The story of David sparing Saul’s life includes an important theological detail that is easy to overlook (1 Samuel 26, Sunday). Twice in the story David refers to Saul as “the Lord’s anointed,” citing the title as the reason for sparing his life. The Hebrew word for “anointed” is māšîaḥ, which we know better as messiah. Although Christians tend to think exclusively of Jesus as messiah, in its original usage the word simply designated the king. Because anointing by a prophet (or priest) was the ritual act that signified the Lord’s election and empowerment of a ruler, the word for “anointed one” became a synonym for “king.” Thus, Saul was a messiah (1 Sam 10:1), David was a messiah (1 Sam 16:13), Solomon was a messiah (1 Kgs 1:39), Jehu was a messiah (2 Kgs 9:12), etc. This longstanding tradition is the background for the later recognition of Jesus as the ultimate messiah (or christos, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word).
What makes David’s reference to Saul as messiah significant is that by this point in the story, Saul’s reign was all but finished. His disobedience to the Lord in 1 Samuel 13 and 15 had cost him his royal house and led to David’s anointing as the new king. But David’s anointing didn’t nullify the grace Saul had received at his own anointing. He may have lost his divine mandate to rule over the people of Israel, but as David recognizes in this story and elsewhere (1 Sam 24:7, 11; 2 Sam 1:14), Saul remained the Lord’s “anointed.”
The persistence of this title demonstrates the efficacy of ritual in ancient Israel and invites comparison to the constancy of the grace we receive in the sacraments. Saul made mistakes and had to deal with their consequences for himself and his family, but those mistakes did not annul the spirit he had received from God at his anointing. Likewise, we have to deal with the consequences of our poor choices, but those mistakes don’t remove the grace we received at our rites of anointing, such as baptism, confirmation, and holy orders. In God’s eyes we, like Saul, are more than the mistakes we make.
It can be easy to write Saul off as a loser, the failed first king of Israel who in every way was outshone by his successor, King David. But a closer look at Israel’s first messiah reveals a more sympathetic figure. Though tall and handsome (1 Sam 9:2), Saul was an underdog, a member of the least family in the smallest tribe (9:21). He was hounded by naysayers from the beginning of his kingship (10:27) and struggled with mental health at several points (16:14-23; 18:10-16; 19:9-10). Despite these challenges, he was an accomplished leader in battle and was lamented after his death, not least by David (2 Samuel 1). Of David’s many admirable deeds (and some not so admirable), perhaps none was more magnanimous than his continued recognition of Saul as “the Lord’s anointed.” Even after all the strife between them, David was able to see his rival as someone worthy of the honor he had received from God.
Let us pray for the same ability to see God’s grace in others, especially our opponents.