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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 23

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary



(1 Samuel 23:1-28) David Saves Keilah.—He enquires of God by means of the Urim and Thummim, and leaves treacherous Keilah.—He sees Jonathan once more.—The Ziphites Betray him to Saul.—He is Saved by an Invasion of the Philistines.

Verse 1

(1) Then they told David. . . .—For this and like duties the prophet Gad (1 Samuel 22:5) had summoned David to return with his armed band to Judah. There was a great work ready to his hand in his own country at that juncture. Saul was becoming more and more neglectful of his higher duty—that of protecting his people; as time went on and his malady increased, his whole thoughts were concentrated on David’s imaginary crimes, and the history of the latter part of his reign is little more than a recital of his sad, bewildered efforts to compass the young hero’s destruction. The task of protecting the people from the constant marauding expeditions of the Philistines, and probably of the neighbouring nations, then was entrusted to David. To point this out to the son of Jesse was evidently the first great mission of Gad the seer. Samuel’s mind was, no doubt, busied in this matter. It is more than probable that Gad was first dispatched to join David at the instigation of the aged, but still mentally vigorous, prophet.

Keilah.—“This town lay in the lowlands of Judah, not far from the Philistine frontier, some miles south of Adullam, being perched on a steep hill overlooking the valley of Elah, not far from the thickets of Hareth” (Conder; Tent Life in Palestine).

Verse 2

(2) David enquired of the Lord.—The enquiry was not made of the priest wearing the ephod, by means of the Urim and Thummim, for, according to 1 Samuel 23:6, Abiathar, the high priest who succeeded the murdered Ahimelech, only joined David at Keilah, the citizens of which place were then asking for his aid against their foes. But Gad the prophet was with David, and the enquiry was made, no doubt, through him. We know that such enquiries were made through prophets, for we possess a detailed account of such an enquiry being made by Jehoshaphat of the prophet Micaiah (1 Kings 22:5; 1 Kings 22:7-8), in which passage the same formula is used as in this case. The Talmud too, when discussing the enquiries made through the Urim and Thummim, whilst dwelling on the greater weight of the decision pronounced by the sacred stones, assumes that questions were also asked through the prophets. “The decree pronounced by a prophet is revocable, but the decision of the Urim and Thummim is irrevocable.”—Treatise Yoma, fol. 73 Colossians 1:0.

Verse 3

(3) Here in Judah.—This does not imply that Keilah was out of the territory of Judah, but simply that the district in the neighbourhood round Keilah was at that time under Philistine domination. The open country in times of Philistine supremacy first fell under their control; their strong places, like Keilah, would resist for a much longer period.

Verse 4

(4) David enquired . . . yet again.—This second enquiry, made for the sake of inspiring his little army with confidence before embarking on the seemingly desperate attempt, was, as in the previous case mentioned in 1 Samuel 23:2, no doubt through the prophet Gad. Abiathar had not yet arrived with the ephod.

Verse 6

(6) With an ephod in his hand.—The difficulty-here with the version and commentators is that they failed to understand that enquiry of the Lord could be made in any other mode than through the Urim. (See Note above on 1 Samuel 23:2.) Saul in happier days, we know, enquired and received replies “through prophets,” for before he had recourse to forbidden arts we read how, in contrast evidently to other and earlier times, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets (1 Samuel 28:6). The LXX. here must have deliberately altered the Hebrew text, with the view of escaping what seemed to these translators a grave difficulty. They render. “And it came to pass, when Abiathar the son of Ahimelech fled to David, that he came down with David to Keilah, having an ephod in his hand,” thus implying that Abiathar had come down with David to Keilah, having joined him previously. The Hebrew text is, however, definite and clear, and tells us that Abiathar first joined David when he was at Keilah. But the difficulty which puzzled the LXX. and so many others vanishes when we remember that the enquiry of the Lord was not unfrequently made through the prophet; and this was evidently done by David through Gad, a famous representative of that order, in the case of the enquiry referred to in 1 Samuel 23:2; 1 Samuel 23:4 of this chapter.

