The Sinister Dominance of Human Depravity


Context: Having crystallized, through Jonathan’s intervention, his impression of Saul’s absolute determination to kill him, David now is in full flight from Saul. David can never consent to be in his presence, but must find a way to survive in the secret places of homeless mountains and caves. Under this pressure, David alternates between submissive hope and trust and despairing self-protective manipulation.

I.  David’s desperation to escape Saul.

A. He came to Ahimelech the priest at Nob, a town in Benjamin, the tabernacle being placed there by Saul. Ahimelech, thinking it strange that David was alone, came to him trembling. A man as great as David, the king’s son-in-law would hardly, in normal circumstance be traveling alone to the place of the tabernacle. This interchange involves a self-defensive deceit that results in the death of the house of Ahimelech. At least three lapses in David’s trust in the Lord resulted in harm to others: This, the affair with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), and the taking of the census (1 Chronicles 21).

1. David deceived Ahimelech in two matters: One, in telling him that he was sent by the king on a certain, secret mission; two, in telling him that young men were with him also on this mission and so the discarded bread of the presence was needed. Gill noted that this was  “a downright lie, and was aggravated by its being told only for the sake of getting a little food; and especially told to an high-priest, and at the tabernacle of God.” What Jesus said in Matthew 12:3, however, indicates that at some point, men sent by Jonathan perhaps joined David, who ate the bread that David received at this time.

2. This was for the priest to eat, but it also, seemingly, was at his discretion, once it became his to eat along with his family, to share with someone in need.

3. Having used it successfully previously, David received the sword of Goliath, knowing that “there is none like that.”  David was in desperate need both of encouragement and of a reliable weapon.

4. Doeg, the Edomite, saw and heard all this. For some ostensibly religious reason in order to keep a vow, offer sacrifice, or purify himself he was “detained before the Lord” in Nob. He had a responsible position before Saul as the chief of his herdsmen, an administrator over others who maintained the numerous herds belonging to the king. He aspired to more, however, and craftily found a way to report this event to his own advantage.

B. David goes to Gath seeking shelter among the enemies of Saul.

1. The servants recognized David, remembered his exploits, and viewed him, either by his unparalleled victories or their knowledge of his having been anointed by Samuel, as “king of the land.”

2. David “took these words to heart and was much afraid.” knowing that this could not be an endearing quality for him before Achish, king of Gath. In a move of desperation, he feigned insanity. On this occasion, he wrote Psalm 56: “They stir up strife, they lurk; they watch my steps, as they have waited for my life. . . . I will render thank offerings to you. For you have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.”

3. The ruse succeeded and Achish wanted his servants to remove David from his presence since he did not “lack madmen.”

C. From Gath, David escaped to the cave of Adullam. The cave, near the city by the same name, was in Judah, apparently near Bethlehem (cf. 2 Samuel 23:13), where a garrison of Philistines was stationed. Even there David might expect to find greater safety than in Benjamin, or Gath from which he had fled. The future king now has residence in a cave. From here he wrote the 142nd Psalm: “Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your name! The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me” (7). Though his circumstances were oppressive, he knew that according to God’s promise he would be enthroned.

1. He is able to secure his family from a possible pogrom of Jesse’s family. His brothers, who were resentful toward him, now find themselves with him against Saul and under his command and protection. “And he became captain over them.”

2. The distress that had come on Judah due to the maniacal rule of Saul produced many who were in distress, and debt, and bitter of soul. They came to David. His gathering was like that of the Lord who opened his arms to those that labored and were heavy laden, the poor, the maimed, the blind, the deaf, and the leprous. It seems that from this group came the thirty mighty men of David, and at this time three of them risked their lives to get for him water from the well in Bethlehem (2 Samuel 23:13-17).

3. David found a home for his father and mother in Moab, the place from which Ruth, his great-grandmother, and the grandmother of Jesse had come. The intricacies of providence in this entire story are impressive; tracing the hand of God in all these events would give an edifying display of divine wisdom operating in the midst of human folly, divine holiness and justice in the context of human sin, and divine mercy that both forgives and transforms.

4. When Gad the prophet found David (also see 1 Chronicles 21:18) and told him to leave the stronghold, and “go to into the land of Judah,” we may infer either that David had remained in Moab to hide for a while, or that Gad told him to move from the cave of Adullam further into Judah, where he found a forest which might be more habitable for those over whom he was captain.

II. The Paranoia of Saul. (22:6-8)

A. He presents himself as the great provider of wealth and power for his fellow Benjamites. This is a way of power-hungry tyrants. They seek to insure that all people are finally dependent on them so that they always have the leverage of survival over their subjects.

