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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 22

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary



(1 Samuel 22:1-23) David’s Life when Bearing Arms against the King at Adullam and Hareth—Saul is informed by Doeg of the Visit of David to the High Priest at Nob—Massacre of all the Priests, and Destruction of the Sanctuary of Nob by Saul—Abiathar, son of Ahimelech, escapes to David.


From the scattered notices we possess in this book, in 2 Sam., and in 1 Chron., it is clear that the career of David during the period of his life when he was declared by the reigning sovereign, Saul, to be a public enemy, was not the career of a vulgar freebooter, to whom he has been often wrongly likened. To his standard, as we shall see, quickly gathered a number of illustrious men, among whom were found many of high lineage, as well as men famous for their military achievements; distinguished representatives, too, of the priestly and prophetic orders were also to be found at this wandering Court of the future illustrious king. Among the principal reasons which induced so many and such distinguished persons to associate themselves with David may be enumerated growing discontent with Saul’s rule; his frequent inability, owing to the recurring paroxysms of his distressing mental malady, to conduct the affairs of the kingdom; his growing distrust of his friends, especially of his gallant son; the unfortunate favouritism he displayed towards the tribe of Benjamin—his own tribe; his relentless and, at the same time, groundless animosity against his bravest and most successful captain, David. There were not wanting evidently in the border warfare—a warfare which greatly contributed to his popularity among the people, which David almost ceaselessly carried on with Philistia during this period—romantic incidents which show us the character of David’s soldiers, and which well illustrate the spirit of devotion to his person with which this great man was able to inspire his followers. On one occasion, for instance, in the course of a border foray, the son of Jesse, exhausted and wearied, was heard to express a longing for a drink of water from his own home spring at Bethlehem, then occupied by a Philistine garrison. Three of his generous and devoted followers, determined to gratify the longing of their loved chief, with a reckless bravery broke through the enemy’s line, and fetched the coveted water. But David, we read, touched to the heart by such reckless gallantry and love, refused to drink it, but poured it out—that water, won at such risk—as an offering to the Lord. (See 1 Chronicles 11:16-19.)

In this little army of heroes eleven men of great renown are in one passage positively mentioned by name, so distinguished were they—men of great military experience, from the distant tribe of Gad—in the graphic words of the writer of the Chronicles, “warriors equipped with shield and spear, like lions in aspect, and yet speeding over the mountains with the swift foot of the gazelle.” Four hundred men-at-arms—of course this does not include the younger armour-bearers and the like accompanying these veteran soldiers—are mentioned as joining the armed camp of David. These four hundred seem soon to have increased to six hundred. Extraordinary weight and dignity were added to his counsels by the presence of men like Gad, the prophet of the Lord, trained in the school of Samuel, and endowed with the rare gifts of a seer of the living God; and Abiathar, the son and successor by direct descent of the murdered high priest Ahimelech, who brought with him to the exile’s camp the precious Urim and Thummim, the greatest treasures of the sacred Tabernacle, by means of which the “outlaw” David was placed in direct communication with Jehovah, the covenant God of Israel.
In this school of fighting men were trained those generals and wise strategists who in the golden days of David’s rule commanded his armies, and raised Israel from the obscurity of an “Arab” tribe, who with difficulty held their own among the ancient Canaanites, to the position of one of the great nations of the old Eastern world.
I cannot forbear transcribing from the Talmud a curious note on “the four hundred warriors of David.” This ancient tradition evidently bestows on these “fighting men-at-arms” who rallied round David in his days of exile and poverty, the splendour which perhaps subsequently surrounded the great king’s body-guard when he reigned as a mighty prince in Jerusalem over Canaan and the surrounding nations. “David had four hundred young men, handsome in appearance, and with their hair cut close upon their foreheads, but with long flowing curls behind, who used to ride in chariots of gold at the head of the army. These were men of power, the mighty men of the house of David, who went about to strike terror into the world.”—Babylonian Talmud, Treatise Kiddushin, fol. 76, Colossians 2:0.

It is most probable that a corps of êlite, in memory of the original “four hundred” of the days of the king’s wanderings, was established when David possessed a powerful standing army.

