1 Samuel 21
Expositor's Bible Commentary
Then came David to Nob to Ahimelech the priest: and Ahimelech was afraid at the meeting of David, and said unto him, Why art thou alone, and no man with thee?


1 Samuel 21:1-15.

WE enter here on a somewhat painful part of David's history. He is not living so near to God as before; and in consequence his course becomes more carnal and more crooked. We saw in our last chapter the element of distrust rising up somewhat ominously in that solemn adjuration to Jonathan, "Truly as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death." These words, it is true, gave expression to an undoubted and in a sense universal truth, a truth which all of us should at all times ponder, but which David had special cause to feel, under the circumstances in which he was placed. It was not the fact of his giving solemn expression to this truth that indicated distrust on the part of David, but the fact that he did not set over against it another truth which was just as real, - that God had chosen him for His service, and would not allow him to perish at the hand of Saul. When a good man sees himself exposed to a terrible danger which he has no means of averting, it is no wonder if the contemplation of that danger gives rise for the moment to fear. But it is his privilege to enjoy promises of protection and blessing at the hand of the unseen God, and if his faith in these promises be active, it will not only neutralize the fear, but raise him high above it. Now, the defect in David's state of mind was, that while he fully realized the danger, he did not by faith lay hold of that which was fitted to neutralize it. It was Jonathan rather than David who by faith realized at this time David's grounds of security. All through Jonathan's remarks in chapter 20. you see him thinking of God as David's Protector, - thinking of the great purposes which God meant to accomplish by him, and which were a pledge that He would preserve him now, - thinking of David as a coming man of unprecedented power and influence, whose word would determine other men's destinies, and dispose of their fortunes. David seems to have been greatly indebted to Jonathan for sustaining his faith while he was with him; for after he parted from Jonathan, his faith fell very low. Time after time, he follows that policy of deceit which he had instructed Jonathan to pursue in explaining his absence from the feast in Saul's house. It is painful in the last degree to see one whose faith towered to such a lofty height in the encounter with Goliath, coming down from that noble elevation, to find him resorting for self-protection to the lies and artifices of an impostor.

We cannot excuse it, but we may account for it. David was wearied out by Saul's restless and incessant persecution. We read in Daniel of a certain persecutor that he should "wear out the saints of the Most High," and it was the same sad experience from which David was now suffering. It does not appear that he was gifted naturally with great patience, or power of enduring. Rather we should suppose that one of such nimble and lively temperament would soon tire of a strained and uneasy attitude. It appears that Saul's persistency in injustice and cruelty made David at last restless and impatient. All the more would he have needed in such circumstances to resort to God, and seek from Him the oil of grace to feed his patience, and bear him above the infirmities of his nature. But this was just what he seems not to have done. Carnal fear therefore grew apace, and faith fell into a state of slumber. The eye of sense was active, looking out on the perils around him; the eye of faith was dull, hardly able to decipher a single promise. The eye of sense saw the vindictive scowl of Saul, the javelin in his hand, and bands of soldiers sent out on every side to seize David or slay him; the eye of faith did not see - what it might have seen - the angel of the Lord encamping around him and delivering him. It was God's purpose now to allow David to feel his own weakness; he was to pass through that terrible ordeal when, tossed on a sea of trials, one feels like Noah's dove, unable to find rest for the sole of one's foot, and seems on the very eve of dropping helpless into the billows, till the ark presents itself, and a gracious hand is put forth to the rescue. Left to himself, tempted to make use of carnal expedients, and taught the wretchedness of such expedients; learning also, through this discipline, to anchor his soul more firmly on the promise of the living God, David was now undergoing a most essential part of his early training, gaining the experience that was to qualify him to say with such earnestness to others, "O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in Him."

