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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 21

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-15

III. David’s flight to Nob to the high-priest Ahimelech and to Gath to king Achish

1 Samuel 21:1-15 (2–16)

1Then came David [And D. came] to Nob to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech was afraid at the meeting of David [Ahimelech went frightened to meet David]1 and said unto him, Why art thou alone and no man with thee? And David 2said unto Ahimelech the priest, The king hath commanded me a business and hath said unto me, Let no man know any thing of the business2 whereabout I send thee and what [which] I have commanded thee; and I have appointed3 my servants 3[the young men] to such and such4 a place. Now, therefore, what is under thy 4hand? give me five loaves of bread in mine hand, or what there is present. And the priest answered David and said, There is no common bread under mine hand, but there is hallowed [holy] bread; if the young men have kept themselves at least5 5from women. And David answered the priest and said unto him, Of a truth6 women have been kept from us about these three days since I came out, and the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in a manner common, yea, though 6it were sanctified this day in the vessel.7 So [And] the priest gave him hallowed [holy] bread, for there was no bread there but the show-bread, that was taken from before the Lord [Jehovah], to put hot bread in the day when it was taken away.8 7Now [And] a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day detained before the Lord [Jehovah], and his name was Doeg an [the] Edomite, the chiefest 8of the herdsmen9 that belonged to Saul [of Saul]. And David said to Ahimelech, And is there not10 here under thy hand spear or sword? for I have neither brought my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste. 9And the priest said, The sword of Goliath the Philistine whom thou slewest in the valley of Elah, behold it is here [om. here] wrapped in a cloth [the garment] behind the ephod; if thou wilt take that, take it, for there is no other save that here. And David said, There is none like that; give it me.11

10And David arose and fled that day for fear of12 Saul, and went to Achish the 11king of Gath. And the servants of Achish said unto him, Is not this David the king of the land? did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul 12hath slain his thousands and David his ten thousands? And David laid up these 13words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath. And he changed13 his behaviour [understanding] before them [in their eyes] and feigned himself mad [acted like a madman] in their hands, and scrabbled [scrawled]13 on 14the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard. Then said Achish [And Achish said] unto his servants, Lo, ye see the man is mad; wherefore 15then [om. then] have ye brought [do ye bring] him to me? Have I need of mad men, that ye have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? shall this fellow come into14 my house?


1 Samuel 21:2-10 [Eng. A. V. 1–9]. David flees to Nob to the high-priest Ahimelech.

1 Samuel 21:2 (1). According to 1 Samuel 22:11, 1 Samuel 22:19, 32; 2 Samuel 21:16; Isaiah 10:32; Nehemiah 11:32, the name of this refuge of David is Nob. (The Heb. form here and 1 Samuel 22:9 is with ה local (with short vowel) after a verb of coming, Ges. § 90, 2.) According to 1 Samuel 22:19 Nob was at this time a priestly city. Here at this time was the tabernacle, which, as we under David and Solomon find it in Gibeon, was probably carried thither in consequence of the destruction of Nob by Saul (1 Samuel 22:0). The position of Nob is no longer determinable—only from Isaiah 10:28-33 we know that it was near Jerusalem on the road northward between Anathoth (Anata) and Jerusalem in the tribe of Benjamin (Nehemiah 11:32). According to Jerome (on Isa. l. c.), in whose time nothing remained of the place, Jerusalem was visible from it. Whether it stood on the site of the present village El Isawieh, between Anata and Jerusalem, about two and a half miles from the latter, and as far south-east of Gibeah of Saul (Tuleil el Ful), which Tobler (Topog. von Jerus. II. 719 sq.) describes, as Kiepert (Map to Rob.’s Researches) and Raumer (Paläst. p. 215, 4 ed.) [and Grove] suppose, cannot be decided; the objection is that Jerusalem is not visible from this place.15—See Herz. R.-E. and Winer s. v.—Thither David betook himself, as the nearest place of refuge from Gibeah, where he might for the present find shelter and concealment with the priests. From 1 Samuel 22:10-14 [15] it appears, though it is not mentioned here, that he wished in this holy place to inquire God’s will concerning his further way. He wished besides to provide himself with arms and food for-his continued flight. His stay there was therefore intended to be temporary, as his whole conduct shows. We may assume that he stood in intimate relations with the priests there, and especially with their head, from whom therefore he expected not only the announcement of the divine will, but also consolatory and strengthening words.—Ahimelech is the same person with Ahiah (1 Samuel 14:3), son of Ahitub (1 Samuel 22:9; 1 Samuel 22:20), the elder brother of Ichabod, son of Phinehas, son of Eli, therefore great-grandson of Eli. His son was the high-priest Abiathar (1 Samuel 30:7), with whom he is confounded in Mar 2:26.16 The designation “priest” here=high-priest, as in 1 Samuel 14:3.—He is frightened at David’s appearing alone, without retinue or arms; therefore he went to meet him fearfully, supposing such an appearance to be a sign of impending misfortune. We must presume that he knew of Saul’s hatred to David, but not of the most recent occurrences. David must have feared that if he told the high-priest of these, the latter, for fear of bringing Saul’s wrath on himself, would refuse him refuge. Therefore he has recourse here again to a lie; he pretends that the king has given him a secret commission, of which no one is to know, and represents to the high-priest that he has appointed his men some place at which to meet him. Maurer: “I ordered my servants to go to a certain place.” (יוֹדַעְתִּי is Po. of ידע, “to know”=“appoint.”) “At such and such a place,” comp. Ruth 4:1. Clericus remarks that he really took some faithful followers with him, at least to the Philistine border, and during his stay in Nob assigned them to some place, where he would meet them, and Keil supposes that he left his few attendants (1 Samuel 21:3 [2]) near by, in order to speak privately with the high-priest; but against this is the fact that in his flight, after his interview without witness with Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:0.), there is no mention of any attendant, nor afterwards in his flight to Gath. He seeks to quiet Ahimelech’s apprehension by the double statement that his commission is secret, and that he has appointed his people a place to stay. Clericus’ remark: “all these things are inventions,” is to be accepted of everything, not merely of his commission from the king.—[But in Mark 2:25-26, it is asserted that there were men with David, and it is in itself natural and probable that a man of his high official position and popularity should find some willing to share his flight.—Tr.]

