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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 21

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary

Verse 1

1. Nob This city was situated a little to the north of Jerusalem, and apparently upon an eminence in sight of it, so that the Assyrian army, having advanced thus far, could “shake his hand against the mount of the daughter of Zion.” Isaiah 10:32. Many travellers have sought in vain to identify its sight. Dr. J.L. Porter made the discovery of Nob a special subject of research, and as the result of his investigation gives us the following: “Less than a mile south of Tuleil el-Ful, the site of Gibeah, is a conical rocky tell [hill] separated from the former by a valley. On the summit and sides of this tell are traces of a small but very ancient town cisterns cut in the rock; large, hewn stones: portions of the rocky sides levelled and hewn away; and on the southeast the remains of a small tower. From the summit there is a wide view. Mount Zion is distinctly seen, though Moriah is hid by an intervening ridge. The position, south of Gibeah and not far from Anathoth; the elevation, commanding a view of Zion, against which Isaiah represents the Assyrian as shaking his hand; the ancient remains all convinced the writer that this is the site of the long-lost Nob.”

Ahimelech the priest Supposed to be the same as the Ahiah mentioned 1 Samuel 14:3. This high priest was assisted by eighty-five priests who wore linen ephods, and hence Nob was called the city of the priests. 1 Samuel 22:18-19. The mention of these, and also of the show-bread, shows that the tabernacle was at this time at Nob.

Ahimelech was afraid At seeing a person of David’s rank coming to him unattended and alone.

Verses 1-9

DAVID’S FLIGHT TO NOB, 1 Samuel 21:1-9.

Finding that his beloved Jonathan cannot defend him from the wrath of Saul, David next flies to the high priest, to inquire of the Lord concerning his way. The presence there of Doeg, the Edomite, was an obstacle in his way.

Verses 1-15

DAVID’S FLIGHT TO RAMAH, AND SAUL’S PURSUIT, 1 Samuel 19:18 to 1 Samuel 24:18.

David fled… to Samuel Whither could he better go for help and counsel at a time like this? Surely, he thinks, Samuel will defend me against Saul.

He and Samuel went and dwelt in Naioth Naioth is not to be regarded as a proper name. The word means habitations, dwelling places, and refers to the dwellings of the band of prophets over whom Samuel presided. The plural is used because of the number of cells or huts in this locality. The Targum renders the word house of instruction, and Ewald defines it as studium, or school. Here these disciples of Samuel dwelt, and disciplined themselves in holy exercises. How long David enjoyed this society of Samuel and these prophets before Saul ascertained whither he had fled we cannot determine, but probably not long.

Verse 2

2. The king hath commanded me a business The statements of David in this verse, and the addition, in 1 Samuel 21:8, that the king’s business required such haste that he thought not to bring his weapons, are to be regarded as utter falsehood, pure fabrications, framed for the purpose of deceiving Ahimelech, allaying suspicion, and aiding himself in his escape. Perhaps the presence of Doeg, the Edomite, (1 Samuel 21:7,) led to his uttering this fictitious plea. This is one of the occasions on which the noble David sinned. We shall meet with other instances in the subsequent history. It should be remembered, however, that according to the morals of that age falsehood, like polygamy and other sins which the ethics of our Gospel system utterly condemn, was not looked upon as criminal. Prevarication and falsehood that did not amount to perjury seem not to have been regarded as violations of the ninth commandment. Accordingly, Otto von Gerlach well observes, in his comment on the ninth commandment, that “although it enjoins, when properly understood, full, entire, and unequivocal truthfulness towards our neighbour in every relation, yet the practical understanding of this meaning was very imperfectly attained to in the Old Testament times, since we find so many servants of God allowing themselves, in their perplexities, to have recourse to lying.” David subsequently deplored the fact that he had occasioned the death of all the priests of Nob, (1 Samuel 22:22,) but he showed not the least compunction over the falsehood by which he deceived the high priest, not even in the psalm (Psalms 52:0) which he composed on the occasion, and in which he accuses his enemy of lying.

