1 Samuel 21
Pulpit 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?
Ver 1. - Then came David to Nob. Nob means a knoll or hill, and apparently was situated a little to the north of Jerusalem on the road leading to Gath. The ark had evidently been removed thither by Saul early in his reign, after it had remained for twenty years in the house of Abinadab; and as eighty-five priests wearing an ephod were murdered there by Doeg at Saul's command (1 Samuel 22:18, 19), it is plain that the worship of Jehovah had been restored by him with something of its old splendour. And this agrees with Saul's character. At the commencement of his reign we find Ahiah with him as high priest, and even when he fell his excuse was the necessity for performing the public rites of religion (1 Samuel 15:15). But with him the king's will was first, the will of Jehovah second; and while he restores God's public worship as part of the glory of his reign, he ruthlessly puts the priests with their wives and families to death when he supposes that they have given aid to his enemy. Ahimelech was afraid at the meeting of David. More literally, "went trembling to meet David." Ahiah, described as high priest in 1 Samuel 14:3, was either dead or, more probably, was a younger brother, who, while Ahimelech remained with the ark, acted as high priest at the camp for Saul, especially in consulting God for him by means of the ephod with the breastplate. Why art thou alone? Nevertheless, in Mark 2:26 our Lord speaks of those "who were with David," and the "young men" are mentioned in vers. 4, 5. While David went alone to consult Ahimelech, that his visit might be kept quite secret, he had taken a few of his servants with him, and had left them somewhere in the neighbourhood, or even, more probably, had instructed some one to meet him with such men as he could collect. The arrival of the king's son-in-law without an escort would naturally strike the high priest as strange, and therefore as alarming.
And David said unto Ahimelech the priest, The king hath commanded me a business, and hath said unto me, Let no man know any thing of the business whereabout I send thee, and what I have commanded thee: and I have appointed my servants to such and such a place.
Verse 2. - The king hath commanded me a business. This pretence of a private commission from the king was a mere invention, but his "appointing his servants to meet him at such and such a place" was probably the exact truth. After parting with Jonathan, David probably did not venture to show himself at home, but, while Saul still supposed him to be at Bethlehem, gave orders to some trusty officer to gather together a few of his most faithful men, and await him with them at some fit place. Meanwhile alone he sets out on his flight, and, having as yet no settled plan, goes to Nob, because it was out of the way of the road to Bethlehem, whither Saul would send to arrest him. Naturally such a visit would seem strange to Ahimelech; but David needed food and arms, and probably counsel; and. but for the chance of the presence of Doeg, no harm might have ensued. As it was, this visit of David completed the ruin of Eli's house.
Now therefore what is under thine hand? give me five loaves of bread in mine hand, or what there is present.
Verses 3, 4. - What is under thine hand? This does not mean that Ahimelech was himself carrying the shewbread out of the tabernacle, but simply, "What hast thou? The sense of the whole verse is, "Now, therefore, what hast thou at hand? Give me five loaves, or whatever there may be." Ahimelech answers, "There is no common bread at hand." I have no ordinary food; there is only hallowed bread, that is, the shewbread, which, after remaining in Jehovah's presence from sabbath to sabbath, was then to be eaten by the priests in the holy place (Leviticus 24:8, 9). As Ahimelech could not venture to refuse David's request, he asks if his attendants are at least ceremonially clean, as in that case the urgency of the king's business might excuse the breach of the letter of the commandment. Our Lord in Matthew 12:3 cites this as a case in which the inward spirit of the law was kept, and the violation of its literal precept thereby justified.
And the priest answered David, and said, There is no common bread under mine hand, but there is hallowed bread; if the young men have kept themselves at least from women.
And David answered the priest, and said unto him, Of a truth women have been kept from us about these three days, since I came out, and the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in a manner common, yea, though it were sanctified this day in the vessel.
