Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, June 20th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
Take your personal ministry to the Next Level by helping StudyLight build churches and supporting pastors in Uganda.
Click here to join the effort!

Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 23

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-29



1 Samuel 23:1-29.

THE period of David’s life shortly sketched in this chapter, must have been full of trying and exciting events. If we knew all the details, they would probably be full of romantic interest; many a tale of privation, disease, discomfort, on the one hand, and of active conflicts and hair-breadth escapes on the other. The district which he frequented was a mountainous tract, bordering on the west coast of the Dead Sea, and lying exposed more or less to the invasions of the neighbouring nations. In the immediate neighbourhood of Ziph, Maon, and Carmel, the country - a fine upland plain - is remarkably rich and fertile; but between these places and the Dead Sea it changes to a barren wilderness; the rocky valleys that run down to the margin of the sea, parched by the heat and drought, produce only a dry stunted grass. Innumerable caves are everywhere to be seen, still affording shelter to outlaws and robbers. But at Engedi (now Ain-Jidy, "the fountain of the goat"), the last place mentioned in this chapter, the traveler finds a little plain on the shore of the Dead Sea, where the soil is remarkably rich; a delicious fountain fertilizes it; shut in between walls of rock, both its climate and its products are like those of the tropics; it only wants cultivation to render it a most prolific spot.

By what means did David obtain sustenance for himself and his large troop in these sequestered regions? Bayle, in the article in his famous Dictionary on "David," - an article which gave the cue to much that has been said and written against him since, - speaks of them as a troop of robbers, and compares them to the associates of Catiline, and even Dean Stanley calls them "freebooters." Both expressions are obviously unwarranted. The only class of persons whom David and his troop regarded as enemies were the open enemies of his country, - that is, either persons who lived by plunder, or the tribes on whom Saul, equally with himself, would have made war. That David regarded himself as entitled to attack and pillage the Hebrew settlers in his own tribe of Judah is utterly inconsistent with all that we know both of his character and of his history. If David had a weakness, it lay in his extraordinary partiality for his own people, contrasted with his hard and even harsh feelings towards the nations that so often annoyed them. Nothing was too good for a Hebrew, nothing too severe for an alien. In after life, we see how his heart was torn to its very centre by the judgment that fell upon his people after his offence in numbering the people (2 Samuel 24:17); while the record of his severity to the Ammonites cannot be read without a shudder (2 Samuel 12:31). Besides, in this very narrative, in the account of his collision with Nabal (1 Samuel 25:7), we find David putting in the very forefront of his message to the churl the fact that all the time he and his troop were in Carmel the shepherds of Nabal sustained no hurt, and his flocks no diminution. Instead of fleecing his own countrymen, he sent them presents when he was more successful than usual against their common foes (1 Samuel 30:26). Unquestionably therefore such terms as "robbers" and "freebooters" are quite undeserved.

One chief source of support would obviously be the chase - the wild animals that roamed among these mountains, the wild goat and the coney, the pigeon and the partridge, and other creatures whose flesh was clean. Possibly, patches of soil, like the oasis at Engedi, would be cultivated, and a scanty return obtained from the labour. A third employment would be that of guarding the flocks of the neighbouring shepherds both from bears, wolves, and lions, and from the attacks of plundering bands, for which service some acknowledgment was certainly due. At the best, it was obviously a most uncomfortable mode of life, making not a little rough work very necessary; an utter contrast to the peaceful early days of Bethlehem, and rendering it infinitely more difficult to sing, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

Acting as guardian to the shepherds in the neighbourhood, and being the avowed foe of all the Arab tribes who were continually making forays from their desert haunts on the land of Judah, David was in the very midst of enemies. Hence probably the allusions in some of the psalms. "Consider mine enemies, for they are many, and they hate me with cruel hatred." "Mine enemies would daily swallow me up, for there be many that fight against me, O Thou Most High." "My soul is among lions, and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men whose teeth are spears and arrows and their tongue a sharp sword." Could we know all his trials and difficulties, we should be amazed at his tranquility. One morning, an outpost brings him word that Saul is marching against him. He hastily arranges a retreat, and he and his men clamber over the mountains, perhaps under a burning sun, and reach their halting-place at night, exhausted with thirst, hunger, and fatigue. Scarcely have they lain down, when an alarm is given that a body of Bedouins are plundering the neighbouring sheepfolds. Forgetful of their fatigues, they rush to their arms, pursue the invaders, and rescue the prey. Next morning, perhaps, the very men whose flock he had saved, refuse to make him any acknowledgment. Murmurs rise from his hungry followers, and a sort of mutiny is threatened if he will not allow them to help themselves. To crown all, he learns by-and-bye, that the people whom he has delivered have turned traitors and are about to give him up to Saul. Wonderful was the faith that could rise above such troubles, and say, ’’Mine eyes are ever toward the Lord, for He shall pluck my feet out of the net."