1 Samuel 21:4 (3). Now, what thou hast in hand, the five loaves, give me, a request in keeping with David’s hurry and eagerness. (מַה־יֵּשׁ is not a question, which would require something like לֶאֱבל (Then.) to follow.) He asks for five loaves with apparent reference to his retinue, but really for his own needs, since his way would lead him into the wilderness, and he must avoid meeting men.

1 Samuel 21:5 (4). No common bread—but holy bread have I here, answers Ahimelech. The five loaves which Ahimelech then had were a part of the twelve loaves which were laid up in the tabernacle, as the offering of the Twelve Tribes to the Lord, before his face, and thence called “Bread of presence, show-bread” (Exodus 25:30; Exodus 35:13; Exodus 39:36; Exodus 40:23). They had just been taken away (1 Samuel 21:7 [6]) to be replaced by fresh ones (Leviticus 24:8). The legal precept was that this bread, as something most holy, could be eaten only by the priests in the holy place (Leviticus 24:9). Ahimelech’s answer to David therefore means that if he is here to make an exception to this rule, he must at least insist on ceremonial purity as a condition.—If the men have only kept themselves from women. See Leviticus 15:18. Thereby the principle of the legal prescription of levitical purity was satisfied, inasmuch as the circumstances—namely, the lack of ordinary bread, the haste which the alleged important commission of the king required, the duty of aiding in its execution as much as possible, and the pious behaviour of David in inquiring the Lord’s will at the holy place—seemed to justify a deviation from the rule concerning the eating of the show-bread. But it is inferring too much from this isolated case when Clericus remarks: “It is clear from Ahimelech’s demand as to women that the eating of the consecrated bread was not absolutely forbidden to the laity in case of urgent necessity.” See Matthew 12:3, where the Lord uses this example to justify divergence from the letter of the Law when its outward observance would violate the inner spirit of the Law and hinder the fulfilment of sacred duties to one’s self and one’s neighbor.