Verses 5, 6. - About these three days since I came out. This exactly agrees with the time during which David had lain concealed (1 Samuel 20:24, 27, 35), and explains the hunger under which he was suffering, as he had no doubt taken with him only feed sufficient for his immediate wants, he wishes, however, the high priest to believe that he had been engaged with his men during this time on public business, whereas they had been at home and some of them possibly were unclean. The whole chapter sets David before us in a very humiliating light. Just as some books of Homer are styled "the prowess" of some hero, so this chapter might be called David's degradation. The determined hatred of Saul seems to have thrown him off his balance, and it was not till he got among the hills of Judah, wherein was the cave of Adullam, that he recovered his serenity. The vessels of the young men. Their scrips, in which they would carry the bread, and their baggage generally. The bread is in a manner common, etc. The word bread is supplied by the translators, to give some sense to this most difficult passage. Literally translated, the two last clauses are, "And the way is profane, although it be sanctified today in the vessel." Among the numerous interpretations of these words the following seems the best: "And though our journey be not connected with a religious object, yet it (the bread) will be kept holy in the vessel (in which it will be carried)." There is no difficulty in supplying bread in the last clause, as the shewbread was the subject of the conversation, and a nominative is constantly supplied by the mind from the principal matter that is occupying the thoughts of the speakers. David's argument, therefore, is that both his attendants and their wallets were free from legal defilement, and that though their expedition was on some secular business, yet that at all events the bread would be secure from pollution. The shewbread that was taken from before Jehovah. The Talmud ('Menach.,' 92, 2) points out that this bread was not newly taken out of the sanctuary, but, as the last clause shows, had been removed on some previous day. As after a week's exposure it was stale and dry, the priests, we are told, ate but little of it, and the rest was left (see Talmud, 'Tract. Yom.,' 39, 1). It also points out that, had such violations of the Levitical law been common, so much importance would not have been attached to this incident.
So the priest gave him hallowed bread: for there was no bread there but the shewbread, that was taken from before the LORD, to put hot bread in the day when it was taken away.
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 chiefest of the herdmen that belonged to Saul.
Verse 7. - David's visit to Nob had probably been dictated simply by a desire to get food while a few attendants were being collected for him, and under ordinary circumstances would have remained unknown to Saul. Unfortunately there chanced to be a person present there who informed the king of it, and brought a second terrible catastrophe upon the house of Eli (see on 1 Samuel 2:33); by working too upon his jealousy he caused Saul to commit a crime which sets him before us as a hateful and remorseless tyrant. This man was Doeg, an Edomite, who had, it seems, long been in Saul's service, as he was his chief herdsman. According to the Septuagint he had charge of the king's mules, but the other versions agree with the Hebrew. As herds would form the main part of Saul's wealth, his chief herdsman would be a person of importance. He was detained before Jehovah. I.e. shut up in close seclusion within the precincts of the tabernacle, either for some vow, or for purification, or perhaps as suspected of leprosy (Leviticus 13:4), or, as some think, as a proselyte. Ephrem Syrus thinks he had committed some trespass, and was detained till he had offered the appointed sacrifice. David at once felt that Doeg's presence boded much ill (1 Samuel 22:22), and it probably was the cause of his taking the rash resolution to flee for refuge to Gath.
And David said unto Ahimelech, And is there not here under thine hand spear or sword? for I have neither brought my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king's business required haste.
Verses 8, 9. - Is there not here under thine hand spear or sword? The sight of Doeg made David feel how helpless he was in case of attack, and he excuses his request for weapons by saying that he had left home unarmed because of the urgeney of the king's business. The whole matter must have seemed very suspicious to Ahimelech, but he was powerless, and answers that the only weapon in the sanctuary was David's own votive offering, the sword of Goliath, carefully deposited in a place of honour behind the ephod with the Urim and Thummim, and wrapped in a cloth for its protection. As the word is used in Isaiah 9:5 of military attire, it may mean Goliath's war mantle, but more probably it was a covering to preserve it from rust and damp. In 1 Samuel 17:54 it is said that Goliath's armour became David's private property, and nothing could be more natural than that he should thus lay up the sword in the tabernacle, as a thank offering to God. He now takes it with pleasure, saying, There is none like that; for it was a memorial of his greatest achievement, and might be the presage of good fortune again. DAVID SEEKS REFUGE WITH THE KING OF GATH (vers. 10-15).
And the priest said, The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom thou slewest in the valley of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod: if thou wilt take that, take it: for there is no other save that here. And David said, There is none like that; give it me.
And David arose, and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath.
