Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(1Samuel 19:1-24) The Hatred of Saul for David. The Love of Jonathan and Michal saves David’s Life. David Escapes to Samuel. The Influence of the Prophetic Schools on (1) Saul’s Men; (2) on Saul himself.
And Saul spake to Jonathan his son, and to all his servants, that they should kill David.(1) That they should kill David.—The literal translation of the original gives a much better sense: “that he intended to kill David,” or “about killing David.” The latter is the rendering of the LXX. and the Syriac. The murderous impulse of the unhappy Saul gradually increased in intensity. First, it showed itself only in the paroxysms of insanity, when the half distraught king would grasp and poise his heavy spear, as though he would hurl it at the kindly musician as he tried to calm the troubled spirit. Then it would plot and scheme against the hated life, trying to involve this young soldier in some enterprise fraught with deadly peril. Now he speaks openly to his heir and his counsellors of the risk incurred by suffering so dangerous a man to live.
But Jonathan Saul's son delighted much in David: and Jonathan told David, saying, Saul my father seeketh to kill thee: now therefore, I pray thee, take heed to thyself until the morning, and abide in a secret place, and hide thyself:(2) Jonathan told David.—The danger Jonathan saw was a very present one. A very slight expression on the part of a powerful king of his earnest desire to get rid of an obnoxious subject, however eminent or great, is sufficient to stir up unscrupulous men to commit the murder which they might fancy would be acceptable to their master.
And I will go out and stand beside my father in the field where thou art, and I will commune with my father of thee; and what I see, that I will tell thee.(3) In the field.—No doubt some garden or quiet place, whither the king was in the habit of resorting with his friends and counsellors.
And Jonathan spake good of David unto Saul his father, and said unto him, Let not the king sin against his servant, against David; because he hath not sinned against thee, and because his works have been to theeward very good:(4) Jonathan spake good of David.—The heir to the throne—the one above all men likely to be injured by the growing popularity of David—with great power and intense earnestness, represented to his father the king the great virtues, the unrivalled gifts, and, above all, the splendid services of the young soldier whose life Saul was so anxious to cut short. “See,’ urged the eloquent pleader for his friend’s life, “on that ever memorable occasion when he fought the giant, when he aimed the pebble of the brook from his shepherd’s sling, he put his life in his hand. Had he missed a hair’s-breadth, the giant would have slain him, and the deliverance then wrought for Israel would never have been accomplished.”
And Saul hearkened unto the voice of Jonathan: and Saul sware, As the LORD liveth, he shall not be slain.(6) And Saul hearkened.—The moving eloquence of Jonathan touched Saul’s heart, and for a brief space something of the old noble spirit influenced the king, and he swore he would not attempt his life.
And Jonathan called David, and Jonathan shewed him all those things. And Jonathan brought David to Saul, and he was in his presence, as in times past.(7) As in times past.—The old life went on as before, and David seemingly was received on terms of intimacy and affection by the king, but a new cause was soon supplied which again lit up the slumbering fires of jealousy in the king’s heart. The next verse tells us of a successful campaign against the hereditary foes of Israel, in which, as usual, David was the hero.
And the evil spirit from the LORD was upon Saul, as he sat in his house with his javelin in his hand: and David played with his hand.(9) And the evil spirit . . . was upon Saul.—Again the terrible malady was upon the king—not unlikely brought on by the wild storm of jealous fury which Saul allowed to sweep unchecked across his soul. Once more—
“Out of the black mid-tent’s silence, a space of three days,
Not a sound hath escaped to thy servants of prayer nor of
To betoken that Saul and the spirit have ended their strife,
And that, faint in his triumph, the monarch sinks back
But the time when the skilled musician with his Divine strains had roused him into life again was passed (see 1Samuel 16:21-23), not now as in old days, when, to use the words the great poet put into David’s mouth—
“—I looked up to know
If the best I could do had brought solace: he spoke not, but
Lifted up the hand slack at his side, till he laid it with care,
Soft and grave, but in mild settled will, on my brow; through
The large fingers were pushed, and he bent back my head.
with kind power—
All my face back, intent to peruse it as men do a flower.
Thus held he me there, with his great eye that scrutinized
And oh, all my heart how it loved him! . . .”
This time, seizing the tall spear which was ever by his side, he hurled it with deadly intent at the sorrow-stricken, loving face, and David fled in hot haste from the doomed presence for ever. The LXX. was offended at the statement “evil spirit of (or from) Jehovah,” and cuts the knot by leaving out “Jehovah.” It is, no doubt, a hard saying, and no human expositor has ever yet been able fully to explain it.
