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Life of David

Envy

1 Samuel 18

Envy has lately developed a good name - when applied in politics. It seems that if one class of people has something, and another class does not, then the obvious solution is to take it away from the first. Often, this is seen as justice. It is usually envy. So it is that envy has taken on the sheen of virtue. But it is still a sin, and we shall examine it in the person of Saul, and the man he envies - David.

(1 Sam 18 NIV) After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. {2} From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return to his father's house. {3} And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. {4} Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt. {5} Whatever Saul sent him to do, David did it so successfully that Saul gave him a high rank in the army. This pleased all the people, and Saul's officers as well. {6} When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lutes. {7} As they danced, they sang: "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands." {8} Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. "They have credited David with tens of thousands," he thought, "but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?" {9} And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David. {10} The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully upon Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the harp, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand {11} and he hurled it, saying to himself, "I'll pin David to the wall." But David eluded him twice. {12} Saul was afraid of David, because the LORD was with David but had left Saul. {13} So he sent David away from him and gave him command over a thousand men, and David led the troops in their campaigns. {14} In everything he did he had great success, because the LORD was with him. {15} When Saul saw how successful he was, he was afraid of him. {16} But all Israel and Judah loved David, because he led them in their campaigns. {17} Saul said to David, "Here is my older daughter Merab. I will give her to you in marriage; only serve me bravely and fight the battles of the LORD." For Saul said to himself, "I will not raise a hand against him. Let the Philistines do that!" {18} But David said to Saul, "Who am I, and what is my family or my father's clan in Israel, that I should become the king's son-in-law?" {19} So when the time came for Merab, Saul's daughter, to be given to David, she was given in marriage to Adriel of Meholah. {20} Now Saul's daughter Michal was in love with David, and when they told Saul about it, he was pleased. {21} "I will give her to him," he thought, "so that she may be a snare to him and so that the hand of the Philistines may be against him." So Saul said to David, "Now you have a second opportunity to become my son-in-law." {22} Then Saul ordered his attendants: "Speak to David privately and say, 'Look, the king is pleased with you, and his attendants all like you; now become his son-in-law.'" {23} They repeated these words to David. But David said, "Do you think it is a small matter to become the king's son-in-law? I'm only a poor man and little known." {24} When Saul's servants told him what David had said, {25} Saul replied, "Say to David, 'The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins, to take revenge on his enemies.'" Saul's plan was to have David fall by the hands of the Philistines. {26} When the attendants told David these things, he was pleased to become the king's son-in-law. So before the allotted time elapsed, {27} David and his men went out and killed two hundred Philistines. He brought their foreskins and presented the full number to the king so that he might become the king's son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage. {28} When Saul realized that the LORD was with David and that his daughter Michal loved David, {29} Saul became still more afraid of him, and he remained his enemy the rest of his days. {30} The Philistine commanders continued to go out to battle, and as often as they did, David met with more success than the rest of Saul's officers, and his name became well known.

The Main Characters

There are three main characters in this drama: Saul, his son Jonathan and David. We shall spend most of our time with Saul, but the other two make an interesting contrast.

Achievement

It's important to note that Saul is not a failure. Both he and David are doing what the Lord commands - driving out the people from the promised land. There is no disgrace in Saul's military performance. Note also that he is, in fact, the king - as even David acknowledges. David is his servant. So why is Saul so upset?

  • He has forgotten just who is king here. In his heart of hearts, Saul probably knows that he is not worthy to be a king - he's been promoted to the level of his incompetence, so to speak. That can gnaw at a man.
  • He sees David as a competitor, not a servant. How many times have you met a manager in business who had to be the smartest person in the room - no matter how ignorant he was?
  • This may be Saul imagining palace intrigue. He may be thinking that David is a man just like himself - and he knows what he would do in David's place.
Hurling the spear - twice

Envy often simmers in the dark - but when coupled with anger, it produces action. This is one reason why we think of envy as such a little sin, or no sin at all - if we don't have the chance to act, and the anger to make us act, "nothing" comes of it. Nothing but the rot of the soul.

Send him away

Saul then resorts to his next trick. He sends him out on campaign. There are two reasons for this:

  • Like many people struggling with their own egos, he figures "out of sight, out of mind." If I don't have to watch the man perform, I won't be reminded of how envious I am.
  • Also, he has figured out a way to dispose of the lad. He'll let the Philistines do it for him. (Sadly, David will remember this trick - with Uriah). One of the key characteristics of envy is that it is embarrassing - we don't want others to see what we consider to be our inadequacy. So we intrigue to bring the target down by someone else's hand.
Snare - the woman

Saul's next tactic is to give him Michal, his daughter, in marriage. Perhaps he knew that she was a nag - she certainly nags David when he dances before the Ark - but whatever the reason, he thought he was fastening a lead weight to David's neck. Michal, however, loved David and even saved his life from the hand of her father. It is interesting to speculate on what must have been going through Saul's mind when he thought this one up. I leave it as an exercise for the reader. But it doesn't say much for Michal's mother, does it?

Contrast: Jonathan

Jonathan is a righteous man, and as such he cannot help but rejoice at David's success. It is one of the finest marks of a truly humble and righteous man, that he sees in someone who surpasses him in God's own work not a rival but a friend.

Contrast: David

David is a man of action, and we see his actions here:

  • He acts in humility - considering that he has already been anointed king, he thinks it a big deal to become Saul's son-in-law.
  • He acts with courage.
  • He acts in forgiveness - Saul threw that spear twice.

