The Power of Petition

| 1 Samuel 22:17-20; 23:1-6,9-13

Lesson Focus:  This lesson can encourage you to seek God and follow His leadership regardless of the outcome.

Saul Plots:  1 Samuel 22:17-20.

[17]  And the king said to the guard who stood about him, "Turn and kill the priests of the LORD, because their hand also is with David, and they knew that he fled and did not disclose it to me." But the servants of the king would not put out their hand to strike the priests of the LORD. [18]  Then the king said to Doeg, "You turn and strike the priests." And Doeg the Edomite turned and struck down the priests, and he killed on that day eighty-five persons who wore the linen ephod.

[19]  And Nob, the city of the priests, he put to the sword; both man and woman, child and infant, ox, donkey and sheep, he put to the sword. [20]  But one of the sons of Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David.  [ESV]

Saul, who had previously issued an order to all those in his service to kill David, received a report that David and his men had been discovered [6]. Mention of David’s name caused Saul to launch into a half-crazed tirade against all his officials standing around him. Saul expressed consternation with the fact that his family members had not been more supportive of his efforts to dispose of this supposed threat to his kingship. Their inaction amounted to a massive conspiracy against the crown, and proof of this lay in the fact that no one had informed Saul that his own son Jonathan had made a covenant with David [8]. Their silence proved to him that none of them was concerned about him. In his rage Saul’s distorted thinking took a peculiar turn as he accused his own son of being the ringleader of the anti-Saul conspiracy. Saul not only was distorted in his perception of Jonathan’s actions, but he misunderstood David’s as well. He thought David was at that moment lying in wait, seeking to kill him at the first opportunity. Saul’s Israelite officials remained silent during and after the king’s diatribe. The awkward silence was finally broken when Doeg the Edomite came forward with some information regarding David’s visit to Nob. He reported that the priest Ahimelech had inquired of the Lord on David’s behalf. This new information gives rise to two very different conclusions. First, it suggests that David was deeply committed to submitting to and receiving help from the Lord during his time of trouble. Second, from Saul’s perspective, it indicated that Ahimelech was using the unique powers of his office to give aid to an enemy of the king. Anyone might supply David with food and a weapon, but only an Aaronic priest could inquire of the Lord. Saul’s perverted mind concluded from Doeg’s report that the conspiracy against him was far larger than previously imagined. Now it was not just a son and a son-in-law out to kill him; hundreds of people, including the entire priestly establishment at Nob, were marshaled against him. In an effort to quash the revolt and deprive it of divine assistance, Saul sent for the priest Ahimelech and all his family. Obediently, the adult males of the priestly family made the hour-long trip west northwest to Gibeah to the king. In the formal setting of the royal court, Saul held a trial in which he was the prosecutor and the family of Ahimelech were the defendants. As Saul interpreted the events at Nob, Ahimelech’s actions, supported by the other priests, had strengthened David’s hand so that he has rebelled and now lies in wait for the king. Stunned by the king’s insane accusations, Ahimelech gave a four-pronged response. First, he provided a fivefold defense of David: far from being Saul’s enemy, David was your servant, loyal, the king’s son-in-law, captain of your bodyguard, and highly respected in your household. Second, Ahimelech characterized his priestly actions toward David as routine. Although it was true that he inquired of God for David, this was not the first time he had done so. Third, the priest affirmed his loyalty to Saul, calling himself your servant, finally, Ahimelech declared his noninvolvement in any plot against Saul: he knows nothing at all about this whole affair.

