All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. - 2 Timothy 3:16-17

David -- A Fugitive
Based on 1 Samuel 18–22

After David kills Goliath, the narrative reveals that a great bond of friendship has developed between Jonathan—who is the heir apparent of Saul—and David who has been anointed king by the prophet Samuel. This intimate bond of kindred spirits results in a covenant between them, and in the eyes of the ancients, a covenant is far more important than an agreement reached today. It is taken very seriously and considered permanent, with almost no possibility of being broken.

Because the Bible states that Jonathan “loved” him as his own soul, some modern interpreters have defined this as a homosexual relationship. However, the Hebrew verb ’aheb (“love”) is not used in the Old Testament to express homosexual desire or activity. The Old Testament employs yada’ (“know”) in the sense of “have sex with” in the homosexual relationships referred to in Genesis 19:5 and in Judges 19:22. This latter verb is never used of David’s relationship with Jonathan. However, this type of covenant has political overtones in diplomatic and commercial settings—indicating that the verb extends to Jonathan’s agreement with David when he gives his robe (a symbol of the Israelite kingdom), his armor, his sword, his bow, and his belt (probably used for carrying his sword) to David. As Jonathan transfers these things to David, he is, in effect, transferring his own status to him.

David Acquires Skills

As we continue this story, bear in mind that it is not always possible to follow the sequence of events in the Bible chronologically, because the author organizes these events by subject, rather than by chronology. With that in mind, it is significant that the Bible states three times that David, while serving under Saul, is very successful because he does his work wisely. In fact, Saul is so pleased with David that he makes him a permanent member of the royal household, giving him the opportunity to learn administrative skills in preparation for his future role as king.

However, that good relationship with Saul suddenly changes when David returns from the slaughter of Goliath and the women come out of the cities of Israel singing, dancing, and playing their tambourines. They meet king Saul and David singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands,” infuriating Saul to the point of saying, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed only thousands. Now what more can he have but the kingdom?”

The next day, Saul is overcome by a “distressing” or evil spirit that manifests itself in extreme anger and jealously toward David. This is followed by Saul “prophesying” in the house. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew verb “to prophesy” can either mean true prophecy or the ecstatic frenzy of false prophets. In this instance, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates this verb as, “he raved.”

To comprehend how a distressing and evil spirit comes from God, we must understand the context of what has just taken place with both David and Saul. God has ordered Samuel to anoint David as king, and this is followed by the Spirit of the Lord coming upon him (see 1 Samuel 16:13). Then, in the next verses, the Spirit of the Lord departs from Saul, and immediately a “distressing (or evil) spirit” from the Lord begins troubling him.

It is clear that when the Spirit of God leaves Saul, he is immediately distressed with evil thoughts of jealously against David—to the point of wanting to kill him. As the coming of the Spirit of the Lord upon David is linked with his anointing as Israel’s next ruler, so the departure of God’s Spirit from Saul should be understood as the cessation of his effective rule over Israel from that time onward.

Because of Saul’s extreme agitation, David attempts to calm the king’s spirit by playing music on his harp, as he’s done so many times. However, Saul reaction is to grasp his spear and throw it at David twice, attempting to kill him. Saul then removes David from the palace and appoints him military captain over a thousand men. This is apparently done with the sinister intent of the Philistines killing him in battle.

Although Saul has evil motives, God turns them into a blessing, giving David the opportunity to learn military skills. The Lord is with him in every encounter, and David continues to be successful and behave wisely, causing Saul to fear him, and Israel and Judah to love him.

David Marries Michal

Saul offers his oldest daughter Merab to David in marriage, but David humbly answers, “Who am I, and what is my life or my father’s family in Israel, that I should be son-in-law to the king?” His hesitancy may, in part, be from the fact that he does not have the means to pay the bride-price.

According to Saul’s promise, the one who kills Goliath will receive his daughter Merab in marriage, but now he breaks his promise and gives her to Adriel, the Meholathite. However, his younger daughter Michal is in love with David, and this pleases Saul because he thinks she will be a snare to him, and cause him to be killed by the Philistines.

