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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 23

Preacher's Complete Homiletical CommentaryPreacher's Homiletical

Verses 1-6

CRITICAL AND EXPOSITORY NOTES1 Samuel 22:1. “Keilah.” A city of Judah, mentioned in Joshua 15:44, and identified by Lieut. Van de Velde with a site containing ruins, and now called Kila, a few miles from Hebron. (See Smith’s Biblical Dictionary.)

1 Samuel 23:2. “Inquired of the Lord.” (See 1 Samuel 22:6.) “Save Keilah.” These words are a promise of victory.

1 Samuel 23:3. “We be afraid,” etc. “As persecuted fugitives, we are always in danger from Saul, and now shall we march against the Philistine ranks?” (Erdmann.)

1 Samuel 23:6. “This verse is a supplementary historical explanation relative to the possibility of the inquiry of the Lord in 1 Samuel 22:2-3, which was not possible without the high-priestly cape or ephod, to which was attached the Urim and Thummim.” (Erdmann.) “The words are not to be understood as signifying that Abiathar did not come to David till he was in Keilah, but that, when he fled after David (1 Samuel 22:20), he met with him as he was already preparing for the march to Keilah, and immediately proceeded with him thither.” (Keil.)



I. The indulgence of enmity towards one makes men neglect their duty to the many. It is very dangerous for the passengers in a vessel if those in command are at enmity with each other, or if the captain is filled with envy of those who divide with him the responsibility of directing the ship. When such is the case, he is likely to be laying plans to injure the man whom he hates when he ought to be concerning himself about the safety of those committed to his care, and a storm, which ought to have found him well prepared, descends upon him unexpectedly, and places all the lives on board in jeopardy. His lawless hatred to one individual makes him forget what he owes to many. The warrior king of Israel at this time was so possessed by his enmity to David that he permitted one of his frontier towns to be threatened and the lives of its inhabitants to be endangered without making an effort on their behalf. How is it that his conduct on this occasion differs so widely from his prompt and brave action on behalf of Ramoth Gilead (chap. 11) in the beginning of his reign, and why was the appeal for help at this time made to David and not to him? Was it not because the demon of envy had stifled his sense of duty and every generous and patriotic emotion? So long as he could satisfy his feelings of revenge against David he cared not if half his kingdom became a prey to the Philistines. His personal enmity to one man left no room for any concern about the welfare of the nation committed to his charge. This thing repeats itself from age to age. Men charged with heavy responsibilities in relation to their fellow-creatures allow a personal enmity to engross the energies which ought to be employed on their behalf, and myriads suffer on account of a quarrel between two individual men; or, as in the case before us, because one only is filled with a deadly hatred towards a supposed rival. And this devil of envy is not active merely among men who make no pretensions to godliness, or even to those who are mere pretenders. Envy at the promotion of a better man, and a desire, unconsciously indulged it may be, to lessen or extinguish his influence, has often led a shepherd of the flock of God to leave the sheep open to the attacks of their foes while he has been engaged in some private and personal quarrel.

II. In critical periods the want of faith on the part of the many gives an occasion for the display of faith on the part of one. The fearfulness and distrust of David’s followers at the time bring into fuller relief the courage and faith of David himself, and it often happens in critical periods of human history that this is the case. When an eclipse of the sun is witnessed by men who are quite unacquainted with the laws of nature by which it is caused, it often fills them with distrust and fear, but such a phenomenon gives rise to no terror or doubt in the mind of one who is acquainted with natural laws. His superior knowledge keeps his faith in them unshaken during the crisis; he feels quite sure that the sun is still shining in all its glory, although it is hidden from human sight at the present moment. And the ignorant terror of the many make the enlightened confidence of the one the more striking. Something like this often takes place in the region of God’s providential workings. A dark dispensation overshadows a community, and men who are ignorant of the character of God and of the unchangeable nature of His moral laws are filled with fear, while those who have made themselves acquainted with the method and reasons of His dealings stay themselves upon His faithfulness, and are certain that His wisdom and love are as active in the cloudy day of adversity as when all looks bright and prosperous. And their faith shines all the more brightly because of the ignorance and unbelief all around them. So did the faith of David at this time in contrast with the distrust of his men. A common sense of wrong had drawn them to throw in their lot with him, but although they probably admired his courage they did not share it because they lacked the faith in God which he possessed. They looked only at the difficulties and dangers which surrounded them, and he looked through these difficulties and dangers to the God whom he knew and whom he therefore trusted.

