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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 21

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-15


1 Samuel 21:1. The position of Nob cannot now be determined, only from Isaiah 10:28-33, we gather that it was on the road northward between Jerusalem and Anathoth. Porter identifies its site with “a low peaked dell a little to the right of the northern road and opposite to Sháfát. He found there several cisterns hewn in the rock, large building stones, and various other indications of an ancient town.” (Smith’s Biblical Dictionary). Others place it at the modern village of El-Isawiyeh, about a mile north-west of Jerusalem, but the objection to this spot is that the words of Isaiah imply that it was nearer the city of Jerusalem. “Ahimelech.” Most likely the same as the Ahiah mentioned in 1 Samuel 14:3 (see notes on that chapter). In Mark 2:26 Abiathar the son of Ahimelech (see 1 Samuel 22:20) is said to be the person who was high-priest at the time when David ate the shew-bread. Professor Hackett in the Biblical Dictionary shews that in 2 Samuel 8:17, and in 1 Chronicles 24:3; 1 Chronicles 24:6; 1 Chronicles 24:31, the two names are confused with each other, and the same is probably the case in Mark. It is possible that father and son might have borne both names, or, as Hackett suggests, “Abiathar might have been the person who persuaded his father to allow him to have the shewbread, and it is probable the loaves were Abiathar’s (Leviticus 24:9), and given by him with his own hand to David.” “Why art thou alone?” As the son-in-law of the king it would be unusual for David to travel unattended. “We must presume that Ahimelech knew of Saul’s hatred to David but not of the most recent occurrences.” (Erdmann).

1 Samuel 21:2. “I have appointed my servants.” “This was probably true. It is scarcely credible that a person of David’s rank and consideration should not have secured some attendants and followers.… Moreover, our Lord (Mark 2:26) distinctly asserts that the priest gave the shew-bread to David, and ‘them that were with him.’ ” (Biblical Commentary.)

1 Samuel 21:4. “There is no common bread” “Common as opposed to holy. Thus the English word is also used in Acts 10:14-15; Acts 10:28.… It gives an idea of the depressed condition of the priesthood at this time that Ahimelech should have had no bread at hand except the shew-bread.” (Biblical Commentary.) “If the young men,” etc. “Thereby the principle of the legal prescription of Levitical purity was satisfied, inasmuch as the circumstances—the lack of ordinary bread, the haste which the alleged important commission of the king required, the duty of aiding in the 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 shew-bread.” (Erdmann.)

1 Samuel 21:6. “The vessels of the young men are holy,” etc. This phrase to the end of the verse is very obscure, and has been variously rendered and understood. Some understand the word vessel in the New Testament sense of body, others of the clothes of the men, or other articles connected with their person. It is generally admitted that the word translated in a manner should be rendered way. The principal renderings of the clause are as follows:—“When I came out the young men’s things were holy (Levitically clean); and if it is an unholy way, it becomes even holy through the instrument, i.e., on the supposition of the important royal mission, upon which David pretended to be sent; the way is sanctified before God, when he, his chosen servant, is the instrument.” This is Keil’s rendering. Erdmann’s reading is similar, understanding the unholy way, however, to refer not to David’s enterprise, but to the act of ceremonial illegality of eating the shew-bread, and the word translated vessel at the end of the verse to refer to Ahimelech. “And though this is the manner of common bread (i.e., though it is treating it like common bread to give it to me), yet surely to-day the bread in the vessel is holy, (i.e., there is fresh shew-bread baked and put on the table in place of what you give us; the day being Friday, as is indicated in the verse following.” (Biblical Commentary.)

1 Samuel 21:6. “That was taken from before the Lord,” etc. “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.” (Erdmann.)

1 Samuel 21:7. “Detained before the Lord,” i.e., at the tabernacle, either for the purpose of purification, or as a proselyte received by circumcision, or in the fulfilment of a vow, or for suspected leprosy. “It is not impossible that Doeg may have been in custody or in sanctuary for some crime.” (Biblical Dictionary.)Edomite, the chiefest of the herdsmen.” “He had probably come over with Saul in his wars with Edom.” (Ewald.) “On account of the importance which still attached in Saul’s time to the possession of herds as a family power, Doeg’s position must have been an important one.” (Erdmann.)

