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Commentary on SAMUEL (or 1 & 2 Samuel) 7

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

SECTION 4. The Years of Preparation In The Wilderness (21.1-26.25).

A). David Becomes An Outlaw And Forms A Private Army (21.1-22.23).

In this subsection David, having become a refugee and not daring to return home for provisions or weapons, obtains both provisions and weapons from Ahimelech the Priest on false pretences, followed by resulting humiliation in Gath. Eventually he takes shelter in the Cave of Adullam, where his brothers, together with many discontented men, gather to join him with the result that he is able to establish the private army which will be the basis of his future success. Unfortunately Ahimelech is meanwhile falsely accused before Saul and as a result, (such is Saul’s state of mind), he and his fellow-priests are put to death.

Subsection Analysis.

  • a The Refugee David Visits Ahimelech The Priest And Obtains Provisions (21.1-7).
  • b David Obtains The Sword Of Goliath And Goes To Gath, Only To Have To Feign Madness And Return To Judah (21.8-15).
  • c David Goes To The Cave Of Adullam And Gathers A Private Army (22.1-2).
  • b David Goes To Moab And Seeks Refuge For His Parents, Remaining In A ‘Stronghold’ There Until He Is Told To Return To Judah (22.3-4).
  • a Ahimelech Is Called To Account For Provisioning David And As A Result He And The Priests Of Nob Are Slaughtered (22.5-19).

Note that in ‘a’ David seeks help from Ahimelech which is gladly given and in the parallel Ahimelech is executed for his pains. In ‘b’ David goes to a foreign country, but soon returns, and in the parallel does the same. In both cases he immediately returns to Israel. Centrally he goes to the Cave of Adullam where he gathers the basis of the private army which will stand him in such good stead in the future.

As A Refugee David Visits Ahimelech The Priest And Obtains Provisions And Weapons (21.1-9).

Recognising that he dare not return home to obtain food or weapons, the refugee David seeks help from Ahimelech the Priest (High Priest). He tells him a false story about being on a secret mission for Saul, and obtains his assistance, with the result that Ahimelech provides him with provisions and a weapon. But unfortunately an Edomite servant of Saul is present at the Sanctuary and misinterprets what has happened, something which will later have unfortunate results.

Analysis.

  • a Then David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest, and Ahimelech came to meet David deferentially, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no man with you?” (21.1).
  • b And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has commanded me an affair of state (a business), and has said to me, ‘Let no man know anything of the business about which I send you, and what I have commanded you,’ and I have appointed the young men to such and such a place” (21.2).
  • c “Now therefore what is under your hand? Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever there is present” (21.3).
  • d And the priest answered David, and said, “There is no common bread under my hand, but there is holy bread, if only the young men have kept themselves from women” (21.4).
  • e And David answered the priest, and said to him, “Of a truth women have been kept from us about these three days” (21.5a)
  • d “When I came out, the vessels of the young men were holy, though it was but a common journey, how much more then today will their vessels be holy?” (21.5b).
  • c So the priest gave him holy bread, for there was no bread there but the showbread (literally ‘bread of the presence’), that was taken from before YHWH, to put (be replaced by) hot bread in the day when it was taken away (21.6).
  • b Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before YHWH (21.7a).
  • a And his name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of the herdsmen who belonged to Saul (21.7).

Note that in ‘a’ the lone David, the apparent servant of Saul comes to Ahimelech, and in the parallel the lone Doeg, who is a servant of Saul, is present. In ‘b’ David says that he acts on the king’s business, and in the parallel Doeg is one who belongs to the king and acts on his business. In ‘c’ David asks for bread, and in the parallel is given the showbread. In ‘d’ the condition is that the young men must be holy, and in the parallel David confirms their holiness. Centrally in ‘e’ is the fact that they have kept themselves from women for three days. We know that the reason for this is because David has been in hiding.

21.1 ‘Then David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest, and Ahimelech came to meet David trembling (deferentially), and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no man with you?” ’

Now that he was a man on the run, without provisions or weapons, and dared not go back to his hometown Bethlehem, David came to Nob, a town just north of Jerusalem (and within sight of it) where the Tabernacle had been set up and where Ahimelech was High Priest. David’s hope was that news had not yet reached there of Saul’s antagonism towards him. When Ahimelech saw Saul’s great general he met him with great deference, expressing surprise that he was alone. It was not usual for such an important man to be on his own. The question was due rather to puzzlement, than suspicion.

Ahimelech was of the house of Ithamar (and Eli) of which God had forecast that it would be decimated and cease to be holders of the High Priesthood (2.27-36). But that was yet to happen.

21.2 ‘And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has commanded me an affair of state (a business), and has said to me, ‘Let no man know anything of the business about which I send you, and what I have commanded you,’ and I have appointed the young men to such and such a place.”

David’s reply was that he was on a secret mission about which he had been commanded not to talk, and that his young men were waiting for him elsewhere. There was no reason why Ahimelech should have doubted the truth of his words. In fact it is doubtful if there were any young men waiting, (none are mentioned elsewhere), and what is certain is that he was not on a mission for Saul. So the whole thing was probably a fabrication.

21.3 “Now therefore what is under your hand? Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever there is present.”

David then asked him for bread for ‘his men’, and himself. If possible, he explained, he wanted at least five loaves, but if not, as many as could be provided. The fact that it was a secret mission would prevent Ahimelech from looking more widely, even if such bread would have been available on the Sabbath day (the showbread had just been changed). He would have considered that the whole request was subject to the utmost secrecy. But from where was he to obtain sufficient bread without disclosing David’s presence or objective?

