into power. David will wait for God to remove him from power. David’s not going to try and help God along, so to speak. There’s a saying in the military. “You don’t salute the man, you salute the rank.” And even though Saul is a terrible king right now, he is still the king. He is still God’s anointed one, and David is not going to lift his hand against God’s anointed.

David is careful to do what is right in the eyes of his men, and we also should be careful to what is right in the eyes of others. In fact, that’s exactly what the next part of Romans 12:17 says: “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.” (Romans 12:17b)

When you are tempted to return evil for evil, stop and think about your Christian testimony. How would your spouse view this? How would your kids view this? How would your parents view this? How would your church view this? How would your Christian friends view this? Most important of all, how does God view this?

So that’s our first section, David spares Saul, and our first two lessons from Romans 12: 1) Do not repay anyone evil for evil; and 2) Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. It is part of your Christian testimony.

II. David seeks to reconcile with Saul (8-15)

In the next section of our passage David seeks to reconcile with Saul. And there are two lessons for us here from Romans 12: 1) Live at peace with everyone as far as possible; and 2) Do not take revenge, but leave it in God’s hands.

   A. Live at peace with everyone as far as possible (8-11)
      – Romans 12:18

So, let’s look at our first lesson from this section: Live at peace with everyone as far as possible. We find this lesson in 1 Samuel 24:8-11:

Then David went out of the cave and called out to Saul, “My lord the king!” When Saul looked behind him, David bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. 9 He said to Saul, “Why do you listen when men say, ‘David is bent on harming you’? 10 This day you have seen with your own eyes how the Lord delivered you into my hands in the cave. Some urged me to kill you, but I spared you; I said, ‘I will not lift my hand against my master, because he is the Lord’s anointed.’ 11 See, my father, look at this piece of your robe in my hand! I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you. Now understand and recognize that I am not guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life.” (1 Samuel 24:8-11)

In this section David begins what is his longest unbroken speech recorded in the entire Bible. And in this speech, he does everything possible, as far is it depends on him, to be at peace with Saul. He addresses Saul as, “My lord, the king!” He bows down with his face to the ground as an expression of humility and respect before the king. David tells Saul how he refused to harm Saul even when his men urged him to do so. David affirms that he views Saul as the Lord’s anointed and will not lift a hand against him. David calls Saul father. David is Saul’s son-in-law, so he is reminding him of their family relationship. He shows Saul the cut-off corner of the robe as proof of his goodwill. David’s knife was that close to Saul, and yet David did him no harm.

David is humble. David is respectful. David is passionate. And David speaks the truth about the situation. He doesn’t cut any corners here (well, other than the corner of Saul’s robe!). He speaks the truth about what he has done, and he speaks the truth about what Saul has done. That’s important. When someone has done you wrong, in order to reconcile, it is important to speak truth into the situation.

But the important thing for us to see here is that David does everything he can to reconcile with Saul. And that’s exactly what we learn from Romans 12. Romans 12:18 says: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

Notice the qualifications here. First of all, if it is possible. It’s not always possible. A Saul doesn’t always want to be reconciled with a David. But if it is possible, be reconciled. Secondly, as far as it depends on you. In other words, you should do everything you can do to reconcile. You are responsible for your actions, just as the other person is responsible for their actions. And then thirdly, live at peace with everyone. In other words, there are no exceptions. You don’t get to pick and choose with whom you live in peace. You don’t get to exclude that one special person that you really don’t want anything to do with. So, that’s the first lesson from this section: Live at peace with everyone as far as possible.

   B. Do not take revenge, but leave it in God’s hands (12-15)
      – Romans 12:19

And then the second lesson here is this: Do not take revenge, but leave it in God’s hands. Look at 1 Samuel 24:12-15 where David continues to speak to Saul:

“May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. 13 As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds,’ so my hand will not touch you. 14 Against whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom are you pursuing? A dead dog? A flea? 15 May the Lord be our judge and decide between us. May he consider my cause and uphold it; may he vindicate me by delivering me from your hand.” (1 Samuel 24:12-15)

David refuses to take revenge but leaves it in God’s hands instead. He tells Saul: “May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you.” Once again, David is not going to try and “help” God get rid of Saul. He leaves it in God’s hands.

We find this exact same principle in Romans 12:19: “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19) It’s not your job to decide what should happen to the other person because they treated you badly. You’re not the judge. You’re not even the jury!

God is both judge and jury. He knows all the facts. He knows all the circumstances. He knows all the background information. And he will act with perfect justice and wisdom, something you and I are not capable of doing.

In this second section of our passage this morning, David seeks to reconcile with Saul. And our two corresponding lessons from Romans 12 are: 1) Live at peace with everyone as far as possible; and 2) Do not take revenge, but leave it in God’s hands.

III. Saul confesses his wrong (16-22)

Finally, in our third section, Saul confesses his wrong. And there are three lessons for us here from Romans 12: 1) Do good to your enemy, not wrong; 2) This will lead to conviction and repentance; and 3) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. So, let’s look at each of these in our passage this morning.

   A. Do good to your enemy, not wrong (16-17)
      – Romans 12:20a

First of all, do good to your enemy, not wrong. Look at 1 Samuel 24:16-17:

When David finished saying this, Saul asked, “Is that your voice, David my son?” And he wept aloud. 17 “You are more righteous than I,” he said. “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly.” (1 Samuel 24:16-17)

Saul asks, “Is that your voice, David my son?” Notice Saul finally calls him “David” here instead of his usual, contemptuous “son of Jesse.” Notice Saul also calls him his son, finally reaffirming their family relationship of son-in-law and father-in-law. You can see Saul’s heart softening here for the moment.

