The relationship between King Saul (Israel’s first king) and David (Saul’s successor) was fraught with jealousy, fear, and mistrust. The king’s resentment of David’s heroic fame as a warrior in his army incited Saul to try to kill David. After Saul made several attempts on his life, David fled. While hiding out in the enemy territory of Gath, David hoped he wouldn’t be recognized. But servants of Achish, the king of Gath, saw David and said, “Isn’t this David, the king of the land? Isn’t he the one they sing about in their dances: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’?” (1 Samuel 21:11).
The people of Gath likely regarded David as Israel’s king because of his spectacular military triumph over their own Philistine army. Without a doubt, this knowledge would have fueled Saul’s jealousy of David. But it also sent terror into David’s heart. The king of Gath would probably try to kill David, too, so he pretended to be insane. The ruse worked, and Achish let David go unharmed (1 Samuel 21:12–15).
Earlier, the women of Israel had chanted this verse after David killed the giant Goliath: “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 timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’” (1 Samuel 18:6–7).
In ancient times, it was the custom for wives, mothers, and daughters of Israel’s warriors to compose songs with lyrics that memorialized the men’s success in battle (Exodus 15:21; Judges 5:1–31). It’s highly improbable that Saul had literally killed thousands of Philistines or that David had killed tens of thousands. The language of the song was meant to be figurative, celebrating Israel’s overwhelming victory over their Philistine adversaries. Both Saul and David were praised in the chorus, but the women credited David with more kills and greater honor than their king, and this realization infuriated and greatly displeased King Saul.
It was also customary in days of old for kings and not soldiers to receive credit for victory in battle. But the lyrics, “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens thousands,” elevated David, the soldier, above Saul, the king. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” Saul thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” Saul burned with jealous anger toward David for the rest of his life, eyeing him with suspicion and often outright hostility (1 Samuel 18:8–9).
The king’s intense reaction to the refrain, “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens thousands,” may have been associated with an earlier prophecy by Samuel. The prophet had warned Saul that the kingdom of Israel would be torn from him and given to an anonymous neighbor—“to one better than you” (1 Samuel 15:28).
“Fire tests the purity of silver and gold, but a person is tested by being praised,” declares the teacher in Proverbs 27:21 (NLT). The praise of humans is like a bubbling cauldron, bringing what lies in our hearts to the surface. When David heard the women singing, “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens thousands,” he revealed an inward humbleness unspoiled by pride. On the other hand, Saul let bitterness, envy, arrogance, and a desire for glory boil up from the dregs of his heart as he heard David receiving the praise he felt that he was due.