Is it permissible to lie when telling the truth could lead to tragedy? On the run from Saul, David lied to Ahimelech about not being alone. The priest then helped the fugitive by giving him holy bread. How did Ahimelech decide he could break ceremonial law and share the bread reserved for priests? Alistair Begg examines this strange episode in David’s life, whose circumstances—despite his decisions—point forward to the greater King, Jesus.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I want to read two passages of Scripture, one of them now, and then the other later. I want to read from Leviticus chapter 24 and just the first nine verses:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command the people of Israel to bring you pure oil from beaten olives for the lamp, that a light may be kept burning regularly. Outside the veil of the testimony, in the tent of meeting, Aaron shall arrange it from evening to morning before the Lord regularly. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations. He shall arrange the lamps on the lampstand of pure gold before the Lord regularly.
“‘You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the Lord. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the Lord. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the Lord regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the Lord’s food offerings, a perpetual due.’”
Again from the Bible, this time again, from this morning, in 1 Samuel and chapter 21. And I won’t read the whole chapter; I’ll only read to the ninth verse. First Samuel chapter 21 and reading 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 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.’”
We pray along with the song we have sung: that the Holy Spirit will be at work, keeping us on the right track, helping us to speak and listen and understand and live in the light of your Word. This is our humble and earnest prayer. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Well, we this morning essentially had a long introduction to this text, recognizing the peculiar challenges that are represented in it. And we realize that in coming to this particular section and to essentially the concluding third of the book of 1 Samuel, we are dealing with a repetitive situation with David, the anointed king, on the run, pursued by his enemies, and fearful of his one-time boss—namely, Saul. And we ended this morning by recognizing that the picture has dramatically changed; the conquering hero, in all of his resplendent glory in chapter 17, has now been reduced to a hopeless and a helpless fugitive. And he has made his way, as we discover here in the text, to the town of Nob. You will remember from our early studies that it was to Shiloh that everybody went. Shiloh was the place of the priests. But along the way, as a result of the invading forces, that has now shifted to Nob. And later on in the text, into subsequent chapters, we discover that Nob is described there as “the city of the priests.”
Now, David on the run has gone a number of places and still has a number of places to go. He ran away, first of all, you will remember, in the middle of chapter 19, to find refuge in Samuel the prophet. He then ran from there into the custody of his friend Jonathan. He is about to run, before the chapter is concluded, into the context of the enemy camp, quite surprisingly. And in this section, in these first nine verses, he has run to the custody and to the potential security of Ahimelech the priest. And here we have the record of his coming: he “came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David, trembling, and said to him…”
Now, I don’t think any of us would have been surprised if we’d looked down at that first verse and found that it was a description—when it comes to “trembling”—a description of David. After all, he is the one who is being pursued. He is the one who is fearful for his life. But there is something about this strange encounter that causes Ahimelech to tremble. Ahimelech himself was actually a great-grandson of Eli. And for those of you who are on the honors course, you may even have the faintest recollection of the fact that the last we saw of Eli, before he tipped backwards and fell off his chair and died, was a trembling Eli who was trembling before the presence of the Lord. And now, here his great-grandson, in the encounter with David, trembles also. There’s actually a lot of trembling when you read: the Philistines tremble, and the Israelites tremble. As I think I said in passing, there’s a “whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on.” And you find it again and again.
We have to assume that there was something about David’s appearance on this particular occasion. I say “on this particular occasion” because if your Bible is open and you just have a chance to look at the fifteenth verse of the next chapter, there we discover that it was not a one-off occasion when he went to Ahimelech. And we’ll deal with that in detail when we get to it, but you’ll notice that Ahimelech answers the king, “Is today the first time that I have inquired of God for him?” He came to inquire of God, he came to seek refuge, and so on. And at that point, later on, Ahimelech says, when he’s being challenged on these particular verses here—verses 1–9—there he lets us know that it wasn’t a unique experience for David to have come to inquire of him as the priest, thereby making it clear to us that there had to be something about this particular appearing of David on this occasion that caused Ahimelech this kind of distress, to get him shaking, as it were, in his shoes.
