David and the Showbread; Prayer for Relief (1 Samuel 21:1-12; Psalm 56) November 5
David is too inexperienced in political matters to comprehend just how deep the subterfuge was running in Saul's regime. He makes a huge tactical error that will cost many innocent lives. This incident ushers in the beginning of a vast sea of anguish that would so characterize David's life, providing him with great depth of feeling for the inspiration of so many of his psalms that would prefigure the sufferings of the innocent Christ.
David is on the run. Innocently enough, he flees to Ahimelech, who is serving as high priest at Nob. Ahimelech is fearful, perhaps having heard rumors of the breach between Saul and David and does not want to put himself and the other priests in jeopardy by getting in the middle of any conflict. David, sensing this, lies to Ahimelech to expedite his and his men's need for sustenance and to immediately be on their way: "I'm on a secret mission for the king" (compare verse 2). The lie works for David, but this will, though unintended by him, result in terrible tragedy for the priests.
Here we also see the interesting occasion when David and his men eat the holy bread, elsewhere called showbread, which was a special grain offering to God intended only for the priests (verses 3-5; compare Exodus 25:23-30; Leviticus 24:5-9). Ahimelech is willing to feed them with it only if they are ritually pure. Perhaps this hearkens back to God's original intent that the whole nation of Israel was to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) who were to be pure in this way before their presentation before God (verse 15). David affirms the ritual purity of his men and, furthermore, argues that the bread is effectively common anyway because new bread had already replaced it before God.
Reassured, Ahimelech gives them the bread. While "the Talmud explains this apparent breach of the law on the basis that the preservation of life takes precedence over nearly all other commandments in the Law" (Nelson Study Bible, note on 21:6), this is not entirely correctas we cannot lie, steal or commit adultery to protect human life. But preserving the lives of others clearly is part of the intent of God's law (compare Romans 13:10; Proverbs 24:11-12), and this did take precedence over the ceremonial laws God gave, which He intended to be observed for a limited time (compare Hebrews 9:9-10; Galatians 3:19-25). Christ explained on more than one occasion that saving life even took precedence over the general prohibition against work on the Sabbath. In its same note on David and the showbread, The Nelson Study Bible continues: "Jesus referred to this incident in Matt. 12:2-4; Mark 2:25, 26, in His discussion with the Pharisees concerning the Sabbath. The spirit of the Law was kept by Ahimelech's compassionate act." That much certainly is true, for Christ upheld the feeding of David with the bread.
Doeg, an Edomite loyal to Saul, sees Ahimelech give David food and Goliath's sword (verses 7-9). The account says that Doeg is there "detained before the LORD," i.e., under a spiritual vow. Subsequent events will make his religious piety questionable, however, and it is entirely possible that he undertook the vow for a wrong reason, perhaps to act as a spy among the priests. In any case, his witnessing of these events will result in severe consequences when he later passes the information on to Saul.
Though it was acceptable for David to eat the showbread, it was certainly not right for him to lie. It is even worse when we later find out that David suspected Doeg would relay what happened to Saul (22:22). But David was operating out of fear. Goliath's sword should have been a reminder of God's deliverancebut fear can cause a man to forget his priorities. (God's human servants can go from high points of strong faith to lows of fear and doubt.) David is so fearful of Saul that he flees the country into enemy Philistine territory, reasoning that he has a better chance of survival there even though he is still held in contempt by the Philistines because of his former victories over them (verses 10-11).
When captured by the Philistines in Gath, David composes Psalm 56 as a prayer for relief from tormentors, his experiences on the run providing its inspiration. We see some beautiful word pictures here. God remembering David's sacrifices in His book of remembrance is described as David's tears being put into God's bottle. The American national motto, "In God We Trust"a shortened form of the longer Pilgrim motto, "In God We Trust, God with Us"finds its origins in verse 11, "In God I have put my trust." And David touches on the ever-present biblical theme of "walking with God."