1 Samuel 21:6 (5). In David’s answer the introductory “but” (כִּי אִם) relates to the negative in Ahimelech’s last words: “they are not unclean, but;” we may therefore render “rather” [Eng. A. V. “of a truth.”] David affirms the purity of his men and of himself in this regard: “Women have been kept from us.” The following words from “since I came out” to “in the vessel” present many difficulties. The “came out” may be connected with the preceding or the following context. In favor of the former it may be said that it naturally connects itself with the phrase “yesterday and the day before” [= about these three days] as an exacter statement of time; David says: “this abstinence has existed from the day of my departure till now.” In fact this connection is necessary in order to establish the assertion that the men had refrained from women since “yesterday and the day before,” for from the day of departure it could not be otherwise. S. Schmid: “in the words ‘yesterday and the day before’ David seems to refer to his three days’ hiding in the field or in Bethlehem.” Further we have to consider the meaning of the words “vessel” (כְּלִי) and “way” (דֶּרֶךְ). As to the former, the reference here to purity of body does not justify us in understanding it figuratively of the body, as σκεῦος in 2 Corinthians 4:7; 1 Thessalonians 4:4 (Ewald), for the word never has this sense in Hebrew literature. Bunsen: “that is certainly not Hebrew usage.” Keil, expressly departing from the usual meaning “vessels,” takes the word (from Deuteronomy 22:5) in the sense of “clothing,” and with reference to Leviticus 15:18 (on the defilement of “garments” by seminal discharge) makes David say: “The garments of my men were clean.” But the word cannot mean “garment” in Deuteronomy 22:5 (where it is in the Sing.); it never means garment as such, as we should here have to take it in the supposed reference to defilement by seminal flow. But what would be the bearing of such a remark after David had already affirmed that, in consequence of their removal from women, no such defilement could be found in them?—We must do what we can with the usual meaning of the word “implement, vessel.” The “vessels of the men” = apart from their arms, everything that pertained to personal preparation for the journey; see Jeremiah 46:19, כְּלֵי גוֹלָה, “exile-gear,” [Eng. A. V. “furnish thyself to go into captivity.”] So S. Schmid: “the reference is to packs and sacks for food for the journey.” Such leathern and other articles might as well as persons become unclean, according to the Law, Leviticus 11:32 sq.; Leviticus 13:47 sq. Comp. Sommer, bibl. Abhandlung, “Rein und Unrein” [Clean and Unclean], p. 204, 211, 223. The gear or baggage of the men, as well as their persons, might be unclean. But the holy bread, which even exceptionally could be eaten only by levitically clean persons, could not be carried in vessels which were legally unclean. David therefore says that the vessels of his men were holy at starting, in order to assure Ahimelech that there was not the slightest legal objection to their taking the bread, nothing unclean either in their persons or in their baggage. So the Vulg.: “and the vessels (vasa) of the young men were holy.” S. Schmid: “David means to say: since we have just left home, whence people usually take clean things, you may readily suppose that no impurity has been contracted; it would be different if we were returning home from a journey, where on the way, especially in war uncleanness might be contracted by the blood of enemies, or otherwise.”—The rendering of the Sept. “all the young men” (כֹּל for כְּלֵי), adopted by Thenius as a necessary emendation, is suspicious from its easiness, and must be rejected, since we can derive a good sense from the text.—We have next to examine the meaning of the word “way.”17 In the first place, no explanation is allowable which does not maintain the reference to the subject in hand, namely, the showbread. We reject therefore those explanations in which this word is made to mean the way in which David was going, and the last word (כְּלִי) = “gear.” Vulg.: “and this way is unclean, but itself also will be sanctified to-day in the vessels.” So the Sept.—Maurer: “I am sure that it (the way) is sanctified to-day,” etc. De Wette: “and if the way is unholy, it is to-day sanctified by the vessels.” Dathe and Schulz: “though the journey is undertaken on profane business.” O. v. Gerlach and Keil: “though it is an unholy way that we go, namely, in performing the king’s commission.” From the connection one does not at all see how the way, or the undertaking is unholy, profane. To supply: “the way has no religious object” (O. v. Gerl.), “ordinary business, not ecclesiastical” (Ew.), is to insert a new idea into the words. Nor does the connection warrant O. v. Gerl. and Keil (taking כְּלִי as Sing. in the sense of “instrument, organ”) in making David say: “The way was holy before God, since it was through necessity trodden by him, God’s chosen servant, the upholder of God’s true kingdom in Israel, the way was sanctified through him as instrument, as ambassador of the Lord’s Anointed.” Thenius rightly says that the words must contain a remark by which the priest is to be induced to give the bread, and that it is important to keep in mind the Sing. “vessel,” which has not always been regarded. Clericus is quite correct in saying: “way is everywhere used for the manner of doing a thing.” But he is wrong in taking “way” = “somehow” (aliquo modo), supplying “bread” [as Eng. A. V.], and, with the remark that otherwise there is no sense in the passage, explaining: “This holy bread, removed from the presence of the Lord, had become in some sort (aliquo modo) profane, because other (bread) was to be substituted for it that day, and this was now sanctified in the vessels in which it was to be placed, that it might be carried into the holy place, and set on the table;” this is an arbitrary and violent treatment of the words, and moreover, gives no clear sense—apart from the fact that it is not true that the bread, when taken from the table, thereby becomes profane, since, even when so removed, it remains the consecrated bread, for the eating of which levitical purity is a necessary condition. So the translation of S. Schmid “but itself (the bread) is of the nature of profane (bread), yet it will be holily carried in the vessel,” is neither in accordance with the words nor at all intelligible. The word “way” = conduct, mode of procedure, here refers to the procedure demanded by David, by which the high-priest was, contrary to the legal prescription, to give the showbread to persons who were not priests; “though it is an unholy procedure, yet to-day it becomes holy through the instrument.” The Heb. word (כִּלִי “instrument, organ”) is so used of men also, Genesis 45:5; Isaiah 13:5; Isaiah 32:7; Jeremiah 50:25; comp. σκεῦος, Acts 9:15. The instrument is here the sacred person of the priest, Ahimelech himself, as bearer of the high-priestly dignity. So also Thenius. The “to-day” points with emphasis to the special circumstances of that day, which induced Ahimelech to grant David’s request. The “yea, verily” (אַף כִּי, so 1 Samuel 14:30) is in keeping with the excitement with which David speaks, in order to persuade the high-priest.

1 Samuel 21:7 (6). The priest yields to David’s representation, and gives him the “holy.” Lack of other bread is expressly said to be the reason of his compliance, he departed from the legal prescription through sheer necessity only. It seems to be mentioned as an alleviating fact, that the bread had already been taken away from before the Lord, having remained on the table in the holy place seven days according to the Law (Leviticus 24:6-9); “to-day” was the “day of removal,” that is, when it was exchanged for fresh bread. It is probable that in the “today” of 1 Samuel 21:6 (5) there is a reference to this “day of removal.”

1 Samuel 21:8 (7). Mention of a servant of Saul, Doeg the Edomite, which brings the narrative into pragmatic connection with 1 Samuel 22:9 sq., and at the same time exhibits the divine providence, by which David’s lie, intended to conceal his real position and flight from Saul, proved useless, rather led to the destruction of Nob and its inhabitants. A man of the servants of Saul.—These words stand significantly first, in order to show that, in spite of David’s trouble to conceal his way from Saul, the latter received information of his visit to this very place. “Detained, shut in (נֶעְצָר), before the Lord,” not continens se, “lingering, remaining” (S. Schmid); that is, detained for some religious or ceremonial purpose, housed at the holy place, whether as a proselyte received by circumcision, or in fulfilment of a vow, or received for a purification-offering, or on account of a temporary Nazarite-vow, or for suspected leprosy (Leviticus 13:4); in any case, as one “who was committed to the custody of the priests ministering in the tabernacle” (Cler.). Vulg.: “Within the tabernacle.” His name was Doeg, the Edomite, “he had probably come over to Saul in his war with Edom,” (Ew.).18 His official position was “Ruler over the herdsmen of Saul.” Vulgate: “Most powerful of Saul’s herdsmen,” and so all ancient versions except Sept., which has wrongly νέμων τὰς ἡμιόνους “tending the mules of Saul.” (רֹעֶה אֶת־פִּרְדֵי שּ׳). On account of the importance which still attached in Saul’s time to the possession of herds as a family-power, Doeg’s position as Overseer of Herds and Herdsmen must have been a prominent one.