III. The faith and obedience of one good man in times of trial make him the refuge and the deliverer of many. When we are saddened and perplexed by looking at the misery which may come to many by the unfaithfulness of one man, we must remember also how much good also comes to many by the faithfulness of one. Although no man can transgress the laws of God without involving others in the consequences of his wrong-doing, no man can obey the Divine commands without being a blessing to many. If the people of Keilah were brought into danger by the sin of one man they owed their deliverance to the faith and obedience of one man, for no Israelitish army would have gone up against the Philistines at this time if the son of Jesse had not rallied his forces to the attack. This dependence of the destinies of the many upon the character of one has its bright, therefore, as well as its dark side.


1 Samuel 23:2. Had David been governed by personal considerations, he would have suffered the Philistines to take their course. It was occupation enough to defend himself,—to preserve his own life from the relentless malice that pursued him. Besides, the defence of the kingdom did not properly devolve on him, but on Saul, whom it might be policy to embarrass as much as possible in order to draw off his attention from the object of his bitter persecution. The more the country was left exposed to such attacks the more odious would Saul be rendered in the eyes of the people, and the more popular might David become. But he was a stranger to all such unworthy views. He saw his country invaded, and he thought no more of his own wrongs: he saw it distressed, and he determined if possible to relieve it, although he was thus strengthening the hands of his most virulent enemy.—Lindsay.

1 Samuel 23:3. David’s difficulties were not over, though his personal anxieties were at an end when God’s will was made known to him. He was not acting alone—he had four hundred men with him, most of them probably animated by a very different spirit from his. A leader of other men often finds his greatest difficulty not in deciding what should be done, but in prevailing upon them to do it. Especially is this the case if he be a spiritual man, and they carnal men; he bent on following the will of God, they the inclinations of their hearts. It is sad when such a division exists in families … and we know of no course which the godly head of a house, opposed by an unwilling family, could take with more advantage than that now taken by David. Let all be made to understand that the will of God is the rule by which he is resolved to act. Let him solemnly appeal to them, whether they are prepared to set up another; let him use the best means for ascertaining God’s will, and then let him fearlessly go forward.—Blaikie.

Verses 7-12


1 Samuel 23:9-12. “It is evident from these verses that when the will of God was sought through the Urim and Thummim, the person making the inquiry placed the matter before God in prayer, and received an answer—but always to one particular question. For when David had asked the two questions given in 1 Samuel 22:11, he received the answer to the second question only, and had to ask the first again.” (Keil.)



I. Men often put a false interpretation upon circumstances. Saul never made a greater mistake than when he said of David in Keilah, “God hath delivered him into mine hand.” If this was indeed his belief, it shows us how very greatly men may err in their interpretation of the events of Providence, and how far they may be from a right conception of the light in which God regards both their character and their actions. It seems impossible that Saul could either have misunderstood or forgotten the word of the Lord delivered to him by Samuel; and yet he here speaks as though his pursuit of David was undertaken with the Divine approval, and puts an entirely false meaning upon his present position. When men misinterpret human language, they do so either through ignorance or wilfulness. A man who is but imperfectly acquainted with a language may put a false construction on words spoken or written, and so come to a false conclusion as to the intention of the speaker or writer. So sometimes men, through ignorance, misread God’s providential dealings. Job’s friends entirely misinterpreted the circumstances in which they found the patriarch, concluding that his afflictions were to punish his sin when they were to develop and strengthen his godliness; and other men, who have had no revelation from God, have often doubtless erred in like manner. But by far the most destructive and the greater number of such misinterpretations arise not from ignorance but from wilfulness, as was certainly the case with Saul at this time. Such a wilful mistake was made by the Egyptian host at the Red Sea, when they said of Israel “They are entangled in the land, the wilderness hath shut them in.” The miracles of judgment which had just been wrought in the land of Egypt spoke concerning the character and purposes of the Lord God of the Hebrews in language which could only be wilfully misinterpreted, and hence they had only themselves to blame for their destruction. But such misreadings of God’s providential dealings have not been confined to Old Testament times. We need not wonder that they have been abundant in the history of the Christian Church, when we remember how men misinterpreted the death of Him who founded it, and concluded, when they saw Him hanging upon the cross, that “Himself He could not save.”