Verse 7

(7) God hath delivered him into mine hand.—There was little chance, Saul knew, of his being able to capture or slay his foe when he was roaming at large through the desert and forests which lay to the south of Palestine, and which stretched far southward beyond the reach of any armed force that he could collect; but there was a hope of being able to compass his enemy’s destruction, either through treachery or a hand-to-hand encounter, in a confined space like a city with bars and gates, such as Keilah. Saul and his counsellors knew too well whom they had to deal with in the case of the citizens of that faithless, thankless city. It is strange, after all that had passed, that Saul could delude himself that his cause was the cause of God, and that David was the reprobate and rejected. The Hebrew word here is remarkable: God hath “repudiated or rejected him.” The LXX. renders “sold him” (into my hands).

Verse 8

(8) And Saul called all the people together.—Such a summons to war on the part of the sovereign has been always a royal right. The plea, of course, alleged for this “summons” was the necessity of an immediate national effort against the hereditary enemies of the people.

Verse 9

(9) Secretly practised mischief.—The idea of secrecy suggested in the English translation does not appear in the Hebrew; the accurate rendering would be, “was forging, or devising.” It is likely enough that Jonathan contrived to keep his friend informed of these Court plots against him.

Bring hither the ephod.—It is quite clear that a different method of enquiry was used by David on this occasion. In 1 Samuel 23:3-4 it is merely stated that he enquired of the Lord; here at Keilah his enquiry was prefaced, in 1 Samuel 23:6, by a definite statement that Abiathar the priest, with the ephod, had arrived here before he asked the question of God. The history tells us he directed Abiathar the priest to “bring hither the ephod,” thus pointedly connecting the enquiry in some way with the ephod. In this ephod were set twelve precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes. The names of the tribes were engraved on these gems, the Rabbis tell us, along with some other sacred words. On important solemn occasions—it seems perfectly certain during a considerable time—that these stones were allowed by the providence of God, who worked so many marvels for His people, to be used as oracles. It has been already stated that according to a most ancient tradition the use of the sacred gems was restricted to the high priest, who could only call out the supernatural power at the bidding of the king or the head of the State for the time being (such an one as Joshua, for instance). The Divine response given by the sacred gems seems to have been the visible response to earnest, faithful prayer.

The common belief is that the ephod stones gave their answer to the royal and high priestly questions by some peculiar shining. But a passage (quoted at length in the Excursus M on the Urim and Thummim at the end of this Book) from the Babylonian Talmud (Treatise Yoma)—apparently little known—tells us that the Rabbis had two other explanations traditionally handed down from the days when the ephod and its holy gemmed breastplate was questioned on solemn occasions by the high priest.

Verse 11

(11) Will the men of Keilah deliver me up into his hand? will Saul come down, as thy servant hath heard?—There is a curious inversion of David’s questions here. In their logical sequence, of course the second, respecting Saul’s coming down, should have been put first, for the men of Keilah could not have delivered him into Saul’s hands if Saul had not come down. Dean Payne Smith suggests that in David’s earnest prayer “his two questions are put inversely to the logical order, but in accordance with the relative importance in his mind.” The Dean thinks “that when the ephod was brought forward, the questions were of course put, and replied to in their logical sequence.

“And the Lord said, He will come down.”
“ And the Lord said, They will deliver thee up.”

Thus the answer of the Urim and Thummin was given to the questions in their logical order. The Talmud has an interesting comment here. In consulting the Urim and Thummim, the enquirer is not to ask about two things at a time, for if he does, he will be answered about one only, and only about the one he first uttered, as it is said (1 Samuel 23:11-12). David asked first “Will the men of Keilah deliver me into his hands?” and then he asked also “Will Saul come down?” The answer was to the second query. “And the Lord said He will come down.” But it has just been asserted that the enquirer will be answered only about the one thing he first uttered. To this it is replied, David framed his enquiry not in good order, but the reply of the Urim and Thummim was as though the enquiry had been in proper order. Hence when David became aware that his question had not been put properly, he repeated it again in better order, as it has been said, “Then said David, Will the men of Keilah deliver me and my men into the hand of Saul? And the Lord said, They will deliver thee up.”—Treatise Yoma, fol. 73, Colossians 1:0.

Verse 13

(13) Which were about six hundred.—This is the only note we have in this part of the narrative of the rapid increase of the number of “men-at-arms” who joined David.