1 Samuel 21:9 (8). Besides food, David needed arms. That in such pressing danger he fled without arms is to be explained on the ground that he “feared that he would be recognized, or, as an armed man concealing himself, be suspected” (Cler.)—or that he fled in great haste. This last is the reason he gives to Ahimelech, carrying out his pretence about the royal commission: “I did not bring my sword and weapons, because the king’s business was hasty,” literally “pressed” (נָחוּץ), stronger than “pressing.” Vulg.: “the king’s word was urgent;” Sept.: “in haste” (κατὰ σπουδήν).—“Hast thou not here spear or sword?” a question which, like the demand for bread above, clearly reveals in part David’s haste, in part his anxiety to conceal by a light tone the pressing danger of his situation.

1 Samuel 21:10 (9). The priest answers by referring to the sword of Goliath, with which David had slain him in the Terebinth-valley (1 Samuel 17:2). To preserve it from dust, moisture and rust it was carefully wrapped in a garment or cloth, and kept in the holy place behind the priestly ephod (not hung on a nail (Ew.), but in a safe and visible place). How it came hither, David having carried Goliath’s armor to his tent, that is, taken possession of it (1 Samuel 17:54), is nowhere said. There is no contradiction of the earlier statement; the apparent difference is removed “by the perfectly natural supposition that David carried home Goliath’s armor except his sword, or that this sword was afterwards deposited for safe keeping in the national sanctuary” (Then.) See on 1 Samuel 17:54. (בַּזֶּה for בָּזֶה, here only.)—David here declared the particular value of this sword for him, thinking, undoubtedly, of its importance for his whole life in connection with that deed of heroism. He thus received not merely a weapon, but, by the divine arrangement, “a holy weapon, promising victory” (O. v. Gerl.).

1 Samuel 21:11-15 [10–15]. Provided with arms and bread David flees to Gath to the Philistine king Achish.

1 Samuel 21:11 (10). The that day shows that David stayed in Nob only long enough to consult the oracle and procure arms and food; the same day that he arrived he continued his flight. We do not know whether he had already determined to go to Philistia, or now first suddenly resolved on it, possibly in consequence of Doeg’s unexpected appearance. The words he fled before Saul do not mean that this flight began with his departure from Nob (Keil), for in the narrative of his parting from Jonathan (and indeed before that) we see him in flight. The expression “from before Saul” indicates the significance of his further flight in respect to Saul as his king and lord, in that he now entirely abandons actual subjection to him, appearing as a deserter to king Achish and into a foreign country. This expression does not require us to regard this section (1 Samuel 21:11-15 [10–15]) as coming from another source and here arbitrarily interpolated (Thenius). Even supposing (as is possible) that the section is from another source than the preceding, in which not the account of Saul’s schemes and David’s flight from the beginning is given, but only this flight to Philistia, it does not appear that the words “David fled that day from Saul” are an arbitrary interpolation. However, this opinion rests on the view that the flight here is the same as that in chap. 27, only in the form of a popular story, and here inappositely inserted, while the correct recension is given in 1 Samuel 27:0, where it is suitably put in David’s time of extremest need towards the end of his fugitive wandering (Then.). But the difference of the circumstances is an objection to identifying this flight with that in chap. 27.—especially that here David goes to the Philistines alone and tries for some time to gain a safe residence by feigning madness, while there [ch. 27] he goes with his family and a numerous retinue, and gains the favor of the Philistine king by numerous military undertakings and expeditions. Nor can it be admitted that the narrative in 1 Samuel 21:11-15 [10–15] is historically improbable, and therefore has no historical value. It is said that David would not in the beginning of his flight have taken the step of going over to the Philistines, which was possible only in extremest necessity; but, we answer, the expression “extremest necessity” is a very indefinite one, and further, as appears from the connection, David’s inner excitement, consequent on Saul’s enduring murderous hate and present intense rage, from which he could never feel safe in his own land, made his need and danger seem to him so great and pressing, that a flight over the border cannot appear in the least historically untrustworthy. He thought that appearing as a deserter he would be safest with Saul’s enemy. That is psychologically easily intelligible. But, as he could not even thus mollify the hatred and suspicion of the Philistines, he was obliged to play the madman; nor does this bring him security, his stay is a very short one,—this is all truly historical, these are traits of real life, which oppose the supposition that we here have an improbable unhistorical narration. As to the objection from Goliath’s sword, that, as well-known to the Philistines, it would certainly have betrayed David, Nägelsbach justly remarks (Herz. XIII. 403), that it is said in 1 Samuel 21:9 only that David took it from Nob, not that he carried it to Gath.19 He needed a weapon immediately for the long and possibly dangerous road to the Philistine border; on the way he might provide himself with other arms, so that, if he needed weapons on the other side, he might not betray himself by the sword of Goliath.—In the title to Psalms 34:0. the Philistine king is called Abimelech, which along with Achish was the standing official name of the Philistine princes of Gath (comp. Genesis 26:1).

