How did David, the faith-filled hero who defeated Goliath, become a fearful fugitive relying on lies and deception? Before we approach difficult passages like 1 Samuel 21, we need to understand how to faithfully study God’s Word. Walking us through a list of proper Bible study habits, Alistair Begg reminds us to focus on the Bible’s main purpose and to allow Scripture to frame our interpretation. Only then can we make sense of David’s behavior while he was on the run.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to follow along as I read from the Old Testament and from 1 Samuel and to chapter 21. First Samuel 21, and we read from verse 1:
“Then David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David, trembling, and said to him, ‘Why are you alone, and no one [is] with you?’ And David said to Ahimelech the priest, ‘The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, “Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.” I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.’ And the priest answered David, ‘I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.’ And David answered the priest, ‘Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?’ So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.
“Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the Lord. His name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s herdsmen.
“Then David said to Ahimelech, ‘Then have you not here a spear or a sword at hand? For I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste.’ And the priest said, ‘The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you struck down in the Valley of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you will take that, take it, for there is none but that here.’ And David said, ‘There is none like that; give it to me.’
“And David rose and fled that day from Saul and went to Achish the king of Gath. And the servants of Achish said to him, ‘Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing to one another of him in dances, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands”?’ And David took these words to heart and was [very] much afraid of Achish the king of Gath. So he changed his behavior before them and pretended to be insane in their hands and made marks on the doors of the gate and let his spittle run down his beard. Then Achish said to his servants, ‘Behold, you see the man is mad. Why then have you brought him to me? Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to behave as a madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?’
“David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
We come to you this morning, gracious God, as wandering pilgrims, seeking to trace our path through life. And we turn now to our only sure guide—namely, your Word. Speak, Lord, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I found myself this week referring to a phrase that I think is sort of falling out of everyday life—I may be wrong on that—and the phrase is “Just let me get my bearings.” It used to be fairly common for me to hear my father say that to my mother when we got lost somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland, and she would say, “I thought you knew where you were going,” and he would say, “Just let me get my bearings.” I think it is fading from common parlance largely because of Google and Apple Maps, which, of course, allow us immediately to know where we are. You click, and there is a little blue dot that lets you know you’re here—which, of course, is not really that much help, since you know you’re here in the first place. The question is, where is “here” in relationship to everywhere else? If you’re going to navigate safely, then you need to know where you are in relationship to the entirety of the map, at least to extend beyond the immediate borders.
The reason the phrase was in mind was because as I came to the twenty-first chapter of 1 Samuel, I found myself saying, as it were, out loud, “I just need to get my bearings.” And some of you will have read ahead; others of you have only come across it now for the first time in listening as I’ve read it. And immediately, it will strike you as a fairly peculiar incident. A story of David; once again, he’s on the run. He shows up at the priestly city. He asks for five loaves and a sword, and then he makes a run for it. He runs into the apparent security of foreign territory in Gath, the city of Goliath. He is uncovered. He decides that in order to keep up the subterfuge as he’s on the run, he will disguise himself as a crazy person, which he clearly does a very good job of, and then once again he runs off, and in chapter 22, he is once again found hidden in a cave, the cave of Adullam. So, I read it all, and I read it again, and I said again, “I just need to get my bearings.”
Now, what I want to do is provide us with a long introduction to the text. It is purposeful on my part, and I hope it will prove helpful to you.
Now, let me enter this introduction by saying this: that our use of the Bible does not end with our understanding of the text. It is actually our understanding of the text which gives us the beginning point for our use of the Bible. It is perfectly possible for us to read, to understand the language that is used—the syntax, the verbs, the adjectives, the pronouns, and so on—and to understand all of that and yet to go nowhere at all.
And so, in order that we don’t lose our way around the text of Scripture, a number of principles are important in interpreting the Bible. And I say that so that whether we are present in this context or whether we are in another context—perhaps even on our own—we won’t lose our way. And fundamental to that as a principle (and one that is no surprise to you, because we make reference to it all the time) is that we need to keep in mind always the main purpose of all of Scripture—the main purpose of all of Scripture—which is actually to reveal the ways of God with his creatures. To reveal the ways of God with his creatures.
The Bible, you see, when you turn to it, has certain assumptions built into it. One is that we are made by God; two, that we are made for God; but three, that we have determined, in rebellion and in revolt, to seek to live separated from God. If you just let those words resonate with you, then you’ll have the picture clearly: made by him, made for him, and yet we live in isolation from him. And it is into that context that the Bible then gives to us God’s great plan, which is, of course, his great plan of salvation.
