1 Samuel 21 – David at Nob and at Gath
A. David meets Ahimelech the priest at Nob.
1. (1-2) David, fleeing from Saul, comes to the city of Nob.
Now David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech was afraid when he met David, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one is with you?” So David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has ordered me on some business, and said to me, ‘Do not let anyone know anything about the business on which I send you, or what I have commanded you.’ And I have directed my young men to such and such a place.”
a. To Ahimelech the priest: In his uncertain circumstances David went to the right place – the house of the LORD.
b. Ahimelech was afraid when he met David: It seemed unusual to Ahimelech that a prominent man like David wandered around the villages of Judea by himself. It made Ahimelech think something was wrong, so he asked David, “Why are you alone, and no one is with you?”
i. It seems that Ahimelech knew nothing of the conflict between David and Saul. It seemed strange and dangerous to him that David traveled alone. Plus, we can imagine that David looked tired, weary, disheveled, and probably looked like he had been crying a lot.
c. The king has ordered me on some business: This was a plain lie. David came to the house of the LORD, but he lied to protect himself. David elaborated on his lie when he put false words in the mouth of Saul to establish an environment of secrecy (Do not let anyone know anything about the business on which I send you), and when he referred to “my young men” (David was all alone).
i. In many ways, we can understand why David lied and even sympathize with him. Many of us would have done the same or worse in the same situation. At the same time, David would come to horribly regret this lie (as he says in 1 Samuel 22:22).
ii. “Some go about to excuse David’s lying here: but that cannot be. The consequences of it were very sad… and afterward made his soul melt for very heaviness.” (Trapp)
2. (3-6) David asks for and receives holy bread.
“Now therefore, what have you on hand? Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever can be found.” And the priest answered David and said, “There is no common bread on hand; but there is holy bread, if the young men have at least kept themselves from women.” Then David answered the priest, and said to him, “Truly, women have been kept from us about three days since I came out. And the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in effect common, even though it was sanctified in the vessel this day.” So the priest gave him holy bread; for there was no bread there but the showbread which had been taken from before the LORD, in order to put hot bread in its place on the day when it was taken away.
a. Give me five loaves of bread: When David came to the tabernacle in Nob he was hungry and knew he needed food both now and later.
b. There is no common bread on hand; but there is holy bread: The tabernacle of the LORD had a table that held twelve loaves of bread, symbolizing God’s continual fellowship with Israel.
i. The importance and meaning of the bread is found in its name. Literally, showbread means “bread of faces.” It is bread associated with, and to be eaten before, the face of God. F.B. Meyer calls the showbread “presence-bread.” To eat the showbread was to eat God’s bread in God’s house as a friend and a guest of the LORD, enjoying His hospitality. In that culture eating together formed a bond of friendship that was permanent and sacred.
ii. The showbread was always to be fresh. Ahimelech would give David the old showbread, which had been taken from before the LORD, in order to put hot bread in its place. God wants our fellowship with Him, our time before His face, to be fresh.
c. If the young men have at least kept themselves from women: The showbread was not to be treated casually. In fact, it was to be eaten by the priests: And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place (Leviticus 24:9). While this passage in Leviticus does not specifically say that only priests can eat the showbread, it establishes the principle that it must be regarded as holy and can’t be distributed casually. So Ahimelech asked David for a basic level of ceremonial cleanness before he gave him the showbread.
d. Truly, women have been kept from us: David acted as if he traveled with a group. What he said was true of himself, but there were no others traveling with him.
e. So the priest gave him holy bread; for there was no bread there but the showbread: In giving David the bread, Ahimelech broke with priestly custom but not with God’s Word. He rightly understood that human need was more important that Levitical observance.
i. When Jesus’ disciples were criticized for breaking religious custom by eating against traditions, Jesus used what Ahimelech did to explain the matter (Matthew 12:1-8). Jesus approved of what Ahimelech did, and Jesus honored him by standing on Ahimelech’s same ground.
ii. The point with Ahimelech and Jesus is powerful: human traditions are never more important than God’s word itself. If God had said, “Only the priests can eat this bread,” it would have been different. But God never said that. To put the only in there seemed logical, but it was adding to God’s Word. We must never elevate our extension or application of God’s Word to the same level as God’s word itself.
3. (7-9) David receives a sword and is spotted by one of Saul’s royal officials.
Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the LORD. And his name was Doeg, an Edomite, the chief of the herdsmen who belonged to Saul. And David said to Ahimelech, “Is there not here on hand a spear or a sword? For I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste.” So the priest said, “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you killed in the Valley of Elah, there it is, wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you will take that, take it. For there is no other except that one here.” And David said, “There is none like it; give it to me.”
a. Doeg the Edomite: We meet a character we will meet again. Doeg was chief of the herdsmen who belonged to Saul, and he was not an Israelite but an Edomite.
i. Chief of the herdsmen: The word translated chief means mighty but can also be used to mean violent or obstinate. Doeg will show himself to be a violent and obstinate man.
ii. Detained before the LORD: By what we see of Doeg and his character, it is hard to think that he did real spiritual business before the LORD at the tabernacle. He was probably fulfilling some ceremonial requirement related to his employment for the king of Israel.
b. Is there not here on hand a spear or a sword: We can understand why David wanted a weapon and why he asked. But it is also sad that David continued his lie about being on the king’s business. David is desperately trying to avoid the king’s business because right now, the king’s business is to kill David.
i. Considering what the king’s business was, David told the truth when he said, “The king’s business required haste.” That was true, but not in the way David meant it.