1 Samuel 21:8. “I have neither brought my sword.” That in such pressing danger David fled without arms, is to be explained on the ground that “he feared he would be recognised, or as an armed man concealing himself be suspected (Clericus), or that he fled in great haste.” (Erdmann.)

1 Samuel 21:9. “In a cloth behind the ephod.” “A sign of the great value attached to this dedicatory offering.” (Keil.)There is none like that.” “Not only for its size and superior temper, but for its being a pledge of the Divine favour to him, and a constant stimulus to his faith.” (Jamieson.)

1 Samuel 21:10. “Fled that day.” “He only stayed in Nob long enough to get arms and food … We do not know whether he had already determined to go into Philistia, or now first suddenly resolved upon it, possibly in consequence of Doeg’s unexpected appearance.” (Erdmann.) Achish, or Abimelech. (See Psalms 34:0) This last was the standing title of the Philistian princes of Gath. (See Genesis 26:1.) “As some years had passed since the defeat of Goliath, and the conqueror of Goliath was probably not known personally to many of the Philistines, he might hope that he should not be recognised in Gath, and that he might receive a welcome there as a fugitive who had been driven away by Saul, the leading foe of the Philistines.” (Kiel.)

1 Samuel 21:11. “The King,” i.e., the hero. They could not have known of his Divine election.

1 Samuel 21:15. “Shall this fellow come?” etc. “Whether Achish had David taken over the border, or at any rate out of the town; or whether David went away of his own accord; or whether he was taken away by his servants, is not mentioned, as being of no importance to the narrative.” (Keil.) Note—“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. of Lange’s Commentary.)



I. Men who have courageously encountered a formidable enemy may be found fleeing before a meaner foe. In military history we have records of panics which have overtaken armies which had hitherto been renowned for bravery, and for these temporary failures of courage no adequate reason can be assigned. The fact is there, but it does not admit of full explanation. And it is the same sometimes with men individually, whether they are fighting against foes of flesh and blood or against less tangible but not less real opponents. The heart of the bravest man may sometimes give way, and give way when there does not seem so much real danger as at a former period when he showed no sign of quailing. In the case both of the many and the one the panic may be partly attributable to an overwrought state of the imagination, which magnifies the present peril and adds to the real foes “an army of phantoms, vast and wan.” Or it may arise from the struggle having lasted long, and then the spirit which could rise to a high pitch of enthusiasm for a single encounter finds itself unequal to the task of sustaining itself at so high a level of heroism. These suggestions apply to cases in which the courage displayed appears to have a purely human origin, and to those when the great deeds of valour have been performed by the inspiration of strong faith in an unseen God. And they are quite as applicable to the warfare of every-day life as they are to that which is “with confused noise and garments rolled in blood.” For the world is full of men and women fighting every day of their lives against adverse circumstances outside of them or against sin within them, with a fortitude that gives them full title to be ranked among the heroes of their age. But whoever are the warriors, and in whatever kind of warfare they may be engaged, they do sometimes flee from a lesser foe after having conquered a greater. It was so with David now. The sword of Saul was more terrible to him than the sword of Goliath had been. He had fearlessly looked in the face of the giant, but though he had been helped to slay this most formidable foe, and all the trust that he then placed in the arm of Jehovah had been fully justified, he is now seen fleeing before the man who had quailed before the Philistine, and faith seems now to have no abode in his soul, not so much as a resting-place for the sole of her foot. Without doubt he permitted his mind to dwell upon Saul’s malignity, and upon the many agents whom he could employ against him, to the exclusion of the signal token of Divine help which had been afforded him in the valley of Elah, and the assurance of Divine protection of which the anointing oil had been a pledge. And thus neglecting by meditation upon God’s past goodness to stay himself upon the Divine arm in the present, he becomes a prey to his over-wrought imagination, and presents himself before us in his full manhood in a much less admirable light than in the days of his youth. We must not forget, however, that stronger faith in God is required to sustain a man in a long-continued trial or in a succession of trials than to carry him victoriously through one which, although it makes a great demand upon him for the moment, is soon over. And this helps us to understand David’s failure at this time, and to sympathise with his frailty though we may not excuse his sin.

