On the Run

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1 Samuel 21:1-15 (David at Nob and Gath)

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is on David and Saul and how God raises David up to be king while Saul continues his downward slide away from God. The tension between Saul and David has been building over the last chapters to the point where Saul has now openly declared his intention to kill David. It is no longer safe for David to remain in Saul’s service, and so starting with chapter 21 David is now officially on the run. (Read 1 Samuel 21:1-3 and pray)


Have you ever felt like you’re on the run? You may not be literally running for your life like David was, but anytime you’re feeling hassled, harassed, restless, in between, in transition, off your game, out of your routine – basically anytime you’re in trouble, you can relate to David’s being on the run here in 1 Samuel 21.

After Saul tried to murder David multiple times and then Saul even attacked Jonathan, his own son, David knew it was no longer safe to go back to Saul’s home. David is now officially on the run for the rest of the book of 1 Samuel. He is an outlaw. He is a fugitive. He is literally running for his life as Saul continually tries to track him down.

Today we are going to look at the first two places David visited when he was on the run from Saul. First, we’ll look at David at Nob where he lies to the high priest. And then we’ll look at David at Gath, where he ends up acting like a madman. And along the way we’ll learn some important lessons for those times when it feels like you are on the run.

The most important of those lessons, of course, is learning to trust God. If David is going to make it, he is going to need to trust God. When you’re on the run, when you’ve been thrown off your game and life is out of synch, you also need to trust God to help you through. So, let’s look at David first at Nob and then at Gath.

I. David at Nob – deceiving the high priest (1-9)

The first place David goes when he’s on the run is the city of Nob where the high priest lived. Nob was located just north of Jerusalem and just south of Gibeah, where Saul lived and ruled. David pays a visit to the high priest at Nob but unfortunately ends up deceiving the high priest while he is there. This will have dire consequences in the future.

   A. The problem with lying (1-3)
      – Proverbs 12:22

And so once again we face the problem of lying. Look at 1 Samuel 21:1-3 with me:

David went to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. Ahimelech trembled when he met him, and asked, “Why are you alone? Why is no one with you?” 2 David answered Ahimelech the priest, “The king charged me with a certain matter and said to me, ‘No one is to know anything about your mission and your instructions.’ As for my men, I have told them to meet me at a certain place. 3 Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever you can find.” (1 Samuel 21:1-3)

So, David’s first stop is the city of Nob where he goes to Ahimelech, the high priest, to gather supplies. David particularly needs food and weapons. Ahimelech trembles with fear when David comes to meet him alone. He obviously suspects something is wrong. He asks David, “Why are you alone? Why is no one with you?” Instead of telling him the truth, David lies to the high priest. He tells Ahimelech he is on a special mission from the king and asks him for bread for him and his men.

We have looked at this problem of lying several times in the David and Saul narrative. We have seen David, Jonathan and Michal, David’s wife, all tell lies in order to protect themselves and each other from Saul. We have looked at several examples in Scripture where people told lies in extreme situations in order to save lives. We have seen that although the Bible does not explicitly condemn those people who felt compelled to lie in extreme situations, it also never approves of their lying. A lie is still a lie, even when told with good motivations to protect someone else.

It’s important to remember that the Bible doesn’t record these lies to teach us that it’s okay to lie. The Bible records these lies because the people involved lied. The Bible doesn’t cover that up. In other words, the Bible is being truthful about people who lied! Author Eugene Peterson reminds us: “David’s isn’t an ideal life but an actual life.” (Leap Over a Wall, p. 62) David’s life as recorded in Scripture is a real life. David is a real person, and real people make mistakes. Real people mess up. Real people sin. Real people tell lies. And God loves us anyways.

Now it could be David lied to Ahimelech hoping to protect him, trying to keep him from getting involved. Or perhaps David was just watching out for himself. Either way, if Ahimelech was being exposed to danger – and he was – he had the right to know. He had the right to make his own decision about the matter. And by lying to him, David denied him that right.

But whatever David’s reason for lying, the problem with lying is that it violates the truth, and God is a God of truth. God is truth, and that’s why God hates lies. Proverbs 12:22 says: “The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful.” (Proverbs 12:22)

Lying can be a real temptation when you’re in times of trouble. It can be a real temptation when you are on the run. Lying is convenient, and it might seem like your only option at the time.

But lying also demonstrates a lack of trust in God. And lying has consequences. Lying can create further problems for you and others down the road. As we will see, David’s lie to Ahimelech will have terrible consequences for Ahimelech and all the priests of Nob down the road.