When Timothy is addressed by Paul, Paul is able to say to him, “Timothy, you have enjoyed an immense privilege, because from infancy, you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” Now, that is of fundamental importance. It means that wherever we are in the Scriptures and however daunting a passage in the Scriptures may be, if we remind ourselves of the stated central purpose of God in making clear to us how it is that we who are in revolt from him, alienated from him, may be reconciled to him and may be brought back into a relationship with him—if we keep that in mind, then it will be a help to us along the way.
That, incidentally, is why we sang the hymn that we have just sung, “O Word of God Incarnate,” and then the great series of metaphors concerning the Bible itself. And it came to my mind again in my study, and particularly the four lines concerning Scripture:
It is the chart and compass
That o’er life’s surging sea,
’Mid mists and rocks and quicksands…
Stop there for a moment. “Life’s surging sea.” Every one of us walks into this building this morning as travelers on life’s surging sea. We are both wandering pilgrims, and we are out on the sea of life. And we are confronted on a daily basis with mists and rocks and quicksands. And unless we have determined that the Word of God is what it claims to be, we will be seeking to manage those stormy seas by means of our own endeavor, by grabbing at philosophy, by embracing, perhaps, the search within ourselves for answers. But if we will turn to the Scriptures in the midst of life’s surging seas, then we discover, as the hymnwriter puts it so perfectly, “It is the chart and compass that … guides, O Christ, to thee.” So no matter where we are in the Bible, when we say to ourselves, “Now, I need to get my bearings here,” we need to keep this in mind.
It is consequently impossible to properly use Scripture without first accepting the diagnosis that Scripture provides. One of the reasons that people say, “Well, you know, I read the Bible; it didn’t mean anything to me at all,” or “I’ve considered the Bible, but I can’t make sense of it”—part of the answer to that is because we need to come to Scripture coming underneath Scripture and recognizing that we have to allow Scripture to diagnose our condition. And it diagnoses our condition as rebels, as sinners, as in default of God’s plan and purpose, and then it provides for us the answer to that predicament in the provision of the Lord Jesus.
Now, it is for that reason that we want to make sure that our use of the Bible, both individually in the way we read it and also corporately in the way in which we study it, is engaged in not only so that—those of us who have the privilege that I’m enjoying in these moments—not only so that we can provide food for the flock but in order that we might allow the members of the flock to learn how to adequately feed themselves.
Let me quote to you just from a little book someone put together on expository preaching and arguing that one of the benefits of expository preaching is the help that it is to the congregation. Incidentally, expository preaching is simply turning to the text of Scripture and allowing the text to determine what it is we are discovering. “We would not,” writes this individual,
We would not expect a university professor to teach from a textbook on the human anatomy by picking out parts of sentences at random and using them for his lecture. Rather, we would anticipate his working through the material in an orderly fashion to ensure that his students [came] to understand how the pieces fit together.
Many men are capable of delivering excellent orations, producing touching illustrations, and uttering stirring exhortations based on scriptural material but as expositors of Scripture are ineffective. Spurgeon in lectures to his students observed, “I believe the remark is too well grounded that if you attend to a lecturer on astronomy or geology, during a short course you will obtain a tolerably clear view of his system; but if you listen, not only for twelve months, but for twelve years, to the common run of preachers, you will not arrive at anything like an idea of their system of theology” ….
By our preaching we either help or hinder our people in the task of interpreting Scripture. If we merely show them the results of our study without at least to some degree including them in the process, they may be “blessed” but they will remain untaught. … “It is no longer enough to feed our people. … We must show them how to cook.”
I think you get that. Now, Susan has a lot of recipe books, and I’ve looked at them. I know what it says, but I am absolutely incapable of cooking myself. It’s just a bunch of words to me. Now, what if that is true for some of you in terms of the Bible? And it may well be.
You see, because it is not simply sufficient to come and hear the Bible taught. It is not actually sufficient to read your Bible, although I’m going to say something about that in a moment. Because it is possible for us to be formally committed—formally committed in our thinking—to the fact that the Word of God is living, active, and authoritative without being ourselves arrested by it, summoned into its presence, bowing in reverence before the one to whom it points.
Now, that, you see, explains why it is, as Spurgeon says, that people could listen to sermon after sermon after sermon and remain absolutely untaught and clearly unchanged. Because it is the work of the Spirit of God to show us ourselves, our condition, and to show us Jesus in such a way as we recognize that we must come to him individually, personally, to embrace that which is made ours in his amazing sacrifice and in the display of his love. If you think about it, for example, the Pharisees were big on the Scriptures, weren’t they? That was their big thing: “We know the Bible. We know the Bible. We know the Bible.” And Jesus says to them, “Yeah, you know the Bible, but you wouldn’t come to me. And it is the Bible that speaks of me.”