Since David does not have the money for the bride-price he needs to pay his future father-in-law, Saul suggests a way to do this that almost guarantee’s David’s death. I must warn you that the rest of this paragraph is uncomfortably graphic and gruesome. In fact, the Bible is often far more graphic than we are comfortable with in our day and age. We don’t understand their extreme barbaric acts—and Saul must surely have gotten this idea from Satan, himself. More out of deceit than mercy, Saul suggests that David pay the bride-price with the foreskins of one hundred uncircumcised Philistines. No doubt, the king considers this an impossible task that will ultimately cost David his life, if he’s foolish enough to try. However, David accepts the challenge, takes his men and slaughters 200 Philistines, and brings back double what was requested. Saul has no choice but to fulfill his part, giving him Michal as a wife.

Fear and Hatred

With this clear evidence of the Lord’s favor, Saul fears David more than ever, and considers him his constant enemy. Whenever the Philistines war against Israel, David is always more successful in battle than the other commanders, elevating him in the esteem of Israel. Saul’s hatred of David becomes so intense that he urges his son Jonathan and all of his servants to kill David. Jonathan communicates all this to his best friend, saying, “My father Saul seeks to kill you. Therefore please be on your guard until morning, and stay in a secret place and hide. And I will go out and stand beside my father in the field where you are, and I will speak with my father about you. Then what I observe, I will tell you.”

Jonathan speaks to his father, saying, “Let not the king sin against his servant, against David, because he has not sinned against you, and because his works have been very good toward you. For he took his life in his hands and killed the Philistine, and the Lord brought about a great deliverance for all Israel. You saw it and rejoiced. Why then will you sin against innocent blood, to kill David without a cause?”

Without an argument to stand on, Saul accepts Jonathan’s plea and restores David back to the palace. But soon, war breaks out with the Philistines and David is again victorious, making Saul very jealous of him. As David plays music that night to calm the king’s spirit, once more he has to flee to avoid being pinned to the wall by Saul’s spear.

Saul sends his men to David’s house that night to watch him and kill him in the morning. However, David’s wife Michal seems to understand the danger he’s in when she says, “If you do not save your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed,” and then helps him escape through a window by letting him down over the wall.

Then Michal takes an idol, lays it on the bed, puts a cover of goat’s hair for its head, and covers it with a spread. When Saul’s men arrive to kill David, she says, “He is sick,” but when they return to Saul, he orders them to go back, saying, “Bring him up to me in the bed, that I may kill him.”

When Saul discovers what his daughter has done, he says, “Why have you deceived me like this, and sent my enemy away, so that he has escaped?” and Michal responds, “He said to me, ‘Let me go! Why should I kill you?’”

David Seeks Help

After escaping, David goes to Samuel at Ramah, and they both travel to Naioth, some seven or eight miles away, where Samuel perhaps has a school of the prophets. When Saul hears where David is, he sends men to capture him; but when they arrive, the Spirit of the Lord comes upon them and they begin to prophesy. Saul sends more men to take David, but they begin to prophesy, too. Then, King Saul sends a third group of men, and predictably, they also prophesy. Finally, his great hatred takes over, and Saul takes out after David, himself; however, on the way, the Spirit of God comes upon him and he prophesies until he comes to Naioth!

The word prophesy can either be understood to be true or false. Bible scholars are divided between the two interpretations. In 1 Samuel 19:23, the Hebrew text says, literally, “The Spirit of God was upon him, also...” indicating that he prophesied in the manner of the men he sent before him.

Scripture says that Saul strips off his clothes, lies down, and prophesies before Samuel all that day and night, and although commentators are divided in their interpretation of whether he is totally naked or just takes off his royal robes, it is more probable that he did the latter. That Saul’s prophesying is genuine seems to be confirmed by the comments made about him by those present when they say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

David probably witnesses this amazing event, but experience tells him that Saul should not be trusted. Longing to talk to his best friends, he quickly leaves Ramah and finds Jonathan. Pouring out his soul, he asks, “What have I done? What is my iniquity, and what is my sin before your father, that he seeks my life?”

