1 Samuel 20
The picture which the Holy Spirit has given in Scripture of Davidís character and life is a composite one. It is somewhat like a painting in which the dominant colors are white, black and gold. In many details David has left an example which we do well to follow. In other respects he presents a solemn warning which we do well to heed. In other features he was a blessed type of Christ. Thus, the meeting together of these three distinct things in David may well be likened unto a composite picture. Nor do we exercise a wrong spirit (providing our motive be right), or sully the grace of God by dwelling upon the sad defects in the character of the Psalmist or the failures in his life; rather will the Spiritís design be realized and our souls be the gainers if we duly take to heart and turn them into earnest prayer, that we may be delivered from the snares into which he fell.
At the close of our last chapter we saw how that, to escape the murderous hatred of Saul, David took refuge with Samuel at Naioth. Thither did his relentless enemy follow him. But wondrously did God interpose. Three times the messengers which the king had sent to arrest David were restrained and awed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Not only so, but when Saul himself came in person, the Spirit of God subdued and threw him into a kind of ecstatic trance. One would have thought that this signal intervention of God for David had quieted all his fears, and filled his soul with praise and thanksgiving unto Him who had shown Himself strong on his behalf. Was it not plain that God did not intend Saul to harm the one whom His prophet had anointed? Ah, but David too was a man of like passions with us, and unless divine grace wrought effectually within him, no outward providences would avail to spiritualize him. The moment the Lord leaves us to ourselves (to try us, to show what we are), a fall is certain.
Instead of continuing at Naioth, quietly waiting the next token of Godís goodness, David became alarmed, and took matters into his own hands. Instead of being occupied with the divine perfections, David now saw only a powerful, inveterate, bloodthirsty enemy. Accordingly, the next thing we read is, "And David fled from Naioth in Ramah" (20:1): true he "fled" from Saul, but he also turned his back upon Samuel. "And came and said before Jonathan, What have I done? what is mine iniquity? and what is my sin before thy father, that he seeketh my life?" It is solemn to see David preferring a conference with Jonathan rather than with the prophet of God. As usual, the key is hung upon the door; the opening verse of this chapter explains to us what is found in the later ones. It was "natural" that David should turn for help to a "friend," but was it spiritual?
Do not the questions David put to Jonathan reveal to us the state of his heart? The "I," "mine," "my," "my," show plainly enough the condition of his mind. God was not now in all his thoughts, yea, He was not mentioned at all. The repeated attempts of Saul upon his life had thoroughly unnerved him, and his "there is but a step between me and death" (1 Sam. 20:3), intimates plainly that unbelieving fears now possessed him. Ah, David needed to turn unto an abler physician than Jonathan if his feverish anxiety was to be allayed: only One was sufficient for laying a calming and cooling hand upon him. O how much the saint loses when he fails to acknowledge the Lord in all his ways (Prov. 3:6). But worse: when communion is broken, when the soul is out of touch with God, temptation is yielded unto and grievous sin is committed. It was so here. Afraid that Saulís anger would return when his absence from the table was noted, but fearful to take his place there, David bids Jonathan utter a deliberate lie on his behalf (20:5, 6). May this speak loudly to each of our hearts, warning of the fearful fruits which issue from severed fellowship with the Lord.
The first false step David had taken was in marrying the daughter of Saul, for it is evident from the sacred narrative that she was no suited partner for the man after Godís own heart. His second mistake was his fleeing from Naioth, and thus turning his back upon the prophet of God. His third failure was to seek aid of Jonathan. The true character of his "friend" was exhibited on this occasion: seeing David so perturbed, he had not the moral courage to acknowledge the truth, but sought to pacify him with a prevarication (20:2). Surely Jonathan could not be ignorant of Saulís having thrown the javelin at David, of the instructions given to the servants to slay him (19:11), of the messengers sent to arrest him (19:20), and of his going after David in person (19:22). But all doubt is removed by "Saul spake to Jonathan his son, and to all his servants, that they should kill David" (19:1). Jonathan deliberately equivocated in 20:2, and "evil communications corrupt good manners" (1 Cor. 15:33): thus it was hereóDavid lied too (20:5,6).
We do not propose to go over this twentieth chapter verse by verse, for we are not now writing a commentary upon 1 Samuel. A plan was agreed upon by Jonathan whereby he should ascertain the latest attitude of his father and acquaint David with the same. A solemn covenant was entered into between them: Jonathan here, and David much later (2 Sam. 9), faithfully carried out its terms. The words "David hid himself in the held" (v. 24 and cf. 35, 41), at once expose his lie in verse 6, though the commentators have glossed it over. When David was missed from the kingís table and inquiry was made, Jonathan repeated the lie which David had suggested to him. Thereupon the king reviled his son, and declared that David "shall surely die" (v. 31). When Jonathan sought to expostulate, and ask why David should be slain, Saul threw his javelin at him. The meeting between Jonathan and David in the field, and their affectionate leave-taking is touchingly described (vv. 41, 42).
