By Samuel Ridout
The Priesthood in Connection with David and with Saul
1 Samuel 21 and 22.
David is now an outcast and fugitive, and is entirely cut loose from any hope from the government in the hands of Saul. Instinctively, he flees first to the priest as the custodian of the sanctuary of the Lord. Apparently, the tabernacle, or a substitute for it, was here at Nob, under the care of Ahimelech, the priest. From him David would seek to get needed food for himself and his few followers. The priest, apparently aware of the disordered condition of things in king Saul's court, hesitates to aid David, but is reassured by the falsehood of the latter. A little later on, we see again the feebleness of David's faith, in feigning madness before Achish, king of the Philistines, who also drives him away.
There is no need to attempt to justify, and little occasion to entirely condemn, the course of one who was but a mere man, and hunted by a powerful and relentless foe. We can thank God that enshrined in his heart was the one purpose to glorify Him; and if we complain of the feebleness of his faith, which would lead him to resort to human expedients of deception, let us search and try our own hearts, and we may find far more of untruthfulness in them than in this beloved man after God's own heart.
The question as to his taking of the showbread has been decided for us by our Lord, who uses that apparent profanation of holy things as a sample of His own course on the Sabbath day. Everything was in confusion. Shiloh had been forsaken. The people had allowed the ark of God to be carried into captivity, and it still was without an abiding sanctuary, and therefore, in that sense, the whole priestly order, with its ceremonial requirements, was in abeyance. So too, in a far deeper way, in our Lord's day everything was in confusion; and the Jews, while professing to keep the Sabbath day, in reality, by their sin, forfeited all claim to such a holy day, and therefore could not stand for the minutia; of a ceremonial observance, questionable even in an upright people, but utterly out of place among those who were glaringly apostate from God.
Our Lord further goes on to declare His own lordship over the Sabbath, and thus completely to vindicate His course of mercy and activity of love toward the needy on the day which would have been one of complete rest had sin not entered to mar it.
David also gets from Ahimelech that which surely he had a right to — the sword of Goliath overthrown in battle. But a traitor is lurking near, who a little later will bring destruction upon the innocent priest who, unknowingly, was furnishing aid and comfort to the man whom Saul was pleased to call his enemy.
We have already alluded to David's brief stay at the court of Achish, king of Gath. He is not an attractive object as we see him, feigning madness there; but apparently his faith is restored to its simplicity immediately on leaving there, as he returns to the land of Judah and seeks refuge in the cave of Adullam. Psalm 34 shows the state of his soul after he had departed from the court of Achish. The cave of Adullam has always been connected with that place of separation with a rejected Christ which is the true abode of faith in the day of His reproach. We cannot question this; and how beautiful it is to see that here are attracted to the rejected One those whose need brings them there. It needs but little interpretation to see — in those who were debtors, and discontented, and with grievances — ourselves, who have been driven by our very needs to find our resources in One who, though rejected by man, has power to remit all debts, to heal all sorrow, and remove all discontent.
David's parents, as too old to suffer the hardships to which he was exposed, find a temporary shelter with the king of Moab. Ruth, the ancestress of David, was a Moabitess; and there seems to have been a certain measure of friendliness between David and them. Here, too, we will not too rigidly condemn him for the weakness of faith which fails to count entirely upon the faithfulness of God. Moab stands for profession; and surely profession is no place of shelter for the people of God. However, we leave this as belonging rather to a more minute examination of the character and conduct of David than it is our purpose to take up here, and pursue the less attractive subject which is before us.
But we will note that, as David had received comfort from the priesthood and affords them shelter from their enemy, so too he has the presence of the prophet of God. How good it is thus to see that if God calls his people into a path of rejection, it does not preclude them from the enjoyment of all the advantages of His presence, and communion with Him, and guidance by His word! And what was all the display that was about Saul, in array and numbers, in dignities and honors, when the prophet refused to attend him, and the priest was driven from him, while he himself was a prey to an evil spirit and his own dark heart?