Verse 1

(1) The cave Adullam.—The great valley of Elah forms the highway from Philistia to Hebron. In one especially of the tributary vales or ravines of the Elah valley are many natural caves, some of great extent, roomy and dry, which are still used by the shepherds as dwelling-places, and as refuges for their flocks and herds. David chose one of these natural fastnesses as the temporary home for himself and his followers. The traveller sees that there was ample room for the 400 refugees who gathered under David’s skilled leadership. Stanley even speaks of this Adullam Cavern as “a subterranean palace, with vast columnar halls and arched chambers.”

The name Adullam was probably given to the largest of these great caverns from its proximity to the old royal Canaanitish city of Adullam (Joshua 15:35), ruins of which on a rounded hill to the south of the cave are still visible.

His brethren and all his father’s house.—They of course soon felt the weight of Saul’s anger against the prominent hero of their race, and dreading the fate which often overwhelms whole families for the faults of one of the more distinguished members, fled from their homes, and joined David and his armed force of outlaws.

Verse 2

(2) Every one that was in distress.—Ewald writes on this statement:—“The situation of the country, which was becoming more and more melancholy under Saul, . . . drove men to seek a leader from whom they might hope for better things for the future . . . David did not send away these refugees, many of them distinguished and prominent Israelites, but organised them into a military force. He foresaw that while commanding such a company as this, he might, without injuring his king and former benefactor, be of the very greatest use to the people, and protect the southern frontiers of the kingdom—sadly exposed in these later years of King Saul—from the plundering incursions of the neighbouring nomadic tribes. This state of things, with a few interruptions, really came to pass, and David won great repute and popularity among the protected districts during these years when he was a wanderer and an outlaw—a popularity which in after years stood him in good stead.”

These persons “in distress” were especially those who were persecuted by Saul and his men for their attachment to David. The several statements of the refugees who took shelter in David’s armed camp, of course go over a considerable time. They did not all flock to his standard at once. Some went to him in the first days of his exile, others after the massacre at the sanctuary at Nob, others later, and thus gradually 400 gathered round him. Soon after, these numbers were swelled to 600, and these probably only were the chosen men-at-arms of the little force, which, no doubt, was numerically far greater.

And every one that was in debt.—Throughout the whole long story of Israel this unhappy love of greed and gain has been a characteristic feature of the chosen race, ever a prominent and ugly sin. In the Mosaic Law, most stringent regulations were laid down to correct and mitigate this ruling passion of avarice among the Jews. (See such passages as Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:36; Deuteronomy 23:19.) The poor, improvident, or perhaps unfortunate, debtor was protected by wise laws against the greedy avaricious spirit of his merciless creditor. These beneficent regulations of the great lawgiver had, under the capricious, faulty rule of King Saul, of course fallen into abeyance, and a terrible amount of misery, no doubt, was the consequence. In the Divine record sad scenes (see 2 Kings 4:1-7), exemplifying this pitiless spirit, are casually related, but they are so woven into the mosaic of the history, as to show us they were, alas! no uncommon occurrence in the daily life of the people. In Proverbs, for instance, we have some conspicuous instances. The chronicles of the Middle Ages in all countries teem with similar stories about the chosen people. Our own great dramatist, some three centuries ago, evidently without attempt at exaggeration, selects the avaricious, grasping Jew as the central figure of one of his most famous dramas. In our own time the same spirit, as is too well known, is still abroad, and constitutes the bitterest reproach which the many enemies of the strange, deathless race can promulgate against a people evidently walled in by a Divine protection and a changeless eternal love.

And he became a captain over them.—It was evidently no undisciplined band, these outlaws of Adullam and the hold of Moab, of Hareth and Keilah, of Ziph and Engedi. David quickly organised the refugees, among whom, by degrees, many a man of mark and approved valour and ability were numbered.

To complete the picture of this First Book of Samuel, we must unite in one the scattered notices of this same period which occur in the Second Book of Samuel and in the Books of Kings and Chronicles. (See Excursus I. at the end of this Book.)

