David was a man of many virtues, some of which gain more attention than others. In the latter category, we must put his forbearance. By the end of 1 Samuel, Saul has become David’s implacable foe. He will not rest until David is dead. Nonetheless, David chooses to spare Saul’s life not once but twice, in 1 Samuel 24 and again in 1 Samuel 26.
Even though David uses both of these occasions to plead his case with Saul, (“Look, dummy, you can tell that I’m not your enemy because if I were, you’d be dead by now!”) it’s clear that his motivation is not selfish. Especially after the 1 Samuel 26 encounter, it’s quite clear that David believes Saul will try to kill him no matter what David does.
David gives his true reasoning in 1 Samuel 26:11. He says simply, “The Lord forbid that I should put out my hand against the Lord’s anointed.” David’s treatment of Saul isn’t shaped by Saul’s treatment of him. Instead, it’s shaped by God’s view of Saul. So long as Saul remains the Lord’s anointed—which he will be until he dies—David isn’t going to do anything to him, period. If David were to kill Saul, even though he richly deserves it, he would be sinning against God.
When we find ourselves considering whether we want to return evil for evil, we too ought to remember God’s perspective on the one who has harmed us. This is perhaps most obviously true in marriage. Every marriage has its fusses, and most married Christians will acknowledge that they bear their share of blame for those things.
However, let’s suppose that’s not true. Let’s suppose that we have a jerk husband or a jerk wife. Maybe they don’t try to pin us to the wall with a spear a la Saul, but they make a habit of treating us badly, much worse than we deserve.
At this point, worldly wisdom cries out, “Let ‘em have it!” We can’t go on letting them use us for a doormat, can we? We have to fight fire with fire!
God disagrees. Even a bad wife is still our wife, the one God has instructed us to love as Christ loves the church. Even a bad husband is still our husband, the one we are supposed to submit to in all things as to the Lord. These aren’t commandments with an asterisk, any more than “Don’t harm the Lord’s anointed” was a commandment with an asterisk. Either we obey, or we dishonor God.
This seems harsh, but it reflects God’s wisdom. No marriage can survive two spouses who are willing to return evil for evil. Nor, indeed, in such a marriage, will provocation ever be lacking. Husband does B to Wife because Wife did A to him. Then, Wife does C to Husband because Husband did B to him. And on and on it goes.
The only way to break the cycle is to refuse to play, to say, “Because this is how God has defined our relationship, this is how I am going to treat you no matter what.” This is folly in the eyes of the world, but it is the only way to repair a damaged marriage. Even if that doesn’t work, even if the marriage proves to be beyond repair, it is still right.