The fact that David was looking for bread so urgently is significant. It suggests that he had not in fact been in Bethlehem, where he could have found some and provisioned himself before he left, but had been in hiding in the countryside unable to let anyone know that he was there. That being so he would be hungry and would know that he had to find some provisions from somewhere. And Saul he knew that Saul would be merciless with anyone who tried to help him, except surely to YHWH’s High Priest. That he was desperate comes out in the fact that he had been prepared to take this risk of ‘exposing’ himself so close to Gibeah in order to try to find bread.

21.4 ‘And the priest answered David, and said, “There is no common bread under my hand, but there is holy bread, if only the young men have kept themselves from women.” ’

The answer was probably hesitant. He had no ordinary (unholy) bread available. But what he did have was the showbread which had just been taken from the golden table in the Holy Place and had been replaced by new hot showbread (see Exodus 25.23-30; Leviticus 4.5-9). This was, however, holy and strictly only for priests. However that had been before there was a king, which might have been seen as altering the situation, (he also was YHWH’s anointed), and anyway you did not argue with Saul’s representatives. It would thus appear that by this time the levitical restrictions had been relaxed somewhat, so that it was now seen as possible for it to be eaten by anyone who was in a ‘holy’ state in the service of YHWH and His anointed, that is, in the service of the king.

Thus he argued that as long as the young men were in a ‘clean’ state and had not recently had sexual intercourse, they could be permitted to eat the bread. Sexual relations were seen as making a man mildly ‘unclean’, a condition which would continue ‘until the evening’. Compare Exodus 19.15; Leviticus 15.16-18.

The fact that the Table for the showbread was there confirms the fact that the Tabernacle was there, for the two went together. It would appear that all normal ‘services’ had been resumed under Saul now that there was an Aaronic High Priest who qualified for the position (compare 14.3).

21.5 ‘And David answered the priest, and said to him, “Of a truth women have been kept from us about these three days. When I came out, the vessels of the young men were holy, though it was but a common journey, how much more then today will their vessels be holy?” ’

David’s reply was that his men had abstained from sex for the past three days. This would not seem strange as it was in fact quite normal for military personnel in Israel to avoid sex while on a mission. Compare how Uriah the Hittite refused to go home to his wife because he saw himself as on active service (2 Samuel 11.11). Furthermore he stated that their ‘vessels’ (pouches) had been ritually clean when they had set out, having touched nothing ‘unclean’. How much more then must that be so after three days on their mission when they were being careful to avoid all that was ‘unclean’. Thus the holy bread could be put into them without qualms.

‘Though it was but a common journey.’ The idea was that when they had first set out they had not known that they would shortly be allocated to a secret mission, and would see it as a ‘common’ journey. Once they were aware of their secret mission it would make their journey ‘holy’.

Whether there were such men waiting to receive the bread must be seen as possible, but doubtful. There is no mention of them elsewhere, and five loaves were not many for such a company, whilst they would be very necessary for a David who would not know where he could next obtain bread.

21.6 ‘So the priest gave him holy bread, for there was no bread there but the showbread, that was taken from before YHWH, to put hot bread in the day when it was taken away.’

So the priest gave him some of the holy bread (you did not say ‘no’ to the general of the ‘anointed of YHWH’ unless you had to), because that was all the bread that was available. It had been taken off the Table that day and replaced by hot bread.

This example is taken by Jesus in order to illustrate the fact that a greater than David had come, and that as such He had the right to be Lord of the Sabbath. For both were seen as being able to override the Law (Mark 2.25-28). (It should be noted that the statement there that it was ‘in the section called Abiathar the High Priest’ was not an error, but an indication of where the lectionary reading was to be found).

21.7 ‘Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before YHWH, and his name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of the herdsmen who belonged to Saul.’

But unfortunately for all concerned there was another servant of Saul present at the Tabernacle that day, ‘detained before YHWH’. That would either be because he was in process of becoming a proselyte, or because he was undergoing a vow, or because he was being purified. His name was Doeg, and he was an Edomite. He was the chief of Saul’s herdsmen. Not as important as a general, but important in his own way. And he observed the welcome that Ahimelech gave to David, although he would not realise its significance until later.

David The Champion Slayer Is Humiliated Before The King Of Gath (21.8-15).

It can surely not be a coincidence that in this passage David’s miserable time in Gath is preceded by a reminder of another encounter with Gath that had brought David great glory. Could anyone have foreseen that the open, honest, God-fearing youth of chapter 17, who was afraid of no one and was concerned only for the honour of YHWH, would turn so quickly into the conniving deceitful David of chapter 21, who was afraid of everyone and sought only his own safety?

The chiasmus begins with a reminder of David’s moment of greatest glory (up to this point), the conquest of Goliath, even though it is sadly accompanied by an indication of his cowardly deceit. But it ends with a pathetic dribbling figure who just as easily deceived the king of Gath. David would certainly grow to be a great king, but this was undoubtedly not his proudest moment, for the hero of Elah was being revealed as nothing better than the liar of Nob, and the goon of Gath. It was not a very nice picture at all. To such a low level does sin bring even the greatest.

Of course, David outgrew this failure, and it is an important reminder to us that he was but a man after all. But just for a short while his mask has slipped, and part of what he really was underneath, is laid open before us. We have here a glimpse of the later murderer of Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 11). How different a figure he was at this moment from his great Successor, the One of Whom it was said, “He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth” (1 Peter 2.22). He went to a cross rather than behave in this way.

