David seeks to get away from Saul, but he cannot get away from his anointing. He can evade Saul, but he cannot evade the fact that a new Israel is going to start to form around him. David goes into the wilderness and finds a throne. Saul goes to his throne and finds a wilderness.
“Then came David to Nob to Ahimelech the priest: and Ahimelech was afraid at the meeting of David, and said unto him, Why art thou alone, and no man with thee? . . .” (1 Sam. 21:1-15).
Summary of the Text
David continues on the run, and he comes to Nob, a priestly city (v. 1). The tabernacle had apparently been moved there after the destruction of Shiloh. They didn’t have the ark there, but they still put out the showbread. The showbread was also called the bread of the Presence—but the Presence wasn’t there anymore. A lot of things were dislocated. Ahimelech was concerned because David did not have the kind of entourage he should have had, and so David told him he was on a secret mission (v. 2). David asks for five loaves of bread (v. 3). Ahimelech says he has no common bread, but that David can have the showbread if his young men have kept themselves from women —meaning they were dedicated to holy war (v. 4). David replies in the affirmative (v. 5), and so the priest gives him the showbread (v. 6). But Doeg the Edomite was there (v. 7). David then asks for weapons (v. 8), and so the priest gives him the sword of Goliath (v. 9). And so David then fled to Gath, where Achish was king (v. 10). But the servants of Achish recognized him, and repeated the words of the song that the women of Israel had sung, back at the beginning of all the trouble (v. 11). David was starting to hate that song. And so David came to be afraid of Achish (v. 12), and so pretended to be insane (v. 13). And Achish was fooled (v. 14), and delivers one of the great lines of Scripture (v. 15).
Ahimelech was the great-grandson of Eli, and the brother of Ahijah—the man who came into the priestly service of Saul after the departure of Samuel (1 Sam. 14:3). Jesus identifies this episode as happening in the “days” of Abiathar (Mark 2:26), the son of Ahimelech, who joined up with David later, and who served as high priest for David. Each one of these five loaves contained about three and a half pounds of flour (Lev. 24:5-9). David already had a group of men around him, but they were apparently a pretty rag tag bunch, which is what caused Ahimelech to wonder about the absence of a more regular detail. In an odd move, David receives the sword of Goliath and promptly flees to the city of Goliath.
David uses deception twice in this chapter. Once was to mislead Ahimelech, giving him the protection of plausible deniability (which didn’t work), and the other instance was when he pretended to be mad in order to get away from Achish (which did work). We have previously seen that deception is an essential part of warfare, and pious evangelicals who object to this are slicing it way too fine. An example would be the (otherwise commendable) ESV Study Bible, which says of this place, “Though David normally acted as an upright man, the Bible does not hesitate to record honestly his instances of wrongdoing.” But what sense does this make? Do we want to say that it is not a sin to blow somebody up with a tank just so long as you never camouflage it? In this instance, David is using deceit as a way of avoiding direct conflict with Saul, and God bless him.
If you were standing at a crossroads, and a screaming woman ran by, and then about five minutes later, a lunatic with furious eyes and an axe ran up, demanding to know “which way she went,” I trust that all of you here would lie like a Christian. And none of this changes the fact that the lake of fire is reserved for liars (Rev. 21:8), that the ninth commandments prohibits the corruption of the courts (Ex. 20:16), and that we are commanded not to lie to one another because we have put off the old man (Col. 3:9). Kids, if your mom asks if you made your bed, and you reply that you did (even though you did not), you cannot fix it by appealing to the Hebrew midwives, or to the faithful deception that Rahab used. You should get swats a couple times—once for the lie, and the other time for the faulty hermeneutic.
Jesus refers to this incident, and He does so in a way that exonerates David (Matt. 12:1-8). The law of God, the Lord teaches, is not built out of two by fours. It is a case law system, the same kind of thing as our common law system, which means that the principles of justice must be understood, and they cannot be understood unless we are free men in Christ. Legalists are not qualified to be judges. Judges need to understand and love the law. This means that we must be the kind of men who understand that God wants mercy, and not sacrifice. Not one jot or tittle will pass from the law until all is fulfilled, but this does not turn the Lord of mercy into a cross-eyed i- dotter. The law made allowances within it, as can be seen by the priests who had to work in the Temple on the Sabbath. Ahimelech had to replace the twelve loaves every Sabbath, which meant that every Sabbath he had to bake bread. What Ahimelech could bake, David could eat—because of two principles. The first is the presence of one who is greater than the Temple. Which is greater, the bread of the Presence or the Presence itself ? The second is the authority of mercy. Mercy does not negate authority; mercy has authority.
Do not confuse this. Mercy is not what happens when your standards fall apart. Laziness in discipline is not mercy. Mercy is what happens when your standards are outranked. Mercy stands taller than justice.