II. The fear of losing a lesser life may lead men to imperil a life which is greater. There is a life of the body and there is a condition of character which is moral life, and though it is natural and right for men to be careful in a measure of the former, yet a desire to preserve it should never lead to the sacrifice of the latter. The sword of the most bitter enemy is less to be dreaded than the sword of conscience. The most terrible bodily death is infinitely preferable to wounding the moral sense and perhaps doing permanent injury to the character. The retaining of bodily life is by no means necessary to a blessed existence, but existence can nowhere be blessed if there is not integrity of soul. Hence our Lord warns His disciples not to be over-solicitous concerning the life of the body, lest by so doing they endanger a higher and more precious life. “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.” (Luke 9:24). Here loss is gain and gain is loss. Nevertheless, so strong is the love of bodily life, and so instinctively do men shrink from a violent death, that even good and true men have not seldom yielded for a time to the temptation to endanger the most precious for that which is comparatively worthless. David did so when he lied to Ahimelech in order to obtain from him the succour that he needed, and when he feigned madness in the presence of the Philistine nobles. In both cases he inflicted upon himself far more grievous and real injury than any that Saul could have dealt out to him. His enemy’s sword could only have killed his body, but his sin damaged his soul. No weapon forged by man can take away peace of mind, but wilful transgression must fill a man with remorse if his conscience is at all awake, and a man like David could hardly fail to reproach himself afterwards for having thus wandered from the path of rectitude. But even if he did not do so, the harm done to his moral nature was the same and even greater, inasmuch as unrepented sin deadens the conscience and makes further trangression more easy. When a man is suffering acute pain from a dangerous wound his life may be in great danger, but if while the wound is unhealed there is no pain, the surgeon has good reason to fear that mortification has set in and that all hope of life is past. So in the moral nature that wound which is followed by no pain is the most fatal.

III. A Divine law which is limited and temporary must yield to one which is universal and permanent. Our Lord Himself justifies the action of David and Ahimelech in the matter of the shew-bread (Mark 2:25), on the principle that the happiness and well-being of man is the end of all God’s laws concerning them, and that therefore if a merely ceremonial law interferes with that it must be for the time set aside. Possibly David’s words in 1 Samuel 21:5 may also have some such meaning. (See Critical Notes.) All the ceremonial laws given to Israel by God had for their end the elevation of a nation of idolatrous slaves to a higher moral level by creating within them a sense of their own sinfulness and of God’s infinite majesty and purity, and their own highest interests were bound up in the strict observance of them. But just because the end of all was man’s good, so it followed that if in a particular case that good was only to be obtained by a temporary violation of the ceremonial observance, that violation was in accordance with the will of God. Ahimelech showed that he understood the real intention of the law of the shew-bread when he broke it to satisfy the needs of hungry men, for he acted on the principle that the ceremonial laws were made for man and not man for the ceremonial laws, and thus in a measure anticipated Our Saviour’s exposition of them. Although all the details connected with the Jewish worship were symbols of unchangeable truths and of immutable moral laws, they were symbols only, and therefore the laws of their observance were at all times subordinate to those universal and changeless moral laws which never clash with each other, and the violation of which no exigency can ever justify.


Mingling of good and evil in David’s character.

(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. Compare Nehemiah 13:26; 1 Corinthians 10:12.

(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 (ibid, 1 Samuel 21:1), and resolves henceforth to speak truth and to do good (ibid, 1 Samuel 21:13-14); compare Psalms 56:13. An encouragement to us; compare 1 John 2:1.