Jonathan, the trusting son, responds, “By no means! You shall not die! Indeed, my father will do nothing either great or small without first telling me. And why should my father hide this thing from me? It is not so!”

David affirms with an oath that he knows the reality that he speaks of, because although Saul knows about his close relationship with Jonathan, he has made secret plans to kill him. Then the two of them enter into a covenant relationship of friendship and loyalty that will not be broken by whatever happens in the future.

Because his life is but a step away from death, David proposes a plan to determine whether Saul will accept him into his presence again, or not. The next day is the New Moon on the lunar calendar, and the first day of the month begins on the evening on which the new crescent moon appears. This is an occasion for special festivities, including the blowing of trumpets over offerings and sacrifices. As Saul’s son-in-law, David is expected to be present. If Saul misses him, Jonathan is to say, “David earnestly asked permission of me that he might run over to Bethlehem, his city, for there is a yearly sacrifice there for all the family.” If Saul says, “It is well,” David will be safe, but if he gets very angry, then it will be obvious that Saul intends to do him harm.

“Who will tell me, or what if your father answers you roughly?” David asks, and Jonathan tells him to hide in a field near the banquet hall for three days while he observes his father’s reaction. On the second day of the festival, David will hide by the stone named Ezel, and Jonathan will shoot three arrows to the side, then send a young lad to retrieve them. The lad, not knowing what is really happening, will either be told that he has passed the arrows (meaning all is well for David), or that they are beyond him (meaning Saul is very angry and David must flee for his life).

On the first day of the feast, Saul makes no inquiry of the whereabouts of David; but on the second day, he does, and becomes uncontrollably angry when informed that David has gone to his father’s house for the festivities. In his fierce anger, he insults Jonathan in the worst way an ancient Near Easterner can, but hurling reproach upon his mother, saying, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, you shall not be established, nor your kingdom. Now therefore, send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.”

“Why should he be killed?” Jonathan asks. “What has he done?”

Suddenly, Saul hurls his spear at his own son, since he has now become synonymous with the man he hates the most.

Jonathan is grieved, indignant, and leaves the table without eating. The next day he goes into the field to carry out his predetermined plan. The arrows are shot beyond the lad, and David must flee for his life. However, before their separation, the two kiss each other, weep together, and finally part, never to see each other alive, again.

Eating Showbread

David is so overwhelmed that he doesn’t know where to go, so he flees to Nob, where Ahimelech, the high priest, and at least 85 other priests perform the ceremonies of the sanctuary. If he flees to Samuel, he might endanger the life of the prophet, and if he returns to his own home, his presence might cost the life of his own wife; so this seems to be the safest place.

As David enters alone, Ahimelech trembles. “Why are you alone, and no one is with you?” he asks, knowing something is terribly wrong when David is without his men.

David’s answers with a bold lie, saying that he is alone because Saul has sent him on a secret mission, and that his men have been directed to another place. Of course, David is no longer in charge of any of Saul’s soldiers at this point, and it is said of the Near Eastern people of that time that it was not a crime to tell a lie to save a life. But the Lord’s standard for David doesn’t follow that line of reasoning, as can clearly be seen by the terrible consequences that follow.

David is hungry, so he asks the high priest for five loaves of bread. Ahimelech answers that there is no common bread, but only the showbread that has been consecrated to the Lord. This bread is replaced every Sabbath, and the priests can eat the old bread within the precincts of the sanctuary, because it has performed its symbolic function. But before he turns over the bread, Ahimelech insists that David’s men must have kept themselves from women—a regular practice for those engaged in war, as can later be seen in the case of Uriah the Hittite. David says that he and his men meet this standard, so the bread is given to him—apparently following the principle that Jesus later advocates, that human need takes priority over ritual law when His disciples were criticized for plucking the heads of grain on the Sabbath and eating them.