1 Samuel 21:12 [11]. The courtiers soon recognize the fugitive, though some time had elapsed since his victorious combat with Goliath. Let the situation be considered: David must have been an object of astonishment, and his appearance as fugitive and deserter an object of wonder to the Philistines, who knew what he had done for his country by that heroic exploit. Hence first, such talk, as is here narrated, about him (אֵלָיו [Eng. A. V. “unto him”]), which phrase from the connection (their thoughts and talk naturally turning on David) refers to David, not to Achish.20Is this not David, the king of the land?—This question exhibits the great impression which David’s exploit had made on the Philistines in their ideas concerning his position in his nation and country. They call him king of the land “because David had appeared as such in taking up Goliath’s challenge, and had thrown Saul entirely into the shade” (Then.).21 This impression was favored by their recollection of the song of triumph, in which David was honored above Saul, and which was still well known to them. Sang they not of him in dances?—See 1 Samuel 18:7. With this astounding recollection is connected the apprehension that this dangerous enemy of the Philistine people comes with evil intent. The supposition that with these words of 1 Samuel 21:12 (11) the courtiers introduced David into Achish’s presence (Thenius) is nowhere supported, is improbable from the form of the words, which rather indicate the immediate impression made on them by David’s appearance, and is untenable from David’s consequent behaviour, (1 Samuel 21:13 (12)). Then, for the first time, David lays them to heart and reflects on them, and then fear of Achish comes over him. He sees that he is recognized, and fears that, if the courtiers remind the king of the past, they will take vengeance on him and kill him. Therefore, when brought to the king as a dangerous enemy, he suddenly resorts to the device of acting as a madman. This would have been an absurd procedure, if he had already been presented to Achish by the courtiers, and so was already acquainted with them. Rather it must be supposed that, at the moment when David heard those words, the above reflection occurred to him, and he straightway determined on and carried out this simulation, before the servants of Achish could suspect that he was only pretending. He changed his sense [1 Samuel 21:14 (13)], he perverted his understanding (Luther wrongly, after Sept. and Vulg., “his features”),22 feigned madness; the same words are found in the title of Psalms 34:0. (The apparently superfluous suffix in וַיְּשַׁנּוֹ is either to be taken as reflexive, and the following word explicative or objective, “he changed himself, his spiritual being, in respect to his understanding” (Then.), or with Keil we must explain it “from the circumstantial character of common popular speech, as in 2 Samuel 14:6, and in the not quite analogous cases Exodus 2:6; Proverbs 5:22; Ezekiel 10:3, (comp. Ges. Gr., § 121, 6 Rem. 3”).—The following words show that David played the part of an insane person. The view of some older expositors (and recently Schlier) that by God’s permission, under the excitement produced by fear and anguish of soul, David really fell into temporary insanity, is in direct contradiction to the words of the narrative. He moved hither and thither like a madman [Heb., “played the madman.”—Tr.]. Thenius refers to Jeremiah 25:16; Jeremiah 51:7; Nehemiah 2:5, under their hands, they seeking to hold the madman. He smote (drummed on) the gate-doors, so we must read with Sept. and Vulg. instead of “scribbled” (וַיָּתָף from תָּפַף instead of וַיְתַו from תָּוָה), the latter not being the gesture of a madman, and not agreeing with the last word:23 And he let his spittle fall on his beard. This is to be understood of the foam which comes from the mouth of madmen.

1 Samuel 21:15, 16 [1 Samuel 21:14-15]. By his pretended madness David was safe from the servants of Achish, since in ancient, times the persons of madmen were looked on as inviolable, in a certain sense as sacred. Danger from Achish he likewise avoided by so cleverly counterfeiting insanity when brought before the king, that the latter declared he should not come to his court, he had already mad folks enough.24 Behold, ye see.—This expression shows the impression that David’s gestures made on the king, so that he did not doubt that he had a madman before him. A man who acts insanely, that is, not “who so represents himself,” but who objectively exhibits himself as a madman. For the question of reproach: Why do ye bring him to me? the reason is first given in the question, 1 Samuel 21:16 [1 Samuel 21:15]: Have I need, etc.to play the madman against me?—The Prep. (עָלָי) = not in my presence (De Wette), but against me. Achish fears personal harm from him. With the third question: Shall this fellow come into my house? he thrusts him away. David’s plan, to remain unknown and concealed among the Philistines, did not succeed; but he succeeded in so simulating madness as to escape the dangerous situation into which he had gotten so soon as he was recognized as the victorious enemy of the Philistines. [From this narrative it appears that David and the Philistines understood one another’s language, as on other grounds it is probable that the Hebrew and Philistine dialects were nearly identical.—Tr.]


1. The more the history of David’s providential guidance in this troublous time unfolds itself, the more gloriously does his God-devoted, humbly-obedient spirit shine forth out of this gloomiest period of his life. But the prophetic-historical narrative is so little concerned to make prominent this light in David’s life, that it contents itself with a simple presentation of facts, and with equal freedom from tendentiousness25 and prepossession, brings out sharp and unsoftened the dark spots in David’s moral conduct. On the one hand David shows, in this time of hard trial and waiting, passive resignation to God’s will and complete abnegation of his own will, and though he is sure of his calling to be king of Israel, he takes no steps at all to realize his calling by his own efforts against Saul. But, on the other hand, we see him falling into great fear in Nob and Gath (as formerly in his interview with Jonathan), his strong faith tottering, himself resorting to lies and pretence, and putting self-help, unbecoming an obedient servant of God, in the place of the Lord’s help. In his deviation from truth for a good end he follows the principle often expressed by the Greek poets, e. g., Eurip.: “ὅτω̣ δ’ ὄλεθρον δεινὸν ἡ�’ ἄγει συγγνωστὸν ἐιπεῖν ἐστι καὶ τὸ μὴ καλόν [“when truth, brings ruin it is pardonable to speak untruth.”] Hamann: “The Holy Spirit is become the chronicler of men’s foolish, yea, sinful actions. He has narrated the lies of an Abraham, the incest of Lot, the simulation of a man after God’s heart. O God, Thy wisdom, by counsel which no reason can sufficiently wonder at and honor, has made the foolishness of men our instructor unto Christ, our glory in Christ.”—Grotius: “Something must be forgiven those times, when eternal life was scarcely known.”