1 Samuel 21:2. Who can look to pass this pilgrimage without infirmities, when David dissembleth to Ahimelech? A weak man’s rules may be better than the best man’s actions. 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. Hitherto hath David gone upright; now he begins to halt with the priest of God, and under pretence of Saul’s employment, draws that favour from Ahimelech which shall afterwards cost him his head.

What could Ahimelech have thought too dear for God’s anointed, God’s champion? It is not like but that, if David had sincerely opened himself to the priest as he had done to the prophet, Ahimelech would have seconded Samuel in some secret and safe succour of so unjust a distress, whereas he is now, by a false colour, led to that kindness which shall be prejudicial to his life. Extremities of evil are commonly inconsiderate; either for that we have not leisure to our thoughts, or perhaps (so we may be perplexed) not thoughts to our leisure. What would David have given afterwards to have redeemed this oversight!—Bp. Hall.

There is nothing will keep a man from sin more surely than confidence in God; but despair is the most dangerous condition into which one can fall. While faith and hope last, there will be energy, and watchfulness, and purity; but with despair come recklessness and folly. We are saved by hope; but when we despair of God’s help, we run into extremes of wickedness. When a merchant is in difficulties, there is no great danger so long as he believes that he can retrieve himself, and hopes that he will come out all right. But when he falls into despair, he becomes regardless alike of God or man, and runs headlong into practices of which in other circumstances he would never have thought, thereby destroying alike his character and future.—Dr. W. M. Taylor.

1 Samuel 21:10-15. David had lost his faith in Jehovah, and put his confidence in Achish, and nothing more salutary could have happened to him 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. This last was the case with David in the instance before us, if at least we may judge of the effect which his experience produced upon him, from the songs which he wrote with special reference to the incidents at which we have been looking. The titles of the 34th and 56th Psalms connect these odes with David’s residence in Gath; and though there are few acknowledgments of sin in them, yet they indicate that, as the result and outcome of his trials, he was led to look away from all earthly helpers to the Lord alone. “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.” Perhaps, too, there may be an implied condemnation of the course which he had been pursuing, and a virtual resolution to abstain from it in the future, when he says, “What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may see good? Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” And it is scarcely possible to doubt that, from his own penitence for the sins of which he had just been guilty, and his own experience of God’s favour when he returned to him, he was led to sing, “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all.”

It may appear strange that all this should have happened immediately after his pleasant and profitable sojourn with Samuel at the school of the prophets. But perhaps the very contrast between his happiness at Naioth and his continual suspense at Gibeah, where he felt himself to be like one standing on the very edge of an active volcano, may help to account for his depression. In any case it is by no means an uncommon experience that times of great spiritual elevation are followed by periods of deep dejection. Every height has its hollow; and as Peter went from the first Lord’s Supper to his denial of the Master, David went from Naioth to Nob, and from Nob to Gath. It is a suggestive incident, bidding us be always on our guard against temptation, and then, most of all, when we have been enjoying the most exalted privileges.—Dr. W. M. Taylor.

It is always a dangerous course when believers betake themselves in their necessities to the children of this world for protection and help. Without taking into account that too easily in the circle of such benefactors and deliverers do they lose their balance, and, making court to them for their favour, yield to the temptation to disown their faith, and in word and conduct to place themselves on an equality with the world, such a step gives to the latter occasion secretly to triumph, and they who are so willing to be called “the chosen,” when distress comes upon them know not how to be contented with their God and his help alone, but gladly permit themselves to seek for aid from those to whom they do not even concede the name of brethren. Never will they succeed in truly reconciling the enemies of their faith by means of affected accommodation to them and their forms of life; for, according to the well-known testimony of God, the enmity between those who are “after the flesh,” and those who are “after the spirit,” is a fixed principle, and though covered with many a fair garland of courtesy and politeness, yet, even when universal love bears the sceptre in the heart of God’s children, that enmity cannot be abolished till regenerating grace has made of the “twain one.”—Krummacher.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 21". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/1-samuel-21.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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