[16-20]  Unfazed by Ahimelech’s rebuttal, Saul found the entire priestly family guilty and pronounced sentence against them. Using the stern language of the Torah in pronouncing the punishment, Saul declared you shall surely die. This judgment applied to the whole family. Immediately the king ordered them executed. The men who received this command were presumably Saul’s bodyguards, who only days before had been under David’s command. David had previously stated that these men were careful to observe cleanliness regulations, implying that they were devout followers of the Lord. Not surprisingly, therefore, Saul’s attendants were not willing to raise a hand to strike the priests of the Lord. Perhaps one other reason for their disobedience to a direct order from the king was their rejection of the premise on which the death sentence was based. According to Saul, the priestly family had to die because they had sided with David in a plot against the king. Saul’s attendants loved and respected David, and they knew him to be devoted to the king’s welfare. There was no conspiracy against the king, so the priests had no reason to die. This is now the second recorded instance where those under Saul’s leadership refused to carry out a foolish royal order. It reinforces the Israelite understanding that earthly kings possessed finite powers and that Israelites must obey God rather than men. Understanding the Israelites’ reluctance to kill priests and the limits of power the Israelites had imposed on the royal office, Saul turned to a non-Israelite to turn and strike down the priests. As an Edomite, Doeg had no compunctions about fulfilling the order and he killed the eighty-five men who were the duly authorized leaders in the worship of Yahweh. The slaughter did not end there, however. Apparently with Saul’s approval, Doeg also slaughtered the inhabitants of Nob, including men, women, children, and livestock [19]. The perpetration of this act against a city of Aaronic priests was an unspeakable crime. Providentially, one of the Aaronic priests, Abiathar, escaped. Now a fugitive from Saul, Abiathar found it expedient to abandon Israelite society and join David. When he arrived at David’s camp, he told him that Saul had killed the priests of the Lord. Without mentioning Saul’s role in the tragedy, David acknowledged that he himself was significantly responsible for the death of the priests. He was accountable, not because of anything he had done, but because of something he had not done; David failed to kill Doeg although he had reasonable suspicions that he would inform Saul about David’s activities in Nob. Thus David was motivated to give special consideration to the lone survivor of the massacre. Accordingly, David asked Abiathar to stay with him, assuring the priest that he would be safe with David. Abiathar accepted the offer.

David Pleads:  1 Samuel 23:1-5.

[1]  Now they told David, "Behold, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah and are robbing the threshing floors." [2]  Therefore David inquired of the LORD, "Shall I go and attack these Philistines?" And the LORD said to David, "Go and attack the Philistines and save Keilah."

[3]  But David’s men said to him, "Behold, we are afraid here in Judah; how much more then if we go to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines?" [4]  Then David inquired of the LORD again. And the LORD answered him, "Arise, go down to Keilah, for I will give the Philistines into your hand." [5]  And David and his men went to Keilah and fought with the Philistines and brought away their livestock and struck them with a great blow. So David saved the inhabitants of Keilah.  [ESV]

Less than three miles south of the cave of Adullam was the fortified city of Keilah. A walled city located in the agriculturally productive Shephelah region of Judah, Keilah represented a desirable prize for the Philistines. It was only about twelve miles east southeast of Gath and was relatively isolated from other Israelite cities. These details, in combination with the time of year – early summer, either during barley or wheat harvest – meant that Keilah was an attractive and vulnerable target for Philistine plunderers. David, who was presumably with his troops in the forest of Hereth at the time of the Philistine attack, was informed of the events at Keilah. In the tradition of previous Spirit-anointed deliverers, David responded to the news with a desire to lead his fellow Israelites in battle against the enemy. Before going into battle, Israelites would normally await a confirmation that the Lord would give the enemy into their hands. In keeping with this tradition, David formally inquired of the Lord, and received word that he should attack the Philistines and save Keilah. The method David used to discern God’s will is unknown. According to verse 6 David did not have the ephod until Abiathar met him at Keilah. Whatever method David used, it did not seem to be satisfactory to David’s men; they were unconvinced by the words of David’s supposed revelation. The command to go against the Philistine forces, an army with superior armaments and greater numbers, did not seem divinely inspired. In fact, David’s troops were even afraid of doing battle with the comparatively weaker Israelite army under Saul’s command – how much more so the Philistines. The men’s concerns caused David to go before the Lord once again [4]. As before, the Lord responded favorably to David’s request, promising him success. Armed with that confirmatory word, David and his men went into battle. Exactly as promised, the Israelites defeated the Philistines and captured the Philistines livestock as booty. The captured Philistine livestock may have been flocks brought to the region of Keilah to consume the Israelites’ pasture lands and grain fields; alternatively, they may have been beasts of burden the Philistines intended to use to carry off Israelite possessions.

