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Skirting the Issue


King Saul, along with three thousand men, was again on the hunt. Out of jealousy, the king was pursuing a most elusive prey: David, the king-elect. Time and time again the outlaw king had eluded Saul with superior tactics and speed. But now David and his men were cornered in a cave near the “Crag of the Wild Goats,” located on the mountainous slopes west of the Dead Sea (1 Samuel 24).

Into the very cave in which David was hiding, Saul entered to relieve himself. Consider David’s position and frame of mind. For months Saul had chased him like a dog, even though David had given Saul no cause for his jealous rage. David’s men were quick to encourage him to take advantage of this golden opportunity to strike a blow for freedom and justice.

But David knew that Saul was still king over God’s people, that he still owed allegiance to Saul, and that vengeance was in the hands of God. But David couldn’t easily forget what Saul was doing, so he silently crept up behind King Saul and cut off a piece of his skirt or robe, but spared the king’s life. Later on David would show Saul the piece of cloth he had cut off as proof of what he could have done, but didn’t; as proof that he was acting righteously and Saul very wrongly toward him.

Almost immediately David suffered an attack of conscience. He rebuked his more blood-thirsty men and told them, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed. . . .” (verse 6) Later David fell on his face before Saul and repented of the fact that he had cut off even a small piece of the hem of Saul’s garment.

But why? It seems like such a small thing in comparison to what Saul was doing. Saul’s robe was certainly in need of some repair, if not ruined. And the king no doubt suffered some public embarrassment for having been caught with his pants down. But David had shown mercy and spared the king’s life. So why the angst?

Indeed, David had shown a certain disrespect toward Saul, as he admitted. But some scholars have suggested there was more involved here, that the hem of the king’s robe represented royal authority and power. And so what David had done bordered on rebellion. He had attacked the very symbol of Saul’s kingship. No wonder godly David was smitten with heartfelt remorse!

Saul’s response perhaps lends credence to this thought. Not only did he acknowledge David’s non-murderous action, but said, “I know indeed that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.” (verse 20) If his hem or edge of his skirt represented royal authority, then this incident foreshadowed the loss of Saul’s kingship and David’s future reign.

Speaking of hems, on two occasions Matthew—writing to a Jewish audience—reported the importance, in Jesus’ ministry, of His hem. A woman with a flow of blood for twelve years approached Jesus from behind “and touched the hem of His garment.” (Matthew 9:20) The woman was healed and praised for her faith by the Lord. Many who were sick in the land of Gennesaret “begged Him that they might only touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched it were made perfectly well.” (Matthew 14:36)

Jesus’ physical robe is no longer available to us to cut off or to touch. But what a picture, both warning and comforting! Attacking Jesus’ royal authority by cutting out pages of His holy Word is not profitable at all, but constitutes rebellion. But what a gracious and wonderful thing to openly approach Him, to touch Him and be touched body and soul with His healing, gracious power.

Uncounted numbers of children have hidden their faces in their mother’s skirts. Blessed are they who hide themselves in the hem of the royal and righteous garment of their Almighty King. They are like little chicks who nestle under the skirt-like wings of their protecting Savior.

David Fuerstenau is pastor of Holy Truth Lutheran Church in Ketchikan, Alaska.