His question to David is an obvious one: “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” That in itself is interesting. I think the linguists among us would probably say that this bears testimony to the sort of use of parallelism. Because what does it mean to be alone except for no one to be with you? And so, it’s very interesting: “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” “Why are you here alone, and not a soul with you?” It just wasn’t normal. It just wasn’t normal. Ahimelech would know that David, given his status, given the approbation of the people, and so on, would almost inevitably be traveling with an entourage. He would have those who would be around him, not necessarily to protect him but certainly to accompany him.
And as I read this and thought about it, I thought about Marcellus in Hamlet, remember, when Marcellus at one point sees the ghost of the king, sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and it is to Marcellus the great line is given by Shakespeare: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
And I think that this is the kind of encounter that takes place here. And Ahimelech is aware of the fact that something now is rotten in the state of Israel, or in the cities of Israel. And if we’d had occasion to ask him, “Tell me, what was it really like?” I think he would have said something like, “Well, there was just something about the way he showed up out of the blue. He was disheveled. He sort of stared in front of himself with a faraway look. And frankly, it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.” I think that’s the kind of encounter. And it causes us to say, “Could anyone have looked less like the anointed king, the one who’d been the toast of the nation, the one who’d been the subject of their songs?”
Well, David’s answer comes, then, directly, and in verse 2 and 3 we have it. Whether his answer was premeditated or whether it was spontaneous, he tells the priest that he is on his majesty’s secret service, and he creates the notion in the mind of the priest that there are actually people in his group, and he has a rendezvous planned later on. This, of course, is a fabrication. And it is an indication, I think, of what is becoming, in David’s life, something of a disturbing pattern. Because we’ve already seen that when Michal, his wife, did her little cover-up story, he was clearly part of that cover-up too. We have already learned that he was the one who came up with the useful lie to be given by Jonathan in the company of his father to explain his absence from the table. And we looked at that last time. And now, once again, in confronting Ahimelech, it appears that his new default position is actually to tell lies.
Now, somebody challenged me on this after the service this morning, not immediately but by text—at least I took it as a challenge. And it seemed to me that the inference was “You’re just allowed to do this. You just can tell lies, given the situation.” And so, in passing, let’s just be clear that we do not believe in situation ethics. We do not believe that the situation transmutes what is bad into something that is good because of the context. A lie is still a lie is still a lie. And although I may lie—for example, if someone comes to the front door of my house and says, “I’ve come to kill your wife and your children. Are they all in the house?” I may well lie at that point. But it is a lie, and it remains a lie, and I am committed to tell the truth. Therefore, unlike the situational ethicist, who says, “Don’t worry about it, that’s the only thing you could do and should do,” the Christian believer says, “That was the only thing I was prepared to do, but when I knelt by my bed in the evening, I asked forgiveness for having broken the law of God and telling lies.”
But David here is now on a run. And it made me think—and it’s just conjecture on my part, but I’ll pass it on for your own consideration if it’s helpful—it made me think about the fact that in his great collapse, which we then get in 2 Samuel, when everything hits the fan, if we might put it colloquially, with Bathsheba. You know, people look at situations like that, and they say, “How did that happen? It came out of the blue. You know, all of that deceitfulness and everything, and what he’s doing with Uriah and trying to make sure he can cover everything up.” Well, he started to get a little bit of practice here.
Remember what we’re all told at Sunday school? “Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.” It is never right, and it is never good. And in actual fact, when we get to chapter 22, we will discover the impact of this lie on the lives of many, many people who died at the sword because he didn’t tell the truth. He could have told the truth. He could have! He could have trusted God and told the truth. But he trusted himself and told a lie.
Well, he wants to suggest, you see, to Ahimelech that everything is fine and dandy. But it isn’t. And the question, of course, that is inevitable as we look at the text is, “Well, why does he actually do this?” Is he telling a lie here, as some people suggest, to protect the priest by screening him, as it were, from the responsibility of having granted refuge to a known outlaw? In other words, does he do it because he wants to be nice to Ahimelech? Or does he do it—which I think is more likely—because he felt that he couldn’t trust Ahimelech, there was no way that he could necessarily bring him into his confidence?
So, what we have before us, then, is this collapse. Courage and faith have given way to cowardice and fear. He has stood tall against the giant, and he now shrinks before a priest. Again I say to you, as I said this morning: let us not be too quick to sit in judgment. And let us remind ourselves at the same time that the text is not interrupted by any kind of ethical comment on the part of the narrator. In other words, the issue of the lies are not addressed, not because it’s unimportant but because the narrative is actually simply reporting what has happened; it is not recommending what has happened.