Verse 10. - David arose and fled that day. The presence of Doeg at Nob was a most untoward circumstance; and though David could never have anticipated that Saul would visit upon the priests the unwitting assistance they had given him with such barbarous ferocity, yet he must have felt sure that an active pursuit would be at once instituted against himself. He therefore took a most unwise and precipitate step, but one which clearly shows the greatness of the danger to which he was exposed. For he flees to Achish, king of Gath, the first town upon the Philistine border, at the mouth of the valley of Elah (see on 1 Samuel 17:3). Achish is called Abimelech in the title of Psalm 34, written by David in grateful commemoration of his escape, that being the official title of the kings of Gath handed down through many successive centuries (see Genesis 26:1). It has been objected that nothing could be more improbable than that David, the conqueror of Goliath, should seek refuge with a Philistine lord, and that this is nothing more than a popular tale, which has grown out of the real fact recorded in ch. 27. But when men are in desperate straits they take wild resolutions, and this meeting with Doeg, just after he had broken down with grief (1 Samuel 20:41), evidently put David to his wits' end. As, moreover, Saul was degenerating into a cruel tyrant, desertions may have become not uncommon, and though only three or four years can have elapsed since the battle of Elah, as David was only about twenty-four years of age at Saul's death, yet the change from a boyish stripling to a bearded man was enough to make it possible that David might not be recognised. As for Goliath's sword, we have seen that it was not remarkable for its size, and was probably of the ordinary pattern imported from Greece. Even if recognised, Achish might welcome him as a deserter from Saul, the great enemy of the Philistines; for as a deserter never received pardon or mercy, he must now use his prowess to the very utmost against Saul. Finally, the historical truth of the narrative is vouched for by Psalm 34, and the details are all different from those in ch. 27. David there is a powerful chieftain with a large following of trained soldiers, and feels so secure that he takes his wives with him; he asks for some place in which to reside, and occupies himself in continual forays. Here he is in the utmost distress, has no trained band of soldiers, and goes well nigh mad with mental anguish. And this is in exact keeping with that extreme excitement to which David was a prey in his last interview with Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:41); and only in his first grief at Saul's cruel bitterness would his mind have been so affected, and his conduct so rash.
And 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?
Verse 11. - David the king of the land. The servants of Achish use the title of king in a very general way. Thus Achish, though really a seren (see on 1 Samuel 5:11), is called king of Gath; and they meant nothing more as regards David than that he was Israel's great man, though in accepting Goliath's challenge he had undertaken what in old time was regarded as the king's especial duty. Did they not sing one to another of him in dances? The Hebrew method of singing was by choruses, who sang and danced in turns to the music of their tambours (see on 1 Samuel 18:7). David evidently had hoped not to be recognised, but to be admitted to serve as a soldier, or in some other capacity, without many questions being asked. As we find an Edomite in Saul's service, Cushites, Maachathites, and other foreigners in the employment of David, there was probably much of this desertion of one service for another, especially as kings in those days had absolute authority and their displeasure was death.
And David laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath.
And he changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard.
Verse 13. - He changed his behaviour. The same word is used in the title of Psalm 34. Literally it means "his taste," and, like the Latin word sapientia, is derived from the action of the palate, and so from the faculty of discriminating flavours it came to signify the power of discrimination generally. Thus "to change his taste" means to act as if he had lost the power of distinguishing between objects. Feigned himself mad. Literally, "he roamed hither and thither" restlessly and in terror. In their hands. I.e. before them, in their presence. Scrabbled on the doors of the gate. The Vulgate and Septuagint read drummed upon them. Literally the verb means "to make the mark of a Tau," the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and which anciently was in the form of a cross. The gate, on the leaves of which David scrawled, was probably that of the court or waiting room, in which the servants of Achish passed their time when in attendance upon him. Possibly David had witnessed these symptoms of madness in Saul's case during his fits of insanity. The idea of some of the older commentators, that David really for a time went out of his mind, is opposed to the general sense of the narrative.
Then said Achish unto his servants, Lo, ye see the man is mad: wherefore then have ye brought him to me?
Verses 14, 15. - The man is mad. Achish supposes that David's madness was real, and "drove him away" (Psalm 34, title). Here we have only his contemptuous words, declaring that he had madmen enough of his own, and needed no more. As madmen were looked upon in old time as possessed by the Deity, and therefore as persons who must not be interfered with, they probably presumed upon the liberty granted them, and gave much annoyance. In my presence. Rather, "against me." Achish feared personal injury. Shall this fellow come into my house? A strong negative taking the form of a question. It means, David shall not enter into my service (comp. Psalm 34, title). The whole psalm bears witness to the deep perturbation of David's spirit, and helps to explain his strange conduct.

Have I need of mad men, that ye have brought this fellow to play the mad man in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?
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