1 Samuel 21: David on the Run

We left off in 1 Samuel 20 with David learning from Jonathan that his relationship with Saul was not going to be restored and his life was in serious danger. After a tearful farewell of his best friend, David fled. Chapter 21 picks up the story by charting the beginning of David’s travels.

The first stop is at the tabernacle, which at the time was in the city of Nob.

Ahimelech the priest is afraid when he sees David. Reminds me of chapter 16, when Samuel shows up in Bethlehem after condemning Saul, and the elders are afraid of the prophet. Especially considering the events that will happen in chapter 22, I wonder if Ahimelech had fallen out of favor with Saul and was a little nervous about why David was showing up alone – was David there peaceably?

Whatever the reason for his fears, David dispels them – by lying. “The king has ordered me on some business, and said to me, ‘Do not let anyone know anything about the business on which I send you, or what I have commanded you.’ And I have directed my young men to such and such a place” (1 Sam. 21:2).

This is the first time we see David clearly stumble. The mighty warrior who has so far trusted God even in the face of the impossible, now has a moment in which he gives in to fear. And he lies.

He’s not the first great man of God to fail. Abraham lied twice when he feared for his life. His son Isaac repeated the mistake. In the New Testament, even bold Peter lost courage and lied, denying that he knew Jesus.

You could argue that they didn’t know it was wrong. The Old Testament didn’t explicitly say that lying was wrong. A lot of people think one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not lie” – but in fact it’s “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.” In other words, don’t lie about someone else and make it seem like they did something wrong. If you’re in court as a witness, you better tell the truth about what you know. So it’s a command against lying, but not necessarily all lying.

But there does seem to be an understanding that lying is not right. As we’ll see at the end of this post, even David knew this.

We all fail. We all rebel. We all do what we know to be wrong. Even the great heroes of the faith messed up countless times. The beauty of the Gospel is that God gives grace to those who recognize they need it.

To continue the story, David then asks Abimelech if he can have 5 loaves of bread – or whatever is on hand. The priest replies that the only bread on hand is the week-old showbread that has been removed from before the LORD and replaced with new bread. Technically, the showbread was considered holy, and it was meant for the priests to eat. But Abimelech is willing to offer it to David, so long as David has kept himself “from women” in recent days.

I’ve always been curious whether this was okay for David to eat the showbread. So last night and today I spent some time looking into it, and there seems to be all sorts of opinions. It’s hard, because the Old Testament tends to present stories like this without comment as to whether they were right or wrong.

But in this particular case, we have a New Testament reference to it. I’ll use the version from Mark 2:23-27:

Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

But He said to them, “Have you never read what David when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?”

And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”

Here Jesus makes it sound like it was not lawful for David to eat the showbread – whether “not lawful” refers to the law of God or the law of the Pharisees, I don’t know for sure. Either way, Jesus seems to be pointing out that the Law was created to serve man, not the other way around. David was on the run and in need of food, so his actions are excused. Perhaps, had the priest refused to give David the showbread and sent him on hungry, he would have been the one really sinning!

I wonder, as I try to figure out whether David’s actions were justified or not, if I am making the same mistake the Pharisees did, making the Law an end in itself instead of the means to an end. Am I elevating the rules above the reason for the rules: justice and righteousness? Am I so concerned with doing the “right thing” that I’m missing the heart of what is actually right and good?

After David takes the bread, he asks if there are any weapons on hand. We find out that the sword of Goliath has been kept in the tabernacle, probably as a memorial to David’s victory over the giant. I wonder, as David received it, was his trust more in the sword than in the One who had given him the victory with that sword? Or, when he received the sword, did it serve as a reminder of all the times the LORD had delivered him before?

David takes Goliath’s sword and then runs away to (of all places) Goliath’s hometown of Gath! Why he thought that was a good idea, I don’t know. Verse 10 says that he “went to Achish the king of Gath,” but based off of subsequent verses (e.g. verse 14) and the preface to Psalm 69, it seems that in reality he ended up being captured by the Philistines and brought before King Achish. Either that or he did indeed go to Achish (for whatever the reason), and then the Philistines recognized him and captured him.

