This is a story about frenemies.
A few of you are unfamiliar with that portmanteau, so let’s pause to identify the two words being blended together here:
Friend –> FRENEMY <– Enemy
A frenemy is a friend who is also kind of your enemy, or an enemy who is still kind of your friend. For pop culture examples think Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag, Brenda Walsh and Kelly Tailor… although if you know who those people are, I bet you didn’t need a definition of “frenemy” in the first place.
So if you’re still lost, let’s take it back, way back, to two people I spent a lot of time reading about in my childhood: Betty and Veronica.
The characters of Betty and Veronica were “born” in the 1940s with Archie Comics. Although sales are much slimmer today, in the 1960s around 500,000 Archie comics were sold each year, following the teenage exploits of Archie and his friends Jughead, Reggie, Betty, and Veronica. Whenever I went to the grocery store with Mom growing up, I’d beg her to buy me one of those “Double Digests” on display in the checkout line.
Betty and Veronica are best friends. Often in the comics, they’re shown acting just that way, as they shop and primp and go to school and get ready for parties. (Archie wasn’t shattering any gender stereotypes back when I was reading it.) But Betty and Veronica share a crush on Archie, and it’s equally common to see them sneaking around and misleading and plain being mean to each other.
As a woman, I hate to point out that all my examples of frenemies thus far are female, and I guess we sometimes do have a special talent for loving and hating each other. But men can be frenemies, too. Case in point:
David and Saul.
Today’s passage describes a sweet moment: Saul is hurting, and David is called in to play music to soothe his soul. Whenever David plays, Saul feels better. We might even think there’s no “enemy” component to this relationship, except for the ominous way the passage starts:
“Now the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.”
God’s spirit came on Saul when God selected him to be king. This was at the Israelites’ request, and even though it was a huge affront to God – God was supposed to be their king – God gave them what they asked for. Samuel selects Saul for the position, and God gives him the heart for the job.
But things start to go wrong. As Eugene Peterson describes it, Saul doesn’t obey God – Saul uses God for his own means. With the cart in front of the proverbial horse, Saul’s decision making skills are flawed. He’s not acting as God’s king; he’s acting like a king who wants to tap into God’s power.
Case in point: the time Saul was in a battle with the Philistines and has been told to wait for Samuel to show up an offer a sacrifice. He waits… and waits… and as he waits, his soldiers get nervous and start to leave. I can easily imagine Saul’s logic as he takes matters into his own hands: “Good grief, how hard could this be? I kill the animal, I put it on a fire – I can do this. Let’s get it done so we can win this thing.” But God isn’t a commodity to be used, God is the one Saul must wait on. Samuel shows up and shows a mentor’s mixture of furious and disappointed and hurt. Samuel speaks for God: “You would have reigned forever, but not now – if this is how you treat God, then God has already left you and found someone else” (my paraphrase; see 1 Samuel 13).
God’s spirit leaves Saul. God rejects him as king. Samuel the prophet leaves his side. Things are turning dark for Israel’s first king. And now, with today’s Scripture, we know that not only has God’s spirit left, but an evil spirit from God is on him.
This is confusing, right? It is for me. The God I know isn’t the source of evil spirits. So what about this “evil spirit” that comes on Saul? The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary suggests that in 1 and 2 Samuel, everything comes from God – so this evil spirit that was observed in Saul was credited to God as well. That makes a little sense to me, but not enough to make me comfortable with the idea. So I confess to you that I don’t fully understand how God is the source of this evil spirit – but I can understand how repeated attempts to use God for his own goals would make Saul’s soul sick.
Saul is sick enough, in fact, that his servants are worried. They suggest that music might soothe his soul – and one of them has seen David, son of Jesse, play the lyre. We, the readers of 1 Samuel, know what Saul doesn’t know: that David has been anointed as the next king. So he sends for David, who plays for him and it works – Saul feels better. Saul loves David. Saul asks Jesse to let his son stay with him.
They aren’t frenemies yet, but there is tension here. Is the residue of Samuel’s oil still in David’s hair when he shows up to serve Saul? Did Jesse hesitate before giving permission for David to stay with the king he is supposed to replace? Did they both worry that any day would be the day when Saul figured it out, became jealous, and killed the non-biological heir to his throne?
That day does come. Three times Saul will attempt to kill David. Three times he tries to throw a spear at David while David is trying to help Saul with his music. After the third time, David gets smart and sneaks out of town to go into hiding.
Saul’s hatred for David grows. Everyone else loves this lyre-playing kid: his daughter, Michal, who marries him; his son, Jonathan, who becomes his best friend; all Israel; God, even, who has blessed David with the Spirit. Saul becomes obsessed. He loves David, the one who soothes his soul. He hates David, the one that will be the next king.
It feels a little silly to use a made-up pop culture word to describe Saul’s murderous intent. But it does bring it home, because most of us know what it feels like to have a frenemy. Unlike Saul, we’d never go so far as throwing a spear at them. But like Saul, we might secretly wish some badness on them. Unlike Saul, we aren’t upset that they want to take our crowns and our thrones. But like Saul, we are jealous of their relationships, their status, their stuff.
We love them. We hate them. We’re frenemies.
And if left unchecked, that hate can start to overpower that love. Hate breeds easily; it doesn’t take much to feed it and make it grow.
See how it grew in Saul’s heart?
But not in David’s.
Once, Saul learns David’s location in a particular wilderness area. He collects not a dozen or so, but three thousand men to go find him. This mission takes a while, so of course the times comes when Saul has to do what we all have to do about once a day. Saul goes into a cave for a little privacy to do his business.
What he doesn’t know is that David and his men are hiding in that very cave, further back.
Saul is completely exposed with his drawers and his guard down. David’s men are reaching for their weapons – this is their chance! In one easy move, this whole ordeal could be over and David will take the throne as king.
But David is not going to do things the easy way. David is going to do things God’s way.
David holds his men back. He sneaks up behind Saul and cuts a piece off his cloak, which later he can use as evidence of his love: “Why do you listen to people when they tell you I want to hurt you? Look at this piece I cut off your cloak! I could have killed you if I wanted, but that is not what I want (my paraphrase; see 1 Samuel 24).
The spirit of God has left Saul and has found a new home in David. So David continues to love Saul. And I know this not so much because the Bible tells me, “David loved Saul,” but because of what David did.
Love as a noun is a mediocre thing, a warm feeling, a sentiment. Love as a verb is powerful and life-changing. David kept loving Saul through his actions, by letting love dictate his actions and not his hate.
It’s common to have people in our lives where we have some negative feelings for them: our frenemies. We can feel jealous of them. We might wish bad things for them.
Those thoughts are not harmless. They can multiply before we know it.
We have a choice: We can be like Saul, or like David. If we’re like Saul, we indulge our hate until those thoughts become actions. If we’re like David, we choose the difficult path of love – love in how we act – even when it looks foolish to others.
If we’re like Saul, we use God when it’s convenient to us. If we’re like David, we obey God even when it’s terribly inconvenient.
The same God who told us:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
“But I say to you:
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” (Matthew 5:43-45).