2. Though the national sanctuary could not be re-established in Nob for the whole people, yet the high-priest and the other priests resided there, the will of God was inquired by Urim and Thummim, the legal prescriptions relating to worship were carried out as far as possible; and though the ark was wanting in the tabernacle, the latter was still regarded as the visible symbol of God’s gracious presence. And so, though there were several centres of worship (see on 1 Samuel 7:5), Nob was the most prominent of them, and with its incomplete arrangements was a substitute for the sanctuary for whose legal completeness for the whole people the presence of the ark was necessary. This more general significance for the whole people Nob had not merely by the presence of the ark, but also by the sacred vessels and arrangements connected with it. Among these were the twelve loaves of showbread according to the number of the twelve tribes on the sacred table appointed for them; for these were a covenant-sign to set forth Israel’s permanent consecration in obedience and in producing the fruit of good works, which were offered to the Lord as His well-pleasing food.

3. The precepts of the Old Testament law were the outer shell of eternally valid demands of God’s holy will on the will of His people. That the bread, consecrated by its holy meaning and use, could be eaten only by clean males of the priestly order in the holy place, was only the clothing of the [real] requirement, which read: only when you keep yourselves pure from the stain of sin and disobedience, and sanctify yourselves to me in heart, life, and walk, are ye in My sight a truly priestly people, and have part in the enjoyment of the gifts and goods of My house, and are members of My kingdom. The outer form and shell, the letter of the legal precept might be broken, if only the content, the essence was maintained; yea, this outer form, inadequate to the eternal ethical spiritual content of the Law, must be broken through, when its external preservation involved the violation or destruction of the essence and inner kernel. The duty of self-preservation justified David in eating the show-bread, to which, according to the letter of the law, he was not entitled; neighborly love required Ahimelech to deviate from the outer prescription in order to help the needy fugitive.26 Both acted in the higher sense as priests. On this Christ grounded the application of this instance to Himself and His disciples, who broke the sabbath-law by plucking corn (Matthew 12:3; Mark 2:26; Luke 6:3). “The Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath-day,”—in Him, and by communion with Him, in the power of His Spirit, is the true fulfilment of the eternal will of God hidden in Old Testament precepts, so that redeemed and sanctified man stands no longer under the disciplinary form of the law, but stands above and controls the form of the requirement. Even the Old Testament ritual law itself pointed involuntarily beyond itself to the fulfilment of its hidden truths and ideas by regulations and injunctions which of necessity violated the legal ordination [Matthew 12:5]. The rabbis themselves well say: “In the sanctuary is no sabbath; sacrifice abolishes the sabbath.”

4. The history of David’s flight to the Philistines, and his escape thence by simulating madness, is, in the first place, the basis of Psalms 34:0, which bears the title: “By David, when he changed his understanding before Abimelech, and he drove him away and he departed.” This title agrees precisely with the principal points of the narrative in 1 Samuel 21:11-15, and is, as it were, a brief compendium of it. The Abimelech of the title is identical with the Achish of the history, for the former name was the nomen dignitatis of all the Philistine kings, like Pharaoh among the Egyptians and Agag among the Amalekites. So Basilius in Euthym. Zigab. in the Introduction to this Ps. Comp. Hengst. Beiträge [Contributions] III., 306 sq., and Introduction to this Ps. That the private name should appear in the history, and the official name in the title of the Ps., is perfectly natural.—The Psalm, however, contains no express reference to the history, but is rather didactic and reflective; it contains: 1 Samuel 21:2-4 (1–3) a vow to praise God continually, and an exhortation to the pious to unite in this praise, 1 Samuel 21:5-11 (4–10), the reason for this vow and exhortation, namely, personal deliverance from great fear and danger, then 1 Samuel 21:12-15 (11–22), the teaching that only through the fear of God is one saved in time of need. This didactic poem, with its reflective, gnomic character and its alphabetic arrangement, cannot have been produced contemporaneously with the events of the history; but we cannot on this account, and from the absence of direct references to the history, reject the Davidic authorship, if we keep in view its genuine Davidic features and the concurrence of some of its thoughts and expressions with undoubtedly Davidic Psalms (see Moll on the Psalter [in Lange’s Biblework]). The content is a reflection of that experience of David of divine help (set forth in this history), which sunk so deep into his soul, and an application of it to the instruction, consolation, and edification of the pious. The difference in the Philistine king’s name shows indeed that the writer of the title did not have our history before him, and must have had other authority for referring the Ps. to this occurrence; this authority we may with Delitzsch and Moll hold to be the written tradition in the Annals of David, this Psalm, like others (as 2 Samuel 22:1 compared with Psalms 18:0 shows) being found in the historical account, which is given in the title in the words of that authority.27—To the same dangerous situation of David refers Psalms 56:0, the words of the title “when the Philistines took him in Gath” being confirmed by the expression in our history “in their hands,” 1 Samuel 21:14 (13). Compare also 1 Samuel 21:9 (8) of the Psalm: “Thou countest my flight,” or “hast counted my fugitive life” (Moll). From the recollection of these dangers David colors the portraiture of his dangers from his enemies, but at the same time exhibits throughout the Psalm confidence in God’s help and faith in God’s support, closing with a vow of thanksgiving for the divine aid, which he with assurance expects, through which he will walk before God in the light of life.—“When David sang these two songs, God’s grace had already dried his tears. Their fundamental tone is thanksgiving for favor and deliverance. But he who has an eye therefor will observe that they are still wet with tears, and cannot fail to see in the singer’s outpourings of heart the sorrowfulest recollections of former sins and errors” (F. W. Krummacher).


1 Samuel 21:1. Schlier: When David finds no more help in the world, he goes to the Lord and His sanctuary. There he hopes certainly to find counsel and consolation. The Lord’s word has counsel and consolation for all the necessities and perplexities of our life—and he who heartily seeks and longs for the Lord’s word finds what he wants.