So, I had the benefit as a boy, as I’ve told you before—I hope not to bore you but to instill in those who teach our children, as we magnify children’s ministry this morning—the importance of these things. Scripture Union provided and still provides notes for Bible reading for all ages, and not least of all for children and for teenagers and schoolboys and girls. And Scripture Union would then have a class in the grammar school, as it was for me, that would be taught by one of the teachers. In Scotland, it was by an art teacher; in England, I can’t remember the teacher. But the teacher would have a class. Sometimes we did it at one of the lunch hours, or perhaps later in the day, and the thing that brought us all together was the fact that we were all using the same mechanism for studying our Bibles. And studying our Bibles we were, because this is the outline for somebody who would be using the Scripture Union notes; this is what it would say to us in the flyleaf of the material.
If you’re going to study the Bible, if you’re going to read the Bible, number one, you need to come to it with “a sincere desire.” A sincere desire. Secondly, you need to “find a spot” where you’re going to read your Bible and “set a time.” Thirdly, you need to “keep your appointment.” Why would you make appointments for a medical procedure or for business and show up on time, and make an appointment for the reading of the Bible and hearing from God and miss the appointment completely? Fourthly—and this is to boys at school—you need to “come expecting to learn” and willing to change. You need to “read the passage,” and as you read the passage, you need to ask questions like “What is the main point of [the] passage?” or “What do I learn about God?”—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—or “What does Christ require of me today?” To ask of the passage: Is there an example to follow? Is there a warning to heed? Is there a promise to trust? And make sure to seek the help of the Holy Spirit to apply what you’ve learned and “take [it] … into the day.”
Now, you see, that’s vastly different from using your Bible as a… I don’t know what. As a big compendium of stuff that you look in to see if there’s a good part and maybe find something here: “Oh, there’s a good one! I remember that one. Yes. Oh, Leviticus, no; we don’t do Leviticus. No.” Incidentally, the reason Hebrews is in the Bible is so that when we could read Leviticus, we can make sense of it.
Now, let’s keep moving here. Number one principle: we need to keep in mind, no matter where we are in the Scriptures—and we are at the moment in 1 Samuel 21; we will be—but wherever we are, to keep in mind the main purpose of all of Scripture. Briefly but secondarily and purposefully, we need to learn to interpret the obscure by the clear and the partial by the more complete. So, we come to passages of Scripture that, when we read them, at least for the first time, they are just almost impossible to understand. And we read them and say, “I can’t make sense of one part of that at all.” Now, once again, in such cases, we have to remind ourselves that these difficulties in recognizing truth are part of the whole process whereby, in coming to the Bible in its totality, we can then look for clarity elsewhere in the Bible to help us with that which we find obscure in another part of the Bible, to find sections of the Bible that are more immediately accessible to us which perhaps unpack for us a rather brief comment that we really can’t get ahold of at all.
And part of the adventure—and it is an uphill adventure. This is not something that you’re coming to overnight, no more than you became proficient enough to become a CPA. I mean, unless you’re some kind of genius, you had to stay up and study. You had to work that material, and again and again. You didn’t qualify in microbiology by just sitting looking at the ceiling. And so why would it be that we would become students of the Bible, that we would have enough information concerning the Bible to teach it to our children when we walk along the road and when we lie down and when we get up, if all that we’re doing in terms of the Bible is simply sitting somnambulant for half an hour listening to a man talk and thinking that somehow or another that is going to secure to us a spiritual heritage that can be passed on? No. It is not going to happen; I guarantee you. Because the pursuit and the discovery and the doing of God’s will takes time and trouble.
And it makes us aware of the fact that none of us, no individual, in the course of our earthly pilgrimage ever reaches the place where we understand it all. No one in our earthly pilgrimage ever is able to say, “I understand the entire thing.” Even Paul, remember, was prepared to say, “Now I know in part; then I will really know.” Now, that’s not an argument for holding up our hands and saying, “Well, if you can’t know, I don’t care.” Rather, the reverse is the case.
Third principle, and I’ll move on. One, that we keep in mind the main purpose of Scripture: to make us wise for salvation, the dealings of God with his creatures. Two, to interpret the obscure by the clear and the partial by the more complete. And three, to compare Scripture with Scripture and to let Scripture check our interpretation of Scripture. That second piece is important. To compare Scripture with Scripture; we understand that. So, we go from 1 Samuel, where we’ll go elsewhere, and we will compare in order to help our understanding. But our interpretation then must be framed by the Scripture itself, because that is the only way both to grasp the big picture and also to understand the individual parts.
