Then Ahimelech answered the king, “And who among all your servants is so faithful as David, who is the king’s son-in-law, and captain over your bodyguard, and honored in your house? Is today the first time that I have inquired of God for him? No! Let not the king impute anything to his servant or to all the house of my father, for your servant has known nothing of all this, much or little.” And the king said, “You shall surely die, Ahimelech, you and all your father’s house.” 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. 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. 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.
But one of the sons of Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David. And Abiathar told David that Saul had killed the priests of the Lord. And David said to Abiathar, “I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul. I have occasioned the death of all the persons of your father’s house. Stay with me; do not be afraid, for he who seeks my life seeks your life. With me you shall be in safekeeping.” – 1 Samuel 22:14-23 ESV
The moral, spiritual, and mental state of King Saul was on a steep and rapid decline. His animosity toward David was insatiable and he would let anyone or anything stand in the way of his quest to eliminate David once and for all. So, while his treatment of the Ahimelech and the priests of Nob may shock us, it should not surprise us. Even the priests of God were fair game and subject to Saul’s wrath. But while Saul seemed to have lost all fear of and respect for God, his troops had not. He was unable to recruit any of them to carry out his vindictive order to kill the priests. But there was one man who was more than willing, most likely driven by a desire to see himself promoted and rewarded for his efforts. Doeg the Edomite, the man who had been at Nob when David showed up, had made a beeline to King Saul with the news. This Edomite, a foreigner, was more than willing to carry our Saul’s command. Doeg was “the chief of Saul’s herdsmen” (1 Samuel 21:7 ESV), and, like any other ambitious individual, was probably seeking a way to get out of the pasture and climb the palace social ladder. By carrying out Saul’s command when no one else would, he knew he would ingratiate himself to the king and secure his favor. So Doeg slaughtered 85 priests of God that day. And then he killed every living inhabitant of Nob. It was a bloodbath – a senseless, sinful, and Satan-inspired act would turn the priesthood from Saul to David. A solitary priest, Abiathar, miraculously escaped the carnage that day and made his way to David with the news of what had happened. David was wracked with horror and guilt. He felt responsible for the deaths of Ahimelech and his fellow priests. It was his deception that had led to their destruction. He had lied to Ahimelech that day by telling him he was on a secret mission for Saul. His rash decision to seek refuge from the priests and then lie to secure their help had put them at great risk. And Saul, in his ever-present paranoid state, saw them as traitors and had them summarily executed.
David most likely assumed that Saul, as the king and a servant of Yahweh, would show the priests the respect they were due. He probably never imagined that Saul would dare lift his hand against the priests of God. But he had been proven wrong. And David was furious. His respect for Saul all but disappeared that day. We get a good idea of David’s mental state at the time, because he wrote a psalm to commemorate the event. In it, he reveals his feelings about Saul.
Why do you boast about your crimes, great warrior?
Don’t you realize God’s justice continues forever?
All day long you plot destruction.
Your tongue cuts like a sharp razor;
you’re an expert at telling lies.
You love evil more than good
and lies more than truth. – Psalm 52:1-3 NLT
David was a warrior himself, but he was appalled at the actions of Saul. He was shocked at the actions of someone he once admired and idolized. He could not believe that Saul, the king of Israel, could do the things he had done. But he knew that God would not let Saul’s actions go unpunished.
You love to destroy others with your words,
But God will strike you down once and for all.
He will pull you from your home
and uproot you from the land of the living. – Psalm 53:4-6 NLT
David was confident that God would bring justice and retribution against Saul. He would not allow this immoral act to go unaccounted for. While David was in no position to do anything about it, he knew that God would.
The righteous will see it and be amazed.
They will laugh and say,
“Look what happens to mighty warriors
who do not trust in God.
They trust their wealth instead
and grow more and more bold in their wickedness.” – Psalm 53:6-7 NLT
Through the misguided and unrighteous actions of Saul, David was learning some valuable lessons regarding those who fail to place their trust in God. He saw in King Saul a stark portrayal of the once godly man who abandons his faith in God for reliance upon his own strength and resources. Saul’s blatant betrayal of God was difficult for David to understand. But it drove him in his commitment to place his trust in and maintain his reliance upon God, whatever happened.
But I am like an olive tree, thriving in the house of God.
I will always trust in God’s unfailing love.
I will praise you forever, O God,
for what you have done.
I will trust in your good name
in the presence of your faithful people. – Psalm 52:8-9 NLT
Abiathar, the sole remaining priest, would find refuge with David. The future king of Israel and the future high priest of Israel were suddenly united by one man’s hatred for them and God’s divine plan for them. Neither David or Abiathar knew what God had in store for them. David had no idea what the next few years of his life would hold. Abiathar only knew that he was alone and no longer able to exercise his priestly duties. Both men were unaware of all that God was doing behind the scenes. There was no silver lining to the dark cloud that hung over them. There was no light at the end of the foreboding tunnel in which they found themselves. But they would learn to trust in God by having to place all their hope in God.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.