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David Guzik :: Study Guide for 1 Samuel 21

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David at Nob and at Gath

A. David meets Ahimelech the priest at Nob.

1. (1Sa 21:1-2) 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. Now David came to Nob: "There were two places of this name, one on this side, the second on the other side of Jordan; but it is generally supposed that Nob, near Gibeah of Benjamin, is the place here intended; it was about twelve miles from Jerusalem." (Clarke)

b. To Ahimelech the priest: Ahimelech was a priest, and he was where a priest should be - at the house of God, the tabernacle of the LORD, where the sacred altar and Ark of the Covenant were. David, in leaving on a bleak road where all what is certain is behind him, and all what is uncertain is ahead of him, does a great thing: he goes to the house of the LORD.

i. David didn't write Psalm 73 (it is a Psalm of Asaph), but he had the same heart Psalm 73 shows. In that Psalm, Asaph describes how troubled he was at injustice and the prosperity of the wicked. It really troubled him, and didn't make any sense at all. He says, When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me; until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end. (Psalm 73:16-17). Nothing made sense to Asaph until he went to the house of the LORD, then he could understand things in light of eternity. That is how it should always be for us when we come to God's house.

ii. So, David begins his days as a fugitive in a good way - he comes to the house of the LORD.

c. Ahimelech was afraid when he met David: It seemed unusual to Ahimelech that a prominent man like David would wander around the villages of Judea all by himself. It made Ahimelech think something must be wrong, so he asked David, Why are you alone, and no one is with you?

i. As the story unfolds, it seems that Ahimelech knew nothing of the conflict between David and Saul. In fact, he knew that David was Saul's son-in-law. It seemed strange, and dangerous to him, that David was traveling alone. Plus, we can imagine that David looked tired, weary, disheveled, and probably looked like he had been crying a lot!

ii. "David, who was before beloved, admired, and reverenced of all, is now left and forsaken of all." (Trapp)

d. The king has ordered me on some business: This was a plain lie. David has come to the house of the LORD, but when he came he lied to protect himself. David elaborated on his lie when he puts 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 refers to my young men (David was all alone).

i. David's reasons for lying seem clear enough. First, he wants to protect himself, so he will not tell Ahimelech why he has come or where he is going, so Ahimelech can't inform on him to Saul. Probably, David doesn't feel that he knows Ahimelech well enough to really trust him. Second, he wants to protect Ahimelech and the priests by keeping them out of the conflict between himself and Saul.

ii. 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).

iii. Why couldn't David just tell the truth? Why couldn't he come to Ahimelech the priest, and say "Ahimelech, as strange as it might seem to you, Saul is trying to kill me. I don't understand the situation myself, but I know God does not want me to die at the hands of Saul. So I am running for my life, and trusting God will protect me and show me what to do. Please pray for me, because I'm pretty depressed and scared!" This might have been hard for David to say; but his lie became harder still.

iv. "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, whilst he bewailed it, and begged pardoning and prevailing grace (Psalm 119:28-29)." (Trapp)

v. "It is not easy to walk with God. The air that beats around the Himalaya heights of divine fellowship is rare and hard to breathe; human feet tire after a little; and faith, hard put to it, is inclined to give up the effort of keeping step with the divine pace." (Meyer)

2. (1Sa 21:3-6) 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: David was on the run from Saul, and didn't have time to properly prepare. When he 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 which held twelve loaves of bread, symbolizing God's continual fellowship with Israel.

i. As one entered the tabernacle, the table of showbread stood on the right hand side, opposite the golden lampstand. The table of showbread was made of acacia wood, overlaid with gold; it was 3 feet long, 1 foot 6 inches wide, and 2 feet 3 inches high. It was made almost 500 years before David's time, when Israel came from Egypt and was on their way into the Promised Land (Exodus 25:23-30).

ii. On this table were twelve loaves of showbread, made of fine flower. Twelve cakes of showbread - one for each tribe of Israel - would stand on the table, sprinkled lightly with frankincense. Once a week, the bread would be replaced, and priests were to eat the old bread (Leviticus 24:5-9).

iii. What did the showbread mean? Why would God have a bakery rack in the tabernacle? The importance and meaning of the showbread is found in the 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. Eating the showbread was a powerful way of saying, "LORD I love You and I seek Your face. I'm in Your presence and I want to be transformed by seeing Your face."

iv. 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. Your time with God should be freshness dated! Don't be satisfied with a stale, moldy relationship with the LORD!

v. We might also see the showbread as a demonstration of our dependence on God, just as we depend on food. It was also a powerful way to say that just as bread is necessary for survival, so fellowship with God is necessary for man. It acted out the words of the Lord's prayer, Give us day by day our daily bread (Luke 11:3).

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; for it is most holy to him from the offerings of the LORD made by fire, by a perpetual statute (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 is holy, and it must be regarded as holy, and can't be distributed casually. So, Ahimelech asks David for a basic level of ceremonial cleanness before he gives him the showbread.

i. Ahimelech was only concerned that those eating the bread be ceremonially clean according to the standards of Leviticus 15. Among other things, that chapter speaks of ceremonial cleanness as it relates to marital relations.

d. Truly, women have been kept from us: David, still acting as if he is traveling with a group, thinks "Sure, I haven't had marital relations in several days, so I meet the standard for ceremonial purity in this case." So, he gives Ahimelech this answer.

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. Once, 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.

iii. "For though for a season, whilst it is to stand before the Lord, it be so holy, that the priest himself might not eat it; yet afterwards it is eaten by the priest, and by his whole family, as their common food; and so it may be by us, in our circumstances." (Poole)

3. (1Sa 21:7-9) 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, he was 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 certainly show himself to be a violent and obstinate man.

ii. Why was Doeg detained before the LORD? By what we see of this man and his character, it is hard to think that he was doing real "spiritual business" before the LORD at the tabernacle. Probably, he was fulfilling some ceremonial requirement related to his employment for the king of Israel.

iii. "Doeg may set his foot as far within the tabernacle as David, and seem to be as devout: 'but God knoweth your hearts,' saith our Saviour to the Pharisees (Luke 16:15), and will wash off your paint with rivers of brimstone." (Trapp)

b. Is there not here on hand a spear or a sword? We can understand why David wants a weapon, and why he asks. But it is also sad that David continues his same 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 killing David!

i. Considering what the king's business really 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: As David took the sword of Goliath, imagine what he must have thought! Of course, he was happy to have a good weapon (There is none like it). On the other hand, did he remember how he came to win that sword for Israel? 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. The last time David held that sword in his hand, he used it to cut the head off the giant he had killed with great faith in God (1 Samuel 17:51). But the sword was not the weapon of faith; the sling and the stones were. David now remembers the victory, but perhaps not the faith that brought the victory.

ii. David can have the sword of Goliath in his arsenal, but he would be even better equipped if he had the same sling, five smooth stones, and 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. The press of the trial with Saul is challenging these things in David's life, and it remains to be seen how it will all turn out. He is starting to trust more in his own cleverness than in the LORD, but will he stay there?

iii. "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, it 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, how much more true is it of the sword of the Spirit, God's Word! How we should say, 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)

ii. Trapp on there is none like it: "Say we so of the sword of the Spirit, the word, when preached especially. As milk warmed is fitter for nourishment, and as the rain from heaven hath a fatness with it, and a special influence more than standing waters: so there is not that life, operation, and blessing in the word read as preached."

B. David at Gath.

1. (1Sa 21:10) 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: When David said goodbye to Jonathan, he did the right thing. First, he went to the house of the LORD. But when he was there, he did the wrong thing - he lied to Ahimelech the priest, and tried to protect himself with clever lies instead of trusting God to protect him.

b. Went to Achish the king of Gath: David is now among the Philistines. He must be discouraged or deceived to think he could find peaceful refuge among these enemies of Israel. In fact, as he walks into the city, he has with him the sword of Goliath, which he received from Ahimelech at Nob!

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. (1Sa 21:11-12) 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 recognize David as the king of the land of Israel. The ungodly understood David's destiny better than king Saul of Israel did!

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) apparently also made the charts 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 that he had been discovered, and that King Achish was not likely to let the man who killed Goliath go.

i. When we remember that the song was a celebration of David's victory over Goliath, and remember that Goliath was from Gath (1 Samuel 17:4), and remember that David has Goliath's sword with him, we see just how much reason David had to be very much afraid.

ii. What possibly can David do now? He can remember the other thing he brought with him from the house of the LORD in Nob: the bread from the tabernacle, which pictured a life shared with God and sustained by God.

d. 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! So, at the end of 1 Samuel 21:10, when David wrote Psalm 56, he was in a bad place.

i. Psalm 56 begins the right way: Be merciful to me, O God, for man would swallow me up (Psalm 56:1). In other Psalms, David asks God to take up his righteous cause against his opponents. Here, David knows that his own sinful fears and choices brought him to this place, so he simply and wisely asks for mercy.

ii. In Psalm 56, David shows a different heart. Instead of trusting in his own cleverness or refuge among the ungodly, he says whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You. In God (I will praise His word), in God I have put my trust; I will not fear. What can flesh do to me? (Psalm 56:3)

iii. In Psalm 56, David renews his relationship and confidence in God. You number my wanderings; put my tears into Your bottle; are they not in Your book? When I cry out to You, then my enemies will turn back; this I know, because God is for me (Psalm 56:8-9). When David trusted in himself or in the ungodly, he had forgotten that God was really for him. Now he remembers it!

iv. In Psalm 56, David gets back in touch with God's word. Three times in the Psalm, he repeats the phrase I will praise His word (Psalm 56:4, 10). When David trusted in himself or in the ungodly, he had distanced himself from God's truth. Now, he will praise His word! In 1998, a Marine Corps pilot flying low in the Italian Alps clipped a gondola cable, and 20 people plunged to their death. Just a few weeks later, a crew of five Navy fliers was killed in California's Sequoia National Forest when their helicopter smashed into power lines. Three years earlier, a crash involving the same power lines had killed two people. In 1999, NATO forces bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists and injuring 20 others. Each of these tragedies had the same cause: faulty maps. Investigators say that the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and its predecessor organization have played a role in at least a dozen accidents since 1985, some involving fatalities and loss of military aircraft. If you don't have the right map, you will get into trouble. God's Word is the map for our lives. So, when David says I will praise His word, he is back in touch with the essential road map for his life.

v. In Psalm 56, David starts praising the LORD again. Vows made to You are binding upon me, O God; I will render praises to You, for You have delivered my soul from death. (Psalm 56:12-13a). When David trusted in himself or in the ungodly, he didn't have much to praise the LORD about. Now he does!

e. 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.

f. Psalm 56 makes it clear that David's heart is changed. 1 Samuel 21:12 says David was very much afraid, but he came to the place of trust and confidence that he declares in Psalm 56. He isn't afraid anymore, but he is still in a mess! He is still a captive of the Philistines, and therefore in a bad place. How will God get him out of the situation?

3. (1Sa 21:13-15) 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. David pretended madness in their hands. He acted in a strange manner, including scratching on the doors of the gate, and let saliva fall down on his beard. It was as if David was foaming 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 have considered that 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 either David wasn't the man he thought he was, or that if he 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 turn around of Psalm 56 happened before David's escape, and it makes 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 when he 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, David. So keep the act going and I'll get you out of this!"

ii. Of course, David may not have even been conscious of the LORD's guidance in his plan to pretend madness. But the LORD was guiding this righteous man just the same. The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD.(Psalm 37:23)

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). The whole Psalm is a glorious declaration of praise! 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. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

© 2001 David Guzik - No distribution beyond personal use without permission

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