   B. The reason for rules – love and mercy (4-6)
      – Matthew 12:1-7; Romans 13:10

There’s a reason for the rules God gives us. And that is demonstrated in the next section of our passage. Look at 1 Samuel 21:4-6:

But the priest answered David, “I don’t have any ordinary bread on hand; however, there is some consecrated bread here – provided the men have kept themselves from women.” 5 David replied, “Indeed women have been kept from us, as usual whenever I set out. The men’s things are holy even on missions that are not holy. How much more so today!” 6 So the priest gave him the consecrated bread, since there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence that had been removed from before the Lord and replaced by hot bread on the day it was taken away. (1 Samuel 21:4-6)

David asks for bread, but Ahimelech doesn’t have any ordinary bread, so he gives David the bread normally reserved for the priests. This was known as the Bread of the Presence. Every Sabbath the priest set out twelve loaves of bread before the Lord. The twelve loaves were set out in two rows and symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel. Only the priests were allowed to eat this bread and only in a special place. (Leviticus 24:5-9)

So even though giving this bread to David and his men was technically against the rules, Ahimelech decided the need for life and sustenance was more important in this case. Jesus later commended Ahimelech’s decision. We read in Matthew 12 how the Pharisees criticized Jesus’ disciples for picking some grain on the Sabbath when they were hungry. Jesus refers them back to this very incident with Ahimelech and David. He tells the Pharisees that the purpose of the law is to have mercy on others, and so Ahimelech did nothing wrong here. (Matthew 12:1-7)

One author explains it this way: “The true meaning of the ceremonial law of the showbread was expressed in its being given to David as an act of compassion and mercy providing for real need; the law was fulfilled, rather than superseded.” (Gordon J. Keddie, Dawn of a Kingdom: The Message of 1 Samuel, p. 196) In other words, God gives us his rules for our good and protection and so that we will be loving and merciful to others. As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 13:10: “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10)

Basically, when we follow God’s rules, good results. And when we seek the good of others, we follow God’s rules. That is the reason for rules. To love God and do good to our fellow man. And so Ahimelech does nothing wrong in giving David the consecrated bread here.

   C. Dealing with danger (7-9)
      – Luke 22:35-38

As we continue with David at Nob we also gain some insight on dealing with danger. Look at 1 Samuel 21:7-9:

Now one of Saul’s servants was there that day, detained before the Lord; he was Doeg the Edomite, Saul’s head shepherd. 8 David asked Ahimelech, “Don’t you have a spear or a sword here? I haven’t brought my sword or any other weapon, because the king’s business was urgent.” 9 The priest replied, “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you killed in the Valley of Elah, is here; it is wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you want it, take it; there is no sword here but that one.” David said, “There is none like it; give it to me.” (1 Samuel 21:7-9)

The danger crops up right away in verse seven. Verse seven introduces us to Doeg the Edomite, and right away you know this guy is going to be trouble. It’s like in a film where they first introduce the bad guy. There will be a whole group of people in the room, when suddenly the camera lingers on one person’s face. There’s something shifty about their eyes and some ominous music plays in the background. And you know right away, this guy’s a villain, and you’d better watch out for him.

Well, that’s Doeg here. Doeg is a menacing, shadowy figure in this verse. As it turns out, Doeg is an informer, a member of Saul’s secret police. And his presence here at Nob with David and Ahimelech will be devastating.

David knows that he is dealing with a dangerous situation, and so he asks Ahimelech for weapons next. Ahimelech gives him the sword of Goliath which David gladly accepts. As Christians we are to seek the good of others and not their harm. But that does not mean that we cannot use weapons to protect ourselves or others. Even Jesus told his disciples they could take up swords to protect themselves. (Luke 22:35-38)

And so, Ahimelech gives David the Bread of the Presence and the sword of Goliath. Eugene Peterson writes: “And with that David is on his way. He came to the holy place hungry and defenseless; he left full and equipped.” (Leap Over a Wall, p. 64) Peterson also points out that in the Bible both bread and a sword are used as symbols for the word of God. Like David, we also come to God’s sanctuary for bread and a sword, to be fed and equipped by God’s word.

II. David at Gath – playing the madman (10-15)

David leaves the city of Nob and next goes to Gath. Gath was one of the five main cities of the Philistines. It was also Goliath’s hometown. You might be thinking, “David must be crazy to go there,” but you’ve got to admit, it was the last place Saul would think of looking for him. It just goes to show how desperate David is to get away from Saul that he would try hiding out in Goliath’s hometown.

