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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 21

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary



David in Exile—His Visit to the High Priest Ahimelech at the Sanctuary of Nob—His Sojourn with Achish, the Philistine King of Gath.

Verse 1

(1) Then came David to Nob.—Before leaving his native land, David determined once more to see, and if practicable to take counsel with, the old high priest of Israel, with whom, no doubt, in the past years of his close connection with Samuel, he had had frequent and intimate communion. He hoped, too, in that friendly and powerful religious centre to provide himself and his few companions with arms and other necessaries for his exile; nor is it improbable that he purposed, through the friendly high priest, to make some inquiry of the Divine oracle, the Urim and Thuinmim, concerning his doubtful future. The unexpected presence of Doeg, the powerful and unscrupulous servant of Saul, at the sanctuary, no doubt hurried him away in hot haste across the frontier.

The town of Nob, situated between Anathoth and Jerusalem—about an hour’s ride from the latter—has been with great probability identified with the “village of Esau,” El-Isaurizeb, a place bearing all the marks of an ancient town, with its many marble columns and ancient stones. There, in these latter days of Saul, “stood the last precious relic of the ancient nomadic times—the tabernacle of the wanderings, round which, since the fall of Shiloh, had dwelt the descendants of the house of Eli. It was a little colony of priests; no less than eighty-five persons ministered there in the white linen dress of the priesthood, and all their families and herds were gathered round them. The priest was not so ready to befriend as the prophet (we allude to David’s reception by Samuel at Naioth by Ramah, 1 Samuel 19:0). As the solitary fugitive, famished and unarmed, stole up the mountain side, he met with but a cold welcome from the cautious and courtly Ahimelech.”—Stanley, Lectures on the Jewish Church, Lect. 12

To Ahimelech the priest.—He was the great grandson of Eli, thus—

Died at Shiloh after news of capture of Ark,







Slain by Philistines in battle
Reign of Saul—High Priest,

Reign of David—High Priest, (See 1 Samuel 22:19-20.)

He was probably identical with Ahiah (1 Samuel 14:3); this, however, is not certain. Dean Payne Smith believes Ahiah was a younger brother of Ahimelech, who, while Ahimelech remained with the Ark, acted as high priest at the camp for Saul, especially in consulting God for him by means of the ephod with the breastplate (the Urim).

Why art thou alone?—The not unfriendly but cautious priest, who, though unaware of the final rupture of Saul and David, was of course cognisant of the strained relations of the king and his great servant, was uneasy at this sudden appearance of the king’s son-in-law—the well-known military chieftain, David—alone and travel-stained at the sanctuary.

Verse 2

(2) The king hath commanded me.—This is one of the sad episodes in a glorious life. Overwhelmed with dismay at his sudden fall, home and wife, friends and rank, all had been taken from him, and he who had been on the very steps of the throne, the darling of the people, strangely successful in all that he had up to this time put his hand to, was now a proscribed exile, flying for his life. These things must plead as his excuse for his falsehood to Ahimelech, and his flight to and subsequent behaviour among the hereditary enemies of his race, the Philistines. But here, as in so many places, the Holy Spirit who guided the pen of the compiler of this true history could not lie, but fearlessly tells the repulsive truth which must ever be deeply damaging to the favourite hero of Israel. “The Holy Spirit is become the chronicler of men’s foolish, yea, sinful actions. He has narrated the lies of Abraham, the incest of Lot, the simulation of the man after God’s heart.”—Lange.

I have appointed my servants.—This portion of his words to Ahimelech was, no doubt, strictly true. It is unlikely that one in the high position of David at the court of Saul, possessing, too, such powers over men’s hearts, would be allowed to go even into exile without any friends or attendants. Those alluded to here probably joined him soon after his parting with Jonathan. Our Lord, in Mark 2:25-26, speaks of the priest giving the shewbread to David and to those that were with him, when both he and they that were with him were an hungred.