Whithersoever they could.—That is, the armed camp of David was pitched without any fixed plan or aim. Probably the force was marched in the direction of any Philistine raid, and it carried on thus on behalf of Israel a perpetual border warfare.

Verse 14

(14) The wilderness of Ziph.—This wilderness probably lies between Hebron and En-gedi. Some of these “stations” in the wanderings of the future king are only doubtfully identified. Cowper’s musical—though perhaps, according to our recent canons of taste, old-fashioned—lines well describe the Psalmist-king’s weary wanderings during this portion of his chequered career:—

“See Judah’s promised king bereft of all,
Driven out an exile from the face of Saul.
To distant caves the lonely wanderer flies,
To seek that peace a tyrant’s frown denies.
His soul exults; hope animates his lays;
The sense of mercy kindles into praise;
And wilds familiar with the lion s roar
Ring with ecstatic sounds unheard before.”


Saul sought him every day, but God delivered him.—This is merely a general remark, and intended to cover a long period of time, including the remaining portion of Saul’s reign, during which David was perpetually exposed to Saul’s attempts to destroy him. It quietly mentions also that though Saul was armed with all the power of the king in Israel, he was powerless, for the invisible King of Israel declined to give this hated David into his hand.

Verse 15

(15) In a wood.—Some have understood this as a proper name, Horesh. There is no trace of the wood now. The land lost its ornament of trees centuries ago, through the desolating hand of man.—Van der Velde.

Verse 16

(16) And Jonathan Saul’s son arose, and went to David.—Some have wished to show that the account of the last interview between the friends really belongs to the secret meeting between David and Jonathan recounted in 1 Samuel 20:0, and that it has got transposed; but such a view is quite untenable, for the narrative here is circumstantial, and even mentions the scene of the interview—“the wood,” or, less probable, the town named “Horesh.” The expression “strengthened his hand in God” is added by the narrator to show how sorely tried was the king of the future at this juncture, notwithstanding that so many gallant spirits rallied round him. The determined and relentless hostility of the king of the land, his sovereign, and once his friend—the apparent hopelessness of his struggle—the cruel ingratitude of whole bodies of his fellow countrymen, such as the men of Ziph—his homeless, outlawed condition: all these things naturally weighed upon the nervous and enthusiastic temperament of David, which was soon depressed. His sad forebodings in his desolateness and loneliness at this time are breathed forth in not a few of the Psalms which tradition ascribes to him. At such a juncture the warm sympathy, the steady onlook to a sunnier future of one like Jonathan was a real help to David. Jonathan was far-sighted enough when David’s fortunes were at their lowest ebb to look confidently forward to a time when all these thick dark clouds of trouble should have passed away. Jonathan, we know (1 Samuel 20:14-15) possessed sufficient confidence in David’s future fortune even to ask the hunted exile to remember him, the prince, with kindness when he should have come into his kingdom. Such warm sympathy, such glowing trustful words, we may well imagine, raised the spirits of the outlaw, and gave him new courage to face the grave difficulties of his dangerous position.

Verse 17

(17) And I shall be next unto thee.—To us—who read a few pages on in the record of these times how this same generous, loving friend found a grave on Mount Gilboa instead of a home with David, whom he admired with so ungrudging an admiration—these words of Jonathan possess a pathetic interest of their own. That brave, romantic career was nearly run when he met David for the last time in the woods of Ziph. As far as we can judge, if Jonathan had lived he would have certainly ceded any rights he had to the throne of his father Saul in favour of David, unlike that other comparatively unknown son of Saul, Ishbosheth, who set up as a rival claimant to the son of Jesse. But his generosity was not to be exposed to any such severe test, and David was spared the presence of such a rival as the gallant and gifted Jonathan would assuredly have been to him.

And that also Saul my father knoweth.—It is very likely by this time that the circumstance of Samuel’s mysterious anointing of the son of Jesse years before at Bethlehem had become known to Saul. Now that David had been openly proclaimed a public enemy, and that the king had repeatedly and openly sought his life, there was no reason for any concealment. No doubt, by this time very many in Israel looked on him as the anointed successor of Saul. The covenant alluded to in the next verse was, of course, the old covenant of eternal friendship which they had made when they parted outside Gibeah at the New Moon feast, as we find related at length in 1 Samuel 20:0.