To the expression Ruach Jehovah, “Spirit of Jehovah” (for “of” is more accurate than “from”), and the equivalent phrase, Ruach Elohim, “Spirit of God” (1Samuel 16:14-15), the epithet “evil” is added. We cannot attempt to fathom the mysteries of the spirit world—we have absolutely no data—we simply possess in the sacred book a few scattered notices, which indicate the existence of evil spirits. To suppose that these malignant or evil beings were part of the heavenly host employed by the Eternal is a supposition utterly at variance with our conception of the All-Father. We may, however, safely grant (1) the existence of evil spirits—probably beings fallen through sin and disobedience from their high estate; and (2) we may suppose that these evil spirits—all, of course, belonging to the Eternal, even in their deep degradation (so though “evil,” still “spirits of God, or Jehovah,”)—receive occasional permission, for some wise—though to us unknown—reasons, to tempt and plague for a season the souls of certain men.
The introduction to the Book of Job (Job 1:6; Job 2:1-7), and the circumstance which led to the death of King Ahab before Ramoth Gilead (1Kings 22:19-22), at least favour this hypothesis. The presence of those evil spirits, or “devils, who possessed those unhappy ones whom we meet so often in the Gospel story, points to the same conclusion. Why certain souls should have been exposed to this dread experience is, of course, beyond our ken. From the scanty information vouchsafed to us, it seems, however, that the power of the evil spirit was sometimes permitted to be exercised (a) as a trial of faith, as in the case of Job; or (b) as a punishment incurred by the soul’s desertion of God, as in the case of Saul.
And Saul sought to smite David even to the wall with the javelin; but he slipped away out of Saul's presence, and he smote the javelin into the wall: and David fled, and escaped that night.(10) The javelin.—This is the great spear, which in so many of the scenes in the First Book of Samuel is represented as in the hand of Saul or by his side.
So Michal let David down through a window: and he went, and fled, and escaped.(12) So Michal let David down.—The princess, his wife, knew well her father’s character, and conscious, now that the veil of his dark design was publicly lifted, that there was no hope for her husband any longer save in his instant flight, she “let David down through a window,” because the king’s guards were watching the door. With this desperate flight began those long weary wanderings, those perpetual risks of his life, which went on until the death of King Saul released David from his deadly enemy.
And Michal took an image, and laid it in the bed, and put a pillow of goats' hair for his bolster, and covered it with a cloth.(13) An image.—An image in the Hebrew is teraphim—a plural form, but used as a singular. We have no instance of the singular. The Latin equivalent, “penates,” singularly enough, is also only found in the plural form. In this case, probably, it was a life-size figure or bust. The word has been discussed above (1Samuel 15:23). It is singular how, in spite of the stern command to avoid idolatry, the children of Israel seemed to love to possess these lifeless images. The teraphim were probably a remnant of the idolatry originally brought by some of Abraham’s family from their Chaldaean home. These idols, we know, varied in size, from the diminutive image which Rachel (Genesis 31:34) was able to conceal under the camel saddle to the life-size figure which the Princess Michal here used to make her father’s guards believe that her sick husband, David, was in bed. They appear to have been looked on as tutelary deities, the dispensers of domestic and family good fortune. It has been suggested, with some probability, that Michal, like Rachel, kept this teraphim in secret, because of her barrenness.
A pillow of goats’ hair.—More accurately, a goat’s skin about its head. So render the Syriac and Vulgate Versions. The reason of this act apparently was to imitate the effect of a man’s hair round the teraphim’s head. Its body, we read in the next clause, was covered “with a cloth.” Some scholars have suggested that this goat’s skin was a net-work of goat’s hair to keep off the flies from the supposed sleeper. The LXX., instead of k’vir (skin), read in their Hebrew copies keaved (liver). As the vowel points were introduced much later, such a confusion (especially as the difference between d and r in Hebrew is very slight) would be likely enough to occur in the MSS.
Josephus, adopting the LXX. reading, explains Michal’s conduct thus—“Michal put a palpitating goat’s liver into the bed, to represent a breathing sick man.”
With a cloth.—Heb., beged. This was David’s every-day garment, which he was in the habit of wearing. This, loosely thrown over the image, would materially assist the deception. The fifty-ninth Psalm bears the following title—“A michtam(or song of deep import) of David, when Saul sent, and they watched the house to kill him.” The internal evidence, however, is scarcely confirmatory of the accuracy of the title. The sacred song in question is very probably one of David’s own composition, and it is likely enough that the danger he incurred on this occasion was in his mind when he wrote the solemn words; but there are references in this psalm which must apply to other events in his troubled, anxious life.