Verse 4

(4) There is no common bread.—The condition of the priests in these days of Saul was evidently a pitiable one. The terrible massacre related in the next chapter seems not to have excited the wail of indignation and woe which such a wholesale murder of the priests of the living God should naturally have called out from the entire people. They were evidently held in little esteem, and their murder was regarded at the time, not as an awful act of sacrilege, but simply as an act of political vengeance—of punishment for what the king was pleased to style treason. Here the almost destitute condition of the ministers of the principal sanctuary of Israel appears from the quiet answer of the high priest to David, telling him they had positively no bread but the stale bread removed from before “the Presence” in the holy building.

This “hallowed bread,” or shewbread, five loaves of which David petitioned for, consisted of twelve loaves, one for each tribe, which were placed in the Tabernacle fresh every Sabbath Day. The law of Moses was that this bread, being most holy, could only be eaten by the priests in the holy place. It is probable that this regulation had been relaxed, and that the bread was now often being carried away and eaten in the homes of the ministering priests, and on urgent occasions, perhaps, was even given to the “laity,” as in this case, the proviso only being made that the consumers of the bread should be ceremonially pure. Our Saviour, in Matthew 12:3, especially uses this example, drawn from the Tabernacle’s honoured customs, to justify a violation of the letter of the law, when its strict observance would stand in the way of the fulfilment of man’s sacred duty to his neighbour.

The natural inference from this incident would be that such a violation of the Mosaic Law was not an uncommon occurrence, as Ahimelech at once gave him the hallowed bread, only making a conditional inquiry about ceremonial purity—a condition which came out so readily that we feel it had often been made before. The Talmud, however, is most anxious that this inference should not be drawn, and points out in the treatise Menachoth, “Meat-offerings” (Seder Kodashim), that this bread was not newly taken out of the sanctuary, but had been removed on some previous day, and that as, after a week’s exposure, it was stale and dry, the priests ate but little of it, and the rest was left. (See Treatise Yoma, 39.) It also points out that had such violation of the Levitical Law been common, so much importance would not have been attached to this incident.

Verse 5

(5) The vessels.—Their clothes and light, portable baggage—answering to the modern “knapsack.” The Vulg. renders the Hebrew word by “vasa.” David means to say, “Since we have just left home, you may readily suppose that no impurity has been contracted; it would be different if we were returning home from a journey, when on the way—especially in war—uncleanness might be contracted by the blood of enemies or otherwise.”—Seb. Schmid, quoted in Lange.

The LXX., by a very slight change in the Hebrew letters, instead of “the vessels of the young men,” render, “all the young men.”

And the bread is in a manner common.—The original is here very difficult, almost utterly obscure. The English Version of the clause is simply meaningless. Of the many translations which have been suggested, two at least offer a fairly good sense. (a) “And if it is an unholy way (viz., the way David and his band were going—his purpose or enterprise), moreover there is also the fact that it becomes holy through the instrument” (viz., through me, as an ambassador of the anointed of the Lord), on the supposition of the important royal mission upon which David pretended to be sent. So Keil and O. von Gerlach. (b) Lange, however, and Thenius, maintain that the words in question must contain a remark by which the priest is to be induced to give the bread, and would translate, “Though it is an unholy (ceremonially illegal) procedure (to take the shewbread), yet it is sanctified (to-day) through the instrument” (David or Ahimelech). The instrument is here David, the appointed messenger of the Lord’s anointed, or, even better, Ahimelech, the sacred person of the high priest.

No doubt, the words of Leviticus 24:9, which speak of the destination of the stale shewbread—“And they (Aaron and his sons) shall eat it in the holy place”—suggested the practice of the Church of England embodied in the Rubric following the” Order of the Administration of the Holy Communion”—“And if any” (of the bread and wine) “remain of that which was consecrated, it shall not be carried out of the church, but the priest, and such other of the communicants as he shall then call unto him, shall immediately after the blessing reverently eat and drink the same.” Among the legendary Jewish lore that has gathered round the history of this transaction is one strange tradition that the holy bread thus given became useless in the hands of the king’s fugitive. (See Stanley, Lectures on the Jewish Church, Lect. 22, quoting from Jerome.)

