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Wednesday, July 24th, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 21

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



Critical commentators waste much of their energies questioning the chronological arrangement of the various episodes from the life of David that are recorded in First Samuel, overlooking the important fact that the inspired author of this Biblical document does not claim that he has set down all of these incidents in the chronological order of their occurrence. Bennett has a word of wisdom on this subject.

“It is likely that originally stories of single incidents of David’s adventures circulated separately by oral tradition or otherwise, not forming a connected narrative.”(F1)

None of the critical scholars whose works we have studied has been able to propose any better arrangement of the text than that which has come down to us; and some of the attempted rearrangements of the various episodes are not only unconvincing, but sometimes even ridiculous.

For example, the International Critical Commentary rejects the arrangement in this chapter, affirming that, “David had ample time to furnish himself for flight, after Jonathan bade him farewell,”(F2) supposing that this journey of David to Nob must have happened that night when Michal let him down through the window. Such is a worthless rearrangement. On that night with Michal, David had all night until the next morning to have prepared for such a journey; and presumably from his own home would have been able not only to carry his sword, but also any provisions he wished to take. Those could have been let down by Michal as easily as she let down David outside the city wall. Besides that, Jonathan had specifically warned David in the preceding chapter, “Hurry! Make haste; stay not.” (1 Samuel 20:38). Therefore, it is just as logical to place the journey to Nob after 1 Samuel 20 as it is to place it after 1 Samuel 19.

The two episodes recorded in this chapter are quite logically arranged exactly where they occur in our text. When his life stood in jeopardy, David went (1) first to Samuel; (2) then to his beloved Jonathan the prince; when neither of these could provide safety for him, what could have been more logical than (3) his going to see the High Priest in the tabernacle of the Lord at Nob. That this is a true chronological arrangement is certainly as likely as anything that 19th century or 20th century critical scholars have concocted in place of it.

Verses 1-6


“Then came David to Nob to Ahimelech the priest; and Ahimelech came to meet David trembling, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you”? And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, `Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you. I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what have you at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” And the priest answered David, “I have no common bread at hand, but there is holy bread; if only the young men have kept themselves from women.” And David answered the priest, “Of a truth, women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy, even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy”? So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.”

“David came to Nob to Ahimelech” Eighty-five priests lived at Nob, serving the tabernacle which had been set up there following the Philistine’s destruction of Shiloh. It is also possible that the ark of the covenant had been brought to Nob from Kiriath-jearim by Saul in the early part of his reign. Nob was but a village located a mile or two northeast of Jerusalem near Anathoth (Isaiah 10:32).

“Ahimelech was the son of Ahitub, either a brother of Ahijah, or Ahijah himself. Ahitub was a brother of Ichabod, making Ahimelech a great grandson of Eli.”(F3) “Ahimelech and Ahijah are probably equivalent names of the same person.”(F4)

Matthew Henry commented on the reason why David elected to go to Nob. “He went there to inquire of the Lord (1 Samuel 22:10), as he had done formerly (1 Sam. 5:15).”(F5) The great prophet of the Lord Samuel as well as the prince had proved powerless to protect David. To whom else could he have gone, except to the Lord?

“The king has charged me with a matter” Much of what David said here was an outright falsehood. The Bible records it, but we dare not justify it. The only scrap of truth in what he said regarded the fact that he seems to have had a number of men with him; and even that is not evident from this account. Jesus Christ mentioned this event and also “the men that were with” David (Matthew 12:3-4).

“No common bread… but there is holy bread” This is a reference to the Showbread, or the bread of the Presence as prescribed in the Mosaic Law (Exodus 24:5-9). The bread was a featured provision of the tabernacle and was replaced each week with hot bread. It was holy from the fact of its being used in the tabernacle and only the priests were eligible to eat it. David with his men did what was unlawful in taking and eating that bread (Matthew 12:3-4).

The High Priest here agreed to bend the rules in order to aid the king’s son-in-law.

“If only the young men have kept themselves from women”Exodus 19:15 declares that one prerequisite for approaching holy things is to keep oneself from sexual intercourse. Ahimelech insisted on this regulation being observed, but ignored the one about only priests being able to eat that bread.”(F6)

David’s reply here has an element of humor in it. He said (if we may paraphrase), “Well, not exactly; the women have been kept from the young men”! This reminds us of what happened once in a big tent revival. One of the town’s leading sinners (then getting somewhat advanced in years) went up to be saved; and one of his neighbors said, “Jackson, you ain’t quit your sins; your sins have quit you”!