In illustration of these remarks let us note first what took place in connection with Keilah. This was a place of strength and importance not far from the land of the Philistines. A rumour reaches him that the Philistines are fighting against it and robbing the threshing-floors. The first thing he does, on hearing this rumour, is to inquire of God whether he should go and attack the Philistines. It is not a common case. The Philistines were a powerful enemy; probably their numbers were large, and it was a serious thing for David to provoke them when he had so many enemies besides. This was evidently the feeling of his followers. "Behold, we be afraid here in Judah: how much more then if we go to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines?" But David is in an admirable frame of mind, and his only anxiety is about knowing precisely the will of God. He inquires again, and when he gets his answer he does not hesitate an instant. It was about this time that Abiathar the son of Ahimelech came to him, bringing an ephod from Nob, perhaps the only sacred thing that in the hurry and horror of his flight he was able to carry away. And now, in his time of need, David finds the value of these things; he knows the privilege of fearing God, and of having God at his right hand. The fears of his men appear now to be overcome; he goes to Keilah, attacks the Philistines, smites them with a very great slaughter, brings away their cattle and rescues the people. It is a great deliverance, and David, with peace and plenty around him, and the benedictions of the men of Keilah, breathes freely and praises God.

But his sense of ease and tranquility was of short duration. Saul hears of what has taken place, and hears that David has taken up his quarters within the town of Keilah. He chuckles over the news with fiendish satisfaction, for Keilah is a fortified town; he will be able to shut up David within its walls and lay siege to the place, and when he has taken it, David will be at his mercy. But Saul, as usual, reckons without his host. David has received information that leads him to suspect that Saul is meditating mischief against him, and it looks as if he had come to Keilah only to fall into a trap, - to fall into the hands of Saul. But though a new danger has arisen, the old refuge still remains. "Bring hither the ephod," he says to Abiathar. And communication being again established with Heaven, two questions are asked: Will Saul come down to Keilah, to destroy the city for David’s sake? Yes, he will. Will the men of Keilah whom David has saved from the Philistines distinguish themselves for their gratitude or for their treachery? They will become traitors; they will deliver David up to Saul. So there is nothing for it but tor David to escape from Keilah. The worst of it is, he has no other place to go to. He goes forth from Keilah, as his father Abraham went forth from Ur of the Chaldees, not knowing whither. He and his followers went "whithersoever they could go." Treachery was a new foe, and when the treachery was on the part of those on whom he had just conferred a signal benefit, it was most discouraging; it seemed to indicate that he could never be safe.

Flying from Keilah, he takes refuge in a part of the wilderness near Ziph. Being very rocky and mountainous, it affords good opportunities for hiding; but in proportion as it is advantageous for that purpose, it is unfavourable for getting sufficient means of subsistence. A wood in the neighbourhood of Ziph afforded the chance of both. In this wood David enjoys the extra- ordinary privilege of a meeting with Jonathan. What a contrast to his treatment from the men of Keilah! If, on turning his back on them, he was disposed to say, "All men are liars," the blessed generosity of Jonathan modifies the sentiment. In such circumstances, the cheering words of his friend and the warmth of his embrace must have come on David with infinite satisfaction. They were to him what the loving words of the dying thief were to the Saviour, amid the babel and blasphemy of Calvary. Who, indeed, does not see in the David of this time, persevering in his work under such fearful discouragements, under the treachery of men with hearts like Judas Iscariot, experiencing the worst treatment from some whom he had benefited already, and from others whom he was to benefit still more - who can fail to see the type of Christ, patiently enduring the cross at the hands and in the stead of the very men whom by His sufferings He was to save and bless? For David, like our blessed Lord, though not with equal steadfastness, drinks the cup which the Father has given him; he holds to the work which has been given him to do.