My servants David probably had a few followers with him, and had left them in the distance while he personally went to the high priest for bread. These were the young men referred to in 1 Samuel 21:4-5, and mentioned in Mark 2:25-26.

Verse 3

3. What is under thine hand What provision? what food hast thou ready made, or on hand?

Verse 4

4. Common bread Bread not consecrated; such as might lawfully be eaten by ordinary persons.

Hallowed bread That is, the showbread, which it was unlawful for any but the priests to eat. Exodus 29:32; Leviticus 24:9.

If the young men have kept themselves… from women If they take of the hallowed bread, it is necessary that they should be at least ceremonially clean in the matter here specified. Sexual intercourse made a person unfit for contact with holy things. Exodus 19:15; Leviticus 15:16. Thus the high priest judges that in a case of necessity, the requirements of the law regarding this bread might be set aside. Compare Matthew 12:4, and Mark 2:26.

Verse 5

5. Since I came out Upon this secret business of the king. The conjunction and, which immediately follows these words, shows that they belong to the preceding sentence. David falsely tells Ahimelech that about three days had already passed since he started upon the king’s business.

The vessels of the young men are holy By their vessels their bodies are intended their persons. This word is thus used in 1 Thessalonians 4:4, and 2 Corinthians 4:7; and in this same verse it is again used in this same sense, for the question was one of bodily purity. Some understand the word to refer to the implements or clothes of the young men; but Thenius well asks: What mattered it about the purity of their implements if their persons were not pure? David’s object certainly was to conciliate the priest so as to obtain through him the hallowed bread; and so he endeavoured to persuade him that himself and the servants mentioned (1 Samuel 21:2) were ceremonially clean, and that therefore there could be no reason to refuse them the show-bread on the ground of their personal defilement.

And the bread is in a manner common, yea, though it were sanctified this day in the vessel If this were the meaning of the Hebrew it would represent David as contradicting both the high priest and the law itself. The marginal reading relieves the case but little. What the Jehovah had sanctified David would not most certainly, in the presence of the priest, call common or unclean. The Hebrew text here says nothing about bread, but, literally rendered, reads thus: And this way is common, and how much more is it to-day sanctified in the vessel? By this way we understand, with Keil and Ewald, the business on which David pretends the king has sent him. It was common, that is, ordinary, or secular, as distinguished from religious business, and therefore did not require such ceremonial purity as did a holy service. By the vessel the bodies or persons of the young men are meant, the phrase being equivalent to in body. In this sense the word vessel has already been used in this same verse. To day has reference to the three days previously mentioned, during which the young men had been kept from women, and the thought is, How much more are they pure in body to-day than three days ago! All that stands in the way of the conclusiveness of this interpretation is the verb יקדשׁ in the singular number it is sanctified. But in view of the obscurity that attaches to every other exposition, we feel constrained to emend the text by adding the plural ending to this verb, יקדשׁו , they are sanctified. Then the whole verse may be thus paraphrased: Truly women have been kept from us yesterday and the day before, when I came out, and so the bodies of the young men are in this respect pure; and though our business is not of a religious character, yet how much more are they pure in body today!

Verse 6

6. That was taken from before the Lord, to put hot bread in the day when it was taken away This was done every sabbath day, (Leviticus 24:8-9,) and it is therefore probable that this incident of David’s life occurred on the sabbath. On this supposition our Lord’s appeal to this incident, as a vindication of his plucking the ears of corn on the sabbath, has double force. See Matthew 12:1-4. Kitto remarks: “As it was not lawful to travel on the sabbath day, it seems to us that, seeing it was not safe for him to remain at Gibeah, and that the little time which remained before the commencement of the sabbath would preclude further travelling, he had concluded to go to Nob as a place of safety, till the termination of the holy day should enable him to resume his journey.”

