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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 23

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



This and the following chapters of First Samuel relate a number of David’s experiences during that long period in which he was an outlaw and a fugitive, always fleeing from one place to another, ever striving to avoid the constant efforts of King Saul to bring about his death.

Verses 1-5


“Now they told David, “Behold, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah, and they are robbing the threshing floors.” Therefore, David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines”? And the Lord said to David, “Go and attack the Philistines and save Keilah.” But David’s men said to him, “We are afraid here in Judah; how much more then if we go to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines”? Then David inquired of the Lord again, and the Lord answered him, “Arise, go down to Keilah; for I will give the Philistines into your hand.” And David and his men went to Keilah, and fought with the Philistines, and brought away their cattle, and made a great slaughter among them. So David delivered the inhabitants of Keilah.”

Keilah was located near the Philistine border. “It was a fortified city allotted to Judah (Joshua 15:44). It was mentioned in the Tel el-Amarna letters as Qilti and identified with Khirbet Qila, located eight miles northwest of Hebron overlooking the Elah Valley road to Hebron. In the times of Nehemiah, the city was reoccupied by the Israelites returning from the captivity in Babylon (Nehemiah 3:17-18).”(F1)

At the time of this episode, the citizens of Keilah were harvesting their grain crops, which afforded the principal means of their livelihood. It seldom rained in the summer; and the threshing floors were loaded with the grain being threshed out by the people. The Philistines, desiring to keep Israel in subjection by starvation, came up to rob the people of their grain, even bringing along their oxen and asses for the purpose of carrying away the loot. “In the East, even today, the principal source of food supply remains - bread.”(F2)

The mention of “their cattle” (1 Samuel 23:5) is supposed by some scholars to mean that the Philistine raiding party had also brought with them flocks of goats and sheep which they had probably robbed from others. In any case, it must indeed have been a tremendous shock to them when David suddenly fell upon them, slaughtered a great many of them and took charge of all they left behind.

“And they told David, “Behold the Philistines are fighting against Keilah” Nothing is said here about who told David this news, but it seems to have been the leaders of Keilah, hoping for assistance from David and his men.

“David inquired of the Lord” We are not told how David did this, but 1 Samuel 23:6-14, below, explains that Abiathar had joined David’s forces, bringing the ephod with him.

“Arise, go down to Keilah” “The Judean hills, where David and his men were hiding, were at a higher elevation than Keilah.”(F3)

Verses 6-14


“When Abiathar the son of Ahimelech fled to David to Keilah, he came down with an ephod in his hand. Now it was told Saul that David had come to Keilah. And Saul said, “God has given him into my hand; for he has shut himself in by entering a town that has gates and bars.” And Saul summoned all the people to war, to go down to Keilah, to besiege David and his men. David knew that Saul was plotting evil against him; and he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” Then said David, “O Lord, the God of Israel, thy servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah to destroy the city on my account. Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down as thy servant has heard? O Lord, the God of Israel, I beseech thee, tell thy servant.” And the Lord said, “He will come down.” Then said David, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul”? And the Lord said, “They will surrender you.” Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When Saul was told that David was escaped from Keilah, he gave up the expedition. And David remained in the strongholds in the wilderness, in the hill country of the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God did not give him into his hand.”

“Abiathar the son of Ahimelech… came (to David) with an ephod in his hand” Scholars disagree as to the point in time when Abiathar came to David. Willis placed their coming together here at Keilah.(F4) Matthew Henry’s commentary supports Willis in this understanding of the passage;(F5) however, Keil wrote that, “The words `to David to Keilah’ are not to be understood as signifying that Abiathar did not come to David until he was in Keilah. What is meant is that, `when he fled after David (1 Samuel 22:20), he met with him as he was already preparing to march to the aid of Keilah and proceeded with David to Keilah.’“(F6) Of course, the International Critical Commentary would place 1 Samuel 23:6 at some other place in the narrative.(F7) This writer fails to see how the solution of this question involves anything very important.