Now, before Ahimelech has time for a follow-up question, if you like, David makes his request: “Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” Why five loaves? Why five loaves? I’m sure there’s somebody has an answer for that. I want you to know I don’t. The best I can imagine is that he said five to keep up the pretense of having other people to share it with, and he said five because if he had said much more than that, he wouldn’t even have been able to handle it. Beyond that, I’ve got no idea.
But when it comes to this bread issue, this is where, as per our principle this morning, we are helped by referencing Scripture elsewhere. And so, that is why I read earlier from Leviticus chapter 24, where the record is given of Moses setting Aaron to the task, with a regularity and a fastidiousness and a humility and a sacredness, of setting out on the table in the tabernacle every Sabbath day these twelve loaves, representative surely of the provision of God for the twelve tribes of Israel. So, if you like, there in that moment, in that ongoing process, the reminder of God’s provision for his own was made clear.
Now, is this day, then, the Sabbath? It may well be. If it is, then it ties in so wonderfully well, doesn’t it, with Luke chapter 6 and the way in which Jesus makes reference to this incident? We can’t say that with any sense of confidence. But when the bread was replaced, as it was according to verse 6—just jumping ahead there: “So the priest gave him the holy bread, … 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 [that] it is taken away.” So, it didn’t sit there and just languish, as it were. No, it was removed. And when the bread was replaced, then the bread that was removed was now available to be eaten, but only by the priests. They didn’t take it out in the street and say, “Anyone need a loaf?” But no, that was clearly how it was to be.
That is what makes it quite striking that Ahimelech, then, makes an exception. And he makes an exception here, and he says, “I can’t give you any regular bread.” So, goodness, I don’t know what was going on that they didn’t have any bread except sacred bread. But those are the facts. “I’ve got nothing I can give you except the bread of the Presence. And I’ll give that to you if you can give me the assurance that your young men…” Of course, there are no young men! But anyway: “if you can give me”—so it’s going to be very easy to give the assurance—“if you can give me the assurance that your young men are,” euphemistically, “kosher,” okay? “Kosher,” according, again, to this particular question of having kept themselves from sexual relations within the immediate proximity of this event.
Now, we would need to turn again to the Levitical law in order to do justice to this. I don’t want to do that tonight, for a number of reasons. But I commend to you your own particular study in that area. And there you will find out why it is that the symbolism of the Levitical law made these kind of provisos. It all has to do with being symbolic of death, with the outgoing of life, and in that post-outgoing-of-life period, then it symbolizes death; and in the symbol of death the individual is then rendered ceremonially unclean; and therefore, until that period of time is elapsed, they are now disbarred from any event such as this. And so, he decides that if they can give a reasonable answer to that question, “then we can go ahead.”
Incidentally, it just comes to my mind, but talking about David and Bathsheba: you remember, in that dreadful business, you remember when David says to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” That has got to mean something else than “wash your feet,” okay? I think that got cleaned up. Don’t misunderstand me. It means what it says: “Wash your feet.” All right. But not just “wash your feet.”
And Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “[Why?] Have you not come from a journey?”
You come from a journey, you’re gonna sleep with your wife, right?
“Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.”
What an amazing expression, on a fundamentally practical level, of the fact that what is being addressed here certainly is not this: this is not some reference to some kind of ascetic view of marriage. It is not that at all. But it is rather making clear—making clear—the fact that in this strange episode, God’s purpose is going to unfold in a peculiar way, even as this particular proviso is made. “No,” says David, “we’re all good. It’s always the case. Everything about us—our bodies, our backpacks, our things—they’re all entirely kosher. They’re all in clean condition.”
Here’s the question, if you’re reading your Bible and thinking: How does Ahimelech decide to hold fast to that question and yet bend the rules on the question of the fact that only the priests can eat the bread? ’Cause he does. He seems to pick and choose between them.
Let me tell you what the majority view is. The majority view is that what we have here is simply a case of putting compassion ahead of ritual, or, if you like, the ceremonial bowing to the moral—as in, if you like, the passage in Luke chapter 6. They are eating the grain and so on, and Jesus is making the point that these Pharisees cannot use the law of God to oppose the Lord’s King.