II. For a good man in such circumstances there is always a final court of appeal. A child when misjudged or perplexed goes to his father for a verdict or an explanation concerning that which troubles him. To his young mind the wisdom and the goodness resident in his parent constitute him the judge in all disputes, and the one who can solve all difficulties. Every good man thus instinctively turns to God when a wrong interpretation is put either upon his character or his circumstance, or upon both. Conscious of his own sincerity, and fully persuaded, even in the midst of his perplexities, of the wisdom and righteousness of his Heavenly Father, he looks heavenward for help and guidance when every human support fails him. Even Job, amid the terrible storm of afflictions which drew from him many expressions of impatience, and some which seem to impugn the justice of the Most High, ever and anon turns from the charges and expostulations of his mistaken human friends to Him whom he feels in his inmost soul is the final court of appeal, and the only Judge to whom he can safely commit his cause. So David here, perplexed no doubt by the providence which seemed to grow darker at every step, and pained at the ingratitude of the men upon whose gratitude and friendship he must surely have counted, turns again and again to his Father in heaven, and by his appeals and inquiries shows that, although the waves and the billows of adversity are all around him, his faith has not lost her hold, and that he can still hear the “voice of the Lord upon the waters,” and see Him “sitting on the flood” (Psalms 29:0).


The men of Keilah were neither chivalrous nor grateful. They regarded their own interests as supreme. Like many in our own day, they might profess to aim after the greatest happiness of the greatest number, but when you came to analyse their views, you would find that with them, to use the words of Joseph Hume, “the greatest number was number one!” It was not for their advantage to serve David, and they did not serve him; and I am free to say that all my observation and experience convince me that a large proportion of the present generation would have done as they were willing to do. Of course that does not excuse them, but it should make us cautious as to what we say in their condemnation, lest, haply, we may some day be judged out of our own mouths. Gratitude, chivalry, enthusiasm for the cause of the wronged—what are these words in the mouths of many to-day but words? they sound well, and they are very fine so long as they cost nothing; but let adherence to them put property or life in peril, and too many would cling to the property and the life, and let the others go. Ye who condemn the inhabitants of Keilah because they were willing to betray David, how long would you show gratitude at the risk of the loss of all things? It was a disgrace to them that they would not stand by him who had delivered them; but is it anything less to us, when we allow our worldly interests to blind us to the obligations under which we lie to those who befriended us in our time of need? Is it anything less to us when, for the sake of fashion, or fortune, or fame, we turn our backs upon the Christ, who has borne the agony of Gethsemane and Calvary on our behalf? Idolatry of self is as hideous now as it was in David’s time. Let those who are guilty of it, therefore, look here, and, in the pitiful poltroonery of the men of Keilah they will see how mean and contemptible they look.—Dr. W. M. Taylor.

1 Samuel 23:12. Here is a second inquiry. God loveth to be often sought unto by His praying people (Luke 18:1), and therefore answereth them by degrees, that He may frequently hear from them. Thus the cloud empties not itself at a sudden burst, but dissolved upon the earth drop after drop. Trapp.

Whereas the Lord answereth, that Saul would come down to Keilah, and that the men of Keilah would deliver David into Saul’s hands, and yet neither of these came to pass; hence it cannot be inferred that the predictions of the Lord are uncertain, for the Lord’s answer is here to be understood conditionally.… A difference is here to be made between the prescience of God and the predestination: for the Lord as well seeth what shall be done as what is likely to be done in respect of the second causes; but His decree of predestination is only of those things which shall most certainly be effected.—Willet.