“Saul said, `God has given him into my hand’“ “It is ironic that Saul would think that God had delivered David into his hand, since Samuel had declared to him emphatically that God had rejected him because of his sins (1 Samuel 13:13-14; 1 Samuel 15:23; 1 Samuel 15:26).”(F8)

It is a mark of Saul’s paranoid hatred of David that, at the very moment, “When Israel’s king (Saul) should have been considering what honor and dignity should be done to David for his deliverance of Keilah from the marauding band of the Philistines, he caught at the situation as an opportunity for killing David. What an ungrateful wretch Saul was!”(F9)

“And the Lord said, `They will surrender you’“ “The men of Keilah,” the people of whom the Lord here spoke, does not refer to the general population of the place but to its leaders, elders or civic leaders. David doubtless enjoyed widespread popularity with the people; but the leaders, through abject fear of the murderous Saul, would have surrendered David at once rather than risk the extermination of the whole city like that suffered by Nob.

In spite of David’s tremendous popularity throughout Israel, there were many situations like that at Keilah where there continued to be a residual loyalty to Saul. “This chapter gives two instances in which the people would gladly have turned David over to Saul.”(F10)

There seems to be some confusion in 1 Samuel 23:10-12 regarding the inquiring of the Lord by means of the Urim and Thummim. We do not believe that any part of these verses needs to be omitted or moved. Keil has an excellent explanation of them just as they appear in the text.

It is evident that when the will of God was sought through the Urim and Thummim, the person making the inquiry placed the matter before God in prayer and received an answer, but always to one particular question only. David asked two questions in 1 Samuel 23:11, but received an answer to only one of them, so he had to ask the first question a second time.(F11)

“And David remained in the strongholds in the wilderness, in the hill country of the Wilderness of Ziph” John Rea writes that, “Ziph was a town in the hill country of Judah (Joshua 15:55), located five miles south southeast of Hebron, sometimes identified as El Zif, which had a strategic position commanding the desert. It was founded by Mesha, a son of Caleb (1 Chronicles 2:42, NEB). It was near this place that David twice hid from Saul; and the citizens of this place twice betrayed the secret of David’s hiding place to Saul (1 Samuel 23:19; 1 Samuel 26:1).”(F12)

Verses 15-18


“And David was afraid because Saul had come out to seek his life. David was in the Wilderness of Ziph at Horesh. And Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose, and came to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God. And he said to him, “Fear not; for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you; you shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you; Saul my father also knows this.” And the two of them made a covenant before the Lord; David remained at Horesh, and Jonathan went home.”

How strange it is that Jonathan so easily found David and visited him in his hiding place; and yet Saul seldom knew David’s whereabouts.

“Saul my father knows this” Henry believed that, “Jonathan had sometimes heard his father say that David would be king.”(F13) In fact, David’s tremendous success in so many different enterprises, and his countless providential escapes from danger must long ago have convinced Saul that David would be his successor. This only accentuates the perverse wickedness of Saul who thus set himself adamantly opposed to what he knew to be the will of God.

Willis pointed out three things which Jonathan did for David by way of encouraging him. (1) Saul would not be able to find him, for God would protect David; (2) David would indeed be king; and (3) Saul himself was perfectly aware of all this.

“The two of them made a covenant” “In all probability, this was a renewal of the covenant mentioned earlier in 1 Samuel 18:3 and 1 Samuel 20:8.”(F14)

Verses 19-23


“Then the Ziphites went up to Saul at Gibeah, saying, “Does not David hide among us in the strongholds at Horesh, on the hill of Hachilah, which is south of Jeshimon? Now come down, O king, according to all your heart’s desire to come down; and our part shall be to surrender him into the king’s hand.” And Saul said, “May you be blessed of the Lord; for you have had compassion on me. Go make yet more sure; know and see the place where his haunt is, and who has seen him there; for it is told me that he is very cunning. See therefore, and take note of all the lurking places where he hides, and come back to me with sure information. Then I will go with you; and if he is in the land, I will search him out among all the thousands of Judah.” And they arose and went to Ziph ahead of Saul.”