Verse 7

(7) A certain man.—Among the personages who surround Saul in the Bible story appears incidentally the keeper of the royal mules, and chief of the household slaves, the “Comes stabuli,” “the constable of the king,” as appears in the later monarchy. “He is the first instance of a foreigner employed in a high function in Israel, being an Edomite, or Syrian, of the name of Doeg—according to Jewish tradition, the steward who accompanied Saul in his pursuit after the asses, who counselled him to send for David, and who ultimately slew him, according to the sacred narrative—a person of vast and sinister influence in his master’s counsels.” (Stanley, Lectures on the Jewish Church, Lect. 21) Some traditions affirm that the armour-bearer who slew Saul on Mount Gilboa was not Doeg, but Doeg’s son.

The Hebrew words rendered in the English Version, “the chiefest of the herdmen that belonged to Saul,” are translated in the LXX. by “feeding the mules of Saul;” and in accordance with this reading, in 1 Samuel 22:9 also, they have changed “Saul’s servants” into “Saul’s mules.” The Vulg. and the other versions, however, translate as the English Version, “potentissimus pastorum,” although in some of the Vulg. MSS. there is an explanatory gloss, evidently derived from the singular interpretation of the LXX., This (man) used to feed Saul’s mules.” There can be no foundation in tradition or otherwise for such a reading, as we never read until the days of King David of mules being used by royal princes. (See 2 Samuel 13:29; 2 Samuel 18:9.) Before David’s time, the sons of princes used to ride on asses. (See Judges 10:4; Judges 12:14.) Ewald, disregarding the current Jewish tradition respecting the ancient connection of Doeg with the house of Kish, considers that this influential chieftain of the king probably came over to Saul in his war with Edom.

Detained before the Lord.—Several interpretations have been suggested for these words. (a) He was at the sanctuary of the Tabernacle as a proselyte—one who wished to be received into the religious communion of Israel. (b) He was detained there for his purification on account of supposed leprosy, or simply in fulfilment of a temporary Nazarite vow. (c) According to Ephrem Syrus (who probably referred to some lost tradition), he had committed some trespass, and was detained there till he had offered the appointed sacrifice. Any one of these reasons—all sufficiently probable in themselves—would have occasioned a residence long or short at the sanctuary at Nob. At all events, when the fugitive David recognised the presence of one of Saul’s most unscrupulous servants, whom he must have known well, his mind must have misgiven him, and he, probably on this account, hasted to get away, and at once begs the old high priest to furnish him with any arms he might have laid up in the priestly homes.

Verse 8

(8) Spear or sword?—We may well suppose to what David pointed when he made his request—the famous sword, the trophy of the combat which had for ever made his name illustrious. In the first flush of gratitude to the invisible One who had stood by him in the hour of peril, he had doubtless taken and presented to the sanctuary guardians, as an offering to be kept for ever, a memorial of the victory of Israel over the uncircumcised; but now, in his hour of need and humiliation, he needed all the credentials he could gather together of his ability and power to lead men, so he trusts the priest will let him have his glorious prize back again. This seems to have been really the meaning of his petition to Ahimelech, and so evidently the priest understood David, for at once he suggested restoring the well-known, treasured sword. The sanctuary, he said, possesses no war weapon but that one which hangs up among us, a votive offering.

Verse 9

(9) The sword of Goliath the Philistine.—It was in safe guardianship, that trusty sword of the mightiest of the Philistines, stained perhaps with the blood of the brave but unworthy priests, Hophni and Phineas, the sons of Eli, whom Goliath was believed to have slain in the fatal battle when the Ark was taken, and the power of Israel shattered for many a long year. It was wrapped up and lying in a place of honour behind the sacred ephod with the Urim and Thummim—wrapped up, it has been suggested, in the blood-stained war cloak of the dead Philistine, for the word translated “cloth” is used in Isaiah 9:5 of military attire.