On leaving Gibeah, David, accompanied with a few followers, bent his steps to Nob, a city of the priests. The site of this city has not been discovered; some think it stood on the north-eastern ridge of Mount Olivet; this is uncertain, but it is evident that it was very close to Jerusalem (see Isaiah 10:32). Its distance from Gibeah would therefore be but five or six miles, much too short for David to have had there any great sense of safety. It appears to have become the seat of the sacred services of the nation, sometime after the destruction of Shiloh. David's purpose in going there seems to have been simply to get a shelter, perhaps for the Sabbath day, and to obtain supplies. Doeg, indeed, charged Ahimelech, before Saul, with having inquired of the Lord for David, but Ahimelech with some warmth denied the charge.* The privilege of consulting the Urim and Thummim seems to have been confined to the chief ruler of the nation; if with the sanction of the priest David had done so now, he might have justly been charged with treason; probably it was because he believed Doeg rather than Ahimelech, and concluded that this royal privilege had been conceded by the priests to David, that Saul was so enraged, and inflicted such dreadful retribution on them. Afterwards, when Abiathar fled to David with the high priest's ephod, through which the judgment of Urim and Thummim seems to have been announced, David regarded that circumstance as an indication of the Divine permission to him to make use of the sacred oracle. (*See 1 Samuel 22:15 : - "Have I to-day begun to inquire of God for him? be it far from me: let not the king impute anything unto his servant, nor to all the house of my father; for thy servant knoweth nothing of all this, less or more" (R.V.) To deny beginning to do a thing is much the same as to deny doing it.)

But what shall we say of the untruth which David told Ahimelech, to account for his coming there without armed attendants? "The king hath commanded me a business, and hath said unto me, Let no man know anything of the business whereabout I send thee, and what I have commanded thee; and I have commanded my servants to such and such a place." Here was a statement not only not true, but the very opposite of the truth: spoken too to God's anointed high priest, and in the very place consecrated to God's most solemn service; everything about the speaker fitted to bring God to his mind, and to recall God's protection of him in time past; yet the first thing he did on entering the sacred place was to utter a falsehood, prompted by distrust, prompted by the feeling that the pledged protection of the God of truth, before whose shrine he now stood, was not sufficient. How plain the connection between a deficient sense of God's truthfulness, and a deficient regard to truth itself! What could have tempted David to act thus? According to some, it was altogether an amiable and generous desire to keep Ahimelech out of trouble, to screen him from the responsibility of helping a known outlaw. But considering the gathering distrust of David's spirit at the time, it seems more likely that he was startled at the fear which Ahimelech expressed when he saw David coming alone, as if all were not right between him and Saul, as if the truce that had been agreed on after the affair of Naioth had now come to an end. Probably David felt that if Ahimelech knew all, he would be still more afraid and do nothing to help him; moreover, the presence of Doeg the Edomite was another cause of embarrassment, for Saul had once ordered all his servants to kill David, and if the fierce Edomite were told that David was now simply a fugitive, he might be willing enough to do the deed. Anyhow, David now lent himself to the devices of the father of lies. And so the brave spirit that had not quailed before Goliath, and that had met the Philistines in so many terrific encounters, now quailed before a phantom of its own devising, and shrank from what, at the moment, was only an imaginary danger.

David succeeded in getting from Ahimelech what he wanted, but not without difficulty. For when David asked for five loaves of bread, the priest replied that he had no common bread, but only shewbread; he had only the bread that had been taken that day from off the table on which it stood before the Lord, and replaced by fresh bread, according to the law. The priest was willing to give that bread to David, if he could assure him that his attendants were not under defilement. It will be remembered that our Lord adverted to this fact, as a justification of His own disciples for plucking the ears of corn and eating them on the Sabbath. The principle underlying both was, that when a ceremonial obligation comes into collision with a moral duty, the lesser obligation is to give place to the heavier. The keeping of the Sabbath free from all work, and the appropriation of the shewbread to the use of the priests alone, were but ceremonial obligations; the preservation of life was a moral duty. It A is sometimes a very difficult thing to determine duty, "when moral obligations appear to clash with each other, but there was no difficulty in the collision of the moral and the ceremonial. Our Lord would certainly not have sided with that body of zealots, in the days of conflict between the Maccabees and the Syrians, who allowed themselves to be cut in pieces by the enemy rather than break the Sabbath by fighting on that day.