“The strongholds of Horesh, on the hill of Hachilah” G. W. Grogan of Glasgow identifies Horesh merely as “a place in the wilderness of Judea.”(F15) J. D. Douglas identified “Hachilah” as, “a hill in the wilderness of Judah where David was hidden when the Ziphites plotted to betray him to Saul. The site is not accurately known but generally regarded as being near Dahret el Kola, between Ziph and Engedi.”(F16)

“Our part shall be to surrender him into the king’s hand” This, of course, was the Ziphites promise to betray David. “The reason for the Ziphites betrayal was either their zeal for Saul or the fact that David levied protection money against them as he did against Nabal (1 Samuel 25).”(F17) Willis pointed out another possible reason, namely, that, “The Ziphites might have feared that Saul would slaughter them, if he discovered that they knew where David was and did not tell him.”(F18) The knowledge of what Saul did at Nob was known to all Israel. Any or all of these reasons might have motivated the Ziphites. This shameful deed of the Ziphites is mentioned in the superscription of Psalms 54.

“For you have had compassion on me” Saul’s miserable unhappiness and grief were very real, and not less so because his sins had brought all of his misfortunes upon him. This is an accurate detail of what always happens when any person whomsoever decides to forsake God and “live his own way.”

Verses 24-29


“Now David and his men were in the wilderness of Maon, in the Arabah to the south of Jeshimon. And Saul and his men went to seek him. And David was told; therefore he went down to the rock which is in the wilderness of Maon. And when Saul heard that, he pursued after David in the wilderness of Maon. Saul went on one side of the mountain, and David and his men on the other side of the mountain; and David was making haste to get away from Saul, as Saul and his men were closing in on David to capture them, when a messenger came to Saul, saying, “Make haste and come; for the Philistines have made a raid upon the land.” So Saul returned from pursuing after David, and went against the Philistines; therefore that place was called the Rock of Escape. And David went up from there, and dwelt in the strongholds of Engedi.”

The place names of this passage are of significant interest.

“The Arabah” This was the name of that great geological rift that includes the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan river and the Dead Sea. Biblical mention of it sometimes refers to the northern part of that great valley and sometimes to the southern part. “The Dead Sea is called, “The Sea of the Arabah.”(F19) The Arabah ended in the Gulf of Aqabah. The Arabah here is in the vicinity of the Dead Sea.

“The wilderness of Maon” “Maon is a city in the hill country of Judah, and the home of Nabal the wealthy flock master. The site is now called El Ma’in, eight miles south of Hebron.”(F20)

“Jeshimon” “There were two places called Jeshimon, (1) a barren place northeast of the Dead Sea, and (2) a place north of the hill Hachilah in the wilderness of Maon.”(F21) It is the second of these that is referred to here.

One of David’s most urgent problems was that of feeding his little army of some six hundred men. This was the urgent problem lying back of the many raids that David and his men conducted against the Philistines. Also, it is evident that he protected some of the border cities against Philistine raids and required of them contributions of food and money.

“A messenger came to Saul… Make haste and come; for the Philistines have invaded the land” “Providence gave Saul a diversion.”(F22) It is generally agreed among scholars that without that providential intervention David would almost certainly have been captured. It is interesting to speculate on just what part of Israel the Philistines had attacked. Saul paid no attention whatever when Keilah was attacked; why his haste to leave on this occasion? As Henry suggested, “It was probably that part of Israel where Saul’s own estates were located.”(F23) If this had not been the case, it is difficult to believe that Saul, otherwise, would have interrupted his pursuit of David.

“That place was called the Rock of Escape” This was that rock in the wilderness of Maon (1 Samuel 23:25). There is some uncertainty about the name given to it. The Hebrew name is, “Sela-hammah-lekoth, i.e., Rock of Smoothness (in the sense of slipping away, or escaping).”(F24) Matthew Henry thought that the name meant, “The Rock of Division, because it divided between Saul and David… This mountain (the rock) was an emblem of the Divine Providence coming between David and the destroyer.”(F25)

“The strongholds of Engedi” In the terrain overlooking the Dead Sea, there is a freshwater spring, a marvelous oasis in the midst of some of the most desolate country on earth. In ancient times, there were groves of date palm trees here, making it, “An ideal place for an outlaw for food and for a hiding place.”(F26) With such a safe hiding place, David would wait, as he said, until he would see “what God would do” for him (1 Samuel 22:3).

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 23". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-samuel-23.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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