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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 21

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-9

David’s flight to Nob 21:1-9

Nob stood one and one-half miles northeast of Jerusalem and two and one-half miles southeast of Gibeah. It stood on what is now called Mt. Scopus. There Ahimelech served as high priest. Priestly activity, and evidently the tabernacle, were now there (cf. 1 Samuel 17:54). It is significant that David’s first place of refuge was among God’s chosen representatives on earth. He wanted to get help from the Lord through them (cf. 1 Samuel 22:10) as he had done in the past (1 Samuel 22:15). Apparently Ahimelech was trembling because David was alone (cf. 1 Samuel 16:4). Had Saul sent him to harm the priests (cf. 1 Samuel 22:6-23), or was David in some kind of trouble? Bear in mind that David was Saul’s general, and as such he usually traveled with escorting soldiers.

David appears to have lied to Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:2). However, he may have been referring to Yahweh when he mentioned "the king" who had sent him (cf. 1 Samuel 20:22; 1 Samuel 21:8). Even so he wanted Ahimelech to think that Saul had sent him. This was deception at best and a lie at worst, rooted ultimately in selfishness and lack of faith in God. David made some mistakes in his early years as a fugitive. He handled himself better as time passed. During this time God was training him for future service. David proceeded to explain that the reason he was alone was that he had sent his soldiers elsewhere. He intended to rendezvous with them shortly, and had come to Nob by himself to obtain provisions, protection, and prayer (cf. 1 Samuel 22:10).

Ahimelech gave David the showbread that the priests ate (Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:5-9). This was the bread that for a week lay on the table of showbread in the tabernacle. Each Sabbath the priests replaced this bread with fresh loaves. Ahimelech was careful that David’s men were ritually clean, not having had sexual relations with women that day (1 Samuel 21:4; cf. Leviticus 15:8; Exodus 19:14-15). David assured him that their bodies were clean ritually (1 Samuel 21:5). This made it permissible for them to eat the consecrated bread. Ahimelech correctly gave David the provisions he needed (1 Samuel 21:6).

Jesus said this was proper for David to have done (Matthew 12:1-4). The reason was that human life takes precedence over ceremonial law with God. [Note: See F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, p. 33.] David was probably not at the point of starvation. Certainly the Lord’s disciples were not (Matthew 12). Nevertheless human need should always be a higher priority than the observance of a ritual used to worship God. We acknowledge the same priority today. Suppose you pass a house that is on fire. You stop, run up to the front door, bang on the door, and ring the doorbell. You look in the window and see someone lying on the floor. You then kick in the door and drag the unconscious person outside to safety. Even though breaking into someone else’s house is a criminal offense, the law will not prosecute you since you saved that person’s life.

The mention of Doeg, an Edomite who had risen high in Saul’s government (1 Samuel 21:7), prepares the reader for his informing Saul about what happened at Nob (1 Samuel 22:9-19). Perhaps Doeg was "detained before the Lord" because he had come to the tabernacle to present an offering or to conduct some other business there.

Having previously requested provisions of Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:3), David now asked for protection, namely, a sword (1 Samuel 21:8). Goliath’s huge sword, which had initially rested in David’s tent (1 Samuel 17:54), was now in the tabernacle wrapped in the priest’s ephod, perhaps because it was a historic relic. David eagerly accepted it from Ahimelech since there was no sword like it. It is interesting that David, and later Solomon, used the same expression to describe the Lord (2 Samuel 7:22; 1 Kings 8:23). Though there was no better protection than Goliath’s sword physically, the Lord was an even better protector spiritually. There is none like Him.

Verses 1-15

1. David’s initial movements chs. 21-22

"The two chapters comprise a literary unit of three sections arranged in chiastic order. Chapters 1 Samuel 21:1-9 and 1 Samuel 22:6-23 are concerned with the priestly compound at Nob in Benjamin while the central section (1 Samuel 21:10 to 1 Samuel 22:5) summarizes David’s flight to Gath in Philistia, Adullam in Judah, and Mizpah in Moab." [Note: Youngblood, p. 727.]

Verses 10-15

David’s flight to Gath 21:10-15

David’s next refuge also proved to be insecure. It is a mystery why he sought refuge with Goliath’s sword in that giant’s hometown. As Chuck Swindoll once said, David would have been as conspicuous in Gath as Dolly Parton in a convent. Evidently he thought he would be welcome in Gath since he was fleeing from Saul. Perhaps he went there since Achish was an enemy of Saul’s, as David was. The people identified David at once and called him Israel’s king (1 Samuel 21:11). This may have been a slight on his authority; they may have meant that he was only a local ruler (cf. Joshua 12:7). Alternatively they may have heard of David’s anointing as Israel’s next king. In any case Achish’s advisers viewed David’s presence as a threat (1 Samuel 21:11; cf. 1 Samuel 29:1-5). Perhaps they felt as the American president might have felt if a high-ranking Russian general defected and sought asylum in the United States during the Cold War. The potential of his helpfulness against the enemy had to be weighed against the chance that he would prove disloyal, turn on his host, and do much damage.

David sensed his personal danger and pretended to be insane to save his life. Evidently Achish dismissed him, concluding that David was mad and could be of no help to him against Saul (cf. 1 Samuel 29:3; 1 Samuel 29:6; 1 Samuel 29:9; Psalms 34 title). It so happened that ancient Near Easterners regarded the insane as harbingers of evil and so avoided them. They felt it was bad luck to kill a madman. [Note: Merrill, "1 Samuel," p. 219.]

". . . insanity was often believed in the ancient world to be an affliction of the gods, and it was customary to treat madmen as taboo if not holy, people who should not be harmed in any way." [Note: David Payne, p. 113.]

In both Nob and Gath David resorted to deception to protect himself, and in each place some bad consequences resulted. Doeg killed the priests, and David had to abandon Gath. However, David also trusted in the Lord. He wrote Psalms 56, 34 during and after his time in Gath, according to the titles of those psalms. They reveal that he was trusting God. His ultimate hope for provision and protection was not the priests, or Saul’s enemies, but the Lord Himself. This faith undoubtedly explains the fact that God preserved him, and some good consequences came out of these experiences. David had two more encounters with Achish, both of which were beneficial for David. 1 Samuel 21 helps us see the mixture of right and wrong in David’s actions, but David’s psalms clarify the proper response that the godly should make when opposition assails them.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 21". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-samuel-21.html. 2012.
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