David had another request to make of Ahimelech. "Is there not here under thy hand spear or sword? for I have neither brought my sword nor my weapon with me, because the king's business required haste." It was a strange place to ask for military weapons. Surely the priests would not need to defend themselves with these. Yet it happened that there was a sword there which David knew well, and which he might reasonably claim, - the sword of Goliath. "Give it me," said David; " there is none like that." We read before, that David carried Goliath's head to Jerusalem. Nob was evidently in the Jerusalem district, and as the sword was there, there can be little doubt that it was at Nob the trophies had been deposited.

So far, things had gone fairly well with David at Nob. But there was a man there " detained before the Lord," - prevented probably from proceeding on his journey because it was the Sabbath day, - whose presence gave no comfort to David, and was, indeed, an omen of evil. Doeg, the Edomite, was the chief of the herdmen of Saul. Why Saul had entrusted that office to a member of a nation that was notorious for its bitter feelings towards Israel, we do not know; but the herdman seems to have been like his master in his feelings towards David; he would appear, indeed, to have joined the hereditary dislike of his nation to the personal dislike of his master. Instinctively, as we learn afterwards, David understood the feelings of Doeg. It would have been well for him, when a shudder passed over him as he caught the scowling countenance of the Edomite, had his own conscience been easier than it was. It would have been well for him had he been ruled by that spirit of trust which triumphed so gloriously the day he first got possession of that sword. It would have been well for him had he been free from the disturbing consciousness of having offended God by borrowing the devices of the father of lies and bringing them into the sanctuary, to pollute the air of the house of God. No wonder, though, David was restless again! "And David arose, and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath."

How different his state and prospects now from what they had been a little time before! Then the world smiled on him; fame and honour, wealth and glory, flowed in on him; God was his Father; conscience was calm; he hardly knew the taste of misery. But how has his sky become overcast! A homeless and helpless wanderer, with scarcely an attendant or companion; in momentary fear of death; fain to beg a morsel of bread where he could get it; a creature so banned and cursed that kindness to him involved the risk of death; his heart bleeding for the loss of Jonathan; his soul clouded by distrust of God; his conscience troubled by the vague sense of unacknowledged sin! And yet he is destined to be king of Israel, the very ideal of a good and prosperous monarch, and the earthly type of the Son of God! Like a lost sheep, he has gone astray for a time, but the Good Shepherd will leave the ninety- and-nine and go among the mountains till He find him; and his experience will give a wondrous depth to that favourite song of young and old of every age and country, "He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness, for His name's sake."

And now we must follow him to Gath, the city of Goliath. Down the slope of Mount Olivet, across the brook Kedron, and past the stronghold of Zion, and probably through the very valley of Elah where he had fought with the giant, David makes his way to Gath. It was surely a strange place to fly to, a sign of the despair in which David found himself! What reception could the conqueror of Goliath expect in his city? What retribution was due to him for the hundred foreskins, and for the deeds of victory which had inspired the Hebrew singers when they sang of the tens of thousands whom David had slain?

It will hardly do to say that he reckoned on not being recognized. It is more likely that he relied on a spirit not unknown among barbarous princes towards warriors dishonoured at home, as when Themistocles took refuge among the Persians, or Coriolanus among the Volscians. That he took this step without much reflection on its ulterior bearings is well nigh certain. For, granting that he should be favourably received, this would be on the understanding that his services would be at the command of his protector, or at the very least it would place him under an obligation of gratitude that would prove highly embarrassing at some future time. Happily, the scheme did not succeed. The jealousy of the Philistine nobles was excited. "The servants of Achish said unto him. Is not this David, the king of the land? Did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?" David began to feel himself in a false position. He laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish. The misery of his situation and the poverty of his resources may both be inferred from the unworthy device to which he resorted to extricate himself from his difficulty. He feigned himself mad, and conducted himself as madmen commonly do. "He scrabbled on the door of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard" But the device failed. "Have I need of madmen," asked the king, "that ye have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?" A Jewish tradition alleges that both the wife and daughter of Achish were mad; he had plenty of that sort of people already: no need of more! The title of the thirty-fourth Psalm tells us, "he drove him away, and he departed."