"Then came David to Nob to Ahimelech the priest" (21:1). When a real saint is out of touch with God, when he is in a backslidden state, his conduct presents a strange enigma and his inconsistent ways are such as no psychologist can explain. But much that is inexplicable to many (even to ill-informed believers) is solved for us by Galatians 5: 17: "for the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that ye cannot do the things that ye would." Here we have set forth the conflict of the two "natures" in the Christian, the irreconcilable opposition between the two mainsprings of conduct, the "flesh" and the "spirit." According as one or the other of these two principles is actuating and dominating the saint, such will be his course of action. The final clause of this verse has a double force: the presence of the "flesh" hinders the "spirit" from completely realizing its desires in this life (Rom. 7:15-25); the presence of the "spirit," prevents the "flesh" from fully having its way.
Galatians 5: 17 supplies the key to many a mysterious experience in the life of a Christian, and sheds much light on the checkered histories of Old Testament saints. We might add many paragraphs at this point by illustrating the last sentence from the lives of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, etc., but instead, we will confine our attention to the leading subject of these chapters. In his meeting the attacks of the wild animals (17:34-36), in his devotion for the tabernacle (Ps. 132:1-7), in his engagement with Goliath, the "spirit" was uppermost in David, and therefore was the Lord before his heart. There had been severe testings of courage and faith, but his trust in the Lord wavered not. Then followed a season in the kingís household, where it was much harder to preserve this spirituality. Then Saul turned against him, and again and again sought his life. Deprived of the outward means of grace, Davidís faith flagged, and as it flagged fears replaced it, and instead of being occupied with the Lord, his powerful foe filled his vision.
In his flight from Saul, David first sought unto Samuel, which shows that the "flesh" in him was not completely regnant, as it never is in a truly regenerate soul: "Sin shall not have dominion over you" (Rom. 6: 14)óit shall not render you its absolute slave. But in his flight from Samuel and his turning to Jonathan for help, we see the "flesh" more and more regulating his actionsóstill more plainly manifested in the falsehood which he put into his friendís mouth. And now in his flight unto Ahimelech and the manner in which he conducted himself, the anointed eye may discern the conflict which was at work within him. It now seemed clear unto David that no change for the better was to be expected in Saul: as long as the king was alive, he was in danger. An outcast from the court, he now became a lonely wanderer, but before he journeyed farther afield, his heart was first drawn to Nob, whither the tabernacle had been removed.
Various motives and considerations seem to have moved David in his repairing to Nob. Foreseeing that he must now be an exile, he wished to take leave of the tabernacle, not knowing when he should see it again, it is plain from many of his Psalms that the sorest grief of David during the time of his banishment was his isolation from the house of God and his restraint from public ordinances: "How amiable are thy Tabernacles, O Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord . . . . For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness" (Ps. 84:1, 2, 10 and cf. 42:3, 4, etc.) Second, it seems clear from 1 Samuel 22:10 that Davidís purpose was to enquire of the Lord through the high priest, to obtain directions from Him as to his path. Third, from what follows here, it appears that food was also his quest.
"And Ahimelech was afraid at the meeting of David" (21:1). Evidently the high priest had heard of Davidís having fallen under the displeasure of Saul, and so concluded that he was a fugitive. Knowing the type of man the king was, Ahimelech was fearful of endangering his own life by entertaining David. "And said unto him, Why art thou alone, and no man with thee?" That there were some "young men" with him is clear from verse 4 and also Matthew 12:3, yet having won such renown both in camp and court, it might well be expected that David should be accompanied by a suitable equipage. The disdain which the high priest showed for David the outcast, illustrates the merciless attitude of the world toward a fallen and impoverished hero.
"And David said unto Ahimelech the priest, The king hath commanded me a business, and hath said unto me, Let no man know any thing of the business whereabout I send thee, and what I have commanded thee: and I have appointed my servants to such and such a place" (21:2). Here again we see David guilty of a gross untruth. How solemn to find the Psalmist of Israel telling a deliberate lie at the threshold of the house of God, whither he had come to inquire the mind of the Lord. Verily, each one of us has real need to pray "Remove from me the way of lying" (Ps. 119:29). Davidís heart quailed under the embarrassing question of the priest, and he who had dared to meet single-handed the Philistine giant was now afraid to speak the truth. Ah, there cannot be the calm and courage of faith, where faith itself is inoperative. Elijah shrank not from meeting the four hundred prophets of Baal, yet later he fled in terror from Jezebel. Peter dared to step out of the ship onto the sea, yet trembled before a maid. "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall."
