In I Samuel 24 we read about a piece of cloth with a wonderful history and a powerful symbolism.
The chapter begins with the news that Saul has returned from fighting the Philistines. He is told that David and his men are hiding out in the wilderness of En-gedi. Saul has also been after David and wants to eliminate him from the kingdom. Saul immediately takes off for the wilderness of En-gedi with three thousand men. It is a large force, but it is not only the size the text wants us to notice. The reference to the men being from “all of Israel” is to suggest that Saul has support from all the people for his campaign against David and his followers.
Saul and his men arrive in the area. Then the text tells us with simplicity and candor, Saul goes into a cave to relieve himself. In that very cave, David and some of his men are hiding. The text is coy. It offers no reflection about how this came to be. It does not claim God brought the two men to that cave. David and his men are far enough back in the cave so that Saul does not see them. He has no idea they are there. But, they can see him. They know it is Saul.
The men with David say to him, Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, “I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you”(v. 4.) It is easy to imagine their eagerness. They are in danger. They have been in danger ever since they threw in their lot with David. Now, here is a chance to get rid of the threat to them and to David. Not only that, but they believe this is God’s work, bringing Saul, unguarded, within their reach. They are recalling a promise from the Lord to David that at some time the Lord would deliver Saul to David. It is easy to imagine how quickly and surely they must have believed this was the day.
David creeps forward. He comes close to Saul, who still believes he is alone and safe. Yet David does not strike Saul. Instead, somehow, he cuts off a piece of Saul’s robe. Almost immediately he is stricken with regret, not for having passed on the chance to kill Saul but for having cut Saul’s robe.
David then speaks to his men. It is an extremely challenging moment. There is not much time to think and reflect. There is not time for sharing views or seeking consensus. They are in the cave. Saul is in the cave. All of Saul’s men are nearby. David’s men have risked so much for him. They have forsaken the bland safety of neutrality and followed him. They have supported him. Surely he owes them something. On a larger scale, surely he owes God and country something, some act to end the strife and warfare in God’s nation.
In this crisis we are witnesses, through the text, to David’s character. Even allowing for the truth that this is surely why we have this text, nevertheless the view we have into David’s character is inspiring.
When David speaks he reveals his awareness that he lives in a triangle of loyalties. He refers to Saul as “the Lord’s anointed.” Saul is not simply the enemy or adversary to David. Saul is the one who was anointed by God to be King. David is able to imagine that this encounter is not just about him and Saul. Somehow the Lord is in this thing as well. David has his own faith and trust in the Lord. Saul is the “the Lord’s anointed.” So what they have in common is not just their rivalry and armed followers, but the Lord.
David is honoring the sovereignty of God. He puts his own sovereignty under God. He puts the appeals of his men under the sovereign God. This David points us to the awareness that in our struggles with our adversaries, in our struggles to discern when to strike, or, in a larger sense, how to act in any circumstance, there is only one sovereign moral agent–God. The rest of us work out our morality and our behavior as moral agents “under God.”
So David does not strike. Instead, he emerges from the cave after Saul has left, and calls out to Saul. He tells Saul that he was in the cave and spared Saul. As proof, he holds up the piece of cloth he had cut from Saul’s robe.
This piece of cloth is now the symbol of David’s vision of loyalty. He is loyal to God and he is loyal to God’s anointed, Saul. The primary loyalty is to God and as a result, he is also loyal to Saul. David is not giving up his position or handing himself over to Saul, yet he will not strike Saul. In short, David will neither pretend all is well and there are no abiding tensions, nor will he let those abiding tensions be an excuse to violate the loyalties he has both to God and to Saul. Simply and solely because he honors God, he is bound to be loyal to Saul.
This story has come to mind repeatedly while our denomination has struggled with ordination and related issues. It has come to mind since the report of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church was released. I do not believe there is a Presbyterian tartan. I wish there was one. Those of us who believe we are bound by God to struggle together toward our resolutions of the issues before us could wear such a tartan, at least a piece of it. We could wear it the way we wear other pins or ribbons on our shirts and blouses. It would be a sign, like the piece of cloth David waved to Saul. It would be a sign that in our struggles with each other we will not give in to facile solutions nor abide in rigid opposition, but will honor abiding loyalties: a loyalty to the only one who is sovereign, God, and through it and because of it a loyalty to each other.
Laird J. Stuart is pastor of Calvary Church in San Francisco, Calif.