Verse 3

(3) Mizpeh.—This particular Mizpeh is mentioned nowhere else. The word means a watch tower; it was probably some mountain fortress in Moab. It has been suggested that it was the same as Zophim, a word of the same root as Mizpeh (see Numbers 23:14). David evidently sought hospitality among his kin in Moab. Jesse, his father, was the grandson of Ruth the Moabitess. The distance from the south of Judah Where the fugitives were wandering was not great.

Till I know what

God will do for me.—This memory of David’s words to the King of Moab shows that the old trust and love, which in his first moments of care and sorrow had failed him, had come back again to the son of Jesse. It is interesting to note that David when addressing the Moabite sovereign speaks of “God” “Elohim,” not of Jehovah. This was probably out of deep reverence; an idolator had nothing to do with the awful name by which the Eternal was known to His covenant people—a Name which, as originally uttered, has now passed away from the earth. We read the mystic four letters, but no man, Jew or Gentile, can pronounce the Name of Names. The “Name,” however, was not unknown in Moab, for the mystic letters which compose it occur in the inscription of Mesha, dating about 150 years from the days of David’s exile.

Verse 4

(4) While that David was in the hold.—This “hold” is, of course, identical with the “hold” of 1 Samuel 22:5, from which Gad the prophet directs David to depart, and to return into the land of Judah. It was, most likely, in the Land of Moab.

Verse 5

(5) The prophet Gad.—From this time onward throughout the life and reign of David, Gad the prophet occupied evidently a marked place. He is mentioned as the king’s seer in 2 Samuel 24:11; and in 1 Chronicles 29:29 he appears as the compiler of the acts of David, along with Samuel and Nathan. In 2 Chronicles 29:25 he is mentioned with his brother prophet Nathan again, as the man who had drawn up the plan of the great Temple services, which have been the model now for eighteen centuries of the countless Christian Liturgies in all the Churches.

It was Gad also who, far on in the golden days of the exile’s rule, dared to reprove the mighty king for his deed of numbering the people, which act involved a great sin, or the design of a great sin, not recorded for us, and who brought as a message from the Highest the terrible choice of three evils (2 Samuel 24:11, and following verses). As he appears in the last years of the great king’s life, and apparently survived his master and friend, Gad must have been still young, or at all events in the prime of life, when he joined the fugitive and his outlawed band. He had, therefore, not improbably been a fellow student and friend of David’s in the Naioth of Samuel by Ramah. It seems hardly a baseless conjecture which sees in Gad a direct messenger from the old prophet Samuel to his loved pupil David, “the anointed,” Samuel well knew, “of the Lord.” As has been before observed, among the many who were educated and brought up in the Schools of the Prophets as historians, preachers, musicians, and teachers, but very few seem to have received the Divine influence (the Spirit’s “afflatus”) which was needed to constitute a prophet in the true high sense of the solemn word as we now understand it. Gad, however, appears to have been one of these rarely favoured few, and the presence of such an one in this outlaw camp of David must have been of great advantage to the captain.

Abide not.—The wise advice of the prophet, suggested by a Divine influence, told David not to estrange himself from his own country and people by remaining in a foreign land, but to return with his followers to the wilder districts of Judah. There was work for him and his followers to do in that distracted, harassed land.

The forest of Hareth.—The LXX. and Josephus here read “the city of Hareth.” Lieutenant Conder, whose late investigations have thrown so much light upon the geography of the Promised Land, can find no trace of forest on the edge of the mountain chain of Hebron, where Kharas now stands, and he therefore believes the LXX. text the true one. Dean Payne Smith, however, considers that “the thickets,” which still grow here abundantly, are what the Hebrew word yar, here translated “forest,” signifies.

Verse 6

(6) When Saul heard.—No note of time is here given. Probably the return of David with a disciplined force to the land, and the pitching of an armed camp in the “forest of Hareth,” excited anew Saul’s jealous fears.