B. Saul incriminated his servants, his son (Jonathan), and David. He believed that everyone conspired against him.

1. Though his son Jonathan knew that his father was evil and that he acted foolishly and unjustly, he remained loyal to him (1 Samuel 31:2, 3). Saul deeply resented the covenant between David and Jonathan for he had no capacity to grasp such an act of loyal love and self-abandonment. The covenant provided for the continuation of the line of Saul, even a seat at the king’s table, through the son of Jonathan.

2. He believed that Jonathan had “stirred up” David against him. This was false, for he sought to convince David that Saul did not have any intention of killing him (20:2, 3).

C. He called on them to pity him. This is a low moment in that it indicates that Saul had lost all dignity, self-possession, and kingly honor. “None of you is sorry for me.” What a revolting moment of ineptitude for a king this is. A life filled with self-assertion, malice, murderous intention, distrust, attempted filiocide (20:30-33), uncontrolled anger had not served to endear him to anyone. Now he pouts that, in light of David’s successful avoidance of death at his hands, no one feels sorry for him.

D. He believed that David was lying in wait for him, exactly the opposite of the situation. David was hiding, seeking to avoid Saul and any confrontation with him, while Saul used all his energy, reconnaissance, and conniving to find and kill David.

III. Doeg seized this opportunity by weaving together half-truths and falsehoods about David and Ahimelech. 

A. He does not say that Ahimelech was hesitant about David’s presence, and helped David because David claimed to be on a mission for the king. The priest was not conspiring against the king, but thought he was aiding the king by assisting David on this important secret mission. Doeg reserved to himself enough of the facts to give Saul the wrong impression. The Jesuit policy of mental reservation goes much further back than the 16th century AD.

B. This is the occasion for Psalm 52. “Why do you boast of evil, O mighty Man? . . . Your tongue plots destruction, like a sharp razor, you worker of deceit. You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking what is right. You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.”

IV. Saul demonstrated vicious blindness and thorough cruelty in his treatment of the priests. Ahimelech, his sons, all his father’s house, all the priests are summoned to Saul. He accused Ahimelech of conspiring against him and recites the things that Ahimelech did in the context of assuming these were done out of treacherous intent.

A. The Appeal of Ahimelech.

1. He appealed to Saul to recognize that David served Saul faithfully and with amazing skill. Not only was he the king’s son-in-law, but was virtually irreplaceable as a leader.

2. As to inquiry before the Lord, this was not an uncommon thing for David to ask of Ahimelech. Though the particular inquiry is not recorded in chapter 21, Ahimelech acknowledged that it occurred. Obviously David asked for some information that would not give away that he was in flight from Saul.

3. Ahimelech denied any knowledge that Saul was at enmity with David, was seeking him, and considered any aid given to him an act of treason punishable by death (“Your servant knows nothing of all this”).

B. The Response of Saul (16, 17). With no intent to hear and give honest evaluation of the testimony, Saul again shows his utter unfitness to govern a people. So shocking was his misunderstanding of Ahimelech’s narrative of the events and command to kill the priest and all his family, that his servants refused to lift their swords even at Saul’s command. The command seemed completely at odds with the former service rendered by Ahimelech, the nature of his testimony (which was completely credible and fit the facts of the case), and his status as high priest. Saul manifested no fear of God, no sense of rational judgment, and proved his total consumption with hatred of David. Saul to David played the part of Herod to Christ (Matthew 2:16-18).

C. The blood-lust of Doeg in an effort to impress and please the king (18, 19)- Doeg killed eighty-five of those who had come before Saul, went to their city, Nob, and killed all its inhabitants and all of its animals.

D. Saul was more thorough in following the dictates of his depravity, than he was in his obedience to the command of the Lord.

V. David becomes a refuge

A. One son of Ahimelech escaped and fled to David. By Mosaic law, he now would serve as the high priest. Since he was also escaping Saul, David consulted with him to gain the Lord’s guidance in certain situations (23:9, 10).

B. Upon hearing of the slaughter of the priests, David saw that his lie had occasioned it. If Psalm 119 is a Psalm of David [it is not listed in the title as his], then verses 28 and 29 could refer to this event. – “My soul melts away for sorrow.”

C. He assured Abiather that he was safe with David for they had a common enemy. This has Christological overtones, for Jesus was opposed violently by Satan who sought to undo Jesus’ purpose to redeem in a variety of ways. By his death, however, Jesus destroyed the enemy of our souls and now “the evil one does not touch” those kept by the Son of God (1 John 5:18).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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