The origin of the thirty-first Psalm is to be traced to this period of wandering, although there is nothing contained in the title of it which authorises this supposition. We meet, however, with many passages in the psalm which quite correspond with the circumstances in which David was then placed. The singer begins with the humble but confiding prayer that God would never let him be put to shame (he was so at that time, when the citizens of Keilah would no longer suffer him to dwell amongst them); but that he would deliver him (the guiltless outlaw) in his righteousness. He prays that the Lord would bow down His ear to him, and deliver him speedily, and be a strong rock to him, and a protecting fortress. The imagery here is plainly suggested by the wild scenes of nature which surrounded the singer. He prays that, for his name’s sake, the Lord would lead him and graciously be near him in the pathless and inhospitable wilderness, and that he would guard his feet from the net which they had laid on all sides to catch him. “Into thine hand,” he coutinues, “I commit my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, O Lord God of truth,” namely, from the violence to which they would surrender me. Moreover, David speaks of himself as one who was forsaken by all the world, and was covered with unmerited reproaches and slanders. He was even guilty of high treason, and had placed himself in opposition to the greatest part of the people, because he was the object of the king’s displeasure. Yet he is far from speaking of himself as free from all guilt. He feels himself as a poor sinner before God, and, with a sigh, gives utterance to the prayer, “Have mercy upon me, O Lord.” Nevertheless he trusted in His mercy whom he confidently called his God; and, after giving praise to the Lord for all the wonderful goodness and the help which he had hitherto vouchsafed to him “in his flight,” he concludes with this call to his brethren in the faith: “O love the Lord, all ye his saints: for the Lord preserveth the faithful, and plentifully rewardeth the proud doer. Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart, all ye that hope in the Lord.”—Krummacher.

Verses 13-18


1 Samuel 23:13. “They went whithersoever,” etc. Lit. “They wandered about where they wandered about, i.e., wherever they could go without danger.” (Keil.)

1 Samuel 23:14. “Wilderness of Ziph.” “A mountainous and sequestered region was generally called a wilderness, and took its name from some large town in the district. Two miles southeast of Hebron, and in the midst of a level plain, is Tell Ziph, an isolated and conical hillock, about one hundred feet high, probably the acropolis (Van de Velde), or the ruins (Robinson) of the ancient city of Ziph, from which the surrounding wilderness was called. It seems, anciently, to have been covered by an extensive wood.” (Jamieson.)Every day.” “Either as long as he lived” (Keil), or “continually.” (Erdmann.)

1 Samuel 23:16. “Strengthened his hand,” etc. “By the recollection of the Divine promises, and of their mutual covenant.” (Jamieson.)

1 Samuel 23:17. “Saul, my father, knoweth.” “The assurance of this must have forced itself involuntarily upon the mind of Saul, both from his own rejection, as foretold by Samuel, and also from the marvellous success of David in all his undertakings.” (Keil.)



We have here—

I. A man in the sorest need of human friendship. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the need in which David stood at this time of human sympathy. It has been often said that nothing gives a human spirit so much pain as ingratitude, and David was now proving how ungrateful men can be when prompted by motives of self-interest. He had just saved the inhabitants of Keilah from a great calamity, and if he looked for some active proof of their good will on his behalf, it was certainly not expecting very much. He might have reasonably counted on their help when his hour of need came; and when he became aware that this would not be given he would have hardly thought it possible for them to go beyond a cowardly neutrality. But the Divine oracle had assured him that these base specimens of humanity were prepared to deliver him up into the hands of the king at his command. Such an experience as this tests to the utmost a man’s faith in humanity, and more than anything else tends to harden the heart and embitter the spirit. And when it has this effect, it does not bring the soul nearer to God. A true and tender human friend at such a time will often make it easier for a man to believe in Divine faithfulness and compassion, and form the link between a broken spirit and the Great Healer. David evidently needed such a friend at this moment.