Thus what follows in Gath is probably intended to be seen as the consequence of David’s lies before Ahimelech. One thing leads to another. And whilst the description of his feigned madness was no doubt later seen as a good joke, it would have been nothing short of total humiliation for David. He would have been made to recognise that while through his deceit he had escaped death at the hands of Saul, it was simply in order to become a pathetic figure of fun to the Philistines. And that is probably how the writer also saw it, for he draws out in a deliberate contrast the thought of the majestic hero who slew Goliath, but at the same time deceived the Priest, causing his death, and the pathetic dribbling figure who similarly deceived the king of Gath. His purpose was seemingly in order to bring out that by his lies and deception even the great David was brought down to the depths of humiliation. It is likely, indeed, that he considered that David had brought all his troubles on himself by his previous behaviour. In other words he is saying that this, along with the slaughter of the priests, was the consequence of David’s dishonesty. It was a heavy price to pay for his deceit.

Analysis.

  • a And David said to Ahimelech, “And is there not here under your hand spear or sword? For I have neither brought my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste” (21.8).
  • b And the priest said, “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you slew in the vale of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you will take that, take it, for there is no other except that here.” And David said, “There is none like that. Give it me” (21.9).
  • c And David arose, and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath (21.10).
  • d And the servants of Achish said to him, “Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?” (21.11).
  • c And David laid up these words in his heart, and was greatly afraid of Achish the king of Gath (21.12).
  • b 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 on his beard (21.13).
  • a Then Achish said to his servants, “Lo, you see the man is mad. Why then have you brought him to me?” Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?” (21.14-15).

Note that in ‘a’, having come into the ‘house’ of YHWH, David successfully deceives Ahimelech, while in the parallel he so successfully deceives Achish that he is not wanted in his house. In ‘b’ he is seen as the darling hero of the vale of Elah, and in the parallel he is seen as the dribbling goon of Gath. In ‘c’ he goes to the king of Gath for fear of Saul, and in the parallel he fears the king of Gath because of what is said about him. Centrally in ‘d’ the servants of Achish describe David’s glory, only for the picture quickly to die away into that of a dribbling lunatic.

21.8 ‘And David said to Ahimelech, “And is there not here under your hand spear or sword? For I have neither brought my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste.” ’

We cannot avoid the implication here of David’s deceitfulness, and even of his unscrupulousness, in deceiving Ahimelech. The hero turns out for a short while to have feet of clay. Not only does he enter the house of YHWH and obtain holy bread from him by deceit, but he also accepts the sword of Goliath, undoubtedly under false pretences. Both were, of course, actions that were outwardly understandable at a human level. He was hungry and he had no weapons, and he knew that a vengeful king was on his tail, but in the event his deceit would result in a heavy price being paid by the priests, and we cannot honestly excuse it. All we can do is learn the lesson lest we do the same. We can hear a voice behind us that says, ‘Go, and do not do likewise’.

21.9 ‘And the priest said, “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you slew in the vale of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you will take that, take it, for there is no other except that here.” And David said, “There is none like that. Give it me.” ’

The honest and rather naive Ahimelech did not want to let down Saul’s most popular commander, and he explained to him that they did indeed have a sword on the premises. It was the sword of Goliath of Gath, ‘the Philistine’, whom David had slain. Here was a reminder that this same David was the hero of Elah. But alas! He was also the liar of Nob. The contrast between the liar of Nob and the hero of Elah is impossible to avoid, especially in view of what follows, where he sinks to an even lower level.

The situation was made even worse by where the sword was to be found. It was hung up, wrapped in a cloth, behind the ephod, the priestly garment by means of which truth could be obtained from YHWH. If only Ahimelech had consulted the ephod what misery his house would have been spared. But he thrust it aside in order to reach the sword for David. And so he shared in his sin.

We have not previously been told how the sword of Goliath came to be here, but it would have been a natural thing for Israel to do to store it up before YHWH as a trophy.

21.10 ‘And David arose, and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath.’

Having received the holy bread and the sword of Goliath by false pretences David fled from Israel because of his fear of Saul, and went to Achish, king of Gath, no doubt wearing the sword of Goliath. His aim was probably to offer himself as a Hebrew mercenary leader to Achish. Thus he was prepared to become ‘almost a Philistine’. But that would have meant fighting against his own people. Deceit was sadly leading to treachery, even if to him he appeared to have little alternative.

21.11 ‘And the servants of Achish said to him, “Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?” ’

However, even in his sin YHWH was watching over him, with the result that the servants of Achish said to Achish, “Is this not David, the king of the land?” Note that it does not say ‘the king of Israel.’ And indeed what they did mean is brought out in the quotation that follows. Saul might be the titular king of Israel, but the one to whom the people of the land looked was David. He was king of their hearts. For compared with Saul’s thousands, he was seen as having slain ten thousands. And many of them Philistines at that! We do not know whether this was said in admiration or criticism. But either way it produced the right effect in David’s heart. He suddenly realised what he was doing.

Note that in the heading to Psalm 34 Achish is given his titular name of Abimelech. for which compare Genesis 20.2; 21.32.

21.12 ‘And David laid up these words in his heart, and was greatly afraid of Achish the king of Gath.’

When David realised what the Philistines were saying, (he probably did not speak their language very well), cold fear gripped his heart. He recognised that what they were saying put him in great danger. And he became fearful of what the king of Gath might do. The mighty conqueror of Goliath was thus reduced to abject terror. And all because he was there by deceit, wearing a sword that marked him out as an enemy.

21.13 ‘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 on his beard.’