Now Saul abode in Gibeah.—In Gibeah of Saul, his own royal city. The LXX. wrongly render, instead of Gibeah, “on the hills.” The margin of the English Version, “under a grove in a high place,” is correct as regards the later words, baramah signifying here upon the height. “Under a tree” is, however, nearer the original than “under a grove.” The literal rendering would be “under a tamarisk tree.” The sentence then should run, “Now Saul abode in Gibeah, under the tamarisk tree on the height.” The tamarisk, which grows so abundantly on the sea-shore of England and in warmer climates, develops into a very graceful tree, with long feathery branches and tufts. Saul’s love for trees has been noticed before. This solemn council of his, when the darkest deed of his reign was decided upon, was held in the spot Saul loved so well, under the spreading tamarisk branches. There we see him, leaning, as was his wont in peace as in war, upon his tall spear, surrounded by his valiant captains, chosen apparently, with one exception, from his own tribe of Benjamin—the exception being his wicked counsellor, the Edomite Doeg, who was over the royal herds. This is one of the earliest councils we have any definite account of in the world’s history. The king, surrounded by his chosen “fideles,” complaining of the treason of one of them lately exiled from their midst, bewailing the want of fidelity of his son, the heir to the throne—then the stepping forward of one of these “fideles,” one invested with high office, and publicly denouncing the chief religious official of the kingdom—forms a striking and vivid picture.

Verse 7

(7) Hear now, ye Benjamites.—We have here a fair specimen of Saul’s manner of ruling in his later years. It is no wonder that the heart of the people gradually was estranged from one of whom in earlier years they had been so proud. The suspicious and gloomy king had evidently—we have it here from his own mouth—gradually given all the posts of honour and dignity to men of his own tribe and family, or to strangers like Doeg. “Hear now, ye Benjamites—so the “fidèles” were evidently men of his own favoured tribe; indeed, he refers to his own weak partiality as the reason why they of all men should be loyal. “Who but a Benjamite,” he says, “would only honour Benjamites?” Such a sovereign had surely forfeited his kingdom. The consequences of such a weak and shortsighted policy were plainly visible in the thin array he was able in his hour of bitter need to muster together on the fatal field of Mount Gilboa against his sleepless Philistine enemies. (See 1 Samuel 31:0)

Verse 8

(8) That all of you have conspired.—The unhappy, jealous spirit had obtained such complete mastery over the unhappy king that now he suspected even the chosen men of his own tribe. All his tried favourites, the men of his own house, even his gallant son, he charged with leaning towards David the traitor, his supplanter in the hearts of Israel.

My son hath made a league.—It would seem as though Saul had learned something of what passed between Jonathan and David when they met for that farewell interview at the memorable New Moon feast; the words respecting the covenant between the two being too pointed and marked to refer only to the well-known ancient friendship between the prince and the son of Jesse.

There is none of you that is sorry for me.—These words of the sad king—tormented as he was by an evil spirit, ever whispering doubt and jealous thoughts into the poor diseased mind—are here strangely real and pathetic.

Verse 9

(9) Then answered Doeg.—“Far better,” quaintly writes Seb Schmid, “did Saul’s other servants who kept silence.” The Edomite’s witness had the more effect on Saul because he related no hearsay evidence, but what he had absolutely seen.

Verse 10

(10) And he enquired of the Lord for him.—This is, however, by no means certain (see below); nothing was said about the Urim and Thummim being brought out and questioned by the high priest on the occasion of David’s visit. It is possible that Doeg was misled here by the fact of the high priest’s going into the sanctuary, where the ephod was, to fetch the sword of Goliath for David. This famous sword was laid up, we know, behind the ephod.

Verse 11

(11) Then the king sent to call Ahimelech.—This sending for all the priestly house to Gibeah when alone Ahimelech was to blame—if blame there was—looks as though Saul and Doeg had determined upon the wholesale massacre which followed.

Verse 13

(13) And hast enquired of God for him.—This using of the Urim and Thummim for David is again repeated by the king. It seems in Saul’s eyes to have been the gravest of the charges imputed to the high priest by Doeg, for Ahimelech specially in his defence recurs to this point with peculiar insistence: the only charge, as it appears, to which Ahimelech deigned to reply, “Did I then begin to enquire of God for him?” (1 Samuel 22:15).