Give it me.—David grasped the sword with a childlike expression of joy; its sight and touch revived the old bright faith and the sure trust in the strength of Israel on which he leaned when, as a boy, he fought with the wild beasts which infested the wild pasture-lands where he kept his father’s flocks (the Shepherd of David was the Holy One; blessed be He.—Midrash Rabbah, 59), and which guided his trembling hand the day he slew the giant in the face of the watching hosts. The sight and touch of the glorious trophy revived the old sure trust which in these dark days of betrayal and persecution was beginning to fail that gallant spirit of David’s. It does not appear from the story that the Philistine’s sword was of extraordinary size; that it was a tried weapon of approved temper and strength is certain, but its chief preciousness consisted, of course, in its storied associations. The Dean of Canterbury suggests it was probably of the ordinary pattern imported from Greece. The LXX. adds here, “and he gave it to him.”

Verse 10

(10) And David arose and fled·—The cause of this sudden flight was, of course, the fear of Doeg, one of Saul’s most trusted servants. Not an hour must be lost, thought David; my deadly foe will hear that I am here, and I shall be trapped like a hunted beast of prey. It seems at first sight strange that David should dare to go among the Philistines, who had such good cause to hate and fear him, but the son of Jesse ever thought lightly of himself, and had no idea that his person was so well known, or his story so generally current as it subsequently proved to be. (See 1 Samuel 21:11.) Of David’s humility, so conspicuously exhibited on this occasion, when he ventured among his foes, not dreaming how great a personage they considered him, the Babylonian Talmud strikingly writes:—“No man in Israel despised himself more than David where the precepts of the Lord were concerned, and this is what he said before God (Psalms 131:1-2), ‘Lord, my heart was not haughty when Samuel anointed me king, nor were mine eyes lofty when I slew Goliath . . . as a child . . . have I likened myself before Thee in not being ashamed to depreciate myself before Thee for Thy glory.’”—Treatise Bamidbar, chap 4.

Achish the king of Gath.—The title “king” is somewhat loosely used in this scene among the Philistines. Achish was one of the Philistine lords, perhaps the hereditary lord of Gath. Achish is called Abimelech in the title of Psalms 34:0, that apparently being the title, the “nomen dignitatis,” of the hereditary (or elected) chief among the Philistines, like Agag among the Amalekites. It is quite possible that this Achish, although called king of Gath, was the supreme chief or king of the Philistine nation. Gath was the nearest Philistine city to the sanctuary of Nob where David then was.

Verse 11

(11) Is not this David?—Some expositors have supposed, but quite needlessly, that it was the sword of Goliath which betrayed the identity of the hero; but although David in his humility did not suspect how widely spread was his fame, he was evidently as well known in Philistia as in his own land. That popular lilt, the folk-song of the Israelitish maidens, which sang of the prowess of David, the son of Jesse, was no doubt current in frontier towns like Gath, and at once the fugitive was recognised. We hear of no attempt made upon his life, or even against his liberty. The feeling among his generous foes was rather pitiful admiration mingled with wonder at seeing the doer of such splendid achievements in poverty and in exile.

David the king.—Here, again, the title king is vaguely used. Neither the people of Gath nor his own countrymen—save, perhaps, a few chosen spirits—knew of the sacred anointing by Samuel at Bethlehem. The appellation simply means: Is not this the renowned warrior, the greatest man in Israel of whom the people sing? Saul, our sovereign, has been a valiant captain over us, and has slain his thousands; but this one is greater still, he has slain his ten thousands.