It is easier to trust God in days of sunshine than in times of gloom and darkness. "David had often, indeed, before known difficulty and danger: from the day of his conflict with Goliath he had known little else: but then, there was this differenceóin former difficulties he had been enabled to triumph. Some ray of brightness had gilded every cloud; some honor awaited him out of each affliction. But now, God seemed no longer to interfere on his behalf. The full enmity of Saul was allowed to take its course; and God interfered not, either to subdue or to chasten. He appeared no longer to intend raising David above circumstances, but to allow him to be overcome by them. Davidís heart seemed unable to bear this. To trust God whilst overcoming is one thing; to trust Him when being overcome is another" (B. W. Newton).
David now asked Ahimelech for five loaves of bread (21:3): bear in mind that he stood at the door of the tabernacle, and not before the priestís personal residence. All that was to hand were the twelve loaves which had rested for a week on the golden table in the sanctuary, and which, being replaced at once by twelve more, became the property of the priests and their families. Assuring Ahimelech that he and his men met the requirements of Exodus 19:15, David pressed for the bread being given to him. To what a low estate had the son of Jesse fallen: now that Saulís rooted malice was generally known the people would be afraid and unwilling to befriend him. In Matthew 12 we find the Lord Jesus vindicating this action, which shows us that the ordinances of religion may be dispensed with where the preservation of life calls for it: ritual observances must give way to moral duties, and in the case of urgent providential necessity that is permissible which ordinarily may not be done.
"Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the Lord; and his name was Doeg, an Edomite, the chiefest of the herdmen that belonged to Saul" (21:7). And yet in his hearing David had preferred his urgent request. Surely natural common sense would have prompted him to act with more prudence. Ah, my reader, when the saint is in a backslidden state of soul, he often acts more foolishly than does the man of the world. This is a righteous judgment of God upon him. He has given us His Word to walk by, and that Word is one of wisdom, containing salutary counsel. We turn from it at our peril and irreparable loss. To lean unto our own understanding is to court certain disaster. Yet, when communion with God is broken, this is exactly what we do. Then it is that we are suffered to reap the bitter fruits of our evil ways and made to feel the consequences of our folly.
Next, David asked Ahimelech for a weapon, and was told that the only one available was "the sword of Goliath," which had been preserved in the tabernacle as a monument of the Lordís goodness to Israel. When told of this, David exclaimed, "There is none like that, give it to me." Alas, alas, how had the mighty fallen. "Surely it augured ill for David, that his handóthat hand which had placed the sword of Goliath in the sanctuary of the God of Israelóthat hand which had once taken the pebble and the sling as the symbol of its strength, because it trusted in the Lord of hostsóit augured ill that his hand should be the first to withdraw the giant weapon from its resting-place in order that he might transfer to it a measure, at least of that confidence which he was withdrawing from God. How different the condition of David now, and on the day of Goliathís fall! Then, trusting in the God of Israel, and associated with Israel, he had gone out in owned weakness; but now, forsaking Israel and the land of Israel, he went forth armed with the sword of Goliath, to seek friendship and alliance with the Philistines, the enemies of Israel, and the enemies of God" (B. W. Newton).
Thus David now set forth, provisioned (temporarily, at least) and armed. But at what a cost? The unsuspecting priest had believed Davidís lies, and assured by him that Saul had commissioned him, feared not the presence of Doeg the kingís servant (v. 7). But he paid dearly for listening, against his better judgment, to Davidís falsehoods. That treacherous Edomite informed Saul (22:9, 10), and later he was ordered by the enraged king to reek a fearful vengeance: "And Doeg the Edomite turned, and he fell upon the priests, and slew on that day fourscore and five persons that did wear a linen ephod. And Nob, the city of the priests smote he with the edge of the sword, both men and women, children and sucklings, and oxen, and asses, and sheep" (1 Sam. 22: 18, 19). Such were some of the fearful results of Davidís lies, as he afterwards acknowledged to the one remaining child of Ahimelech: "I have occasioned the death of all the persons of thy fatherís house" (1 Sam. 22:22). May it please the Holy Spirit to powerfully move both writer and reader to lay to heart the whole of this solemn incident, that we may pray daily with increasing earnestness, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."