Envy - Definition and Cause

Just what is envy? Most of us have felt it, but it helps to have it laid out in definition so that we can see what we are dealing with:

  • Envy is first the sin of the "have-nots" against the "haves." It says, "Why should he have so much when I don't?" (If you want the right answers, you have to ask the right questions. Here's a wrong question.)
  • The mediaeval theologians that it is sorrow for another's good. In other words, it's when I'm unhappy that you are happy.
  • In mathematical terms, your good = my evil. This is why we often mistake envy for righteous anger. The logic goes that you stole what was rightfully mine. But consider: were these victories of David rightfully Saul's? Or did he stake a mental claim on something that was not really his?
  • In a twisted sense (and Satan cannot create, he can only twist to evil) envy is the recognition of good. If I envy you, then what you have must be something I consider good. It's just that I don't want you to have it. I want it for myself.
  • Envy is intensely personal. As Walter Hilton pointed out, in envy we hate a person - not the good things they have. As such, envy is hatred without just cause.

So how do we get into this mess? What causes us to envy?

  • Sometimes envy is the wrong reaction to God's disciplining me. If God prevents me from being rich, for example, is that not for my own good? Should I not take my complaint to him, rather than envying you?
  • The Scripture tells us that disputation produces envy.[1] If you're the type that loves to argue, envy is a likely result. You can't win them all.
  • Envy is a form of love for this world. If I want you to be as poor as I am, then I must think being rich is worth rotting the soul. That's love for this world, falling in with the world's system.
  • Envy is often mixed with fear, as with Saul here. Fear amplifies envy.
  • First and foremost, envy comes from not giving Christ first place in our lives. For if we gave him first place, we would not desire the rewards of the wicked, and would praise him for the successes of the righteous.
Envy - of the good and the evil

Envy comes in two flavors: envy of those who are evil, and the things they have, and envy of those who are good, and their possessions.

Envy of the evil

The finest example of this is found in the parable of the Prodigal Son - in the story of the older brother. It's interesting to note that none of the servants went to tell the older brother that his wayward brother was home; nobody wanted to bear that bad news - they knew the reaction. But it does bring up a question:

  • Was he envious of the forgiveness that the younger brother received? Remember that the first shall be last and the last first!
  • Or was he really envious that the kid "got away with it?" How appealing in the mind to think that I can have all the pleasures of this world (sex, drugs and rock and roll) and still have God's mercy; how galling to those who have walked the straight and narrow, yearning for the wide and crooked.

Psalm 37 shows us the envy of the rich - which is what we most commonly use as the example of envy. Note, please, that this is the wealth of the evil that we're seeing here.

Envy of the evil is one thing. Envy of the righteous is another - for that is where Satan himself started, when he said, "I will be like God."

Envy of the righteous

We see many examples of this in the Scripture:

  • In Esther, we see that Haman envies Mordecai - for this is the one man who has the integrity not to cozy up to Haman's power.
  • In Daniel, the satraps know that only in Daniel's religion will they find a chance to accuse him.
  • Even among the disciples of Christ, envy breaks out. But Christ has the answer to this:

(John 21:20-22 NIV) Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") {21} When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?" {22} Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me."

A story is told by one of the great preachers of the 19th century, F.E.B. Meyer. He took over a church in London. Within a two mile radius of that church were congregations pastured by three of the greatest preachers of the day. A friend visited Meyer, and found him deeply depressed, presiding over a half-empty church.

Two years later the friend returned to find a buoyant Meyer presiding over a packed church. His friend asked what happened. Meyer confessed that God had convicted him of the sin of envy, and taught him to pray for the other churches. "I prayed that God would fill their churches to overflowing," said Meyer, "and out of the overflow he has filled mine."

Is this really serious?

Most of us think of envy as a trivial sin, if we think it a sin at all. We are not taught that it is a sin, other than from the direct reading of the Scripture. I cannot recall ever hearing a sermon on the subject. One reason that it seems such a light thing is that its object is a good thing. We see something that we think is good in the possession of another. How could wanting a good thing be wrong? (I am indebted to St. Augustine for the point.) But envy is not the wanting of a good thing - it is the wanting that such a thing should not be in the hands of another.

Because we think it trivial, we do not fear it. (St. Cyprian taught me that). We underestimate the enemy of our souls! Is it so trivial? No, I think not:. The Roman Catholic church teaches that it is a mortal sin, for it is opposed to love - because love does not envy.[2]

In envy, we hate a person, and do the opposite of love.

The results of this are most serious. Consider simply two passages:

(Prov 14:30 NIV) A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.

(James 3:16 NIV) For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

There you have it from Old Testament and New: envy rots you and destroys those around you. Have you not seen this in your own experience?

Fortunately, there is help. Ultimately envy comes of not putting Christ first, but putting him first pushes envy aside. As Thomas à Kempis put it,

He who desires glory in things outside of God, or to take pleasure in some private good, shall many ways be encumbered and straitened; but if heavenly grace enter in, and true love, there will be no envy, neither narrowness of heart, neither will self‑love busy itself, for Divine Love overcomes all things, and enlarges all the powers of the soul.

Or as Christ put it, "What is that to you? You must follow me."


[1] 1 Timothy 6:4

[2] 1 Corinthians 13:4

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