If you think of it in terms of a circle, if you like, with the totality of God’s revelation in Scripture contained just in a circle, and the great temptation is for people to want to launch off outside of the circle with an idea or a notion. And every so often you’ll come upon somebody, and they will give you some interesting perspective, and you find yourself saying, “I’m not sure if I really get that.” Well, how are you going to determine? Well, you’re gonna make sure that the way in which you interpret that emphasis is contained entirely within the framework of Scripture itself, so that it is Scripture that exercises the control of the interpretation of Scripture.
Think about it. It is from the mouth of God that the Scriptures come. It is God’s very Word. There is no higher authority than God’s Word itself. Therefore, there is no one to whom we can appeal—certainly no pope, certainly no catechism—to determine whether the Scriptures are true. It is the Scriptures which actually constrain and control all our understanding and all of our interpretation.
Well, as I said, that’s a long introduction. I hope in some measure it is helpful. I want to think that we are not simply growing generation after generation of sermon tasters but we are actually growing generations of young men and women who said, “You know what? If he can understand it—and he’s not that bright—I can understand it too. I can study. After all, I’ve studied here, I’ve studied there. Why would I not give myself to the study of the Bible? Why would I not do that?” That’s the first principle, you see: “Come with desire.”
Now, with all that said, 1 Samuel and chapter 21. And as soon as we come back to it, I hope you will realize why it was that I have done what I’ve done and why I said what I’ve said. So, let’s apply one of the principles: interpreting Scripture with Scripture. I’m not gonna do it in its entirety here. I’m just going to point it out to you.
When I read 1 Samuel 21, one of the questions, then, I said to myself, is “Where else can I go in the Bible to help me with this?” And there are at least four places that we can go. And I’ll tell you what they are—you may want to just look at them with me—but two Psalms, a piece of Leviticus, and Luke chapter 6. I’ll just point this out to you. We’ll come back to it later in the day, I think.
Psalm 34, from which we have read today—if you turn to Psalm 34, you will realize that we have a helpful heading for the Psalm, which says, “[A psalm] of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” Okay? So, what do we know? We know that in this second half of 1 Samuel 21, where he feigns madness, he wrote a poem. And he wrote a poem about it, or he wrote a poem coincidental with it—who knows? But he wrote a poem. I like to imagine him showing up in the cave of Adullam at the beginning of chapter 22 and saying to his friends and his family members, “You know, I just wrote a song.” And they said, “Oh, you wrote another one?” “Yes.” “How does it go?” “Well, the verse I want you to really get ahold of is this: ‘Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and [come] let us exalt his name together!’ Because you know what has happened to me?” And then he would recount for them his running and his fleeing. So in other words, Psalm 34 is his song of deliverance.
Psalm 56, which we read last Sunday, also helpfully has a heading: “To the choirmaster: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths”—and you can study that for yourselves. It is “a Miktam of David, when the Philistines seized him in Gath.” So, once again, 1 Samuel 21. So, 56—his poem that we call number 56—seems to have been written in the hour of danger, and the poem that we call number 34 is written in the day of deliverance.
But we don’t need to stop just there, because we discover that Jesus actually makes reference to 1 Samuel chapter 21. And for that you need to turn to Luke chapter 6. You could also turn, for example, to Matthew 12, but Luke has it in short order. Luke 6:1:
On a Sabbath, while he [that is, Jesus] was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, ‘Why are you doing what is not lawful … on the Sabbath?’ And Jesus answered them…
And this is quite fascinating, isn’t it?
“Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and [he] also gave it to those with him?” And [then] he said to [these Pharisees], “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
Now, we won’t go to Leviticus—that’s part of your homework—but in Leviticus 24, you will find there the background in the law of God, in the ceremonial law of God, to the strange response of the priest concerning his willingness to make an exception in giving this bread to these soldiers—imaginary soldiers, as it turns out—who are not themselves priests. You can find the background to it in Leviticus 24. We will come back to it later in the day. But let us at least make this point as we try and land the plane.