The contrast between the conqueror of Goliath and the goon of Gath that we now see here is hard to bear. For here this mighty hero changed his behaviour and instead of standing proud began to feign madness. This was what his deceit had brought him to. The fact that he was ‘in their hands’ probably suggests that he had been arrested. Thus in order to persuade them to let him go he scrabbled on the doors of the palace, and let spittle run down his beard, behaving like a madman. Madmen were treated with awe by the ancients for they saw them as possessed by the gods. They would therefore be only too glad to let him go. If only Goliath could have seen him now.

Later in chapter 27 he would return in a very different guise as leader of a mercenary army. But at present he was simply an object of ridicule. There is no reason to doubt that this actually happened. No one would later have made up a story like this about David.

21.14-15 ‘Then Achish said to his servants, “Lo, you see the man is mad. Why then have you brought him to me? Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?” ’

When Achish saw the behaviour of this sad spectacle whom his men had brought in he berated them. Could they not see that the man was mad? Why then had they brought the man to him, when he already had madmen enough in his court! (Achish clearly had a strong sense of humour). Did they really think that he was going to take a man like this into his house as a servant of his household? Where were their brains? But although he did not realise it he was carrying out YHWH’s will. Gath did not fit into YHWH’s plans for David. He wanted him in Israel.

The Psalm that David wrote after this episode, no doubt in the cave of Adullam, does in fact bring out David’s recognition of how YHWH had delivered him. Even when burdened down with the consequences of deceit he recognised that YHWH had not forsaken him (see Psalm 34).

The Glory of God Is Revealed In The Cave of Adullam: David Establishes The Beginnings of His Private Army And Re-establishes The Future (22.1-2).

Having barely escaped from Gath with his life David returned to Israel and made for the cave of Adullam. Adullam was an ancient royal city of the Canaanites, twelve miles east of Gath and in the Judean foothills near the valley of Elah (Joshua 15.35). Nearby were a series of large caves. And it was to one of these caves that David made his way. It must have seemed like the end of the road. He had been rejected by Saul, had perjured his soul to Ahimelech, and had played the madman in Gath. Now he was to become a trogladyte. Though he did not realise it he was being faced up with the fact of the truth about himself, and was learning that the way to Up is Down.

Imagine now the scene as the Reject of Saul, the Liar of Nob and the Goon of Gath makes his tired way towards the cave of Adullam. His exultation at escaping from Gath (Psalm 34) must now have been replaced by a sense of despair. For as he entered its gloomy portal, and was no doubt met by a motley and suspicious group of ragged and dirty refugees, he must have asked, ‘has it all come to this?’ Little did he realise at that moment that in that cave he was about to experience the Grace of God. It did not come immediately, nor did it come in any moment of high exaltation but it came in dribs and drabs, as God drew to that cave the beginnings of a unique fighting force..

From that cave he appears first to have got a message through to his family, who were possibly not yet aware of the disaster that might face them. For the one who would slaughter the innocent priests of Nob would have had no qualms about the destruction of the family of the traitor David. And the result was that he was soon joined by his brothers and parents, and their household. But it was not only they who gathered to David. When news got around in whispers that David, the hero of Israel, was sheltering in the caves of Adullam, (and presumably venturing out on raiding trips, for they would need to survive somehow), many who had grievances or were in debt gathered to him, until at length he had about four hundred men at his command, a considerable force in those days (compare Esau in Genesis 32.6 and Abraham in Genesis 14.14), especially when they were well trained.

Indeed one thing that will stand out in the future narratives is the fact that David had ‘his men’. It was they who would be the foundation of his future greatness, and it was here that they had their beginnings. We have already noted the military successes of David. He was a brilliant campaigner, and a popular hero. But shaping the motley group that he would now gather into an effective and powerful fighting force was undoubtedly one of his greatest achievements. They came together as a group of malcontents, and we are left to imagine his tight control over them, the requirement for worship and the daily training that gradually honed them into a powerful instrument of war. But we can be sure that all were prominent features of life in the cave.

Analysis.

  • a David therefore departed from there, and escaped to the cave of Adullam (22.1a).
  • b And when his brethren and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him (22.1b).
  • c And every one who was in distress, and every one who was in debt, and every one who was discontented, gathered themselves to him (22.2a).
  • b And he became commander over them (22.2b).
  • a And there were with him about four hundred men (22.2c).

Note that in ‘a’ David goes to the large cave at Adullam and in the parallel he soon has four hundred men living with him there. In ‘b’ his family come to join him, and in the parallel he has command over them. Central in ‘c’ are the threefold types who join up with him. It was an army of the needy and the discontented

22.1a ‘David therefore departed from there, and escaped to the cave of Adullam.’

There were a number of caves at Adullam, and this was presumably the largest of them. Adullam itself was an ancient royal city of the Canaanites, twelve miles east of Gath (midway between Jerusalem and Lachish) and in the Judean foothills near the valley of Elah (Joshua 15.35). It would not have been very welcoming, but it was all he had.

22.1b ‘And when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him.’

It would appear that David contacted his family at this time and warned them of what Saul might do to them, with the result that they joined him in the Cave of Adullam. For as his behaviour towards the priests of Nob would demonstrate Saul was both bloodthirsty and unreliable, and David’s family were no doubt near the top of his list. There can be little doubt that David urged them to join him there.

22.2 ‘And every one who was in distress, and every one who was in debt, and every one who was discontented, gathered themselves to him, and he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.’

But not only his family came. For as news spread around Israel about how David had escaped from Saul, his name became a magnet that drew men to the cave at Adullam. All who were distressed or in debt, and all who were not content to have Saul as king, gathered to David at Adullam. And they all looked to him as their natural leader with the result that he became commander over them. The consequence was that soon he had four hundred trained and disciplined men under his command, to say nothing of their wives and children. And we can be sure that David ensured that they were well trained. He would know that their future depended on it.