Mark 2:26 speaks of Abiathar as the officiating priest in this episode; and two explanations are offered. (1) Keil supposed that, “The error was due to a lapse of memory in which Ahimelech was confounded with Abiathar.”(F7) (2) Young writes that, “It is possible that Ahimelech’s son Abiathar might have acted as coadjutor to his father as did the sons of Eli (1 Samuel 4:4).”(F8) This habit of turning things over to the sons was well established in Eli’s family; and therefore we like Young’s explanation as the better one.

“How much more today will their vessels be holy” This is a disputed text, but David may have meant here that, “Even if the bread were common bread, it would become consecrated by the consecrated vessel in which he proposed to carry it.”(F9)

Verses 7-9


“Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the Lord; he was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s herdsmen. And David said to Ahimelech, “And have you here a spear or a sword at hand? For I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste.” And the priest said, “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you killed in the valley of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod; if you will take that, take it, for there is none but that here.” And David said, “There is none like that; give it to me.”

“Doeg the Edomite” This evil character is mentioned here for two reasons. (1) He would be the chief actor in the destruction of the entire company of the priests at Nob; and (2) David’s recognition of him meant that David was required to get out of Nob as rapidly as possible. Doeg would certainly have notified Saul of David’s presence there.

“Detained before the Lord” “It is not impossible that Doeg was detained in the sanctuary for some crime.”(F10) The usual explanation of this, however, is that of Porter, “It is generally assumed that Doeg was detained in the sanctuary under some priestly discipline. Doeg was an Edomite, and the descendants of Esau were a continual thorn in Israel’s flesh.”(F11) Payne thought that, “Doeg was unclean that day, and waiting to perform some religious obligation the next day.”(F12) “Ephrem Syrus thought that Doeg had committed some trespass, and was detained till he offered the appointed sacrifice.”(F13) It could be that the enforcement upon Doeg of some disciplinary action resulted in the hatred that must have entered into his heartless slaughter of that whole priestly community.

“The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you killed in the valley of Eiah” “This supports the historicity of the event of David’s slaying Goliath,”(F14) showing that Ahimelech already knew David as the giver who had brought that trophy of his victory to Nob.

“It is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod” Cook wrote that, “The words here rendered `a cloth’ actually refer to Goliath’s military cloak, which was part of the dedicated trophy.”(F15) This fact also supports the figures given in the Bible for the weight of Goliath’s armour, figures which were dismissed by one `scholar’ as `pure guesswork.’ The priests of Nob had every opportunity to weigh it.

Verses 10-15


“And David rose and fled that day from Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath. And the servants of Achish said to him, “Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in dances, `Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands’“? And David took these words to heart, and was much afraid of Achish the king of Gath. So he changed his behavior before them, and feigned himself mad in their hand, and made marks on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle run down his beard. Then said Achish 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”?”

“And David arose and fled that day from Saul” That David fled at once from Nob was no doubt due to the presence there of Doeg.

The International Critical Commentary interpretation here is that the words “from Saul” in this passage mean that, “He went directly to Achish from the presence of Saul.”(F16) To which it must be replied that these words mean no such thing. They merely refer to David’s continued flight from Saul.

“He went to Achish the king of Gath” David probably hoped that he could dwell incognito among the Philistines; but the king’s servants instantly recognized him.

We appreciate the words of Keil regarding this chapter to the effect that, “It removes the objections raised by critics to the historical credibility of the narrative before US.”(F17)

“Is not this David the king of the land?” The superscriptions of Psalms 34; Psalms 52; and Psalms 56 are founded upon events in this chapter. The recognition of David by the Philistines, and their reference to him as “the king of the land” is not, as some critics declare, the result of some naive `editor’ putting an inaccurate historical statement into the Bible. As Willis explained, “The servants of Achish recognized David and assumed that he was king of Israel on the basis of that song sung by the women of Israel (1 Samuel 18:7).”(F18)

“So he changed his behavior… and feigned madness” In those days, as at the present time, “Easterners have a religious awe of madness and would not think of injuring those so afflicted.”(F19)

We are not told here where David’s men were who accompanied him to Nob. Perhaps he had made an appointment to meet them at some particular place as soon as he tested his chances of operating in Gath.

“Shall this fellow come into my house” “These words are an idiom meaning, `To be allowed to dwell in one’s city or country.’“(F20) This clarifies the whole episode. David intended to ask Achish for permission to dwell in Gath, probably having good reason to suppose that Achish would have honored his request. However, the soldiers of Achish recognized David, arrested him and would most certainly have opposed any inclination of Achish to grant political asylum to David. This severely frightened David, and he immediately began feigning madness. This, of course gave him the opportunity to escape and keep the rendezvous with his men.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 21". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-samuel-21.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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