Ever watch a movie with frustration as the main character is about to go to the cellar where, unbeknownst to him, the killer is lurking? We sometimes have the same irritating feeling reading about David fleeing the jealousy of Saul. Perhaps the most frustrating part of it is knowing that David could have killed him – twice! – and didn’t. He explains, “I will not put my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed” (1 Kingdoms 24:11). So passionate was he on this point that we read at the beginning of the second book of Kingdoms how he slayed the Amalekite who claimed to have killed the wounded Saul (at Saul’s own request, mind you!).
Whether his not killing the inept king when he had the chance was a smart move on David’s part or just plain dumb (as some might be of the opinion) that doesn’t seem to be the point. Rather, we are given the image of a true ruler who is, above all, virtuous. Moreover, according to David, it wasn’t so much Saul’s conduct which was in question but the sacred office of king, God’s anointed one, which he held. The Orthodox Study Bible has the following notation:
“Saul had become a tyrannical leader obsessed with killing the man of God David. Saul had threatened to kill his own son and has massacred over 300 priests. Despite Saul’s sin, David still honored him as the Lord’s anointed and spared him. A lesson hard to lean: throughout the history of the Church, there have been ungoldly leaders, but true saints have taken up David’s example, refusing to come against God’s anointed. Instead they trusted God to vindicate them” (p. 345).
David, therefore, shows us the power of virtue, that God’s will be done (and not ours) and furthermore, that it be done in God’s time (and not ours). For certainly life is filled with moments when the most logical thing to do is not always the best choice, or even, dare I say, ethical. Or, as St. Ambrose says:
“What a virtuous action that was, when David wished rather to spare the king his enemy, though he could have injured him! How useful, too, it was, for it helped him when he succeeded to the throne. For all learned to be faithful to their king and not to seize the kingdom but to fear and reverence him. Thus what is virtuous was preferred to what was useful, and then usefulness followed on what was virtuous.” (St. Ambrose, Duties of the Clergy)