New European Commentary


About | PDFs | Mobile formats | Word formats | Other languages | Contact Us | What is the Gospel? | Support the work | Carelinks Ministries | | The Real Christ | The Real Devil | "Bible Companion" Daily Bible reading plan

Deeper Commentary


1Sa 21:1 Then David went to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. Ahimelech came to meet David trembling and said to him, Why are you alone and no-one with you?-
This Ahimelech could be the Ahijah descendant of Eli of 1 Sam. 14:3.  Yet Eli's family had been cursed in 1 Sam. 2,3. It could be that this person in later life experienced the curses. But it would be far from the only time in Bible history where a curse is pronounced but not carried out. There is a gap between Yahweh's prophetic pronouncements, and their fulfillment. And in that gap there is the possibility for repentance. This is what gives intensity to our prayers and repentance, knowing we too live in such a gap.

The Lord refers to Ahimelech as "Abiathar the high priest" (Mk. 2:26). There were times when two high priests held the office at the same time (Num. 19:3; 1 Chron. 24:3; 1 Kings 1:45 cp. 1 Kings 2:27). Or His idea may have been "Abiathar who was the high priest later on", just as we read of Jesse begetting "David the king" (Mt. 1:6), not immediately, but only later was he king. Or "Rahab the harlot" (Heb. 11:31), "Mathew the publican" (Mt. 10:3).

1Sa 21:2 David said to Ahimelech the priest, The king has charged me with a task and has said to me ‘Let no-one know anything about it or what I have commanded you’. I have told the young men to go to a meeting place-
The LXX makes the last sentence part of Saul's supposed command, and makes it purposefully unclear what their mission was, giving it a code name which Ahimelech would not perceive: "and I have charged my servants to be in the place that is called, The faithfulness of God, phellani maemoni". But we wonder whether David's lie was right or even necessary. He was simply desperately hungry and needed help for his men. If he had told Ahimelech the truth, he likely would have helped him. But he clearly doubts Ahimelech's loyalty to him and therefore makes out that he is still working for Saul, and just needs some help whilst on a secret mission for the king. I noted throughout 1 Sam. 20 that David struggled with elements of distrust even for Jonathan. He must have felt so lonely, and must have had the impression that every man's hand was potentially against him. This again is absolutely how a man going through his experiences would have felt. It is absolutely psychologically credible, and such internal harmony gives us every reason to believe this record is true and is indeed inspired by God. Or it may be that he was seeking to preserve the priest from trouble with Saul.

1Sa 21:3 Now therefore what do you have to hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever there is here-
We wonder if David had only four men with him. Hence he asks for five loaves of bread.

1Sa 21:4 The priest answered David, There is no common bread here, but there is holy bread, if the young men have kept themselves from women-
There were no Mosaic restrictions upon how the shewbread could be used after it had been taken out of the holy place. It seems this request was adding a fence to the law.

1Sa 21:5 David answered the priest, Truly, women have been kept from us for about three days. When I go on an expedition the bodies of the young men are holy; they are even for an ordinary journey; how much more so today?-
We again note David's careful observance of the Mosaic law, even when on the run from Saul; and he often refers to this in Ps. 119, the Psalm he wrote at this time. It could be that David had last slept with Michal three days ago, before fleeing Gibeah. Or maybe he means that for sure, he could vouch that his men had been with him for three days without women nearby. Or maybe "three days" is a general statement.

1Sa 21:6 So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there apart from the Bread of the Presence that had been taken from before Yahweh, to be replaced by fresh hot bread-
The Lord Jesus speaks of how David ate the shewbread unlawfully, seeking to demonstrate that the spirit of the law replaces the letter. But the bread they ate was not the actual shewbread, but the old shewbread; and there was no legislation governing what might be done with this. We could assume that true to the spirit of Jewish midrash, the Lord was making an exaggerated point. Or it could be that He meant that it was "not lawful" to eat the used shewbread according to the spirit of the law, but not the letter of it.

1Sa 21:7 Now one of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before Yahweh; his name was Doeg the Edomite, the best of the herdsmen who belonged to Saul-
In the type of the things concerning the Lord Jesus, in some way Doeg may point forward to Herod, who was also an Edomite. We note that he was "detained before Yahweh", he was obedient to parts of the Mosaic law. So was Saul; and so were the wicked men who crucified our Lord, David's greater son.

1Sa 21:8 David said to Ahimelech, Don’t you have here a spear or sword? I have neither brought my sword nor my weapons with me because the king’s business required haste-
Scoring David out of ten for spirituality, he scores sadly here. He had turned down spear and sword when fighting Goliath, and had confidently stated that as the battles are Yahweh's, these weapons give no defence. And he lies about things in order to get them. And we even wonder whether he was correct to pretend to be a servant of Saul as king, when Yahweh had clearly rejected Saul as king and chosen David. But despite this weak point in his faith, he still also asked Ahimelech to enquire of God for him (1 Sam. 22:10).

1Sa 21:9 The priest said, The sword of Goliath the Philistine whom you killed in the valley of Elah is here, wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you will take that, take it; there is no other except that here. David said, There is none like that. Give it to me-
David’s eager taking of the sword of Goliath (“There is none like that; give it to me”) contrasts sadly with his earlier rejection of such weapons in order to slay Goliath. And David later reflects how he knew that his faithless taking of that sword and the shewbread would lead to the death of Abiathar’s family (1 Sam. 22:22). But still he did it. This was one reason why he is criticized by God as having shed too much blood (1 Chron. 22:8).