Verse 7

7. Detained before the Lord But what detained him? Various answers have been given, as that he was fulfiling some vow at the tabernacle, or offering some special sacrifice. But if the supposition of the above note be correct, that David’s interview with the priest occurred on the sabbath day, then we may naturally understand that Doeg was detained there by the sabbath, since it would be unlawful to be abroad at his work on that holy day.

The chiefest of the herdmen Overseer and chief manager of this department of the king’s affairs. Doeg is introduced here in anticipation of what is related in 1 Samuel 22:9-22, and also, perhaps, to account for David’s words and action. David had often inquired of the Lord through Ahimelech, (1 Samuel 22:15,) and had probably come to Nob to do so now, but, finding Doeg there, he seems to have been confused and embarrassed, so framed a fictitious pretext as to his coming alone, and then took his departure as soon as possible. His strange action may have led Doeg to suspect conspiracy between him and Ahimelech against the government of Saul. Compare 1 Samuel 22:9-13.

Verse 9

9. Wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod It is probable that, after he had exhibited Goliath’s sword at his own home, (1 Samuel 17:54,) David had it deposited in the sanctuary as a dedicatory offering. Here it had now been hanging many years, carefully kept behind the high priest’s shoulder-dress. David now thought that he might justly claim it as his own. Ahimelech’s allowing him to take it was construed by Doeg as further evidence of collusion between them.

Verse 10

DAVID AT GATH, 1 Samuel 21:10-15.

10. Fled that day Even before that day had closed so great became his fear of being suspected and detained that he secretly fled from Nob.

For fear Rather, from the face of Saul. Mark his successive flights. First from the court of Saul to his own house, (1 Samuel 19:10;) thence to Samuel at Ramah, (18;) thence to Jonathan in the field of Gibeah, (1 Samuel 20:1;) thence to the high priest at Nob. 1 Samuel 21:1. He might well feel, at this point, that there was now no asylum for him in Israel.

Went to Achish the king of Gath On the site of Gath, see note on 1 Samuel 5:8. Achish was, perhaps, a title of royalty, applied, like Abimelech, to all the Philistine kings. It indeed seems strange that David should have fled so soon for refuge into the land of Israel’s bitterest enemy, and, with Goliath’s sword in his hand, should nevertheless have sought an asylum in Gath, lately the home of Goliath. But we must remember that several years had passed since David’s victory over the giant, and 1 Samuel 21:12 gives us to understand that David did not expect to be recognised. This account, however, of David at Gath is very brief, and the difficulty in question may be owing to our ignorance of all the circumstances of the case. Perhaps David’s coming to Gath was not intentional on his own part, but, having fled into the territory of Achish, he was seized by the servants of that king, and forcibly carried into the royal presence. This supposition is in entire accord with the particulars of this narrative, and has the sanction of the title of Psalms 56:0, which David composed on this occasion.

Verse 11

11. The servants of Achish Who brought David into the royal presence. Where and in what manner these servants met with David we are not told; but the supposition, based on the title of Psalm lvi, is exceedingly plausible: that they had taken him captive while he was wandering in the land of Philistia.

King of the land “Thus they call David, not because his anointing and Divine election were known to them, but on account of his victorious deeds, which had thrown Saul entirely into the shade.” Keil.

Verse 12

12. David laid up these words in his heart Until he heard the servants say these things he hoped to escape recognition; but now, when he finds that they suspect him to be the great hero who slew Goliath, he is oppressed with a host of fears.

Verse 13

13. Changed his behaviour Rather, changed his reason; pretended to lose his mind.

Verse 14

14. The man is mad “A sort of respect for persons thus afflicted, as if they were under some kind of supernatural influence, has always existed, and does now exist, in the East; so that David knew his personal safety, and even his freedom, were guaranteed by the belief in his madness.” Kitto.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 21". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/1-samuel-21.html. 1874-1909.
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