So David fled, and escaped, and came to Samuel to Ramah, and told him all that Saul had done to him. And he and Samuel went and dwelt in Naioth.(18) And came to Samuel.—The influence and authority which Samuel still preserved in the nation even in the stormy close of Saul’s career, must have been very great for the frightened David to have sought a refuge in his quiet home of prayer and learning. The exile, fleeing before his sovereign, felt that in the residence of the old seer he would be safe from all pursuit, as in a sanctuary. David’s intimate connection with Samuel has been alluded to on several occasions. He stood to the old seer in the relation of a loved pupil.
And it was told Saul, saying, Behold, David is at Naioth in Ramah.(19) Naioth.—Naioth, or Nevaioth, as it is also written, was not a town, but, as the name denotes, a cluster of dwellings or abodes. It is derived from the verb navali, to rest or abide. Samuel had his own house in Ramah, and these dwellings, where his prophetic schools were established, were in the immediate neighbourhood, “Naioth in Ramah.” It was to this school he took David on this occasion. The Chaldee Targum renders or paraphrases Naioth here by “house of learning.”
And Saul sent messengers to take David: and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as appointed over them, the Spirit of God was upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied.(20) The company of the prophets.—(On the general question of this company of prophets see Excursus H, at the end of this Book.) The Hebrew word rendered “company” occurs only in this place, but the ancient versions agree in rendering it “company,” or “assembly.” The Chaldee paraphrases here “they saw the company of the scribes praising, and Samuel standing over them teaching.”
And they also prophesied.—Like so much that happened among the chosen people during their eventful trial period, the circumstance here related does not belong to ordinary natural experience. The words which immediately precede suggest the only possible explanation of the strange occurrence: “The Spirit of God was upon these messengers of Saul.” Ewald thus graphically paraphrases the Biblical record of this scene:—“It is related of those who started with the most hostile intentions against the prophets and their pupils, that as they approached they suddenly stood still, spell-bound by the music and solemn dance of the devotees; then, more and more powerfully drawn by the same Spirit into the charmed circle, they broke forth into similar words and gestures; and then, flinging away their upper garments, they joined in the dance and the music, and sinking down into ecstatic quivering, utterly forgot the hostile spirit in which they had come. . . . The same thing befell fresh messengers a second, nay, a third time. Then Saul himself, enraged, rushed to Ramah, . . . and as he looked down from the hill upon the school, and heard the loud pealing songs rising from it, he was seized by the Divine Spirit; and when he at last reached the spot he sank into the same condition of enthusiasm still more deeply than all the messengers whom he had previously despatched.”
And when it was told Saul, he sent other messengers, and they prophesied likewise. And Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they prophesied also.(21) And they prophesied likewise.—Bishop Wordsworth calls attention here to the fact of “this portion of Scripture, from 1Samuel 19:18 to end of the chapter, which relates the illapse of the Spirit on Saul’s messengers, and even on Saul himself, the persecutor of David, being appointed by the Church to be read on Whitsun Tuesday (Old Lect.), in order to show the existence and working of the Holy Spirit before the times of the Gospel, and the freedom and power of His Divine agency.” (Comp. here Numbers 11:26-31 : the history of Eldad and Medad, which we read on Whitsun Monday, New Lect.)
And he stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say, Is Saul also among the prophets?(24) And he stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in like manner.—This was certainly not the first time that Saul had experienced a similar influence of the Spirit of God. We are told (1Samuel 10:10) that directly after his anointing by Samuel, he met a company of prophets, who were prophesying at Gibeah, and that “the Spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them.” On that occasion he had been changed into another man. What was the meaning of the outpouring upon the faithless king now? The Chaldee, according to Raschi’s explanation, says he was mad. Is it not, however, better to explain the incident by understanding that once more the pitiful Spirit pleaded with the man whom the Lord had chosen to be His anointed? But, alas! when the moment of strange excitement was over, the blessed pleading was forgotten. Is not this a matter of every-day experience?
And lay down naked.—Not necessarily without any clothes, for under the tunic there was worn by men of the upper ranks certainly a fine-woven shirt of linen or cotton. Lyranus explains the words “stripped off his clothes” as simply denoting that he threw off his upper garment, “his royal robe.”
Is Saul also among the prophets?—The same thing having taken place before (see 1Samuel 10:12), this saying gained currency among the people. There seemed something strange to men in one so self-willed and disobedient as was Saul receiving, as it seemed to the by-standers, the Divine and much coveted gift. “Many,” says St. Augustine, “are the gifts of God which are possessed by evil men. Evil men have often great talents, great skill, great wealth. . . . The gift of prophesy is a great gift, but it was possessed by Saul. Saul, an evil king, prophesied at the very time he was persecuting holy David. Let not, therefore, men boast if they have God’s gifts; those gifts will profit them nothing without charity (1Corinthians 13:1-2). But let them think of the fearful account they must one day give to God, if they use not holy things holily.”—St. Augustine, in Psalms 103, quoted by Wordsworth.