1 Samuel 21:2. [From Hall]: God lets us see some blemishes in His holiest servants, that we may neither be too highly conceited of flesh and blood, nor too much dejected when we have been miscarried into sin.]—Schlier: How good it would be if we should never indeed imitate David’s “lie of necessity,” but should always lay to heart the fact that in his need he betook himself to the sanctuary in Nob.—J. Disselhoff: It is one thing to show faith when a single wave of trouble rolls in upon us, and another to continue in faith when wave after wave bursts upon us, and the terrified eye sees spreading out before it an endless sea. This latter temptation David did not yet encounter.—Two lies in one breath!—[Henry: Here David did not behave like himself; he told Ahimelech a gross untruth. …… What shall we say to this? The Scripture does not conceal it, and we dare not justify it: it was ill done and proved of bad consequence (1 Samuel 22:22). It was needless for him thus to dissemble with the priest—for we may suppose that if he had told him the—truth, he would have sheltered and relieved him as readily as Samuel did.—Tr.]

1 Samuel 21:4 sq. Schlier: What right and custom required under the Old Covenant is all well, but love goes beyond this; love is the royal law, to which all other ordinances must yield, and any fulfilling of the law which forgets love commits a wrong.—Love is the royal law—all God’s commandments call for nothing else than love. That which is love is worth something; but the apparently best and noblest things have no value if love is not manifested in them.—Cramer: The love of our neighbor surpasses ceremonies (Mark 2:27; Matthew 12:5). [1 Samuel 21:6. Our Lord simply justifies this giving and eating the show-bread in a case of necessity as His hearers would do. If He had stopped to explain about David’s falsehood, it would have interrupted His argument and thus diminished its force; and no one had a right to imagine that He approved the falsehood. We cannot be always pausing to guard against the possibility of mistake or misrepresentation, or we shall never say any thing with vigor and effect.—Tr.]

1 Samuel 21:8. Schlier: It is not wrong if in time of need we seek weapons too, if we do not neglect human means and precautions; that too we may and ought to keep in view. But we should never place our confidence therein. Our confidence should be in the Lord alone.

1 Samuel 21:9. Cramer: God has wonderful and manifold means of consoling a troubled man and strengthening him in the faith.

1 Samuel 21:10. S. Schmid: If one must flee, lot him so flee as to have recourse to God rather than to men.—Wuertemburg Bible: Through God’s government our enemies are often compelled to do us more good than our friends. Proverbs 16:7; Matthew 2:13.—[1 Samuel 21:10-11. Taylor: Nothing more salutary could have happened to David than such a reception as that which was given to him at Gath. When a youth is going on a wrong course, the best thing that can befall him is failure and disgrace, and the worst thing that can come to him is what the world calls success. If he succeed, the probability is that he will go farther astray than ever; but if he fail, there is hope that he will return to the right path, and seek alliance with Jehovah.—Tr.]

1 Samuel 21:14-15. Starke: God always holds His hand over His people to protect them, and rescues them from the power of the ungodly. Psalms 34:5; Psalms 34:7.

J. Disselhoff to chapters 21, 22, 27. Lies in the mouth of the Anointed one. 1) Whence are lies in such a mouth? (From shaken faith in the living God and the unrest of unbelief, from seeking refuge in one’s own wisdom and in the suggestions of his own heart.) 2) What delivers from such lies? (God’s great mercy and His holy chastisement in the consequences of lies as being the chastenings of His righteousness, and a return to genuine repentance and to living faith.)—F. W. Krummacher: David’s mad wanderings. 1) His behaviour at Nob, 2) His flight to Gath and experiences there.

The opposite ways in which one may seek refuge in want and opposition: 1) The way of humble, believing obedience, in which one takes refuge in the living God, searches to know His will, and unreservedly commits himself to His guidance. 2) The way of little faith and unbelief, in which one takes refuge in flesh and blood, and in which self-will and self-wisdom are to lead to a self-determined aim.

[Chap. 21. Mingling of good and evil in David’s behaviour. 1) Though a brave and devout man, he falls into grievous falsehood and degrading deception, through cowardly fear and lack of trust in God.—A warning to us. Comp. Nehemiah 13:26; 1 Corinthians 10:12. 1 Corinthians 10:2) Though so weak and erring, he remembers God’s help in the past (1 Samuel 21:9), cries to Him now (Psalms 34:6), rejoices in Him anew (ib. 1 Samuel 21:1), and resolves henceforth to speak truth and do good (ib. 1 Samuel 21:13-14; comp. Psalms 56:13).—An encouragement to us. Comp. 1 John 2:1.—Tr.]


[1][1 Samuel 21:1. לִקְרַאת supposes a verb of “going” before it.—Tr.]

[2][1 Samuel 21:2. Literally “in respect to the business.”—Tr.]

[3][1 Samuel 21:2. יוֹדַעְתִּי Poel of יָדַע “to know”=“taught, instructed.” Some take it as error for הוֹדַעְתִּי (Buxtorf.) not so well. Sept. διαμεμαρτύρημαι = יוֹעַדְתִּי, Poel of יָעַד, which is a better reading. The Syr. supports the Heb. text—other versions not decisive.—Tr.]