   A. Your actions follow you (10-11)
      – 1 Timothy 5:24-25

We learn a number of things from David’s stay at Gath. First of all, your actions follow you. Look at 1 Samuel 21:10-11:

That day David fled from Saul and went to Achish king of Gath. 11 But the servants of Achish said to him, “Isn’t this David, the king of the land? Isn’t he the one they sing about in their dances: “ ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands’?” (1 Samuel 21:10-11)

David probably hoped he could hide out at Gath for a while, but he was recognized, and the people turned him over to Achish, the king. They even knew the song the Israelites sang about David: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Do you remember who the “tens of thousands” in that song are? They are tens of thousands of Philistines! And here David is in one of the Philistine capital cities and being brought to the king.

Now once again, it was probably not the best idea for David to go strolling into Goliath’s hometown carrying Goliath’s sword! But it’s a reminder to all of us that your actions follow you, both for good and for bad. And that’s important to remember because a lot of times when you’re on the run, what are you doing? You are trying to escape the things of your past when you should really be facing them.

When you’re on the run, you are often trying to escape your past. But the past has a way of catching up with you, for good or for ill. We read in 1 Timothy 5: “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. 25 In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not cannot be hidden.” (1 Timothy 5:24-25)

We are who we are, we’ve done what we’ve done, and nothing can really change that. But the good news of Christianity is that Jesus not only died for your sins, he also came to redeem your past. We all make many mistakes, but God doesn’t make any. We offer up our whole lives to Christ, not just parts of it, and Christ redeems your whole life. And in God’s providence he will take even those things you may be ashamed of and would rather forget, and he will turn them into something good and beautiful according to his plan.

So that’s the first thing we learn from David’s time at Gath. Your actions follow you. David was recognized, and he was brought to the king.

   B. Desperate measures (12-15)
      – Psalm 34:4-6

And then finally at Gath, we see David taking desperate measures. Look at 1 Samuel 21:12-15:

David took these words to heart and was very much afraid of Achish king of Gath. 13 So he pretended to be insane in their presence; and while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard. 14 Achish said to his servants, “Look at the man! He is insane! Why bring him to me? 15 Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me? Must this man come into my house?” (1 Samuel 21:12-15)

David is rightly afraid of Achish and what Achish might do to him. So, he pretends to be a madman, making marks on the doors and letting the saliva run down on his beard. And you know what? It works! Achish no longer sees David as a threat, and he lets him go.

The writer of 1 Samuel throws in a comical line from King Achish here. “Don’t I have enough madmen around here already? Why bring me one more?” I’m sure many supervisors at work have said the same thing from time to time. (Perhaps even a few pastors!)

Desperate times call for desperate measures. David has come a long way from being the hero who defeated Goliath, now reduced to pretending to be a madman while drooling on his own beard. You’re going to have mountains and valleys in life, and you better be prepared for both.

Later David would reflect on this incident and realize that God was protecting him the whole time. Psalm 34 was written about this incident. Some of the Psalms in the Bible have what are called inscriptions at the beginning that give you the background of the psalm. The inscription at the beginning of Psalm 34 tells us that this is a psalm: “Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelech, who drove him away, and he left.”

(Note: People sometimes wonder why Psalm 34 calls the king Abimelech here instead of Achish. Abimelech means “father of the king” and was probably a Philistine title for the king, similar to Pharaoh in Egypt. Just like there were many Pharaohs in Egypt, so there were multiple Abimelechs among the Philistines – for example, see Genesis 20 and 26. So Achish was the king’s name, and Abimelech was his title.)

The whole Psalm is a psalm of praise to God for how he delivers his people in times of trouble. David writes in Psalm 34:4-6: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. 5 Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. 6 This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.” (Psalm 34:4-6)

Desperate times call for desperate measures. David was desperate. You know you’re pretty desperate when you’re running around like a madman and drooling on your beard. David was desperate, but God rescued him from danger.

Like David, you may experience times where you will have to take desperate measures in your life. But when those times of desperation come, remember that God is there to help you. When you face desperate times, remember David’s testimony in Psalm 34:6: “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.” (Psalm 34:6)

CONCLUSION: When you’re on the run, when you’re facing difficult times, you will be tempted to make many wrong decisions. David made a lot of mistakes when he was on the run, and some of those mistakes cost him and others dearly.

But even when you make mistakes, know that God is still with you. God is still with you: helping you, guiding you, steering you in the right direction. God is always with you, even and especially during the hard times. Look to him, listen to him, cry out to him, and most of all, trust him.

Jesus rescued us from sin and Satan and death when he died for us at the cross. You can trust him to help you in times of trouble.

© Ray Fowler

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