The brief note of Jonathan’s words to David in the wood is singularly beautiful and suggestive. ’’Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose and went to David into the wood, and strengthened his hand in God. And he said unto him. Fear not; for the hand of Saul my father shall not find thee; and thou shalt be king over Israel, and I shall be next unto thee, and that also Saul my father knoweth." To begin with the last of Jonathan’s words, what a lurid light they throw on the conduct of Saul! He was under no misapprehension as to the Divine destiny of David. He must have known therefore that in fighting against David, he was fighting against God. It looks unaccountable madness; yet what worse is it than a thousand other schemes in which, to carry out their ends, men have trampled on every moral precept, as if there were no God, no lawgiver, ruler, or judge above, no power in hell or heaven witnessing their actions to bring them all into judgment?

In his words to David the faith and piety of Jonathan were as apparent as his friendship. He strengthened his hand in God. Simple but beautiful words! He put David’s hand as it were into God’s hand, in token that they were one, in token that the Almighty was pledged to keep and bless him, and that when he and his God were together, no weapon formed against him would ever prosper. Surely no act of friendship is so true friendship as this. To remind our Christian friends in their day of trouble of their relation to God, to encourage them to think of His interest in them and His promises to them; to drop in their ear some of His assurances - "I will never leave thee nor forsake thee" - is surely the best of all ways to encourage the downcast, and send them on their way rejoicing.

And what a hallowed word that was with which Jonathan began his exhortation - ’’Fear not." The ’’fear not’s" of Scripture are a remarkable garland. All of them have their root in grace, not in nature. They all imply a firm exercise of faith. And Jonathan’s "fear not" was no exception. If David had not been a man of faith, it would have sounded like hollow mockery. "The hand of Saul my father shall not find thee." Was not Saul with his well-equipped force, at that very moment, within a few miles of him, while he, with his half-starved followers was at his very wits’ end, not knowing where to turn to next? "Thou shalt be king over Israel." Nay, friend, I should be well pleased, David might have said, if I were again feeding my father’s flocks in Bethlehem, with all that has happened since then obliterated, reckoned as if it had never been. "And I shall be next unto thee." O Jonathan, how canst thou say that? Thou art the king’s eldest son, the throne ought to be thine, there is none worthier of it; the very fact that thou canst say that to me shows what a kingly generosity is in thy bosom, and how well entitled thou art to reign over Israel! Yes, David, but does not the very fact of Jonathan using such words show that he is in closest fellowship with God? Only a man pervaded through and through by the Spirit of God could speak thus to the person who stands between him and what the world would call his reasonable ambition. In that spirit of Jonathan there is a goodness altogether Divine. Oh what a contrast to his father, to Saul! What a contrast to the ordinary spirit of jealousy, when someone is like to cut us out of a coveted prize! Someone at school is going to beat you at the competition. Someone in business is going to get the situation for which you are so eager. Someone is going to carry off the fair hand to which you so ardently aspire. Where, oh where, in such cases, is the spirit of Jonathan? Look at it, study it, admire it; and in its clear and serene light, see what a black and odious spirit jealousy is; and oh, seek that you, by the grace of God, may be, not a Saul, but a Jonathan!

It would appear that Saul had left the neighbourhood of Ziph in despair of finding David, and had returned to Gibeah. But the distance was small - probably not more than a long day’s journey. And after a time. Saul is recalled to Ziph by a message from the Ziphites "Then came up the Ziphites to Saul to Gibeah, saying, Doth not David hide himself with us in strong holds in the woods, in the hill of Hachilah, which is on the south of Jeshimon? Now therefore, O king, come down according to all the desire of thy soul to come down; and our part shall be to deliver him into the king’s hand." The men of Keilah had not gone the length of treachery, for when they were thinking of it, David escaped; but even if they had, they would have had some- thing to say for themselves. Was it not better to give up David and let him suffer, than to keep him in their city, and let both him and them and their city share the fate, as they would have been sure to do, of Ahimelech and the city of Nob, - that is, be utterly destroyed? But the men of Ziph were in no such dilemma. Their treachery was simple meanness. They no doubt wished to ingratiate themselves with Saul. They had no faith either in David, or in God’s promises regarding him. Disbelieving God, they acted inhumanly to man. They let Saul know his best opportunity, and when he came on the spot, apparently of a sudden, David and his troop were surrounded, and their escape seemed to be cut off. Here was a strange commentary on the strong assurance of Jonathan, "Saul my father shall not find thee." Has he not found me, only to too good purpose? But man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. When Saul seems ready to pounce on David, a messenger arrives, "Haste thee, and come, for the Philistines have invaded the land." The danger was imminent, and Saul could not afford to lose an hour. And thus, on the very eve of seizing the prey he had been hunting for years, he is compelled to let it go.