David Ensures The Safety Of His Father And Mother (22.3-4).

The cave was no place for his ageing father and mother, and so David went to Mizpeh of Moab and asked the king of Moab if he would watch over them for him. We do not know how he had become acquainted with the king of Moab, but we do know that he had Moabite blood in his veins from his great-grandmother Ruth (Ruth 4.17). It would seem therefore that there had been previous contact, either through his father, or when he had been commander of a military unit under Saul. Here we have here one of those details which are never explained but which remind us how little we know of the to-ings and fro-ings of life in those days, and a reminder that God prepares the way for His people.

One further thing that we learn here, and that is that while Saul lived his prophet-less life in Gibeah, the prophet of YHWH came to David in Mizpeh. David was still very much YHWH’s concern.

Analysis.

  • a And David went from there to Mizpeh of Moab (22.3a).
  • b And he said to the king of Moab, “Let my father and my mother, I pray you, come forth, and be with you, until I know what God will do for me” (22.3b).
  • c And he brought them before the king of Moab, and they dwelt with him all the while that David was in the stronghold. (22.4).
  • b And the prophet Gad said to David, “Do not abide not in the stronghold. Depart, and get you into the land of Judah” (22.5a).
  • a Then David departed, and came into the forest of Hereth (22.5b).

Note that in ‘a’ went to Mizpeh of Moab, and in the parallel he left there and came back to Judah, to the Forest of Hereth. In ‘b’ David exhorted the king of Moab to watch over his parents, and in the parallel the prophet Gad exhorted David himself not to remain in Moab any longer. His place was in Judah. In ‘c’ the king of Moab fulfilled David’s request.

22.3 ‘And David went from there to Mizpeh of Moab, and he said to the king of Moab, “Let my father and my mother, I pray you, come forth, and be with you, until I know what God will do for me.”

David’s concern for his parents was in line with YHWH’s commandment to ‘honour your father and mother’. The writer wants us to recognise that in the midst of all his problems David fulfilled all God’s commandments. Mizpeh means ‘watchtower’. There were many Mizpehs. This one was probably on the border of Moab looking down on the Jordan rift valley. We note that the king of Moab was the only king to help him in his time of need, possibly because of his Moabite ancestry.

Note also how David’s faith had blossomed, “until I know what God will do for me.” His sojourn in the cave of Adullam and his new small army had made all the difference to his thinking. He was now full of expectation.

22.4 ‘And he brought them before the king of Moab, and they dwelt with him all the while that David was in the stronghold.’

So David’s parents dwelt with the king of Moab all the time that David was ‘in the stronghold’. We know from verse 5 that the stronghold was outside Judah. It was indeed probably Mizpeh. But his parents were not in Mizpeh. They were with the king enjoying his hospitality.

22.5 And the prophet Gad said to David, “Do not abide not in the stronghold. Depart, and get you into the land of Judah.” Then David departed, and came into the forest of Hereth.

Then, however, a young prophet named Gad arrived, possibly from Samuel. He came to David at Mizpeh and instructed him to return to the land of Judah. It was not good that David be out of touch with the people. It would be important in the future that he had lived among them. So David took shelter with his men in the Forest of Hereth (of which we know nothing). The thick, tangled forests of Judah made a good hiding place for a band of men like David’s.

Thus following his descent into deception at Nob and the low point of his life in Gath, YHWH had now given him three indications that He was still with him. The foundation of his new army at Adullam, the concern shown for his parents by the king of Moab, and the appearance of a prophet of YHWH to give him guidance. All demonstrated that YHWH had not forgotten him. Gad will later appear as ‘the king’s seer’ (2 Samuel 24.11; 1 Chronicles 21.9), will act as his adviser (2 Samuel 24.11 ff) and will keep records of his life for our benefit (1 Chronicles 29.29).

Saul Reveals His True Colours (22.6-19).

While David was going through his period of refining, Saul was displaying his true colours. Unlike David he did not learn from his tribulations. He rather used them as a base from which to launch further evils.

It appears that he had had his spies out constantly for David, for at length he learned that David ‘was discovered’, that his whereabouts were known, and that he had accumulated a good number of followers. This caused him to panic and he immediately set his mind to establishing his own position, first by promising rewards to those who followed him, and secondly by ruthlessly destroying all whom he saw as opposing him, in this case the priests of Nob. The state of his mind comes out in that he even accused Jonathan his own son of plotting against him and of stirring up David to cause him trouble He seems to have thrown off all restraint. The truth was that the thought of David was eating into his soul, sadly at this time to the detriment of the innocent priests of Nob. He was a different man from the young man whom Samuel had anointed to be king so many years before, and in the end it had all come about through one or two major acts of disobedience against YHWH.