Without doubt we have David here at a low point in his faith. But overall he was still seen by the Spirit in NT times as the man after God's own heart (Acts 13:22). Stephen positively comments about David that he found grace before God (Acts 7:46), and often subsequent kings are judged according to whether they walked in the ways of David (2 Chron. 17:3; 7:17; 29:2; 34:2; 1 Kings 11:6; 14:8; 15:11). This is quite some benchmark. The fact his dynasty continued for 467 years is amazing, and surely some sign of God's acceptance of him. Positively, we think of David's valuing and respect for Saul's life as "precious", on two occasions refusing to kill him;  his refusal to let Abishai kill Shimei; his anger over the murder of Ishbosheth, Saul's son; his grace to the crippled Mephibosheth; his insistence that soldiers too weary to go on fighting should still be equally rewarded; his appreciation of the men who risked their lives to bring him water from the well of Bethlehem; his love for Absalom; his desire to put things right for the Gibeonites whom Saul had wrongly abused, his mourning for the death of Abner- and Saul, for that matter. And there is the comment that he ruled with justice and equity (2 Sam. 8:15; 23:3).

Negatively, we think of his apparently casual slaying of 200 Philistines to get their foreskins;  the whole mess with Bathsheba and Uriah; his request for the sword of Goliath and faithless flight to live with the Philistines; his ethnic cleansing of villages to save his own image with the Philistines; his hot blooded desire to kill Nabal and his family; his insistence on taking the census which led to judgment on Israel; his breaking up of Paltiel and Michal's marriage; his bloodthirsty desire for vengeance on his enemies portrayed in the Psalms, offsetting his grace to them in practice; his strange absence from the faithful listed in Hebrews 11.

The end synthesis of all this is that God saw him as having a heart after His own, and he found grace in God's eyes (Acts 7:46).

1Sa 21:10 David arose, and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath-
We sense he was utterly desperate to do this, he was not thinking straight. We wonder if he took Goliath's sword back to Goliath's home town in an attempt to make peace with the Philistines and live with them. They seemed the only people he could feel safe with. He would rather risk torture and death at the hands of the Gentiles than persecution from God's own people. His decision making here bears all the hallmarks of a man at the very end of his emotional and nervous ability to cope.

Many of the Psalms appear to be paired; Ps. 56 and Ps. 57 are an example. They are very similar. The title of Ps. 56 ["when seized by the Philistines in Gath"] therefore provides a context for Ps. 57, which was "A poem by David, when he fled from Saul, in the cave" (Ps. 57:1). David's time when seized by the Philistines in Gath could refer to some unrecorded capture and detention of him in Gath- the home town of Goliath, whose sons  / relatives had also been slain by David's men, and David had slain "ten thousands" of Philistines. Or it could refer to the time when he was serving Achish king of Gath and had to feign himself mad in order to get released. Perhaps things were far tougher for David at that time than recorded in 1 Sam. 21:10-15. Whatever, David took comfort from his situation with Saul (the subject of Ps. 57) and reapplied it to his situation in Gath in Ps. 56. And this is how we too pass through life- experiences in one situation strengthen us for another.

1Sa 21:11 The servants of Achish said to him, Isn’t this David the king of the land? Didn’t they sing one to another about him in dances saying, ‘Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands?’-
By going to Goliath's home town, David should have known this was a foolish decision and this was going to happen. As noted above, David's decision making here bears all the hallmarks of a man at the very end of his emotional and nervous ability to cope. We notice how the Philistines were not in close contact with the Israelites, and assumed David was the king; when this was far from the case. These words would have been potential encouragement to David to perceive that God's purpose with him, to make him king, would ultimately succeed. That passing encouragement was given to him at a time when all seemed hopeless for his cause. And God likewise works with us today.

1Sa 21:12 David took these words to heart and was very much afraid of Achish the king of Gath-
This is the very phrase used of how Israel were "much afraid" of Goliath of Gath, whereas David wasn't but had calm faith (1 Sam. 17:24). The implication is that David's faith was at a far lower point than it had been then.

1Sa 21:13 He changed his behaviour before them and pretended to be mad, scrabbled on the doors of the gate and let his saliva fall down onto his beard-
Going down South to Achish of Gath and playing the mad man has sad connections with the patriarchs going down to Egypt in times of weak faith. I have noted that David was under extreme nervous stress at this time. Although he was acting, we sense he was not far off actually experiencing a mental breakdown; for his decision making was really very confused and desperate in running to Achish.

1Sa 21:14 Then Achish said to his servants, Look, you see the man is mad. Why then have you brought him to me?-
We wonder whether Achish realized that David was acting, for he speaks of him 'playing the madman' (:15). In this case, he was trying to do David a favour by letting him get away from Gath, knowing that his people were close to murdering David. The reason why he should do this isn't clear, but David's desperate prayers were heard through God manipulating circumstance and situation to enable Achish to want to release David, the public enemy number one for his own people. 

1Sa 21:15 Do I lack madmen that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?
See on :14. Achish says he doesn't want David in his palace, but for David to get from the palace to safety in the wilderness would have required a further display of God's saving providence. Ps. 34 [title] says that Achish "drove him away"; but we sense that this may have been an appearance by Achish, because he may well have actually wanted to save David (see on :14). See on Ps. 34 for more on David's situation at this time.