God Provides:  1 Samuel 23:6,9-13.

[6]  When Abiathar the son of Ahimelech had fled to David to Keilah, he had come down with an ephod in his hand. [9]  David knew that Saul was plotting harm against him. And he said to Abiathar the priest, "Bring the ephod here." [10]  Then said David, "O LORD, the God of Israel, your servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city on my account. [11]  Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O LORD, the God of Israel, please tell your servant." And the LORD said, "He will come down." [12]  Then David said, "Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?" And the LORD said, "They will surrender you." [13]  Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed from Keilah, and they went wherever they could go. When Saul was told that David had escaped from Keilah, he gave up the expedition.  [ESV]

While David was at Keilah, a large number of individuals joined his ranks. Of those who came to him there, none was more important to him than Abiathar. His presence in David’s camp was especially important because Abiathar had brought the ephod. Abiathar’s ephod was presumably like the cultic garment mentioned in the Torah [Exodus 28:6-35] that had attached to it a pouch containing the revelatory Urim and Thummim. Thus with Abiathar’s arrival David now had acquired access to the only revelatory device sanctioned by the Torah [Num. 27:21]. The deficiencies and questions that plagued David’s previous efforts to know God’s will were dealt with in a convincing way. From his information-gathering network Saul learned that David was at Keilah. Saul took this as a divinely engineered circumstance that would enable him to capture David. Accordingly, Saul called up all his forces to attack Keilah and seize David. Reports of this massive conscription order came to David, who immediately sought the Lord’s will by means of the ephod. The central event in this Keilah episode is David’s pursuit of divine counsel by means of the ephod. The author used the ephod-based interchange between David and the Lord to achieve several results relevant to the themes and theological intents of the book. First, the incident demonstrated David’s reliance on the Lord; though David was Israel’s greatest military hero, he would make no military move without divine approval. Second, the success David experienced in communicating with the Lord demonstrated the vitality of his relationship with the God of Israel. Third, the short narrative heightened the contrast between David and Saul. Saul would repeatedly fail to establish a link with the Lord, while David would have easy and extended dialogue with Him. Finally, it demonstrated the effectiveness of the Torah-prescribed means of receiving divine counsel. Presumably Keilah’s residents had heard what Saul had done to Nob’s citizens and feared he would do the same to them if they were perceived to be supporting David. Certainly David wished to avoid inflicting harm on his group or on the people of the city. Consequently, he and his men left quickly before Saul could set out against him there. David’s course of action produced the intended effect: Saul did not go to Keilah and destroy it. At the time of his retreat from the city, David’s band numbered about six hundred, a fifty percent increase from the time when he was at Adullam.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Note in chapter 22 how a God-glorifying act – David seeking God’s sovereign guidance through the priest – leads to unspeakable crimes. Through these events we learn something about the character of those involved. What do we learn about David; about Saul; about Saul’s guard; about Doeg?

2.         In chapter 23 David once again seeks the Lord’s guidance before making decisions that affect not only himself and his army but also the people of Keilah. In these chapters the author of 1 Samuel continues to contrast the actions of Saul and David. List the different ways Saul and David respond to similar situations. What does this tell you about their character?

3.         What is the importance of the ephod that Abiathar had brought with him to David’s camp? What theological lessons does the ephod-based interchange between David and the Lord teach us? What means are we to use today in order to seek God’s guidance in our life?


1, 2 Samuel, Robert Bergen, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Samuel, Mary Evans, Intervarsity Press.