After this meeting David never looked on Jonathan’s face in life again.

“Oh, heart of fire! misjudged by wilful man,

Thou flower of Jesse’s race!

What woe was thine when thou and Jonathan

Last greeted face to face!

He doomed to die, thou on us to impress
The portent of a blood-stained holiness.”

Lyra Apostolica.

Verse 19

(19) The Ziphites.—The words of these Ziphites, and the king’s grateful reply, show that they were very warm adherents of Saul, entirely devoted to his fortunes, and well aware of his passionate desire to be rid of David.

On the south of Jeshimon.—Jeshimon is not the name of a place, but it signifies a “desert” or “solitude” (see Isaiah 43:19). It is used here for the “dreary desert which extends between the Dead Sea and the Hebron Mountains. . . . It is a plateau of white chalk, terminated on the east by cliffs, which rise vertically from the Dead Sea shore to a height of above 3,000 feet. The scenery is barren and wild beyond all description.”—Conder: Tent Life in Palestine. This is the wilderness of Judea spoken of in Matthew 3:1. David was just then encamped with some of his followers in some thickets bordering on this trackless desert. The Ziphites evidently knew the country well, not only the hills, but the solitary wastes stretching out at its base. They were willing and ready, if Saul’s trained soldiers marched into their neighbourhood, to act as their guides in the pursuit or the famous outlaw and his men. They kept their promise faithfully, and in the pursuit which followed the arrival of Saul and his forces, David was in extreme danger of capture. The news that the Philistines had invaded the territories of Saul in great force hastily summoned the king from the district, and David was thus saved from a destruction which appeared to be imminent.

Verse 23

(23) Throughout all the thousands of Judah.—The “thousands” (Heb., alaphim), as we learn from Numbers 1:16; Numbers 10:4, were the greater tribal divisions. Judah was especially mentioned by Saul as being “the tribe of David,” and where he found probably the larger number of his adherents. It was too, from its importance, the typical tribe, certainly in the southern part of Canaan.

Verse 24

(24) In the wilderness of Maon.—Still further to the south. The name of this district is still preserved in the village or small town of Main, which is built on a prominent conical hill.

In the plain.—This accurate description was, no doubt, inserted by the compiler of these books, owing to the intense interest which the wanderings of this favourite hero and king excited among his countrymen. We can well imagine how gladly the dwellers in Judea, especially in later days—after the glorious reign of David had changed the tribes struggling with the surrounding petty nations for very existence into a great and renowned nation—would trace out the itinerary of the great king as he fled for his life before Saul. Is it too much to assume that each of these spots, which to us is little more than a hard, dry name, for a long period were the resort of reverent and curious pilgrims, anxious to gaze on localities made sacred by the weary wanderings and the hair-breadth escapes of the glorious king of Israel?

The plain.—Literally, the Arabah, the desert track which extends along the Jordan Valley from the Dead Sea to the Lake of Gennesareth; it is now called El-Ghor. The term is also applied to the desolate valley which lies between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Akaba. Stanley, in his Sinai and Palestine, has given a picturesque description of these weird districts.

Verse 26

(26) The mountain.—Conder, in his Tent Life in Palestine, identifies this spot with high probability. Indeed, his whole book is most instructive and trustworthy, and to the reader interested in these scenes in the life of David, as well as in those other many events which have taken place in the Storied Land, his book will form an admirable guide.

Verse 27

(27) The Philistines have invaded the land.—This, as Lange well observes, was “God’s plan to save David.” The Philistines had probably availed themselves of the opportunity which Saul’s withdrawal of his forces southward to surround the armed band of David had given them, and were invading in force the more northern provinces.

Verse 28

(28) Sela-hammahlekoth.—Literally, as in the margin of our Bibles, the rock (or, still better, the cliff) of divisions. Other scholars, with greater reason, prefer the derivation from a Hebrew word signifying to be smooth—the cliff of smoothness: that is, of slipping away or escaping. Ewald rather fancifully interprets the term as the “Cliff of Destiny or of Fate.”

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 23". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-samuel-23.html. 1905.
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