Soften or Sharpen

2 Samuel 1:1, 17–27, preached by Peregrine Morkal-Williams on June 30, 2024

There is an Israeli woman named Ada Sagi, an elderly woman, who lived in a kibbutz before October 7 of last year. She taught Arabic to Israelis so they would be able to talk with their Arab neighbors. She wanted there to be peace. But then she was taken hostage by Hamas. By the time she was released several months later, she told the BBC in an interview this week, she did not believe in peace anymore. 

I am not pro-Israel, let’s be clear. Israel’s retaliation in this war has been far greater than Hamas’ initial strike. And I won’t excuse the way Israel’s army is failing to prevent massive civilian casualties and a humanitarian crisis. 

But. If we want to be peacemakers, we have to still see warmongers as people, as human beings, who do things for reasons. Maybe not good reasons—but reasons nonetheless. Reasons that can be learned about and worked on.

That’s the lens I’m bringing to this Scripture. I think David has something to teach us about war and how to end it. I’m going to invite us to look at David’s whole journey up to and beyond the lament that he shares for Saul and Jonathan, and when we do, there are two responses to hardship that I want to think about: softening and sharpening.

To sharpen is to respond with harshness, vengeance, lashing out, or some other kind of rigidity. It might be straight-up violence, or it might be spiritual rigidity—cynicism, self-righteousness, those are also options that sharpen us. “An eye for an eye” is sharpness. “My way or the highway” is sharpness. Sharpness is meant to be protective, like armor. Keeps other people out, tries to not be affected.

Softening is basically the opposite. Softening might involve forgiveness, mercy, or other expressions of grace. Insisting on the dignity of one’s enemy is a form of softness. The civil rights movement epitomized softness as a force for justice in the modern era, and showed the huge potential for strength in softness. If sharpness is like a heart breaking into shards that cut anyone who handles them, softness is like a heart breaking open. If sharpness is like armor, softness is like water. Water offers no resistance when you run your hand through it. Yet not even a mountain can resist water going where it will go.

Sharpness—vengeance and self-righteousness—is often a knee-jerk reaction. But we usually have to choose softness. It takes practice, and spiritual discipline, and faith, to choose softness. I’m not here to say that sharpness is evil; it often comes from a place of trauma, and I do have sympathy for the internal pain that leads to sharp responses. But even though I’m not here to say sharpness is evil, I will say it is almost always unhelpful. Sharpness tends to escalate conflicts and delay healing. And sharpness can cause people to act in evil ways. 

So this is what I’m inviting us to look for, when we go through the story of David’s relationship with Saul. There’s a lot that we’re skipping—the whole possibility of a love affair with Jonathan, Saul’s son, for example. But we’re looking for moments of softening and moments of sharpness in the midst of conflict.

David and Saul first met way back in 1 Samuel 16 or 17. Each chapter has a different account of how they first encountered each other. Either way, David’s military prowess became clear pretty quickly—and the people of Israel thought he was greater than Saul. There is a song the women would sing: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” 

Saul did not like that, one bit. He eyed David with a mix of fear and jealousy. He tried to kill David on two separate occasions by throwing his spear at him. He sent David into dangerous battles, hoping the Philistines would kill him. He devised other plots to kill David. Saul sharpened, over and over again. The challenge he felt was fear and jealousy, and he responded with violence.

After David escaped from Saul’s immediate vicinity, he fled all over Israel, pursued by Saul’s soldiers and sometimes Saul himself. Twice, David had opportunities to kill Saul. The first time was when Saul went to take a leak in a cave where David happened to be hiding. The second time was when Saul was asleep in his army camp and no one was guarding him very well. Both times, David took an item from Saul to prove that he had been close enough to do harm. Then David went to a safe distance to announce himself. Both times, Saul saw reason for the moment, only to return later to his quest for vengeance.

David fled to Philistia to escape. He worked for the king of Gath, a city there, doing what he was best at: military raids. Except now instead of raiding Philistine towns, he raided Judean towns—his own country. 

The king of Gath, in Philistia, came to trust David, but other commanders in the Philistine army did not trust him, since, you know, he used to fight against the Philistines. The king of Gath needed his other commanders’ support more than he needed David, so he kicked David out of that military campaign and sent him back to the Philistine town where he had taken up residence. 

Which is where David was when he got the news about Saul’s death. Saul, his son Jonathan, and two others of Saul’s sons had died together in battle—the battle that David had been sent away from, in fact. When David gets the news, he mourns and voices this lament. 

So then after David’s lament, a commander in Saul’s army and another of Saul’s sons join together to continue the war with the house of David. Some of David’s people participate, but it seems like David isn’t really directing his house’s side of the war. 

Eventually, this phase of the war finally ends: infighting on the side of the house of Saul causes one of the leaders to switch sides and make a covenant with David instead. David reunites Israel and Judah as one kingdom, and reigns over that one kingdom for over thirty years. I think that is the fruit of all the softening he did in his relationship with Saul and Saul’s people. If he had sharpened in the face of conflict, Saul’s people would not have been willing to join with him. Softening didn’t immediately create peace, but it paved the way for peace eventually.

And, you know, softening must have been hard for David! To fight for your life from a powerful man who used to like you, but then decided he wanted you dead—and then, when he dies, to lament over him. To mourn the one who pursued you. To abstain from vengeance. These are not easy things. They require a lot of courage and a lot of faith. But they can be done.

Let’s return to the present day. It’s easy enough for me to say, sitting comfortably here in Minnesota, that Ada Sagi, the woman who doesn’t believe in peace anymore, should soften her heart. Easy enough for me to say that she’s experienced trauma and sharpened as a defense mechanism. Easy enough for me to say that Netanyahu and the Israeli people in general need to learn to soften or they will be stuck in cycles of war forever—and that Hamas and Hezbollah need to learn to soften too, for the same reason. 

But what about me? That softening is theirs to do, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t do it for them. But where in my heart have I sharpened? Where have I set up armor-defenses and denied the power of water-strength? This answer is going to be a little different for each person. Maybe for some people it’s about being unwilling to see humanness on the enemy side. Maybe for some it’s completely avoiding the news—I’ve fallen into both of those. For me, right now, the sharpness shows up most clearly as cynicism: believing with Ada Sagi that peace is not possible. 

It’s painful to shift that belief. Because saying that peace is possible means saying that this war could be avoided, that it doesn’t have to be happening. But believing that peace is possible is my only faithful response. I’m not saying that peace is possible tomorrow, or next year, or even in ten years. Just . . . peace is possible. There could be a last death from war—a final casualty that is mourned but not avenged. Peace is possible. 

That’s where I am trying to soften. That’s where I am trying to take off my armor and be strong like water. What about you? What are the sharp parts in your heart? Where is the soft strength of water?