  • And Saul heard that David was discovered (‘was known’), and the men who were with him. Now Saul was sitting in Gibeah, under the tamarisk-tree in Ramah, with his spear in his hand, and all his servants were standing about him (22.6).
  • And Saul said to his servants who stood about him, “Hear now, you Benjaminites. Will the son of Jesse give every one of you fields and vineyards? Will he make you all captains of thousands and captains of hundreds, that all of you have conspired against me, and there is none who discloses to me when my son makes a league with the son of Jesse, and there is none of you who is sorry for me, or discloses to me that my son has stirred up my servant against me, to lie in wait, as at this day?” (22.7-8).
  • Then answered Doeg the Edomite, who stood by the servants of Saul, and said, “I saw the son of Jesse coming to Nob, to Ahimelech the son of Ahitub. And he enquired of YHWH for him, and gave him victuals, and gave him the sword of Goliath the Philistine” (22.9-10).
  • d Then the king sent to call Ahimelech the priest, the son of Ahitub, and all his father’s house, the priests that were in Nob, and all of them came to the king (22.11).
  • e And Saul said, “Hear now, you son of Ahitub.” And he answered, “Here I am, my lord” (22.12).
  • f And Saul said to him, “Why have you conspired against me, you and the son of Jesse, in that you have given him bread, and a sword, and have enquired of God for him, that he should rise against me, to lie in wait, as at this day?” (22.13).
  • g Then Ahimelech answered the king, and said, “And who among all your servants is so faithful as David, who is the king’s son-in-law, and is given audience with you, and is honourable in your house?” (22.14).
  • f “Have I today commenced enquiring of God for him? Be it far from me. Do not let the king impute anything to his servant, nor to all the house of my father, for your servant knows nothing of all this, less or more” (22.15).
  • e And the king said, “You shall surely die, Ahimelech, you, and all your father’s house” <22.16).
  • d And the king said to the guard who stood about him, “Turn, and slay the priests of YHWH, because their hand also is with David, and because they knew that he fled, and did not disclose it to me.” But the servants of the king would not put forth their hand to fall on the priests of YHWH (22.17).
  • c And the king said to Doeg, “Turn you, and fall on the priests.” And Doeg the Edomite turned, and he fell on the priests, and he slew on that day eighty five persons who wore a linen ephod. And he smote Nob, the city of the priests, with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and sucklings, and oxen and asses and sheep, with the edge of the sword (22.18-19).
  • b And one of the sons of Ahimelech, the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped, and fled after David. And Abiathar told David that Saul had slain YHWH’s priests (22.20-21).
  • a And David said to Abiathar, “I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul. I have occasioned the death of all the persons of your father’s house. Stay with me, and do not be afraid. For he who seeks my life seeks your life. For with me you will be under protection” (22.22-23).

Note that in ‘a’ Saul was consulting in counsel with his chief courtiers as a result of his discovery about the nefarious activities of the evil David, theoretically judging Israel righteously, whilst in the parallel the same ‘evil David’ is talking to the only surviving Priest of YHWH and assuring him of his protection from the illegalities of Saul. (We may seriously ask, who was acting as YHWH’s legitimate ‘anointed one’ in this case?). In ‘b’ Saul is buttering up the Benjaminites and bribing them to remain faithful while charging them with failure to inform him of treasonable activities, while in the parallel David is being informed by an orphaned Abiathar of what this same Saul has done to YHWH’s priests, which was worse than treasonable, it was sacrilegious. In ‘c’ Doeg the Edomite informs on what he sees as Ahimelech’s treachery, and in the parallel he slays Ahimelech and all his relatives for that assumed treachery. In ‘d’ Saul calls for all the priests of Nob, and in the parallel orders their slaughter. In ‘e’ Saul call on ‘the son of Ahitub’ to speak, and in the parallel he tells him that he and all Ahitub’s house must die. In ‘f’ Saul accuses Ahimelech of enquiring of YHWH on behalf of David, and in the parallel Ahimelech points out that he had not just started doing so, but had been doing it for some time with the knowledge of the king. Centrally in ‘g’ the worthiness of David is emphasised and underlined.

22.6 ‘And Saul heard that David was discovered, and the men who were with him. Now Saul was sitting in Gibeah, under the tamarisk-tree in Ramah, with his spear in his hand, and all his servants were standing about him.’

The passage begins with Saul calling his advisory council together because his spies have discovered the whereabouts of David, and had also brought the news that he has gathered a host around him. It was common in Israel for such activities as Saul’s to take place in the opening air under the shade of trees (compare Judges 4.5). In this case it was under ‘the tamarisk tree on the height’ where it would be cool. He was sat there carrying his ceremonial spear (all councillors beware), whilst all the councillors were standing around. It was a formal situation, seemingly of the utmost legality. But the passage will end up with an orphaned victim who was holy to God seeking protection from this legality with David, in the light of the slaughter of all YHWH’s holy High Priests as a result of a spurious verdict of this same court.

22.7-8 ‘And Saul said to his servants who stood about him, “Hear now, you Benjaminites. Will the son of Jesse give every one of you fields and vineyards? Will he make you all captains of thousands and captains of hundreds, that all of you have conspired against me, and there is none who discloses to me when my son makes a league with the son of Jesse, and there is none of you who is sorry for me, or discloses to me that my son has stirred up my servant against me, to lie in wait, as at this day?” ’

Saul then addresses his ‘servants’ (his courtiers and commanders). The fact that he calls them ‘Benjaminites’ demonstrates how parochial Saul’s government has become. He now ruled through his favourites, of whom his son at this moment was clearly not one, and favoured his own tribe. And he points out to them that under the son of Jesse they would lose their special entitlements and honours, for he was not a Benjaminite. It would thus pay them to keep in with him. They were to be good politicians.

But he then demonstrates his paranoia by suggesting that his son Jonathan is in league with David against him and is planning his downfall, and indeed that David is in some way ‘lying in wait’ for him. Both were untrue. But he was so obsessed with the idea that David was seeking to take over his kingdom that he could not separate fact from fiction.

Note the threefold description, ‘none have disclosed that his son is in league with David’, ‘none of them is sorry for him’, ‘none have disclosed what his own son has done in stirring up David against him’. In other words everyone is completely holding back on him, (and that about things that they could not possibly have known anything about).

So everything is wrong about his statement which is simply a revelation of a paranoid ruling badly and unjustly, fulfilling only too literally what Samuel had warned against in 8.10-18.