ii. “It is painful to 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.” (Balikie)
c. The sword of Goliath: David was happy to have a good weapon (There is none like it). As David held this sword, he should have remembered how he came to win it. He didn’t do it with lies and half-truths. He did it with a bold trust in God, a trust that believed God and trusted Him to sort out the consequences.
i. David can have the sword of Goliath in his arsenal, but he would be better equipped if he had the faith that killed Goliath. Is David now trusting in Philistine swords more than the shepherd tools? There was nothing wrong with Goliath’s sword – the LORD used it before (1 Samuel 17:51), but only in the context of radical faith.
ii. “David lost confidence in God and in fulfillment of God’s purpose for his life which had been revealed to him. He went to God’s house for comfort and help and guidance, but he was detected as being wrong in his soul. Instead of acknowledging the truth to the only one who could help him and confessing that he had been telling a lie, he ran for his life again.” (Redpath)
d. There is none like it; give it to me: Knowing that something is precious and wonderful makes us want it. Being in a time of trial or stress makes us want the wonderful thing all the more. If this was true of Goliath’s sword, it is even truer of the sword of the Spirit, God’s Word. We should always say of God’s Word, “give it to me.”
i. “There are some who are bent on taking away the Word of God. Well, if they discard it, ‘Give it to me.’ There are some who want to put it up on the self, as a thing that has seen its best days. They suppose the old sword is rusty, and worn out, but we can say, ‘There is none like that; give is me!’” (Spurgeon)
B. David at Gath.
1. (10) David flees to Gath.
Then David arose and fled that day from before Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath.
a. David arose and fled that day: David’s attempt to protect himself with clever lies instead of trusting God to protect him didn’t bring lasting results. He had to flee.
b. Went to Achish the king of Gath: David was now among the Philistines. He must be discouraged or deceived to think he could find peaceful refuge among these enemies of Israel – especially as he carried Goliath’s sword into Goliath’s hometown.
i. It didn’t make sense for the man who carried Goliath’s sword to go to Goliath’s hometown (1 Samuel 17:4). It didn’t make sense for the man who was sustained by the sacred bread of God to find refuge among the pagans. It didn’t make sense for the man after God’s own heart to change his address to Gath.
2. (11-12) David’s predicament in Gath.
And the servants of Achish said to him, “Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing of him to one another in dances, saying:
‘Saul has slain his thousands,
And David his ten thousands’?”
Now David took these words to heart, and was very much afraid of Achish the king of Gath.
a. Is this not David the king of the land: The Philistines of Gath recognized David as the king of the land of Israel. These ungodly men understood David’s destiny better than King Saul.
b. Did they not sing of him to one another in dances: The song and dance about David that swept the nation of Israel (1 Samuel 18:6-7) was also popular among the Philistines. If he didn’t know it before, now David found that there was real price for fame.
c. David took these words to heart, and was very much afraid: David knew he was discovered and understood that King Achish would not let the man who killed Goliath go.
i. David’s words in Psalm 56 help us understand what happened here. The title of that Psalm identifies as the song he wrote when the Philistines captured him in Gath. Apparently, although 1 Samuel 21 doesn’t detail it, the Philistines captured David when he came to Gath. David thought he could find anonymity or sympathy among the ungodly Philistines in Gath, but he was wrong. Psalm 56 describes David’s journey from fear to praising as a prisoner in Gath.
ii. Psalm 56 shows that the slide that started on the road from Jonathan and continued on into Gath is now stopped. David is on higher ground again. This was the difference between David and Saul. Both of them slipped but Saul kept sliding, while David turned back to the LORD.
3. (13-15) To escape, David pretends madness.
So he changed his behavior before them, feigned madness in their hands, scratched on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva fall down on his beard. Then Achish said to his servants, “Look, you see the man is insane. Why have you brought him to me? Have I need of madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?”
a. Pretended madness in their hands: David acted in a strange manner, scratching on the doors of the gate and letting saliva fall down on his beard. It was as if David foamed at the mouth.
i. Basically, David humiliated himself before the Philistines and acted like a madman. The saliva on the beard was especially convincing, because men in that culture would consider this something only a man out of his right mind would allow. “An indignity to the beard was considered an intolerable insult and would not have been permitted by a normal person.” (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown)
b. This man is insane. Why have you brought him to me: David’s plan worked. Achish decided that this wasn’t David after all, or if it was he was such a pathetic specimen that he may as well let him go.
i. Was David walking in the Spirit or in the flesh when he pretended madness? Some commentators believe that David was in the flesh and trusting in himself. But the change of Psalm 56 happened before David’s escape, and it made sense that the LORD would guide David into a path of escape that would humble him. When David tried to protect himself with lies and tried to find refuge among the ungodly, he really was acting crazy. When David repented, asked for mercy, and trusted again in the LORD, it was as if the LORD said, “You’ve been acting like a madman. Keep the act going and I’ll get you out of this.”
c. Psalm 34 is David’s declaration of joy when he escaped from Gath with his life. The title of Psalm 34 reads, A Psalm of David when he pretended madness before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he departed.
i. Psalm 34 begins beautifully: I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make its boast in the LORD; the humble shall hear of it and be glad. Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt His name together. I sought the LORD, and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears (Psalm 34:1-4). David was amazed with gratitude to the LORD.
ii. David is especially joyful because the LORD got him out of a mess that David himself made. God’s amazing goodness is shown when He delivers us when we don’t really deserve it.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission