1. 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?”
Now we cover the record of David’s flight. First of all, David comes to Nob, which means “High Place,” and was a city of the priests. It was near Jerusalem in the land of Benjamin. There he meets with Ahimelech the high priest. The name Ahimelech means “My Brother is King.” This was a most ambitious name! Yet consider that this man was the great-grandson of Eli. Remember that God had cursed Eli’s line back in I Samuel 2:31-33.
31. Behold, the days are coming that I will cut off your arm and the arm of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your house. 32. And you will see an enemy in My dwelling place, despite all the good which God does for Israel. And there shall not be an old man in your house forever. 33. But any of your men whom I do not cut off from My altar shall consume your eyes and grieve your heart. And all the descendants of your house shall die in the flower of their age.
The curse of God on Eli’s family was that they all would die young, none surviving to old age until a rival priest arises and takes over. At this time they would be put out of the priesthood and find themselves impoverished, hoping that the family of the new priest would give them even a minor job so that they would have food to eat. This has not happened yet, however, and Ahimelech is the priest. Yet for a man in a family that is under God’s curse, it is interesting that his name is in no way humble, but rather is vainglorious and ambitious. Certainly the family of Eli does not seem to have humbled itself before the LORD in light of the curse they were under!
It seems that this is not the first visit David has made to Ahimelech. David is a man who loves the LORD, and probably he has journeyed to see the priests and God’s tabernacle many times since he became a captain in Israel. Yet it seems it is very unusual for David not to be there with an entourage of soldiers and officials. For him to come alone without these is most unusual, and seems an ominous sign to Ahimelech. Therefore the priest is afraid, thinking something is wrong. Can it be that the land has been invaded and the army defeated, though he has not heard of it? Is that why David is on the run?
2. 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.
David lies to Ahimelech. He claims that he is on a secret mission for the king, and his servants are waiting for him in a certain place.
This leads us to an interesting question when we compare this passage to the gospel of Mark. Christ in speaking of this incident says this:
25. But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: 26. how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?”
There are several things questionable here when we compare them to this passage in I Samuel. First of all, the high priest’s name is given as Abiathar. Yet we learn that Abiathar was the son of Ahimelech in I Samuel 22:20.
20. Now one of the sons of Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David.
Therefore, it would seem that the Lord gave the wrong name here. Secondly, the words of Ahimelech in verse 1 seem to indicate that David had no one with him, and yet the Lord says in Mark that he “also gave some to those who were with him.” Did David have servants with him, or did he not?
For those of us who have faith in the Scriptures and believe in Christ as the living Word of God, there can be no question but that there must be some solution other than that Christ was mistaken or did not remember the story correctly. Several explanations for Him mentioning Abiathar are possible.
First of all, Abiathar was David’s priest throughout his career, and is most famous for being so. Ahimelech may well have been less well known. Abiathar was already alive by this time, but was still subservient to his father. However, it may be here that the Lord is simply mentioning him instead of his father, ascribing to him the later title of “high priest” that he did not yet hold. The Bible will often do this, ascribing a title to someone even at the time when that person did not yet hold it, or no longer held it. An example of the latter is when Matthew 1:6 says that “David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah.” Notice that “who had been the wife” is in italics, indicating that it is an ellipsis here, so that the original merely reads “her of Uriah.” Thus such titles can be used loosely. Even today, I could speak of “the time when President Reagan was still just an actor,” which of course is not entirely accurate, since when he was an actor he was not President Reagan.
Secondly, we know that people back then would often have two names, and family names would often be passed from father to son. Therefore, it could be that both Ahimelech and Abiathar actually had the same name (a Senior and a Junior), Ahimelech Abiathar (or Abiathar Ahimelech), yet for whatever reason the father came to be known by the one name and the son by the other. This is the solution that the Companion Bible suggests, pointing out that in II Samuel 8:17 and I Chronicles 18:16, Ahimelech is the son of Abiathar, whereas in I Samuel 22:20 Abiathar is the son of Ahimelech.
Finally, if none of these explanations are true and the Lord was mistaken, why did His enemies in Mark 2 not call Him on the error? They certainly would have been eager to find anything to accuse Him of, and some of them must have remembered the correct name. Their silence would seem to indicate that they knew His words were accurate.
As far as whether or not David had companions, it could well be that his companions were just personal servants. Probably as an army commander, David was often accompanied by other commanders or officers and other important men. For him to come with no such men, even though he did come with servants, was about the same as him coming with “no one.” It would be as if I was waiting for a group of friends to meet me at a place, and instead of the group of friends, one of my group shows up with two strangers. I might ask him, “Where is everyone else? Why is no one with you?” It is not that the two strangers are not people. They are just not the people I was expecting this friend to have with him. This could be the meaning of Ahimelech’s words here.
The other possibility is that David did have a few others with him, but that he alone had gone to Ahimelech to ask for food and aid. Perhaps he was afraid that word might have reached Ahimelech, and that he might be captured. If so, he did not want to risk his men, but took the risk on himself. This would be characteristic of David.
Whatever the case, we can be certain that both what the author of I Samuel (probably Samuel himself in this portion) said and what the Lord said are both correct. These were the days of Abiathar, and David did have some others with him.
3. Now therefore, what have you on hand? Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever can be found.”
David has fled without provisions. Therefore he asks the priest for what he can spare. Specifically he asks for five loaves of bread, or whatever can be found. If he did have servants with him or waiting for him, this may tell us that he had four of them.
4. 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.”
The priest replies that he has no common bread with him, but only hallowed bread. This is referring to the showbread that was put in front of the LORD each week. We read of this in Exodus 25:30.
30. And you shall set the showbread on the table before Me always.
The showbread was replaced with fresh bread every week, according to Leviticus 24:5-8.
5. “And you shall take fine flour and bake twelve cakes with it. Two-tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake. 6. You shall set them in two rows, six in a row, on the pure gold table before the LORD. 7. And you shall put pure frankincense on each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, an offering made by fire to the LORD. 8. Every Sabbath he shall set it in order before the LORD continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant.
Normally, this bread was reserved for only the priests, the descendants of Aaron, as is made clear from Leviticus 24:9.
9. 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.”
Yet in this case, Ahimelech says he will give the holy bread to David if he and his servants have kept themselves from women. Of course, this means that they must not have had sex recently, which was so that they could be set apart to God. There are different levels of cleanness in the Scriptures, and it was a rule that a man was not supposed to have had sex on the day he approached God.
5. 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 consecrated in the vessel this day.”
David answers that he and his men have not been near a woman for three days since they left Saul’s court. Their vessels to carry bread are holy, and there is other bread to take its place in the tabernacle.
6. 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.
Therefore the priest gives him hallowed bread, since there is no other bread there than the hallowed bread that has just been taken from before Jehovah to replace it with the fresh bread. This event, as the Lord shows in Mark 2, teaches us that Jehovah’s rules are not meant to be burdensome, and He can set them aside for the help of His people. Let us make a quick review of this story together.
23. Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain.
This was considered unlawful on the Sabbath day, since it was a form of harvesting.
24. And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”
The Pharisees are quick to point out to the Lord the apparent breach of the law being perpetrated by His disciples.
25. But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him:
The Lord refers them back to this very story in I Samuel 21, mentioning those with David, as we discussed above.
26. how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?”
This is what David did, as we have seen.
27 And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.
The Lord points out the obvious fact that the Sabbath was made for the good of man, not man for the good of the Sabbath. It was a way for the Lord to enforce what we call a “weekend” on the people, so that they could have a day of rest. He was most strict about it so that masters could not try to get work out of their servants by some means or other. Yet ultimately, it was made for their good and to benefit them, not to be a burden.
No rabbi in the Lord’s day thought it was wrong of David to do this, and they would go into long explanations as to why it was right. Yet the Lord argued that they are failing to see the same thing in effect when it comes to helping the needy of their own day! This is an important lesson to learn.
7. 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.
Back in I Samuel, we read that it so happens that one of Saul’s servants is there that day. The servant is named Doeg, which means “Fearing,” and he is an Edomite. Edom, which means “Red,” was the name of the nation descended from Esau, Jacob’s brother. Jacob, remember, was the man whose name was later changed to “Israel,” who was the father of the twelve men who were the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. Since Doeg was an Edomite, he therefore was not an Israelite, though he was from an Abrahamic nation related to them. He is detained before Yahweh, probably for some ceremonial reason, and so is staying at the tabernacle when David visits there.
This Doeg has apparently attached himself to Israel and its religion, having become a chief herdsman of Saul. Yet though he follows the form of worship, it is clear that he does not have the heart, as we will see from the later record in this book. Alas, religion can be all too external, whereas a true relationship with Yahweh comes only from the heart!
8. 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.”
David next asks for a weapon, either a spear or a sword, since he has brought none with him in his haste. Of course, we realize that this was because of the haste of his flight, but David makes out as if it was because of the urgency of the king’s business he has been sent on.
9. 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.”
Ahimelech tells David that the only weapon there is the sword of Goliath, which David had taken from him and used to cut off his head on the day when the LORD gave him his great victory over the giant. That sword had been brought to the tabernacle as a trophy of the LORD’s triumph, and was hung up behind the ephod, that is, the priestly garment. Yet it was also David’s victory, and if David now needs it in the LORD’s service, the priest is happy to give it back to him.
David is indeed pleased to take this great weapon. Surely it must have been a reminder to him in his plight of happier times, and of the help and care of the LORD present with him. Also it shows how foolish Saul was to drive out the LORD’s man and the hero of the nation. Saul would have been much better off with David by his side than opposed to him!
10. Then David arose and fled that day from before Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath.
David probably figures that nowhere in Israel will be safe for him with Saul determined to kill him. Therefore, he flees southwest to the land of the Philistines, hoping to sojourn in Gath. He goes straight to Achish the king to seek refuge with him. Achish’s name means “I Will Blacken,” or “Only a Man.” He is king of Gath, which means “Winepress,” one of the royal cities of the Philistines.
11. 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’?”
David is brought before the king. Yet David’s attempt at finding refuge here is ill-conceived. Just as word that David has fallen out of favor with Saul had not yet reached Ahimelech, so it has not yet reached the court of Achish. If he knew of this, he might well have given David refuge. Yet he has not, and what his servants have heard is that David is set up to be king of the land of Israel. Notice that far from Saul defeating God’s purpose, word that David is to be king after Saul has reached even the Philistines! Moreover, the Philistines remember all too well David’s victory over Goliath. It is well for him perhaps that they do not seem to have recognized Goliath’s sword! And they have learned, perhaps through their spies, of the popular song with the line ascribing greater glory to David than to Saul that, alas, has caused David so much trouble. No wonder Saul was upset by this song, if it has become so popular that even the Philistines have heard of it, and this line is the one that stands out to them!
12. Now David took these words to heart, and was very much afraid of Achish the king of Gath.
David hears these words and realizes he is in great danger. If Achish knows who he is and does not believe that he is really a refugee from the wrath of Saul, he may well have him executed. Indeed, no other outcome seems likely.
13. So he changed his behavior before them, pretended madness in their hands, scratched on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva fall down on his beard.
David realizes he must act quickly to save himself. Therefore, he changes his behavior, and acts like he is a madman. He strikes against the doors of the gate and drools on his beard. This surely is one of the first examples of acting we know of in history, and David here was acting for his life!
14. Then Achish said to his servants, “Look, you see the man is insane. Why have you brought him to me?
David’s performance fools Achish. We might wonder why such an obvious ploy would fool the king? It might seem like an obvious deception to us, but acting was not nearly so common back then as it is now. They saw little reason to ever act like anything than what you really are, so the art of acting was not developed. If we saw this, we might think right away of David putting on an act, but such an idea might never occur to a man like Achish who was not used to actors or staged performances. People generally act like what they are. Why should he think otherwise? Another reason might be that David put on a really good performance.
Yet ultimately, we must recognize that Jehovah was with David, and He no doubt saw to it that Achish bought David’s performance and truly perceived him to be mad. Jehovah was the help David really needed, not Achish.
15. 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?”
Achish is disgusted by the appearance of this insane man in his court. He argues that he has enough madmen in his own country without importing them from Israel. He wants nothing to do with David, and so has him sent away from his house. Thus David is able to escape from the Philistines and return to his own land. He may have to be in hiding there, but at least he will be in Yahweh’s land, and Yahweh Himself will help him. This really is all the aid that David needs.
David did not forget this incident. Later, he wrote a psalm about it, Psalm 34, as we can tell from the psalm’s title.
A Psalm of David when he pretended madness before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he departed.
It calls the king “Abimelech” there, but that was a traditional name for the king of Gath (much like Pharaoh was for the king of Egypt), and was this same king, Achish. In this psalm, he credits the LORD with his deliverance. He says in verse 4, “I sought the LORD, and He heard me, And delivered me from all my fears.” David must have quickly prayed to the LORD when he realized that his life was in serious danger, and he recognized that the LORD heard him, and that this is why he was delivered from the power of Achish. God’s care for David continued throughout his exile, and indeed throughout his life. David knew that he could always count on the LORD in times of trouble, and this incident with the king of Gath is just another illustration of His care.