Interestingly, the Philistines refer to David as “the king of the land” (vs. 11). How far from the truth that must have seemed to David, especially then! Didn’t they realize that he was in King Saul’s especial disfavor? Probably not. They reference the song that had been sung after David got back from killing Goliath, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (vs. 11).

Verse 12 says that “David took these words to heart” and became afraid of Achish. If the Philistines recognized who he was and remembered that it was he who killed their champion, he was a goner! So he pretends that he’s gone crazy, and Achish lets him go in apparent disgust.

Poor David is battling enemies on all sides. Enemies in his country, enemies in the neighboring countries – and the enemy of fear in his heart. No wonder he says in Psalm 56:2, “My enemies would hound me all day, for there are many who fight against me, O Most High”.

I thought it would be neat to close out this post by looking at Psalm 56 and Psalm 34, which were written around the events of this chapter. Knowing the context of these psalms gives them so much more depth and meaning. Reading this chapter, I feel like David was at a spiritual low point, turning to deceptions and giving in to fear. But then I read these Psalms and see his heart. I imagine these were probably written in hindsight of the events in chapter 21… even if he had fallen spiritually then, he certainly rose up again afterward and learned from those experiences. May we also learn from the experiences God has allowed in our lives, and may we rise up after our mistakes to keep on pressing after the Lord.

Psalm 56 – a Michtam of David when the Philistines captured him in Gath

Be merciful to me, O God, for man would swallow me up;

Fighting all day he oppresses me.

My enemies would hound me all day,

For there are many who fight against me, O Most High.

Whenever I am afraid,

I will trust in You.

In God (I will praise His word),

In God I have put my trust;

I will not fear.

What can flesh do to me?

All day they twist my words;

All their thoughts are against me for evil.

They gather together,

They hide, they mark my steps,

When they lie in wait for my life.

Shall they escape by iniquity?

In anger cast down the peoples, O God!

You number my wanderings;

Put my tears into Your bottle;

Are they not in Your book?

When I cry out to You,

Then my enemies will turn back;

This I know, because God is for me.

In God (I will praise His word),

In the LORD (I will praise His word),

In God I have put my trust;

I will not be afraid.

What can man do to me?

Vows made to You are binding upon me, O God;

I will render praises to You,

For You have delivered my soul from death.

Have You not kept my feet from falling,

That I may walk before God

In the light of the living?

Psalm 34 – A Psalm of David when he pretended madness before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he departed

I will bless the LORD at all times;

His praise shall continually be in my mouth.

My soul shall make its boast in the LORD;

The humble shall hear of it and be glad.

Oh, magnify the LORD with me,

And let us exalt His name together.

I sought the LORD, and He heard me,

And delivered me from all my fears.

They looked to Him and were radiant,

And their faces were not ashamed.

This poor man cried out, and the LORD heard him,

And saved him out of all his troubles.

The angel of the LORD encamps all around those who fear Him,

And delivers them.

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good;

Blessed is the man who trusts in Him!

Oh, fear the LORD, you His saints!

There is no want to those who fear Him.

The young lions lack and suffer hunger;

But those who seek the LORD shall not lack any good thing.

Come, you children, listen to me;

I will teach you the fear of the LORD.

Who is the man who desires life,

And loves many days, that he may see good?

Keep your tongue from evil,

And your lips from speaking deceit.

Depart from evil and do good;

Seek peace and pursue it.

The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous,

And His ears are open to their cry.

The face of the LORD is against those who do evil,

To cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.

The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears,

And delivers them out of all their troubles.

The LORD is near to those who have a broken heart,

And saves such as have a contrite spirit.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,

But the LORD delivers him out of them all.

He guards all his bones;

Not one of them is broken.

Evil shall slay the wicked,

And those who hate the righteous shall be condemned.

The LORD redeems the soul of His servants,

And none of those who trust in Him shall be condemned.