Saul confesses that David has done good to him, not wrong. “You are more righteous than I,” he says. “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly.” Think about it. David had done nothing wrong to Saul, and yet Saul was trying to kill him. David had done good to Saul, and Saul was returning evil for good!

But we are called to return good for evil. Instead of seeking revenge Romans 12:20 says: “On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.’” (Romans 12:20a) Paul is quoting from Proverbs 26:21-22 which tells you to do good to your enemy, not wrong.

Now this is even harder than the first lesson we learned today. Do you remember lesson one? “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” That one’s hard enough. But now God goes beyond that and says not only are you not to return evil for evil, God wants you to return good for evil instead!

Here’s a little chart for you:

      Doing evil for evil is bad.
      Doing nothing for evil is better.
      Doing good for evil is best.

You know a lot of us are really creative when it comes to returning evil for evil. We can expend a lot of energy thinking about exactly what we’re going to say, exactly what we’d like to do to get back at the other person.

And God is saying, “Why don’t you expend the same amount of energy on doing good rather than evil? Why don’t you deploy that same creativity to figure out all the good things you could say or do for the person who has done you wrong?”

You might say, “That sounds radical!” Well, it is, but that’s the Christian life. Being a Christian means following Jesus, and there is nothing more radical, more life-changing than following Christ.

When someone does you wrong, you’ve basically got three choices: you can do evil for evil, you can do nothing for evil, or you can do good for evil. Doing good for evil is best, but it’s also the most difficult for us to do. Many times it’s impossible without God’s Spirit helping you to do good things for someone who has hurt you. That’s the first lesson from this section. God tells you to do good to your enemy, not wrong.

   B. This will lead to conviction and repentance (18-20)
      – Romans 12:20b

And the second lesson is this. When you do good to your enemy instead of wrong, this will lead to conviction and repentance. Perhaps not every time. But overall, this will lead to conviction and repentance. Look at 1 Samuel 24:18-19 where Saul continues to speak to David:

“You have just now told me of the good you did to me; the Lord delivered me into your hands, but you did not kill me. 19 When a man finds his enemy, does he let him get away unharmed? May the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today. 20 I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands.” (1 Samuel 24:18-20)

David’s goodness to Saul leads Saul to conviction of sin and repentance. God delivered Saul into David’s hands, but David refused to do him harm. Saul is amazed that David would let an enemy go away unharmed. He speaks positive words to David: “May the Lord reward you. I know that you will surely be king.”

Romans 12:20 says this about doing good to your enemy instead of evil: “In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:20b) Now at first that seems like a gruesome description. It sounds like you’re doing something bad to someone rather than good.

But as we mentioned earlier, Paul is quoting from Proverbs in this verse, and in the book of Proverbs this is a poetic image or a metaphor for conviction of sin. “Burning coals on the head” would refer to the feelings of shame we experience for doing wrong. By doing good to your enemy, you will heap burning coals of shame and conviction on his head. That is, your good actions in response to their evil actions will lead them to conviction of sin and hopefully repentance as well.

   C. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (21-22)
      – Romans 12:21

And then, finally, do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Look at 1 Samuel 24:21-22 where Saul concludes his speech to David:

“Now swear to me by the Lord that you will not cut off my descendants or wipe out my name from my father’s family.” 22 So David gave his oath to Saul. Then Saul returned home, but David and his men went up to the stronghold. (1 Samuel 24:21-22)

Saul asks David to swear to him by the Lord that David will not cut off his descendants or wipe out his name from his family. It was common for a new king in those days to wipe out the family members of the previous king so there would be no competitors to the throne. Saul has been trying to kill David, so he is afraid David will do the same to his family when David becomes king.

But David refuses to be overcome by evil and instead overcomes evil with good. David has already made a covenant with Jonathan concerning these exact same requests. Now David gives his oath to Saul as well. Saul returns home, and David and his men go up to the stronghold, most likely back to the Cave of Adullam.

Romans 12:21 says it clearly: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) When someone has hurt you, when someone has angered you or wronged you – do not give in to bitterness, anger or revenge. Ask God to help you forgive them. Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Did you notice in our passage David doesn’t go home with Saul? David knows Saul all too well, and he doesn’t trust Saul’s repentance to continue. Just because you choose to treat someone well doesn’t mean you have to be stupid. Trust still has to be earned, and Saul has not earned David’s trust. As we will see, David was wise not to trust Saul, because before you know it, Saul will be back to his old tricks and trying to kill David all over again.

CONCLUSION: Our chapter this morning is an amazing chapter which illustrates the biblical principle so well. As Christians we should return good for evil. We should not return evil for evil, because then we would be doing evil rather than good. We should not take matters into our own hands, because then we would be acting as judge instead of God. We should return good for evil so that God may use our actions to bring conviction of sin and repentance to those who would seek to do us harm.

This is how Jesus treated his enemies, and we are called to follow Jesus. Jesus died for us when we were still sinners. He befriended us when we were still enemies of God. (Romans 5:8) The Bible says it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. (Romans 2:4) Jesus was not overcome by evil, but overcame evil with good. His perfect sacrifice on the cross purchased our pardon and defeated all the enemies of darkness. (Colossians 2:15)

You will never regret returning good for evil. The old saying goes that revenge is sweet, but it’s not. It’s a bitter pill, and it only makes you miserable. It only breeds more hurt and evil in this world. David returned good for evil when Saul was trying to kill him. I’m guessing whatever wrong someone did to you recently, they weren’t trying to kill you.

Returning good for evil isn’t easy. In fact, many times it’s impossible. That’s when you need to ask God to help you by his Holy Spirit to do that which you could never do on your own. I pray that as a result of this message today that you will follow Christ’s example in loving your enemies and returning good for evil rather than seeking revenge.

© Ray Fowler

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