II. A friend fully equal to the needs of friendship. If the treachery of the men of Keilah was sufficient almost to destroy David’s faith in his fellow-men, the stedfastness of Jonathan was a more weighty influence on the other side. A feebler friendship might have satisfied itself with the remembrance of having given proofs of love in the past, or at least with sending to David an assurance of present sympathy; but Jonathan’s self-sacrificing love embraced every occasion of serving his friend to the utmost of his power, and hence he is found in person in the wilderness with the outlaw whom his father seeks, and cheers David by putting him in mind of the declared purpose of God concerning him, although it included his own loss of worldly power and influence. When David received this new assurance of his friend’s unselfish and undying regard, it must surely have driven away all the mistrust in God which was making him fear; for if a man of like passions with himself would be thus true to his plighted word, he would not dare to harbour the thought that Jonathan’s God and his own God would fail him.


1 Samuel 23:16. The distinguishing power of a true man. What is the distinguishing power which a true man has? To destroy life? Brutes can do this. To weaken faith, and shake confidence? A child can do this. What then? To strengthen a brother’s heart in God!… But how can a true man strengthen a depressed brother thus? First: By a truthful exposition of God’s method of governing the fallen in this world. The gospel unfolds that method; shows that it is to the true corrective, not penal; remedial, not destructive; introductory, not final … Secondly: By a practical expression of genuine sympathy. Nothing in the world is more strengthening to a tried soul than the practical manifestation of true sympathy. One breath of it infuses new life to the soul—energizes the heart. Thirdly: By a devout intercession with heaven. Paul prayed that the Ephesians might be “strengthened with all might in the inner man.” The highest function of a true friend. It is one thing to have the power to strengthen, and another thing to use it when and where required. He who uses it is the truest friend. Jonathan proved his friendship to David by tracking him out in the lonely wood, and there, in the depths of solitude, in the sanctuary of wild, majestic nature, in-breathing invigorating thoughts about God. Let us, in imagination, go into this wood and see Jonathan acting the friend. He meets David, with a heavy gloom upon his brow, only able to speak in sighs and tears. First, perhaps, Jonathan makes a few consolatory remarks about the great providence of God. Then, secondly, perhaps he refers him to the trials of good men who have passed away—Abraham and Jacob, Moses and Samuel. Then, thirdly, perhaps he reminds him of the past kindness of God to him as an individual.… And then perhaps he kneels down under the shadow of some old tree and prays with him and for him. This is the way to strengthen souls, and he is the true man who acts thus.—Dr. David Thomas.

1 Samuel 23:17. It was doubtless well ordered by God’s good providence that Jonathan’s noble sentiments were not subjected to the unnatural strain of such a situation, but that he died a soldier’s death, fighting gallantly for his country, before anything had happened to disturb the perfect beauty of his friendship for David.—Biblical Commentary.

Verses 19-29


1 Samuel 23:19. “Then came up the Ziphites.” “There is no spot from which you can obtain a better view of David’s wandering backwards and forwards in the desert than from the hill of Ziph, which affords a true panorama. The Ziphites could see David and his men moving to and fro in the mountains of the desert of Ziph, and could also perceive how he showed himself in the distance upon the hill Hachilah, on the south side of Ziph (which lies to the right by the desert), whereupon they sent as quickly as possible to Saul, and betrayed to him the hiding-place of his enemy.” (Van de Velde.)

1 Samuel 23:24. “Desert of Maon, in the plain, on the south of Jeshimon.” Rather, “On the south or right hand of the desert. This lay farther south. The name still exists—Main, eight miles south-east of Hebron.” (Erdmann.) “The mountain plateau seems here to end. It is true the summit ridge of the southern hills runs out a long way farther towards the south-west, but towards the south-east the ground sinks more and more down to a table-land of a lower level, which is called the plain to the right hand of the wilderness.” (Van de Velde.) “On descending the hills, south-east of Maon, a wide prospect opened up before us over the country towards the Dead Sea, and on the south. The extensive tract we now overlooked had much of the general character of that around Beersheba, with which, indeed, it is connected, stretching off in that direction around the south-western termination of the long ridge which we were now crossing. This tract has apparently a lower level than the enclosed plain behind us around Carmel.” (Dr. Robinson.)

