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.” – 1 Samuel 21:1-9 ESV
The next ten chapters of the book of 1st Samuel will chronicle the life of David as he spends the next years of his life running from King Saul. Having received the news from Jonathan that Saul was out to kill him, David made his way to Nob, which was about two and one-half miles southeast of Gibeah. There, he sought out Ahimelech, the high priest. David was running out of options. He could no longer go home. His relationship with Samuel, the prophet, had reached an end. David most likely knew that turning to Samuel was the worst thing he could do, because that would be what Saul expected, and so Samuel would be under surveillance. David had said his final goodbyes to Jonathan, knowing that they would probably never see one another again. So, in need of food and shelter, David turned to the high priest.
His arrival at Nob caught Ahimelech off guard. He was surprised and a bit scared to see David arrive by himself, without his usual allotment of troops. It seems that Saul’s volatile nature was well-known and justly feared. Ahimelech jumped to the conclusion that David had showed up as an agent sent by Saul to wreak havoc on the priests of God. This would ultimately prove not to be a farfetched idea. Because in the very next chapter, we will see Saul command the execution of every single priest in Nob because ended up aiding and abetting David (1 Samuel 22:6-23).
David assured Ahimelech that he was not there to do them harm. He lied to the high priest, assuring him that he was on a top-secret mission for the king, the nature of which he was not free to divulge. This deception was used to obtain food and to keep the high priest from asking further questions. It also reveals a certain sense of fear and lack of trust on David’s part. He was not yet willing, ready and able to put all his reliance upon God. He was in a tight spot and was willing to lie in order to preserve his own life. As time went by and David began to see God’s miraculous provision and protection, he would grow increasingly more confident in God’s capacity to care for his every need. But at this point in the story, David was fairly new at this whole fugitive lifestyle, and was simply doing whatever he had to do to stay alive.
When David asked Ahimelech for bread, the only thing the high priest had available was the showbread that was put on display in the tabernacle as part of a weekly sacrifice to God. The book of Leviticus provides us with important details regarding the showbread. It was to be changed out weekly, and the old bread was to serve as food for the priests. But they must eat it in a holy place and only while in a purified state. It was considered holy.
“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.” – Leviticus 24:5-9 ESV
Ahimlech’s reticence to share the bread with David and “his men” was based on the requirement that the bread was holy and not to be eaten by anyone who was impure. David was able to assure that his soldiers were ceremonially pure because there were no soldiers to begin with. David was alone. And he had not had sexual relations with Michal that day, because he had been forced to leave her several days prior. David took the bread and, according to Jesus, he was not wrong in doing so.
“Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?” – Matthew 12:3-4 ESV
Jesus referred back to this historical, real-life event, comparing what David did with the disciples eating the heads of wheat on the sabbath. The Pharisees, with their legalistic mindset, had accused them of “harvesting” on the sabbath. For Jesus, the actions of the disciples were justified because they were simply meeting the normal human need to eat. Jesus used the same reasoning on another occasion, when He said to the Pharisees, “If you had a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you work to pull it out? Of course you would. And how much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Yes, the law permits a person to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:11-12 NLT). According to Jesus, David was simply trying to stay alive, so his actions were necessary and, therefore, justified.
But what David didn’t know was that his actions were being observed by someone who was on Saul’s payroll, Doeg, the Edomite. This man was the in charge of all of Saul’s flocks. It may be that Doeg had it in for David, because he was jealous of his success. After all, David had started out as a shepherd, but risen to a place of power and prominence in the king’s court, and had even married into the king’s family. Perhaps Doeg hoped that by ratting on David, he would be elevated up the royal food chain and move from the pasture to the palace. But regardless of his intent, Doeg would make his way to Saul with news about his enemy’s presence in Nob. David’s respite would prove brief and the role Ahimelech played in helping David would prove deadly.
Having been forced to leave Gibeah in a hurry, David was unarmed and defenseless. So he inquired of Ahimelech whether there were any weapons in the priestly compound. It just so happened that the sword of Goliath, the Philistine champion whom David had killed in hand-to-hand-combat, was in the tabernacle wrapped in a priestly robe. This was the very same sword David had used to cut off the giant’s head. David, having retrieved the sword, and with his five loaves of ceremonial showbread, said his goodbyes to Ahimelech and began what was going to be a long and difficult period of running, hiding, and learning to trust in God. In the years that lie ahead, David would find himself experiencing a wide range of life lessons that would increase his faith in God and strengthen his resolve to serve God faithfully. The king David would eventually become was the byproduct of the trials and tribulations of this less-than-pleasant phase of his life. For David, the phrase, “no pain, no gain” could have been the tagline for his life. He would find that persecution would have to precede his coronation. Years of suffering would come before his crowning. The daily experience of loss and pain would preface his eventual reign.
Years later, when David had finally experienced release from Saul’s dogged pursuit and had been crowned the king of Israel, he was able to write:
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies. – Psalm 18:1-3 ESV