It is edifying to observe all the different ways in which the Divine protection toward David had been shown, all the time that he had been exposed to the hostility of Saul. First of all, when Saul spoke to his servants and to Jonathan that they should kill David, Jonathan was raised up to take his side, and by his friendly counsels, arrested for the time the murderous purpose of Saul. Next, when Saul hurled a javelin at David, a rapid movement saved his life. The third time, he was let down through a window by his wife, in time to escape. The fourth time, the messengers that were sent to apprehend him were filled with the Spirit of God, and even Saul, determined to make up for their lack of service, underwent the same transformation. The fifth time, when he was in Keilah, he was supernaturally warned of the unkind treachery of the men of Keilah; and thus escaped the snare. And now, a sixth escape is effected, in the very article of death, so to speak, by a Philistine invasion. Thus was illustrated that wonderful diversity of plan that characterizes the ways of God, that "variety in unity" which we may trace alike in the kingdom of nature, of providence, and of grace. A similar variety is seen in His deliverances of Israel. At one time the sea is divided, at another the sun stands still; Gideon delivers by lamps and pitchers, Shamgar by his ox-goad, Samson by the jawbone of an ass, Jephthah by his military talents, David by his sling and stone, Daniel by his skill in dreams, Esther by her beauty and power of fascination. To remember such things ought to give you confidence in times of perplexity and danger. If it be God’s purpose to deliver you, He has thousands of unseen methods, to any one of which He may resort, when, to the eye of sense, there seems not the shadow of a hope. And one reason why He seems at times to doom His children to inevitable ruin, is that He may call their faith and their patience into higher exercise, and teach them more impressively the sublime lesson - "Stand still, and see the salvation of God."

The fifty-fourth Psalm bears an inscription that would refer it to this occasion. There are some expressions in the psalm that hardly agree with this reference; but the general situation is quite in keeping with it. "Save me, O God," the Psalmist cries, "by Thy name, and judge me by Thy strength." The danger from which he needs to be saved comes from strangers that are risen up against him, and opposers that seek after his soul; persons "that have not set God before them." To be saved by God’s name is to be saved through attributes which are manifestly Divine; to be judged by God’s strength, is to be vindicated, to be shown to be under God’s favour and protection, by the manifest exercise of His power. The petitions are such as David might well have made after his conversation with Jonathan. The psalm is evidently the song of one whose hand had been "strengthened in God." Its great central truth is, "God is mine helper; the Lord is with them who (like Jonathan) uphold my soul." And there comes after that a happy exercise of the spirit of trust, enabling the Psalmist to say, "He hath delivered me out of all trouble." This result is wonderful and beautiful. How remarkable that m that wilderness of Judah, amid a life of hardship, exposure, and peril, with a powerful king thirsting for his blood, and using his every device to get hold of him, he should be able to say of God, ’’He hath delivered me out of all trouble." It is the faith that removes mountains: it is the faith that worked so wonderfully when the lad with the sling and stones went out so bravely against the giant. What wonders cannot faith perform when it gets clear of all the entanglements of carnal feeling, and stands, firm and erect, on the promise of God! How infinitely would such a faith relieve and sustain us in the common troubles and anxieties of life, and in deeper perplexities connected with the cause of God! Take this short clause as marking out the true quality and highest attainment of simple faith, and resolve that you will not rest in your own endeavours till your mind reaches the state of tranquility which it describes so simply, - "He hath delivered me out of all trouble."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 23". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/1-samuel-23.html.
Ads FreeProfile