Verse 12

(12) And David laid up these words.—Now, for the first time, David saw how widely travelled was a renown of which he in his humbleness of heart had thought so little, and at once a deadly fear took possession of him. The life he held so cheaply when in battle with the enemies of his country now, strange to say, in his deep degradation and poverty, became of real value to him, and he adopted the piteous and humiliating device of feigning madness, hoping thus to change the wondering admiration of the servants of Achish into pitying scorn. What David hoped took place, and he was driven out of Gath with ignominy; but there is no reason for supposing that had he maintained a quiet dignity of behaviour any evil would have happened to him. The Philistines, for those wild times, seem to have been a cultured people, and by no means devoid of generous instincts. Not one word, strangely enough, is reported to have been spoken about the great injury he had done to the Philistine nation when he slew Goliath. It has been suggested with considerable ingenuity that the great name of the dead champion, the hero of so many battle-fields, was never brought forward here, perhaps out of a natural indisposition to recall a grievous calamity, but more likely out of regard for Goliath’s family and friends. Singularly little is told us, in fact, about this renowned hero, whom tradition hints at as the great warrior in the decisive battle when the Ark was captured and the sons of Eli were slain. The Talmud has a curious comment on this strange silence—“Not half the praises of Goliath are related in Scripture; hence it follows that it is wrong to tell the praises of the wicked.”—Treatise Soteh, fol. 42, Colossians 2:0.

Verse 13

(13) He changed his behaviour.—These very words (with the substitution of Abimelech for Achish, a name which, as has been above suggested, seems to have been the “nomen dignitatis” for generations of Philistine kings) are found in the title of Psalms 34:0. The poem in question is, however, of a general, not of an historical character, and especially celebrates Jehovah’s guardian care of the righteous. Its “acrostic” arrangement, however, suggests a later date than the time of David. If, as is quite possible, the royal psalmist was the original author, and that the deliverance on the present occasion suggested the theme, then it must have been brought into its present form by some later temple musician.

Feigned himself mad.—Literally, he roamed hither and thither, restless and in terror.—Dean Payne Smith. “In their hands,” that is, “in their presence.” Some have supposed that the madness was not “simulated,” but real. Wrought upon by excitement of fear and terrible anxiety, it has been suggested that the mind for a time lost its balance, and that David became temporarily really insane; but the sense of the narrative plainly indicates that the madness was feigned.

Scrabbled on the doors of the gate.—Scratched on them; “scrabble” being probably a diminutive of “scrape” (Richardson, Dictionary). By others it is connected with “scribble.” the root in either case being ultimately the same. The LXX. and Vulg. apparently translate from a slightly different word, and instead of “scrabbled,” render “drummed” (impingebat) on the wings of the doors.

Let his spittle fall.—That is, allowed the foam which comes from the mouth of a madman to hang about his beard. It has been cleverly suggested that David was only too well acquainted with all the signs of madness, from his long and intimate association with King Saul in his darker hours of insanity. There are other well-authenticated examples in history of great heroes, in seasons of sore danger, feigning madness like David, with a view of escaping from their enemies. For instance, according to the Shâhnâmeh, Kai Khosrev feigned idiocy in face of mortal peril.

Verse 14

(14) Then said Achish . . . the man is mad.—The Philistine king would look with peculiar sorrow and repulsion on a madman if, as according to Jewish tradition (see Philippson), his own wife and daughter were insane.

The device, however, succeeded, as David hoped it would, and he was suffered to depart in safety—nay, was even hurried out of the Philistine country. In old times, as now, in many parts of the East, the insane are looked upon as persons in some peculiar way possessed by, and therefore under the more immediate protection of, Deity. The life then of the hunted fugitive was perfectly safe from the moment the Philistines considered him mad.
There is a curious legend in the Talmud in which several events recorded in the Biblical account are confused. Part of it apparently refers to this strange choice of his of Phillstia as a place of refuge. “One day Satan appeared to him (David) in the shape of a gazelle, which, eluding his pursuit, decoyed him into the land of the Philistines. ‘Ah!’ said Ishbi-benob, when he caught sight of him, ‘art thou the man that slew my brother, Goliath?’ So saying, he seized and bound him.”—Treatise Sanhedrin, fol. 95, Colossians 1:2. The wild legend goes on to explain how, partly by miracle, partly with the aid of Abishai, David slew Ishbi-benob and escaped.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 21". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-samuel-21.html. 1905.
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