David in Exile—His Visit to the High Priest Ahimelech at the Sanctuary of Nob—His Sojourn with Achish, the Philistine King of Gath.
The town of Nob, situated between Anathoth and Jerusalem—about an hour’s ride from the latter—has been with great probability identified with the “village of Esau,” El-Isaurizeb, a place bearing all the marks of an ancient town, with its many marble columns and ancient stones. There, in these latter days of Saul, “stood the last precious relic of the ancient nomadic times—the tabernacle of the wanderings, round which, since the fall of Shiloh, had dwelt the descendants of the house of Eli. It was a little colony of priests; no less than eighty-five persons ministered there in the white linen dress of the priesthood, and all their families and herds were gathered round them. The priest was not so ready to befriend as the prophet (we allude to David’s reception by Samuel at Naioth by Ramah, 1 Samuel 19). As the solitary fugitive, famished and unarmed, stole up the mountain side, he met with but a cold welcome from the cautious and courtly Ahimelech.”—Stanley, Lectures on the Jewish Church, Lect. 12
To Ahimelech the priest.—He was the great grandson of Eli, thus—
Died at Shiloh after news of capture of Ark,
Slain by Philistines in battle
Reign of Saul—High Priest,
Reign of David—High Priest, (See 1 Samuel 22:19-20.)
He was probably identical with Ahiah (1 Samuel 14:3); this, however, is not certain. Dean Payne Smith believes Ahiah was a younger brother of Ahimelech, who, while Ahimelech remained with the Ark, acted as high priest at the camp for Saul, especially in consulting God for him by means of the ephod with the breastplate (the Urim).
Why art thou alone?—The not unfriendly but cautious priest, who, though unaware of the final rupture of Saul and David, was of course cognisant of the strained relations of the king and his great servant, was uneasy at this sudden appearance of the king’s son-in-law—the well-known military chieftain, David—alone and travel-stained at the sanctuary.
I have appointed my servants.—This portion of his words to Ahimelech was, no doubt, strictly true. It is unlikely that one in the high position of David at the court of Saul, possessing, too, such powers over men’s hearts, would be allowed to go even into exile without any friends or attendants. Those alluded to here probably joined him soon after his parting with Jonathan. Our Lord, in Mark 2:25-26, speaks of the priest giving the shewbread to David and to those that were with him, when both he and they that were with him were an hungred.
This “hallowed bread,” or shewbread, five loaves of which David petitioned for, consisted of twelve loaves, one for each tribe, which were placed in the Tabernacle fresh every Sabbath Day. The law of Moses was that this bread, being most holy, could only be eaten by the priests in the holy place. It is probable that this regulation had been relaxed, and that the bread was now often being carried away and eaten in the homes of the ministering priests, and on urgent occasions, perhaps, was even given to the “laity,” as in this case, the proviso only being made that the consumers of the bread should be ceremonially pure. Our Saviour, in Matthew 12:3, especially uses this example, drawn from the Tabernacle’s honoured customs, to justify a violation of the letter of the law, when its strict observance would stand in the way of the fulfilment of man’s sacred duty to his neighbour.
The natural inference from this incident would be that such a violation of the Mosaic Law was not an uncommon occurrence, as Ahimelech at once gave him the hallowed bread, only making a conditional inquiry about ceremonial purity—a condition which came out so readily that we feel it had often been made before. The Talmud, however, is most anxious that this inference should not be drawn, and points out in the treatise Menachoth, “Meat-offerings” (Seder Kodashim), that this bread was not newly taken out of the sanctuary, but had been removed on some previous day, and that as, after a week’s exposure, it was stale and dry, the priests ate but little of it, and the rest was left. (See Treatise Yoma, 39.) It also points out that had such violation of the Levitical Law been common, so much importance would not have been attached to this incident.
The LXX., by a very slight change in the Hebrew letters, instead of “the vessels of the young men,” render, “all the young men.”
And the bread is in a manner common.—The original is here very difficult, almost utterly obscure. The English Version of the clause is simply meaningless. Of the many translations which have been suggested, two at least offer a fairly good sense. (a) “And if it is an unholy way (viz., the way David and his band were going—his purpose or enterprise), moreover there is also the fact that it becomes holy through the instrument” (viz., through me, as an ambassador of the anointed of the Lord), on the supposition of the important royal mission upon which David pretended to be sent. So Keil and O. von Gerlach. (b) Lange, however, and Thenius, maintain that the words in question must contain a remark by which the priest is to be induced to give the bread, and would translate, “Though it is an unholy (ceremonially illegal) procedure (to take the shewbread), yet it is sanctified (to-day) through the instrument” (David or Ahimelech). The instrument is here David, the appointed messenger of the Lord’s anointed, or, even better, Ahimelech, the sacred person of the high priest.
No doubt, the words of Leviticus 24:9, which speak of the destination of the stale shewbread—“And they (Aaron and his sons) shall eat it in the holy place”—suggested the practice of the Church of England embodied in the Rubric following the” Order of the Administration of the Holy Communion”—“And if any” (of the bread and wine) “remain of that which was consecrated, it shall not be carried out of the church, but the priest, and such other of the communicants as he shall then call unto him, shall immediately after the blessing reverently eat and drink the same.” Among the legendary Jewish lore that has gathered round the history of this transaction is one strange tradition that the holy bread thus given became useless in the hands of the king’s fugitive. (See Stanley, Lectures on the Jewish Church, Lect. 22, quoting from Jerome.)