Verse 14

(14) Who is so faithful among all thy servants?—The words of the high priest were quiet and dignified, and no doubt spoke the general sentiments of the people respecting David. What he—the guardian of the sanctuary—had done, he had done as a matter of course for one so closely related to the king—for one, too, ever loyal and devoted as David had ever proved himself.

Verse 15

(15) Did I then begin to enquire?—The English translation of the Hebrew here would imply that David had on many previous occasions received through him (the high priest) Divine directions from the Urim and Thummim. “Did I that day begin to enquire?” Abarbanel gives an alternative rendering: “That was the first day that I enquired of God for him, and I did not know that it was displeasing to thee.” Another rendering is: “Did I enquire?” in a negative sense, suggesting the reply “No, I did not.” On the whole, the alternative rendering suggested by Abarbanel, quoted in Lange, is the best: “That was the first day, &c.” And the reason why Ahimelech allowed the sacred Urim to be consulted was that he supposed David was come (as he represented) on a mission direct from King Saul. Surely, thought the blameless high priest, I never supposed my king would have been wroth with me for that.

If we render as in the English Version, which has the support of many scholars and versions, the only possible explanation of the words, “Did I that day begin to enquire?” is to suppose that David had been in the habit of consulting the Urim on special occasions for the king. The king, when there was a king in Israel, it is nearly certain, alone had this right. The Talmud teaching here is most definite; and it is a point in which the Talmud tradition may be looked on as authoritative. “The Rabbis have taught—How were the Urim and Thummim oracularly consulted? The king or the chief of the legislative administration, who alone had the privilege of consulting the Urim, stood facing the priest, and the priest was facing the Shekinah and the ‘Shem-hammephorash,’ the ineffable name deposited with the Urim within the breastplate.”—Treatise Yoma, fol. 73, Colossians 1:2.

Verse 17

(17) The footmen.—“Footmen,” literally runners. These “guards,” or “lictors,” were men who ran by the royal chariot as an escort. They are still the usual attendants of any great man in the East. From long habit they were able to maintain a great speed for a long time. (See 1 Samuel 8:11, where Samuel tells the children of Israel how the king of the future, whom they asked for, would take some of them to “run before his chariot.” See, too, for an example of the power of running in old times, 1 Kings 18:46, when Elijah outstripped the chariot of Ahab.)

But the servants of the king would not put forth their hand.—“And thus they were more faithful to Saul than if they had obeyed his order, which was against the commandment of the Lord, whose servant the king was no less than they.”—Wordsworth.

Verse 18

(18) And Doeg the Edomite . . . fell upon the priests, and slew on that day fourscore and five persons.—No doubt, assisted by his own attached servants, Doeg carried out this deed of unexampled barbarity. For this act the Edomite servant of Saul has been execrated in the most ancient Jewish writings perhaps above any other of the famous wicked men who meet us in the Holy Scriptures. For instance, we read in the Babylonian Talmud how “Doeg the Edomite, after his massacre of the priests, was encountered by three destructive demons. One deprived him of his learning (concerning which see above, in Note on 1 Samuel 22:9), a second burned his soul, and a third scattered his dust in the synagogues”—Treatise Sanhedrin, fol. 106, Colossians 2:0. The Babylonian Talmud has a still more curious comment on the iniquity of Doeg, in which David is bitterly reproached by the Most High for being the cause of Doeg’s great sin and its terrible consequences. “Rav Yehudah recorded that Rav had said . . . The Holy One, blessed be He! had said to David, How long shall this iniquity cling to thee? Through thee the priests of Nob were slain; through thee Doeg the Edomite became a reprobate; and through thee Saul and his three sons were slain.”—Treatise Sanhedrin, fol. 95, Colossians 1:2.

A linen ephod.—The ordinary priests appear to have worn a linen over garment, similar in form to the high priestly cape or ephod. They came probably from Nob to Gibeah (the distance was not great) clad in their official costume, out of respect to the king who sent for them. The murderous deed assumes a still more awful character when we recollect who were the victims—the priests of the living God, clad in their white ministering robes!

