The Haftarah for Parashat Zachor, detailing Shaul’s doomed attack on Amaleik ends with his plea toward Shmuel to regain his kingship. The Navi relates to us,“VaYomer Chatati Atah Kabedeini Na Neged Ziknei Ami VeNeged Yisrael VeShuv Imi VeHishtachaveiti LaShem Elokecha,” “He said, ‘I have sinned; yet please honor me now, in front of the elders and in front of Israel, and I will worship to Hashem your God’” (Shmuel I 15:30). But even after Shaul makes this overt display of confession and repentance, Shmuel does not pardon him. Contrasting this episode to David’s major sin with Bat-Sheva and Uriyah, the punishment that Natan (the major Navi of that time) presents a relatively lenient punishment. Looking objectively at these two episodes, it appears that David’s sin is much greater, as he committed two cardinal sins, while Shaul seemingly acted out of mercy towards Agag. Why does God judge these two kings so differently, giving the harsher punishment to the lesser offender?
To understand the true implications of Shaul and David’s actions, we must first analyze their intentions. Based on Natan’s response to David, David’s actions were spurred by a loss of self control, something abhorred by Hashem. Shaul’s intentions are not clear from Shmuel’s rebuke; Shaul may have meant to defy God, but more likely, he just succumbed to his humane mercy. Seeing that David had much more reprehensible intentions than Shaul’s perhaps reasonable sentiments, why was Shaul’s judgment harsher than David’s?
Although their intentions show that David’s sin was worse, their reactions show how they differ. When rebuked, David immediately proclaims, “Chatati LaShem,” “I have sinned to Hashem,” and exerts himself to repent to the most of his capabilities for seven days (Shmuel 2 12:13-17). Throughout these seven days, David fasts and prays, and he does not even sleep on a bed. After his repentance phase has finished, he further rectifies his sin, and marries Bat-Sheva and has another child with her. This action is not just pardoned by God, but the Navi even says of this (second) child, “VaHashem Aheivo,” “Hashem loved him” (12:24). By performing the same action with which he had previously sinned, David reversed this activity’s negative side by utilizing it for the service of Hashem.
Shaul’s reaction differs greatly, however. Although he admits that he sinned, he does not mention sinning to God. Rather, his reaction of, “I sinned” is similar to a reflex to Shmuel’s confronting him. He then quickly asks about being pardoned in the eyes of his nation, rather than being pardoned by God. Finally, and least in Shaul’s eyes, he states “VeHishtachaveiti LaShem Elokecha,” he will bow to Shmuel’s God, excluding himself from Klal Yisrael, similar to the wicked son’s question at the Seder. His reaction shows that he is concerned only with his image in his people’s eyes rather than God’s. After Shaul leaves Shmuel’s presence, he makes no further attempt whatsoever to engage in Teshuvah, contrary to David’s continued endeavor to repent, even after Natan had told him that his first child with Bat-Sheva would die as a punishment for his behavior.
This contrast between the two kings’ Teshuvot shows us the nature and result of proper Teshuvah. If we are insincere in our repentance and prayer, and are only concerned with portraying a good image to others, nothing good will come out of it. But, no matter how badly Bnei Yisrael sin, if we repent and truly endeavor to return to God, He will never reject us.