The Hebrew words rendered in the English Version, “the chiefest of the herdmen that belonged to Saul,” are translated in the LXX. by “feeding the mules of Saul;” and in accordance with this reading, in 1 Samuel 22:9 also, they have changed “Saul’s servants” into “Saul’s mules.” The Vulg. and the other versions, however, translate as the English Version, “potentissimus pastorum,” although in some of the Vulg. MSS. there is an explanatory gloss, evidently derived from the singular interpretation of the LXX., “This (man) used to feed Saul’s mules.” There can be no foundation in tradition or otherwise for such a reading, as we never read until the days of King David of mules being used by royal princes. (See 2 Samuel 13:29; 2 Samuel 18:9.) Before David’s time, the sons of princes used to ride on asses. (See Judges 10:4; Judges 12:14.) Ewald, disregarding the current Jewish tradition respecting the ancient connection of Doeg with the house of Kish, considers that this influential chieftain of the king probably came over to Saul in his war with Edom.
Detained before the Lord.—Several interpretations have been suggested for these words. (a) He was at the sanctuary of the Tabernacle as a proselyte—one who wished to be received into the religious communion of Israel. (b) He was detained there for his purification on account of supposed leprosy, or simply in fulfilment of a temporary Nazarite vow. (c) According to Ephrem Syrus (who probably referred to some lost tradition), he had committed some trespass, and was detained there till he had offered the appointed sacrifice. Any one of these reasons—all sufficiently probable in themselves—would have occasioned a residence long or short at the sanctuary at Nob. At all events, when the fugitive David recognised the presence of one of Saul’s most unscrupulous servants, whom he must have known well, his mind must have misgiven him, and he, probably on this account, hasted to get away, and at once begs the old high priest to furnish him with any arms he might have laid up in the priestly homes.
Give it me.—David grasped the sword with a childlike expression of joy; its sight and touch revived the old bright faith and the sure trust in the strength of Israel on which he leaned when, as a boy, he fought with the wild beasts which infested the wild pasture-lands where he kept his father’s flocks (the Shepherd of David was the Holy One; blessed be He.—Midrash Rabbah, 59), and which guided his trembling hand the day he slew the giant in the face of the watching hosts. The sight and touch of the glorious trophy revived the old sure trust which in these dark days of betrayal and persecution was beginning to fail that gallant spirit of David’s. It does not appear from the story that the Philistine’s sword was of extraordinary size; that it was a tried weapon of approved temper and strength is certain, but its chief preciousness consisted, of course, in its storied associations. The Dean of Canterbury suggests it was probably of the ordinary pattern imported from Greece. The LXX. adds here, “and he gave it to him.”
Achish the king of Gath.—The title “king” is somewhat loosely used in this scene among the Philistines. Achish was one of the Philistine lords, perhaps the hereditary lord of Gath. Achish is called Abimelech in the title of Psalms 34, that apparently being the title, the “nomen dignitatis,” of the hereditary (or elected) chief among the Philistines, like Agag among the Amalekites. It is quite possible that this Achish, although called king of Gath, was the supreme chief or king of the Philistine nation. Gath was the nearest Philistine city to the sanctuary of Nob where David then was.
David the king.—Here, again, the title king is vaguely used. Neither the people of Gath nor his own countrymen—save, perhaps, a few chosen spirits—knew of the sacred anointing by Samuel at Bethlehem. The appellation simply means: Is not this the renowned warrior, the greatest man in Israel of whom the people sing? Saul, our sovereign, has been a valiant captain over us, and has slain his thousands; but this one is greater still, he has slain his ten thousands.
Feigned himself mad.—Literally, he roamed hither and thither, restless and in terror.—Dean Payne Smith. “In their hands,” that is, “in their presence.” Some have supposed that the madness was not “simulated,” but real. Wrought upon by excitement of fear and terrible anxiety, it has been suggested that the mind for a time lost its balance, and that David became temporarily really insane; but the sense of the narrative plainly indicates that the madness was feigned.
Scrabbled on the doors of the gate.—Scratched on them; “scrabble” being probably a diminutive of “scrape” (Richardson, Dictionary). By others it is connected with “scribble.” the root in either case being ultimately the same. The LXX. and Vulg. apparently translate from a slightly different word, and instead of “scrabbled,” render “drummed” (impingebat) on the wings of the doors.
Let his spittle fall.—That is, allowed the foam which comes from the mouth of a madman to hang about his beard. It has been cleverly suggested that David was only too well acquainted with all the signs of madness, from his long and intimate association with King Saul in his darker hours of insanity. There are other well-authenticated examples in history of great heroes, in seasons of sore danger, feigning madness like David, with a view of escaping from their enemies. For instance, according to the Shâhnâmeh, Kai Khosrev feigned idiocy in face of mortal peril.
The device, however, succeeded, as David hoped it would, and he was suffered to depart in safety—nay, was even hurried out of the Philistine country. In old times, as now, in many parts of the East, the insane are looked upon as persons in some peculiar way possessed by, and therefore under the more immediate protection of, Deity. The life then of the hunted fugitive was perfectly safe from the moment the Philistines considered him mad.
There is a curious legend in the Talmud in which several events recorded in the Biblical account are confused. Part of it apparently refers to this strange choice of his of Phillstia as a place of refuge. “One day Satan appeared to him (David) in the shape of a gazelle, which, eluding his pursuit, decoyed him into the land of the Philistines. ‘Ah!’ said Ishbi-benob, when he caught sight of him, ‘art thou the man that slew my brother, Goliath?’ So saying, he seized and bound him.”—Treatise Sanhedrin, fol. 95, cols 1, 2. The wild legend goes on to explain how, partly by miracle, partly with the aid of Abishai, David slew Ishbi-benob and escaped.