Resisting the Pound of Flesh

By Daniel Darling

One of the best illustrations of leadership in the Bible is King David’s refusal, twice, to kill King Saul (1 Samuel 24, 1 Samuel 26). You don’t have to be well steeped in Old Testament history to know that Saul was the jealous king who had disobeyed God and took out his anger and wrath on David. For many, many years he chased David around the land of Israel, trying hard to kill this shepherd boy-turned-King. Even Saul’s own son, Jonathan, knew his father was wrong and befriended David at the risk of his life.

And yet, when David had two chances to kill Saul, he didn’t. Many interpret this as a warning for rebelling against God-ordained authority. I’ve even heard it abused this way to justify corrupt leadership. I do think it can be applied in this context and I do think an anti-authoritarian attitude conveys a lack of faith in God’s sovereignty. However, there is another lesson here that is even more powerful, I think.

When you have been wronged or you have serious disagreements with a person or a movement, there is a temptation to not only disagree, but to nourish the desire to see your enemies pay. David himself struggled with this desire, evidenced in the many imprecatory prayers (Psalms 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 109, and 139.). In these appeals to God, David asked for the destruction of those who opposed him. I imagine he envisioned a portrait of King Saul in more than one of these prayers. And yet the scenes with David in 1 Samuel 24 and 1 Samuel 26 show us just what David did with those thoughts of revenge. He didn’t act on them. 

The desire to get back, to go for the jugular, to have his pound of flesh against the man who had tormented him and ruined his life–this desire stayed where it always should–in the space between David and his God. In other words, while David felt the urge to see real-world justice happen against Saul, David acted on the biblical truth that vengeance belongs to the Lord (Romans 12:9). And apparently God had so moved in David’s heart that when he heard the news of Saul’s death, he grieved deeply (2 Samuel 1).

We could learn a lot of from David’s example, can’t we? Whenever we are wrong or we have a very substantive disagreement with someone, there is a great temptation to not only “win the argument” (whatever that means), but also to see our enemies, both real and ideological, find a swift and embarrassing demise. And here is the scary thing, like David, there will likely be nobody in our inner circle who will counsel us away from pursuing our enemy’s last pound of flesh. Nobody to say, “Hey, wait a minute, trust the Lord, don’t seek vengeance.” We live in a culture that encourages this kind of bloodlust. Politicians don’t simply run for office, they dig and search for the one piece of dirt that will sink their opponents. We can’t simply disagree with people, we have to forward emails detailing their utter depravity and Machiavellian schemes. Church leaders do this as well. Christian bloggers do this. We can’t have civil arguments over substantive doctrine, we must wish our opponents the swiftest possible destruction.

This is why we need David’s example of leadership. When he could have ended Saul’s life in embarrassing humility (dying while going to the bathroom, can you imagine a more ignoble death?), rather David directed his thoughts upward and trusted in the Lord. This is attitude of forgiveness, repentance, and trust is vital for every follower of Christ. It makes us countercultural. It’s even more important for Christian leaders, for what we model in moderation, our followers will exhibit in excess. If we create cultures that celebrate retribution and cheap rhetorical victories, those who hang on our every word will take this to an extreme. And instead of creating disciples of Jesus, we’ll create disciples of an insular, spiteful movement. Let’s not do this.

Instead, when given the opportunity to humiliate those who have hurt us or those who disagree, let’s put the sword back in the sheath and walk away.