Verse 19

(19) Nob, the city of the priests, smote he.—The vengeful king, not content with striking the men, the heads of the priestly houses, in his insane fury proceeded to treat the innocent city where they resided as a city under the ban “cherem,” as though it had been polluted with idolatry and wickedness, and therefore devoted to utter destruction. The only crime of Nob had been that its venerable chief citizen, Ahimelech the priest, had shown kindness to David, whom Saul hated with a fierce mad hate. In 2 Samuel 21:1 we read of a scourge in the form of a famine afflicting Israel during three years. The cause of this God-sent calamity is told us in the Lord’s words: “It was for Saul and his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites.” Now, this slaughter of the Gibeonites—evidently a dark crime—is nowhere specially related in the Old Testament books. Was it not this awful sequel to the crime of Gibeah, where the hapless Ahimelech and his eighty-five priests were murdered, that was referred to in the above mentioned passage—the awful sequel when Saul smote Nob, the city of the priests, with the sword? In that terrible catastrophe, were not the Gibeonites, hewers of wood and drawers of water for the Tabernacle (see Joshua 9:21-27), slain? for we read how in the destruction of the ill fated city men, women and children, and all cattle perished. “Only once before had so terrible a calamity befallen the sons of Aaron, and that was when the Philistines destroyed Shiloh. But they were enemies, and had been provoked by the people bringing the Ark to battle; and even then the women and children seem to have escaped. It was left to the anointed king of Israel, who had himself settled the priests at Nob and restored Jehovah’s worship there, to perpetrate an act unparalleled in Jewish history for its barbarity.”—Dean Payne Smith.

Verse 20

(20) Abiathar.—Of those who dwelt at Nob, only one single priest, Abiathar, Ahimelech’s son, seems to have escaped this general massacre. It has been suggested that when his father and the whole body of priests went to Gibeah, in accordance with the summons of King Saul, Abiathar remained behind to perform the necessary functions in the sanctuary, and when he heard of the death of his father and his brother priests, he made his escape, and eventually joined David. The exact period of his coming to the exiled band under David is uncertain; in many of the recitals in this Book no note of time is given. It is, therefore, probable that the meeting and interview with David—related in 1 Samuel 22:20 and following verses—did not take place immediately after the massacre at Gibeah, nor even directly after the destruction of Nob. From the statement in 1 Samuel 22:6 of 1 Samuel 23:0, it would appear that Abiathar only joined David at Keilah. From that time, however, Abiathar, who became after his father’s death high priest, occupies an important place in the story of David’s life. Throughout his reign he continued his faithful friend, and seems to have been a worthy holder of his important office. The close of his life, however, was a melancholy one. In the troubles which arose about the succession, in the last days of David’s reign, he espoused the side of Adonijah, and was in consequence deposed by the successful Solomon from the high priesthood, and sent into banishment to Anathoth. (See 1 Kings 2:26.)

Verse 22

(22) When Doeg the Edomite was there.—The Talmudical tradition evidently pre-supposes that a bitter enmity existed between David and Saul’s too faithful friend Doeg. If the Rabbinical belief that the identity between the family servant, or steward, who accompanied the young man Saul on that journey when we first meet with him (see 1 Samuel 9:0) be accepted, this enmity would be partly accounted for. The Edomite Doeg, brought up with Saul in the family of Kish, no doubt was jealous for his master and his master’s house with the passionate jealousy we so often find in old servants. He would share and probably fan his royal master’s envy and fear respecting the brilliant young hero who was so rapidly supplanting Saul and Saul’s house in the affections of Israel. So when David, flying for his life from Saul, met Doeg at the Sanctuary of Nob, he was seized with grave misgivings as to what would happen; and now, after the terrible vengeance of Saul, seems to reproach himself with having in Doeg’s presence exposed the hapless priest Ahimelech to Saul’s furious anger.

The Talmud says the servant (1 Samuel 16:18) who first searched out and brought David to play to the sick king was Doeg, anxious to relieve his master’s sufferings, but curiously adds that even then the praises bestowed on David by Doeg were unreal: All the praises of David enumerated by Doeg in 1 Samuel 16:18 had a malicious object.”—Sanhedrin, fol. 93, Colossians 2:0.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 22". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-samuel-22.html. 1905.
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