Saul had heard that David had been seen, and begins at once to inquire as to his whereabouts. This shows that there was in his heart a settled purpose to destroy David, and not a mere ebullition of jealous rage which would subside. He is at Gibeah, a city of evil savor in the tribe of Benjamin, surrounded by his servants. He addresses them as Benjamites, which in all probability they were. He had been anointed as king over all Israel, and therefore his servants, from whatever tribe they may have come, would have had their tribal connection, to a certain extent, merged into the larger and more honorable distinction of serving the king of all Israel. He appeals, however, to their partizanship, and, further, to their cupidity. Would the son of Jesse, he asks, give every one of them fields and vineyards, would he exalt them to places of honor in his army, that they thus have conspired against him? He does not hesitate to drag in the faithful Jonathan too, and accuse him of having stirred up David against him. What extremes will not malignity go to in the indulgence of its mad hatred!
Do we not see here a manifestation of that enmity against God of the flesh, which He has declared? All Saul's charges were untrue. The only rebellion was in his own evil heart against God, and all his suspicions came from a guilty conscience which knew that by his own self-seeking and disobedience he had incapacitated himself for government. It was his consciousness that God had rejected him, which goaded him on to rebellion and murder, instead of leading him to acknowledge the mighty hand of God.
In response to such an appeal to self-interest, one replies, who is not a Benjamite, nor even an Israelite, but a member of the ungodly race of Edomites, the relentless enemies of the people of God. It is quite suggestive that an alien should be the chief of the shepherds of king Saul, and that the king should have as his servant one of the race closely linked with the Amalekites whom he had failed to completely destroy.
Doeg, intentionally or otherwise, misrepresents David's interview with Ahimelech. From David's characterization of it in Psalm 52, there can be little doubt that his own enmity led him deliberately to lie. Whatever would weaken the kingdom of Israel would be pleasing to an Edomite. According to his representation, Ahimelech was in the conspiracy to enthrone David. He had inquired of the Lord for him, had given him food and the sword of Goliath but even the statements which were correct were given a wrong interpretation by Doeg, and so his whole narrative was false witness, which had a most disastrous result for the priestly house.
Ahimelech and the whole priestly family are called to face Saul with his accusation. In his innocence, the priest completely denies all thought of a conspiracy. Was not David one of the most faithful of the king's servants? Had he not been sent on many a mission of importance, and succeeded in overthrowing multitudes of the king's enemies? Who then so faithful as he, and why should the priest have refused to give him that which was his right to ask? Was he not also the king's son-in-law, and did not this preclude any thought of rebellion against him? As to his inquiry of God for him, the priest utterly denies this, and the narrative shows nothing of it.
But who can alter the mind that is made up, and which sees in every one not blinded with the same hatred that marks him, or weakened with a servile compliance with his unholy wishes, an enemy that must be destroyed at all hazards? And so the priests are slain. The servants of Saul shrink from such unholy work, but Doeg is equal to the occasion, and makes good his title to association with king Saul by his slaughter of the innocent priests.
To an Israelite, this glaring sacrilege must have been a terrible revelation of the true character of the king. He who had begun by intruding into the priest's office at Gilgal, in offering a sacrifice, which he had no right to do, and who had gone on in rebellion and disobedience, now puts the seal upon the essential irreverence of his entire character by attacking God's priesthood.
Saul could spare the best of the cattle and sheep of Amalek, which he had been commanded to destroy, but his blind hatred would wipe out every vestige of the priestly family and possessions. One priest, Abiathar, escapes, and flees to David with the priestly robe. He finds his protection with the Lord's anointed, and, in the words of David, is identified with him in his danger and in the protection which his presence affords: "He that seeketh my life seeketh thy life; but with me thou shalt be in safeguard." Thus we have in miniature — may we say? — a travelling court: the king attended by the priest and the prophet and a little company of loyal supporters. What matters it that there is no royal palace — that the king must go from place to place a fugitive? God's presence is with him; and that presence, for faith, is infinitely greater than the most gorgeous palaces and the largest armies. A greater than David was attended by even fewer, and had not where to lay His head.