I don’t think that it is just saying that. I think that our friend Woodhouse—who will get here eventually. Can’t get here soon enough, as far as I’m concerned, to help me with this book. But Woodhouse suggests that the significance of this incident has to do with the one who is making the request; that the reason for the exception is because it is David who makes the request. Because he would not, suggests Woodhouse, offer this bread to just anybody who came off the street looking for something to eat, but that he does so because he is dealing with the anointed king.
You may actually find it helpful to go all the way back in the story and to remind yourself of a tiny incident where, after Saul is anointed king, he comes up and into the community, and of the things that are brought to him and offered to him are three loaves of bread, I think, if I remember correctly. And the point that I think we made there in passing was that there is some kind of symbolism of this in the provision of God for the servant of God.
So, Ahimelech, then, instead of opposing God’s king by strident obedience to God’s law, by this decision provides sustenance for God’s anointed king. He spreads, if you like, a table before him in the presence of his enemies.
Now, you may be caused to say to yourself, “Well, I wonder, does David deserve it? Does he deserve this? Surely he should have been chased out of the building—after all, telling all these lies.” No, he doesn’t deserve it. But neither do we deserve it. We pray each day, “[Lord,] give us this day our daily bread.” If he only gave us our daily bread on the basis of how well we’ve been doing, most of us would be skeletons. Dale Ralph David has it wonderfully when he says, “And we receive this bread from God not because we’re godly but because God is gracious.” And the anointed king, in all of his disheveled chaos, finds sustenance from the priest of God because he is the anointed of God and walks under God’s favor.
Now, we could stop there, but I would like to just try and finish, if you will stay in the room. In verse 7, the narrative pauses to inform us of something. And it’s just here in order to almost tease us as readers, because we’re immediately gonna say, “Well, I wonder why this is mentioned here”: “A certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day.” “Now a certain man…” You remember the servants of Saul, back in chapter 19, had been present when Saul spoke to them and said to Jonathan his son and to all his servants, “Let’s kill David.” Okay? So, “a certain man,” a servant of Saul, was there. Consequently, being there, he was privy to these proceedings. “His name was Doeg the Edomite.” There’s just something about his name that makes me instinctively not like him. And that’s not fair, ’cause I never met him! But it’s just like… You know, I’m gonna call people that when I get annoyed with them. I’m gonna say, you know, “What’s your problem, Doeg the Edomite?”
Now, it doesn’t sound good—this little thing here does not sound good—because it isn’t good. But we have to hold our fire. We have to wait until chapter 22. The word that is translated here “the chief of Saul’s herdsmen” has potential for also being translated “the mighty one” or “the violent one”—in other words, the last man that you would want to be listening in while this event is taking place. And we’re gonna learn in the next chapter the horrible consequences of this visit of David to Nob and how those consequences pivot on the presence of Doeg here. It says that he was “detained before the Lord.” I don’t know what that means. Was he detained because he was ceremonially waiting for something? It’s all conjecture. All we know is that the Lord had him there at that point, and he was listening in.
So, we must push to the end. David has his five loaves, which, of course, will sustain him physically, but only if he is still alive. If he’s killed prematurely, then he won’t even have a chance to eat them. And so now he makes his second request: “Do you have a spear or a sword at hand?” “Have you not here a spear or … sword at hand?” I think almost the way in which it is rendered here in English suggests to us that David actually knew the answer to this question—that it would be surprising if he was unaware of what had happened to the prize possession that was his as a result of the triumph over Goliath. And it may well be that the very reason for David showing up in Nob is because he needed that sword. He knew that after he had fled, after the encounter out in the field with Jonathan, that he couldn’t just keep wandering around without some means of protection. “Do you have a sword or a spear here?” He’d only used it once, but he’d used it to great effect.
Before Ahimelech has actually a chance to ask why he would be on a secret mission without a sword, why he would be out here unarmed, he adds to the story: “I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste.” Well, of course, he’s made up this story about the king’s business to start with, and he can’t let it alone. He comes back to it. You know, once you tell one lie, you’re almost inevitably gonna have to tell another one to fill it in or to cover it up. It’s a never-ending journey. That’s why it’s never good to start telling lies at all. In fact, ironically, the king’s business, of course, was what? The real king’s business? King Saul’s business was to kill him! And it requires haste.