As the bread is handed over, the act is quietly observed by an Edomite servant named Doeg, who is the chief of Saul’s herdsman—and probably a foreign mercenary. David recognizes him, and suddenly realizes that he left so quickly that he forgot to bring a weapon. So he asks Ahimelech for a spear or a sword, and the priest gives him the only weapon he has—the sword of Goliath!

Playing the Madman

Taking the massive sword with him, David flees to Gath, in Philistia, seeking asylum. It’s ironic that he would seek safety in Goliath’s hometown, but then the servants of King Achish begin asking, “Is this not David the king of the land? Did they not sing of him to one another in dances, saying: ‘Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands’?”

Terrified that Achish will realize that he killed their local hero with a sling, David boldly commits a second error to save himself by feigning to be a madman, scratching on the doors of the city gate and drooling all over his beard.

Achish is thoroughly disgusted—and probably afraid, since in ancient times, it was generally believed that anyone who harms an insane or demon-possessed person will become a victim of the same spirit. “Look, you see the man is insane,” he says. “Why have you brought him to me?  Have I need of madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?”

Hiding Again

Once again, David feels trapped and flees to the cave of Adullam, where his family visits him. He also attracts many men who are distressed (literally, “with a bitter spirit”) or in debt, or discontented, until he has about 400 followers.

Next, David moves to Mizpah in Moab, trying to get away from Saul, saying to the king of Moab, “Please let my father and mother come here with you, till I know what God will do for me.”

Mizpah means “watchtower,” probably indicating it is a safe fortress; and once his request is granted, David’s parents come and live with him, since they could be Saul’s target, as well. He may have thought that Moab would be kind to him since he had connections with them through his great-grandmother, Ruth.

While at Mizpah, the prophet Gad informs him to go back home to Judah, where he hides in the forest of Hereth. Saul seems to have learned his whereabouts, as he camped in Gibeah under a tamarisk tree. With spear in hand, he speaks to his servants, whom he suspects are traitors, asking them if they think that David will supply them with more benefits than he has. Then he accuses them of conspiring against him by not feeling sorry for him, or informing him of the covenant between Jonathan and David. He even believes Jonathan must have stirred up David against him.

Only Doeg offers a self-defense by informing the king what transpired between Ahimelech and David. He states that the priest inquired of the Lord for David, gave him provisions, and the sword of Goliath.

Angered by this report, the king calls for Ahimelech, all his father’s house, and all the priests that are with him; and when Ahimelech arrives, he is accused of conspiracy.

The priest answers innocently, “And who among all your servants is as faithful as David, who is the king’s son-in-law, who goes at your bidding, and is honorable in your house? Did I then begin to inquire of God for him? Far be it from me! Let not the king impute anything to his servant, or to any in the house of my father. For your servant knew nothing of all this, little or much.”

Saul is furious. “You shall surely die, Ahimelech, you and all your father’s house!” then orders his guards, “Turn and kill the priests of the Lord, because their hand also is with David, and because they knew when he fled and did not tell it to me.”

Fear strikes the guards, and they do not lift their hands to strike the priests of the Lord, so Saul turns to Doeg and orders him to massacre them all. In a murderous rage, Doeg kills them, and all the men, women, children, nursing infants, oxen, donkeys, and sheep in the entire city!

Abiathar, one of Ahimelech’s sons, escapes and tells David what has happened.

“I knew that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul,” David exclaims. “I have caused the death of all the persons of your father’s house. Stay with me; do not fear. For he who seeks my life seeks your life, but with me you shall be safe.”

David’s life as a fugitive has been at times a great success and at other times an abject failure. When he trusts in the Lord for his safety, everything goes well. When he succumbs to fear, he becomes desperate and begins to try to provide his own safety. This results in his viewing every man as a spy and betrayer, and in the destruction of any peace or sense of security. His sins have brought on the massacre of the high priest and 85 other priests, as well as every man, woman, child, nursing infant, ox, donkey, and sheep in the city of Nob. One cannot imagine the remorse and horror David feels as he reflects on his mistakes, but the past cannot be undone. Surely he now relies on God’s forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

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