22.9-10 ‘Then answered Doeg the Edomite, who stood by the servants of Saul, and said, “I saw the son of Jesse coming to Nob, to Ahimelech the son of Ahitub. And he enquired of YHWH for him, and gave him victuals, and gave him the sword of Goliath the Philistine.” ’

The only one who replied to his unjust accusations was Doeg the Edomite. All the rest remained quiet with their own thoughts. But Doeg wanted to curry favour with Saul. Indeed we discover what kind of man he was in 22.18-19. And he informed on Ahimelech. He did not actually lie. But he cannot be acquitted of deliberately feeding Saul’s unjustified suspicions without regard for the consequences, and he made no attempt to indicate the real truth concerning what he had seen. He presents no prettier picture than Saul.

Doeg is described as ‘standing by the servants of Saul’. In other words he was a hanger on. He was presumably there because he was Saul’s chief shepherd, which would be quite an important post, whilst not making him a member of the inner council composed of court officials and field commanders. He possibly felt both this and his inferiority as an Edomite, and he may even have resented the way in which he had been treated at the Sanctuary as a proselyte. He thus appears happy to vent his spleen by criticising the priests in order to demonstrate that they were not as good as they claimed. It is, however, doubtful if he realised how far Saul would go. But we should note in this regard that when he found out he gladly and heartlessly took advantage of it. So he was an unpleasant character altogether.

22.11 ‘Then the king sent to call Ahimelech the priest, the son of Ahitub, and all his father’s house, the priests that were in Nob, and all of them came to the king.’

Suitably stirred in his suspicions Saul sent for Ahimelech, and along with them ‘all his house’. This last fact already demonstrates that Saul had evil intentions towards them. He was looking for scapegoats. And that in spite of the fact that almost everyone would have recognised that Ahimelech was probably guiltless. Why should he have suspected the king’s son-in-law? It is doubtful if the majority of the priests wanted to come. Saul’s unaccountable moods were well known. But they had no choice but to obey a royal command, and no doubt came fearfully.

22.12 ‘And Saul said, “Hear now, you son of Ahitub.” And he answered, “Here I am, my lord.” ’

Saul addresses him as ‘you son of Ahitub’. That was not a very promising beginning. To speak of a man in that way was usually seen as insulting, as though he was not worthy of his own name being given. But Ahimelech replied respectfully, and openly. His conscience was clear.

22.13 ‘And Saul said to him, “Why have you conspired against me, you and the son of Jesse, in that you have given him bread, and a sword, and have enquired of God for him, that he should rise against me, to lie in wait, as at this day?” ’

As with the case of Jonathan in verse 8 Saul links Ahimelech with ‘the son of Jesse’ (another insulting expression) as though the two had been conniving together. But the things included in the charge were innocent enough. He had simply provided David with bread and a sword and guidance from YHWH because he had thought that he was there in the service of Saul. These were innocent enough things if provided to someone about whom he had no suspicion.

22.14 ‘Then Ahimelech answered the king, and said, “And who among all your servants is so faithful as David, who is the king’s son-in-law, and is taken into your council, and is honourable in your house?”

Indeed, Ahimelech made his position clear. Why should he have been suspicious of a man who had served Saul faithfully, who was his son-in-law, who had constant audience with Saul, and had an honoured position in his house? The description is not only intended by the writer to be a defence, but also to be a true description of the character of David. He wanted all to recognise that this really was what David was like, an honourable and trustworthy courtier and commander.

22.15 “Have I today begun to enquire of God for him? Be it far from me. Do not let the king impute anything to his servant, nor to all the house of my father, for your servant knows nothing of all this, less or more.”

He pointed out further that his enquiring of YHWH on his behalf was not a new thing as though he had not done it before. He had often enquired of YHWH for him, and no one had ever suggested that it was wrong. Thus it was far from the truth to suggest that by it he was in any way conspiring with him. And thus he asked the king not to read anything into it that was not true, both for his own sake, and for the sake of his father’s house whom he recognised to be in some danger, otherwise they would not have been there. The propensity of kings for widespread slaughter when they suspected treason was far too well known to be ignored. And he ended up by taking any guilt on himself, while assuring Saul that it would not be justified. The truth was, he urged, that he knew nothing of any conspiracy.

22.16 ‘And the king said, “You shall surely die, Ahimelech, you, and all your father’s house.”

But Saul was not listening. Ahimelech had admitted offering David help and so he and his whole house must die whether they had intended a conspiracy or not. For by their actions they had specifically injured the sacred person of the king. While this verdict might have been acceptable in a foreign court where such standards applied, it was not seemly for a king of Israel who was supposed to uphold God’s Law. But that is the point that is being made here. Saul was putting himself above God’s Law. He was ignoring all the claims of justice. It will also be noted that there was only one witness. In Israelite law that was insufficient to bring a conviction (Deuteronomy 19.15). It may be that Saul would have claimed that Ahimelech was himself the second witness, but in that case it would not have applied to the other priests. And in any case a man could not be convicted on what was not really a confession. Everything is wrong with this verdict. Saul is being shown up as totally unjust.

22.17 ‘And the king said to the guard who stood about him, “Turn, and slay the priests of YHWH, because their hand also is with David, and because they knew that he fled, and did not disclose it to me.” But the servants of the king would not put forth their hand to fall on the priests of YHWH.’