Have any of you ever been tempted to resort to a series of devices and deceits either to avoid a danger or to attain an object? Have you been tempted to forsake the path of straightforward honesty and truth, and to pretend that things were different with you from what they really were? I do not accuse you of that wickedness which they commit who deliberately imprison conscience, and fearlessly set up their own will and their own interests as their king. What you have done under the peculiar circumstances in which you found yourselves is not what you would ordinarily have done. In this one connection, you felt pressed to get along in one way or another, and the only available way was that of deceit and device. You were very unhappy at the beginning, and your misery increased as you went on. Everything about you was in a con strained, unnatural condition, - conscience, temper feelings, all out of order. At one time it seemed as if you were going to succeed; you were on the crest of a wave that promised to bear you to land, but the wave broke, and you were sent floundering in the broken water. You were obliged to go from device to device, with a growing sense of misery. At last the chain snapped, and both you and your friends were confronted with the miserable reality. But know this: that it would have been infinitely worse for you if your device had succeeded than that it failed. If it had succeeded; you would have been permanently entangled in evil principles and evil ways, that would have ruined your soul. Because you failed, God showed that He had not forsaken you. David prospering at Gath would have been a miserable spectacle; David driven away by Achish is on the way to brighter and better days.

For, if we can accept the titles of some of the Psalms, it would seem that the carnal spell, under which David had been for some time, burst when Achish drove him away, and that he returned to his early faith and trust. It was to the cave of Adullam that he fled, and the hundred and forty-second Psalm claims to have been written there. So also the thirty-fourth Psalm, as we have seen, bears to have been written "when he changed his behaviour" (feigned madness) "before Abimelech" (Achish?), "who drove him away, and he departed." So much uncertainty has been thrown of late years on these superscriptions, that we dare not trust to them explicitly; yet recognizing in them at least the value of old traditions, we may regard them as more or less probable, especially when they seem to agree with the substance of the Psalms themselves. With reference to the thirty-fourth, we miss something in the shape of confession of sin, such as we should have expected of one whose lips had not been kept from speaking guile. In other respects the psalm fits the situation. The image of the young lions roaring for their prey might very naturally be suggested by the wilderness. But the chief feature of the psalm is the delightful evidence it affords of the blessing that comes from trustful fellowship with God. And there is an expression that seems to imply that that blessing had not been always enjoyed by the Psalmist; he had lost it once; but there came a time when (1 Samuel 21:4) "I sought the Lord, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears." And the experience of that new time was so delightful that the Psalmist had resolved that he would always be on that tack: "I will bless the Lord at all tunes; His praise shall continually be in my mouth." How changed the state of his spirit from the time when he feigned madness at Gath! When he asks, "What man is he that desire the life and loveth many days that he may see good?" (1 Samuel 21:12) - what man would fain preserve his life from harassing anxiety and bewildering dangers? - the prompt reply is, "Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile." Have nothing to do with shifts and pretences and false devices; be candid and open, and commit all to God. "O taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in Him O fear the Lord, ye His saints" (for you too are liable to forsake the true confidence), "for there is no want to them that fear Him. The young lions do lack and suffer hunger, but they that seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing. The righteous cry, and the Lord heareth, and delivereth them out of all their troubles. . . . Many are the afflictions of the righteous; but the Lord delivereth them out of them all."

"The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me; I found trouble and sorrow. Then called I upon the name of the Lord: O Lord, I beseech Thee, deliver my soul. Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; yea, our God is merciful. The Lord preserveth the simple; I was brought low, and He helped me. Return unto thy rest, O my soul, for the Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee" (Psalm 116:3-7).

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