When you take these passages, and particularly the passage in Luke, and you realize how Jesus uses 1 Samuel 21, it gives us reason to think—reason, at least, to consider the possibility—that the hostility of the Pharisees towards Jesus may well have caused Jesus to think of the animosity of Saul towards David. To the extent that the possibility is worth consideration, it would then allow us to say, “Well, that is quite illuminating, inasmuch as what we have in 1 Samuel…” And interestingly, all of the rest of 1 Samuel is essentially the same story; it is the king on the run. So, the final third of 1 Samuel is the king making a run for it, faced by the hostility of Saul and his enemies. And the final third of the Gospels is the story of the Lord Jesus Christ on the run, as it were, from the pursuing, hostile aggravation of those who were his enemies and seeking to put them to death.
But since you are going to make sure that any interpretation of Scripture, such as even that observation, is going to be determined by your own understanding of the parameters of Scripture itself, I can rest confident in that and set up a return to this, this evening, by saying perhaps just one thing, maybe two.
The thing would be this: to remind ourselves that—to use another idiom that is, I think, fading from view—“this is for real.” “This is for real.” The same people that used to say, “Just let me get my bearings,” also used to say, “This is for real.” All right? I don’t know who they are, but anyway…
You say, “Well, why are you saying that?” Well, because we know the end of the story. At least those of us who have read ahead know the end of the story. Therefore, the temptation is for us to come to this and not to get the weight of what is happening here, not to actually get ahold of what is happening, so that we understand that for David this is a real danger. It’s a real danger. This is not a little story that’s a fabrication. This is a real danger. Remember what he said to Jonathan: “There is but [one] step between me and death.” That is how keen Saul was to kill him. He was unable just to walk around like “Hey, I’m King David, nice to meet you.” He realized that he had to be involved now in subterfuge going forward until finally that would be over with.
A real danger, a real sadness. A real sadness. The sadness of a broken friendship. The sadness of a relationship ended. At the wedding yesterday, I was moved, struck forcibly, by the maid of honor, who was a peculiar friend—a very good friend—of the bride. And she started off her remarks very well, until she said, “This is the end of an era and the beginning of an era.” And I realized where she was going, and it moved me. Because the two of those girls have been like this. The arrival of a husband inevitably changes this. That’s emotional. David wept more than Jonathan. Real danger. Real emotion. Real fear. He’s not running around here just for fun. David is not immune to these matters.
And we end with this thought: consider how the picture has changed—how it’s changed from chapter 17, where we see him as the conquering hero. But now he’s a homeless, helpless fugitive. Then he seemed to be in charge of the world. Now he’s emotionally crushed. Now his vision is clouded by fear. And now his attempts at self-preservation involve the use of lies. And we ought to find ourselves at least saying, “Can he have forgotten so quickly what he told Goliath, ‘The battle is the Lord’s,’ that he was able to make it very, very clear that ‘the Lord saves not [by] sword [or by] spear’? Well, if that is the case, and he really believed that, why does he have to tell lies now? Why can’t he just tell the truth to Ahimelech: ‘I’m on the run’?”
Well, we’ll have to come back to this. But don’t get into your car sitting in judgment. Just think about your own life. Think how easy it is to move from the declarations of the Lord’s Day morning in our praise and our abject failures on a Monday or a Tuesday, when we who are so bold in the presence of affirmation may actually play the Simon Peter before the servant girl: “Oh, no, I don’t know Jesus. No, I’m not a follower of Jesus.”
Well, Father, thank you that the things that we’ve endeavored to say about our approach to the Bible we want help with in coming to the Scriptures, both on our own and when we’re together, so that beyond the voice of a mere man we may hear your voice, and that we might be quickened by your Spirit, and that the eyes of our hearts may be opened and our desires may be stirred and our lives may be changed.
Thank you, too, that this is not an exercise in self-improvement but that the whole story of our Christian pilgrimage is Christ in us, the hope of glory, from beginning all the way to the end—that when we stand before you in a new day and in a new heaven and in a new earth, our plea will still be the same: “Just as I am, without one plea”—nothing about what I did, what I preached, who I was, what I gave, how religious I was—“but that thy blood was shed for me, and that you bid me come to thee.” It is in that way that we come. It’s not us. It’s Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 2 Timothy 3:15 (paraphrased).
 William Walsham How, “O Word of God Incarnate” (1867).
 Alistair Begg, Preaching for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 43–44. The quote in the final paragraph is attributed in the source to Roy Clements.
 John 5:39–40 (paraphrased).
 “How to Read the Bible,” Scripture Union, https://scriptureunion.org/how-to-read-pray.
 See Deuteronomy 6:7.
 1 Corinthians 13:12 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 34:3 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 20:3 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 20:41.
 1 Samuel 17:47 (ESV).
 See Matthew 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:54–62; John 18:15–18, 25–27.
 See Colossians 1:27.
 Charlotte Elliott, “Just As I Am” (1835). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.