Ahimelech’s description of the sword is fascinating in itself, isn’t it? “And the priest said, ‘The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you struck down in the Valley of Elah’”—like he didn’t know that? He’s not informing him. I think he’s being deferential towards him. He’s recognizing this. Maybe he’s worried that if he gives it to him, he might use it on him. “You’re the one who struck him down. We’ve got it wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. And if you will take that, you can take it, because there’s nothing other than that here.” And David says, “[Well,] there is none like that; give it to me.” “There is none like that; give it to me.”
Just an aside, and then I will finish. When I came on this phrase here, the concluding phrase of verse 9, I said to myself, “Now, there is a phrase that will preach, you know: ‘There is none like that; give it to me.’” And I said to myself, “I bet if I go to Spurgeon, we’ll find it.” Right on cue, Spurgeon has an amazing sermon that entirely ignores the context of 1 Samuel 21, pays no attention to my friend Doeg or anybody else, but preaches a masterful sermon under the heading “There Is None like That.” And I would have brought it this evening. Actually, if I had brought it, I would have preached it. It would have been more edifying. But he has, like, a “There is none like that when it comes to the Word of God. There is none like that when it comes to the person of Christ. There is none like that when it comes to the work of Jesus in the church,” and so on. It’s an immense piece of work. But you couldn’t really call it biblical exposition. And in fact, I said to myself, “If only I could get into that, it would be so much easier for myself and for the congregation. They wouldn’t have to sit there and listen as I pooled my ignorance with theirs, working my way through these verses.”
So, he gets the sword, and what does he do? He “rose and [he] fled that day from Saul.” From Saul! But Saul hasn’t even been in the story. Yeah, but it’s Saul. It’s Saul. He’s afraid of him. He knows that Saul is out for him.
And so, that’s where we leave him: heading now to another place to seek refuge in arguably a very unlikely place. And whatever we make of this strange episode, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that we are following the footsteps of God’s anointed king. As I said to you this morning, the final third of 1 Samuel is the journey of the anointed king towards his final destination. And the final third of the Gospels is the journey of Christ, God’s King, on his way to his destination.
And so, when we come to this and we try and do what we said this morning—remind ourselves of the primary purpose of Scripture, when we take what is obscure and try and bring clarity to it from other passages—then we remind ourselves that the Bible is always moving us forward, especially when we consider the picture of the King, so that we would be aware of the fact that in Jesus something greater than David has come.
When you look at this story, there were only a few people that were apparently on David’s side: Michal, presumably; Jonathan; Samuel. Small group for an anointed king. Go back and read Luke 6 before you go to bed, and after that little incident, it then says quite straightforwardly that the people, in response to that encounter where he replies using 1 Samuel 21, the people were “filled with fury,” and they began to discuss “what they might do to Jesus.”
So, to the extent that we embrace the fact that the Bible is a book about Jesus, then in considering this somewhat forlorn king here, our gaze goes beyond it to he who is the great King and he who also was despised, opposed, rejected, humiliated, and yet died in our place.
Well, thank you for your patience.
A brief prayer:
God our Father, we thank you that when your Word finds a resting place in our hearts and minds, we build something of a reservoir to which we can return. Some days it seems more absorbable than others, but thank you that eventually, in the wonder of your revelation, all the pieces of the puzzle eventually fit together and form up in the person of Jesus, who is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. So grant that as we see him in all of his ascended glory, that we might not be like those who opposed David, who sought his death; that we certainly might not be like this Doeg fellow; and we don’t want to be like the Pharisees. Lord, we want to embrace and love and follow Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
 1 Samuel 22:19 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 4:13.
 James Faye Hall and Dave Williams, “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” (1955).
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1.4.
 2 Samuel 11:8–11 (ESV).
 See Luke 6:1–5.
 John Woodhouse, 1 Samuel: Looking for a Leader, Preaching the Word, ed. R. Kent Huges (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 411.
 See 1 Samuel 10:3.
 See Psalm 23:5.
 Matthew 6:11 (ESV). See also Luke 11:3.
 Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart (1988; repr., Fearn: Christian Focus, 2000), 218. Paraphrased.
 1 Samuel 19:1 (paraphrased).
 See C. H. Spurgeon, “Craving the Best Things,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit 54, no. 3122.
 1 Samuel 21:10 (ESV).
 Luke 6:11 (ESV).
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.