1 Samuel 23:25. “Into a rock.” Rather “He descended the rock.” “Probably the conical mountain of Main, or Maon, the top of which is now surrounded with ruins.” (Robinson.) It is evidently the same as that mentioned in the next verse, along which David was escaping on one side, while Saul was seeking him on the other.

1 Samuel 23:28. “Selah-hammahlekoth.” Keil, Gesenius, and others explain this name to signify “rock of smoothness”—from chalak, to be smooth, and hence to slip away, to escape. But the word also means to divide, and many expositors attach this meaning to it here because it separated Saul and David from each other.

1 Samuel 23:29. “Engedi.” The present Ainjiddy, or goat-fountain, from the number of chamois which are found in the district. It is on the western shore of the Dead Sea, about thirteen miles north-west of Maon. “The steep mountains are intersected by wadys running down in deep ravines to the sea.” (Keil.) “On all sides,” says Robinson, “the country is full of caverns, which now serve as lurking-places for outlaws,”



I. The calamity of one man an occasion of revealing the baseness of others. There is much latent baseness in the world which only lacks a favourable opportunity to manifest itself. Fear of punishment or defeat is at the root of the outwardly virtuous conduct of many men, and they only need to have these restraints removed to show what they really are. Occasion is to men what the barometer is to the weather. This instrument only registers the state of the atmosphere, but has no part in generating either the calm or the storm—they would be the same if the indicator had no existence. These men of Ziph were not worse men when they betrayed David than they had been before, but his defenceless and straitened condition was the occasion which tested their character and revealed their baseness. If he had simply come to them as a man in distress through no fault of his own it would have been a pitiful meanness on their part to betray him. But they could not be ignorant of the debt of gratitude they, in common with the rest of their countrymen, owed to him. Since the day when he slew the Philistine whose name spread terror through all the hosts of Israel, he had again and again defeated their much-dreaded foes, and at this moment had just returned from delivering Keilah. His life since his early youth had been spent in the service of his country, and if the Ziphites had possessed a spark of gratitude they would have striven to lighten his hardships. But, far from doing this, they went out of their way to betray, not only an innocent man, but one to whom they were deeply indebted. This one act is an infallible and a sufficient revelation of their character as a community.

II. The evil purposes of evil men defeated by others of a like character. Doubtless the Ziphites thought the success of their plan was certain; and Saul must have felt assured that this time his prey would not escape. And as his enemies closed around him, David himself must have well nigh given up all hope of escape. But at this critical moment his deliverance was wrought by men who had every reason to desire his downfall, and who would have gladly taken his life if they had found an opportunity to do so. The Philistines certainly hated David as much as the Ziphites did, but at this moment they unconsciously delivered him from the danger to which the treachery of the latter had exposed him. The incident affords an example of the way in which bad men often unconsciously fulfil the purposes of God, and frustrate the plans of those who are one with them in their opposition to righteousness. Saul suddenly found himself in the hands of circumstances which compelled him to forego for this time the satisfaction of his private jealousy, and thus this bad monarch, and his equally bad subjects, were prevented from taking the blood of an innocent man by other men as bad as themselves. But behind all these human wills and purposes a Divine will and a Divine purpose were in operation, and God was using His enemies to save His servant.


At the time when David received tidings that the Ziphites had betrayed him, his soul poured itself forth in the fifty-fourth Psalm. Here he first directs his eye from the earth, where faithlessness and wickedness so much surrounded him, upwards to heaven, and prays to God that He would save and judge him (i.e. justify him), since the people of his own tribe had risen up against him as enemies, yea, like the heathen. But not less does he give utterance to his confidence, that the Lord would be his helper and would uphold his soul, and that the wickedness of his enemies would recoil upon themselves. “Cut them off in Thy truth,” he cries out; adding, “I will freely sacrifice unto Thee; I will praise Thy name, O Lord, for it is good;” and concludes with the words of joyful confidence, “For He hath delivered me out of all trouble; and mine eye hath seen His desire upon mine enemies.”—Krummacher.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 23". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/1-samuel-23.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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