This fact is then accentuated by what follows. For when Saul calls on his guard to slay the priests of Nob because Ahimelech had clearly favoured David against the king, and had not disclosed to him that David had fled, they refused to respond. They were very unwilling to ‘fall on the priests of YHWH’, especially on so flimsy a verdict. It is interesting that his own failure to react against them indicated that Saul too understood their qualms. It was because he was theoretically a Yahwist himself that he did so. He could therefore quite understand their reservations. But that being so it should have made him pull himself up and question what he was doing. Instead it simply made him look for someone less squeamish. he is revealed as clearly having no excuse for what he was doing.

So again the writer is bringing out the enormity of what Saul was doing. It could not fail to resound against him before the whole of Israel, and would for ever demonstrate to the discerning that he was rejected by YHWH. For he was not only behaving unjustly and contrary to the Law, but was also doing it towards those who were holy to YHWH. He was falsely judging and slaughtering people who were YHWH’s own. It was sacrilege of the worst kind. It was the action of a man beyond the pale.

‘The guard.’ Literally ‘the runners’, e.g. those who ran before him and attended him (compare 8.11, and see the use of the same word in 2 Kings 10.25).

22.18 ‘And the king said to Doeg, “Turn you, and fall on the priests.” And Doeg the Edomite turned, and he fell on the priests, and he slew on that day four score and five persons who wore a linen ephod.’

Then Saul turned towards the only man who appeared to be in sympathy with what he wanted. Perhaps as a newly converted Edomite he would not have the same built in qualms of an Israelite. And he was right, For when he called on him to turn and fall on the priests, Doeg gladly obeyed, probably along with some of his shepherds. Shepherds were notorious for their godlessness (their very occupation prevented regular worship at the Sanctuary). And that day Saul’s chief shepherd turned on the chief shepherds of YHWH and cut them to pieces, all eighty five of them.

‘Four score and five persons who wore the linen ephod’. The linen ephod was the sign that they were qualified to act as High Priests in an emergency. They were the true priesthood. So the ‘holiest’ men of Israel, whose lives were taken up in the service of YHWH, were being murdered. The partial effects of this is seen later in 1 Chronicles 24.4 when the sons of Ithamar could not raise more than eight ‘chief men’ to be over the orders of the priests in the Sanctuary, compared with Eleazar’s sixteen.

(As with all numbers in ancient times, however, the number may not be intended to be seen as mathematically accurate. Most did not think mathematically in those days, and no one would have made a head count. Larger numbers were rather intended to convey an impression. Thus this may represent four full priestly groups and a part group of novitiates or reserves awaiting appointment to a group, all of course descended from Ithamar, Aaron’s son).

22.19 ‘And he smote Nob, the city of the priests, with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and sucklings, and oxen and asses and sheep, with the edge of the sword.’

Doeg then followed this up by doing the equivalent of ‘devoting’ the city of the priests and all who were in it to destruction (although certainly not to YHWH). But it was not at YHWH’s command, nor of His will. It was rather an act of total barbarism. The writer wants us to see that Saul was doing to God’s holy priests and their possessions what he had refused to do to the Amalekites and their possessions (chapter 15). His unbelief and sacrilege was being emphasised a hundredfold.

22.20 ‘And one of the sons of Ahimelech, the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped, and fled after David.’

One of the sons of Ahimelech, however, somehow escaped and ‘fled after David’. His name was Abiathar. He was becoming a refugee like David, and would later become David’s High Priest, before losing his status in the time of Solomon when he took part in the rebellion of Adonijah.

22.21 ‘And Abiathar told David that Saul had slain YHWH’s priests.’

And Abiathar told David that Saul had slain ‘YHWH’s Priests’. The pregnant short sentence brings out the solemn awfulness of what Saul had done. It was seen as almost beyond words. Saul had actually lifted up his hand against YHWH and what was His.

22.22 ‘And David said to Abiathar, “I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul. I have occasioned the death of all the persons of your father’s house.” ’

When David heard it he was conscience stricken. He had noticed Doeg at the Sanctuary and now realised that he should have done something about him, and by not doing so had occasioned the death of all of Abiathar’s priestly relatives. It was not strictly an accurate verdict, for he could hardly justly have murdered Doeg at the time. But it does demonstrate how deeply David felt it.

22.23 “Stay with me, and do not be afraid. For he who seeks my life seeks your life. For with me you will be under protection.”

And then he assured Abiathar that he would be safe with him. For really they were in the same boat. The one who sought David’s life also sought Abiathar’s life. Thus Abiathar would enjoy the same protection, both from YHWH and from David’s men, as David himself did. Saul’s verdicts could not reach him here. This was another turning point in Saul’s evil life. He had lost the Priest of YHWH to David, who could therefore from now on consult the oracle and have official dealings with YHWH, and be given legitimacy in the eyes of YHWH’s people. That Saul, when he came to his senses, realised this comes out in that he appointed Zadok, of the line of Eleazar, as his High Priest, for Zadok also turns up later as High Priest at the Sanctuary whilst Abiathar was still alive. But the Urim and the Thummim were seemingly now with David (23.6), and as we shall see, he uses them shortly.

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Further free Bible articles and commentaries

Commentary on Samuel - Contents

1 Samuel 1.1-4.1a The Birth of Samuel And His Subsequent Career

1 Samuel 4.1b-8.22 The Movements of the Ark of God and the Judgeship of Samuel

1 Samuel 9.1-12.25 Saul Becomes King

1 Samuel 13-15 The Downfall Of Saul

1 Samuel 16.1-18.4 David Is Anointed And Slays Goliath

1 Samuel 18.5-20.42 The Rise Of David And Jealousy Of Saul

1 Samuel 23.1-26.25 Saul Constantly Harasses David, David And Nabal, David Twice Spares Saul’s Life

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