[4][1 Samuel 21:2. Heb. “Peloni almoni.” This is translated by Syr. and Chald. “secret and hidden.” Sept. (Vat.) has a duplet; it translates by θεοῦ πίστις, “faith of God,” and transfers by “Phellani mœmoni.” On the derivation of the Heb. words see Ges. Lex. s. v. Fürst suggests that peloni may be from palmoni, and in the Annot. to Daniel 8:13 in the ed. princeps of Codex Chis. the latter is held to be the original form, and is derived from the Egyptian Ammon (with prefix ל and Egypt. article = pa. l. ammon = palmoni), which is wholly improbable. Buxtorf (after Kimchi) says that the words here after “place” indicate a person: “to the place of such a one.”—Tr.]

[5][1 Samuel 21:4. Or: “have only kept themselves.”—Tr.]

[6][1 Samuel 21:5. More exactly “(nay) but women.”—Tr.]

[7][1 Samuel 21:5. On this sentence see Erdmann’s Exposition and a long list of translations in Poole’s Synopsis. The principal renderings are as follows: 1) “And though it is a profane (i.e., military) way, yet it is sanctified to-day in the vessel” (i.e., David or Ahimelech or the young men’s body). Ewald: “how much more will they (the young men, changing the Numb. of the verb) be holy in the vessel” (i.e., their bodies), since, namely, they were clean at starting, how much more now the third day! 2) “Though it is a profane (i.e., ceremonially illegal) procedure (to take the show-bread), yet it is sanctified by the vessel (David or Ahimelech)”—so Thenius and Erdmann. 3) “If this is our way with profane things (i.e., we have not defiled ourselves on the road), how much more will the bread now given us be kept holy in our vessels” (Philippson); 4) “And though this is the manner of common bread (i.e., to give it to us), yet surely to-day the bread in the vessel (i.e., the fresh show-bread) is holy” (Bib. Comm.). 5) “It (the show-bread) is in a manner profane, even though it were to-day sanctified” (Rashi, Eng. A. V.).—There is no good ground for changing the text, and the word “vessels” cannot be taken (according to O. T. usage) in the N. T. sense (2 Corinthians 4:7). It is a hurried, excited sentence, almost utterly obscure. The second rendering above given (that of Thenius, adopted by Erdmann) seems the least open to objection.—Tr.]

[8][1 Samuel 21:7. Sept.: “the Syrian” (ר for ד).—Tr.]

[9][1 Samuel 21:7. Sept. “keeper of the mules,” רֹעֵה הַפֶּרֶד, perhaps by inversion and misreading of the text; comp. the designation of Doeg in 1 Samuel 22:9.—Tr.]

[10][1 Samuel 21:8. אֵין יֶשׁ is somewhat strange. Sept. ἴδε εἰ ἔστιν = רְאֵה הֲיֵשׁ (Wellh.), Chald. “if there is here!” Syr. “is there not (לית)?” Vulg. si habes hic. Gesen. supposes that the Interrog. הֲ has fallen out. We may perhaps take אין as Interrog, = אי.—Tr.]

[11][1 Samuel 21:9. Sept. adds “and he gave it to him,” a natural completion of the transaction, but the omission of a self-understood act like that is also natural.—Tr.]

[12][1 Samuel 21:10. Literally: “from the face of.”—Tr.]

[13][1 Samuel 21:13. On these words see Erdmann. For the first Wellh. proposes to read וַיְשַׁנֶּה.—Tr.]

[14][1 Samuel 21:15. Literally: “unto.”—Tr.]

[15][So Hackett in Smith’s Bib. Dict., Art. “Nob.” Porter (Hand-book II. 307, ed. of 1868) identifies Nob with a conical tell opposite Shafat, where are remains of a small, but apparently ancient town, with cisterns and a tower, whence Mount Zion is visible.—Tr.]

[16][On possible explanations of this, see Comms. of Lange and Alexander in loco, and Hackett in Note to Art. “Abiathar” in Smith’s Bib. Dict., and on the general chronological difficulties see Comms. on 2 Samuel 8:17 and 1 Chronicles 18:16; 1Ch 24:3; 1 Chronicles 24:6; 1 Chronicles 24:31.—Tr.]

[17][Rendered incorrectly in Eng. A. V. (and by others) “in a manner.”—Tr.]

[18][On rabbinical opinions about Doeg see Philippson in “Die Israel. Bibelin loco.—Tr.]

[19][To which it may be added that, even if he carried the sword to Gath, he might have kept it concealed during his stay there.—Tr.]

[20][So Maurer: De eo, but other Comms. and ancient vss., as Eng. A. V.—Tr.]

[21][It is noticeable that Goliath’s name is not mentioned by the Philistines, perhaps from natural indisposition to recall a grievous calamity, and out of regard for Goliath’s family and friends.—Tr.]

[22][Luther has geberde = mien, gestures, the Sept. has πρόσωπον and the Vulg. os.—Tr.]

[23][On this reading see “Text and Gram.” David might have learned the signs of madness from his association with Saul.—Tr.]

[24][According to Jewish tradition or fancy the wife and daughter of Achish were insane (Philippson).—Tr.]

[25][We have no word in English to express the German tendenz-schrift, “a writing which has a special aim or object” (in politics or religion), and the adjective tendenziös, tendentious, “having a tendency or aim, written in the interest of some idea.” Here it would set forth that the Book of Samuel was written for the purpose of glorifying David.—Tr.]

[26][But the priest did not know that David was a fugitive; he helped him as an official of the king in momentary need. Whether David, as an official person, could not have gotten food elsewhere, does not appear.—Tr.]

[27][As, however, the name Abimelech may be otherwise accounted for (see Smith’s Bib.-Dict., s. v. Abimelech), and the opinion of Basil is of doubtful authority, and the content of this Ps. agrees as much with the Hokmah-period as with David, it is to say the least, very doubtful whether David is its author.—Tr.]

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 21". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/1-samuel-21.html. 1857-84.
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