In the last essay we studied 1 Samuel chapter 20, which presented the developing relationship between Jonathan and David. In this essay we study chapters 21 and 22. We saw the beginning of David’s days as a fugitive in chapter 20, but the key matter in that chapter was David’s relationship with Jonathan. Now at the beginning of chapter 21 the author’s emphasis shifts to Saul’s pursuit of David the fugitive. Indeed hunting down David became an obsession with Saul. And David had to be both creative and resourceful to survive. David’s first stop after leaving Jonathan was Nob, which was a priest’s city (22:19), where the tabernacle apparently had been set up for worship there.
Nob was located close to Jerusalem, just to the northeast of it. The priest, perhaps the high priest, was named Ahimelech. When he saw David coming, he trembled because of David’s surprise appearance at the tabernacle. Ahimelech knew David was the son-in-law of the king. Not only did he have no advance warning that David was coming, one didn’t expect the son-in-law of the king to appear anywhere unattended (21:1).
We learn from verse two that David did have a few men with him, though they did not come to the tabernacle. Then David lied to Ahimelech. He told the priest that he was there on a secret mission of the king. And he demanded five loaves of bread (vv. 2-3). The priest had no bread except the 12 loaves of holy bread, also known as the “bread of the presence,” that the priests weekly set before the Lord in the tabernacle (Lev. 24:5-9).
Technically no one was to eat that bread except the priests. But Ahimelech wanted to please the king’s son-in-law if he could, so he made an exception in David’s case. He gave David the five loaves he requested on the condition that none of David’s men had made themselves ceremonially unclean by having sex (v. 4; Lev. 15:18). David assured him that they had not (vv. 5-6).
Verse seven is parenthetical. Its importance will be seen in the next chapter (Ch. 22), where Doeg plays an important role, as we shall see. Next, in verses 8-9, the author tells us that David also needed a sword. Notice the additional lie by David. Once we begin lying it doesn’t seem to matter how many more we tell. The only weapon Ahimelech had at the tabernacle was the sword of Goliath. Its presence there is not explained, but obviously, it ended up there, perhaps for safekeeping.
In verses 10-15 we see how desperate David felt as he fled. He decided to take refuge among the hated Philistines. From Nob David went to the Philistine city of Gath, apparently hoping to be unrecognized so that he and his men could attach themselves to king Achish of that city. Gath is the nearest Philistine city, located southwest of Jerusalem. But the servants of king Achish immediately recognized David, and he had to pretend he was crazy to escape the situation.
At the beginning of chapter 22, we see that David’s next stop was a place called Adullam, named after a cave located there. It was in southern Judah about halfway between Gath and Bethlehem. Then a remarkable thing happened. People began to gather at Adullam under David’s leadership. His family came, which could be expected. But others came as well. All of the malcontents in Israel, those in distress, those in debt, and those unhappy with Saul’s government, about 400 in all, came to Adullam seeking leadership from David (vv. 1-2). Later, the number rose to 600 (23:13).
From there David went to Moab, whose king was friendly. He put his parents in the care of Moab’s king, and then took up residence in a place described as “the stronghold,” which also may have been in Moab (vv. 3-4). No one knows its location. But a prophet named Gad came to David, probably from Samuel’s school, and advised him to return to Judah, which he did. He went to the forest of Hereth, which evidently was somewhere in Judah; but its location also is unknown today (vv. 3-5).
Verses 6-10 begin the sad account of Saul’s brutal murder of the priests of Nob. Saul was holding court under the tamarisk tree at Gibeah and complaining about the fact that no one told him what he needed to know about David’s relationship with Jonathan as well as David’s movements since he fled from Saul (vv. 6-8). He obviously was in a bad mood.
One man in the court saw this as an opportunity for self-advancement. It was Doeg the Edomite, who was at Nob when David got the sacred bread and Goliath’s sword from Ahimelech. So he stepped forward and told the story (vv. 9-10).
Verses 11-19 tell an ugly story. They demonstrate the level of paranoia and cruelty to which Saul had sunk. After calling all of the priests of Nob before him, Saul accused them of conspiring against him, which essentially was a charge of treason, because they had helped David (vv. 11-13). Ahimelech defended himself with the truth, but Saul wasn’t interested in the truth (vv. 14-15). He ordered all of the priests killed on the spot. But the order was so outrageous Saul’s guards refused to do it (vv. 16-17). So Saul turned to the ambitious Doeg the Edomite and ordered him to kill them, which Doeg was happy to do. Doeg personally killed 85 priests, in effect wiping out the priests of Nob (v. 18). But Saul wasn’t content with killing the priests. In a bloodthirsty decision he ordered the whole population of Nob destroyed, as if they were under the ban (v. 19).
In verses 20-23 we learn that one priest, Abiathar, somehow escaped the massacre. And he informed David of it. Upon hearing the story, David realized that he was somewhat responsible in the matter. And as long as David was alive he made good his promise to protect Abiathar.
Turning to application I want to focus on the deceit of David in chapter 21. David lied to Ahimelech the priest when he needed help. I’m sure David thought he was justified in doing so under the circumstances. He needed the bread and the sword, and a little lie seemed harmless. Thus, first, David had the pressure of circumstances. Had David not yielded to that temptation, the needs of himself and his men probably would have been met in some other way. But he saw an easy opportunity that required only a little lie. Have you ever been tempted to lie because of the pressure of circumstances?
Second, David also felt the promise of advantage. Lies invariably are like that. The lie easily enabled David to get what he needed. His lie gave him the advantage of getting what he wanted when he wanted it. That’s the promise of advantage. When we lie, it usually is because we believe the lie will easily bring us what we need or desire when we want or desire it.
And third, David failed to ponder the consequences. David simply assumed there would be no serious negative consequences. But in the end an entire city was slaughtered because of David’s lie. When most people lie, they believe it will have no serious consequences. They even have the gall to believe their lie will not be discovered. But lies come to light in many unexpected ways. In David’s case, in retrospect, he was suspicious of Doeg the Edomite. But at the time David was deceiving Ahimelech, he wasn’t thinking about what might happen in the future. Indeed he wasn’t interested in the future. He was only interested in his short-range gains.
How many parents have assumed there would be no serious consequences when they lied in front of their children? How many young people have assumed there would be no serious consequences when they lied to their parents about where they were going, or what they were doing? How many men and women have assumed there would be no serious consequences when they lied about their relationships, their work, their money, their taxes, etc. Frequently, as in David’s case, little lies result in great pain. Sometimes liars suffer the pain themselves. And sometimes it is others who suffer. Nearly always the suffering could have been avoided if we would not have bowed to the pressure of circumstances and the promise of advantage, and if we had not failed to ponder the consequences.