When we come to chapters 21 and 22, we are faced with an ethical split over David’s “lie” to Ahimelech, the priest of the tabernacle. Was David’s “lie” justified, in order that he may eat consecrated bread to fill his hunger? Surely not, since David’s “lie” led to Ahimelech’s death! (chapter 22v.16, c.f. chapter 22v.22 – where we see David’s sorrow over himself occasioning (סבב sabab – to bring about / around) the death of the priests).
Yet, upon the recounting of this piece of history, Jesus looks upon David’s actions favourably in comparison to the strict law concerning the bread of presence. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 12:7), as “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), in order “to save life” (Luke 6:9). What is also important to note is that though Ahimelech said to David, “Why are you alone and no one with you” in v.1, what he meant by that is why David was not with men who served in Saul’s courts. There are indeed companions, as recounted in the gospels by Jesus (as well as implied in David asking for five loaves of bread (v.3), and Ahimelech’s response about the holiness of the young men who stand before him (v.4-5)); and these men along with David were hungry. They did not seek for food in the wilderness, but sought for holy bread in the house of God. It is here that we find the direct contrast between the mercy of God, so that men are saved; and the tyranny of Saul, in enforcement of the law. The law pointed towards faith and grace in the Christ found by David eating the bread of presence which represented the Anointed One in the Holy Place; and by Christ could David and his companions live in grace. Yet, Saul lived by the twisting of the law, tyrannising those who could not abide with it strictly, as we shall see in chapter 22.
It is interesting how it is noted that Doeg the Edomite was detained at the house of God. Was he praying there? Was he fasting? Was he serving the Levites? It is implied by the verb that he was restrained, detained. Where Doeg did not seem to go to the house of God out of his own volition or out of an act of holiness, we have David seeking refuge firstly in Samuel, and now secondly in Ahimelech, knowing that it is in the priests that he finds living bread. Where Doeg sided with Saul and wished to persecute his very Saviour (as Doeg was undoubtedly indebted to David’s great saving work by defeating Goliath) in the spirit of Judas, so we see here how David did not rely on his great sword of Goliath to cut his way through Achish. Instead, we see him being treated like a madman – and in the words of Achish – “Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to behave as a mad-man in my presence?”
The key verb here is behave. In the Hebrew, it seemed that Achish understood David to have “played” the madman – meaning, David was not really mad. Yet, to Achish, that is what he seemed. Similarly, Doeg did not seem to read the situation between David and Ahimelech, for David kept the truth from Ahimelech, perhaps to protect Ahimelech from being held guilty before Saul – a likely possibility, given that David was unwilling to even have Jonathan pit against his own father (v.10). It is thus in the spirit and correlation of this theme that chapters 20 and 21 are written. Those who stand outside of Christ are not brought to understand or listen to the truth of the rejected king; those who stand outside of Christ are seething with murder (c.f. Doeg’s report to Saul and his subsequent murder of the priests in chapter 22); surrounded by madmen (like Achish); unable to perceive the status of this true but persecuted king who has already been anointed by Samuel.
It is therefore more likely for David who have placed fear in the heart of Achisch, as opposed to being afraid of Achish; v.11 would lead to this thinking, for the Philistines should fear this man who has induced fear into the Philistine hearts. And it is not by the weapon of war, the weapon of Satan, that David speaks the truth; like our Christ who spoke in non-understandable parables (Matthew 13:13), David behaved like a madmen before them – the same manner in which Christ was reduced to before Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27).
Therefore, this chapter comes to enable us to understand three fundamental points: that David and his companions are fed by the bread of presence, the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ Himself; it is by His grace that refuge can be found in the tabernacle, where we see that the bread is but a shadow of Christ and in itself but a mere piece of bread. Secondly, the LORD’s enemies do not perceive David’s hearts; that even though Ahimelech may not understand David’s ploy, Ahimelech understands David’s heart and is merciful towards him for that reason alone (c.f. chapter 22v.14-15) – in direct contrast with Saul, Doeg and Achisch’s comparable madness, their lack of relationship with the priesthood of Israel, the true king of Israel against the Spirit-less kings of both Israel and Gath. Thirdly, David did not actively seek companions to rise up against Saul; he kept the matter to heart and did not wish for Ahimelech to be involved in ‘conspiring’ for David.
That is why Jesus looked upon David’s actions as a favourable example of the law being debilitated if the gospel is not inherently attached with it; the law cannot be apart from the mercy of the gospel love in Christ Jesus. David perfectly portrayed this, his identity of the Anointed One taking refuge in the House of God against the identity of those who are not anointed, whom the Spirit has left (like Saul), against the house of Gath. David desired mercy, and had few companions; Saul’s men were even at the house of God, and the nation of Gath filled with madmen. David instilled fear into the hearts of all men as his words fell on deaf ears as he behaved like a madman himself and his righteous actions ignored by his neighbours. What glory Doeg had witnessed, to see David feeding his companions! Yet this picture of compassion did not strike Doeg as a starking contrast to the tyrannical nature of his lord Saul (1 Samuel 14). Did not David carry the blade of Goliath while he instilled fear into the heart of Achisch? Yet, he did not carry out murder; he left condemnation in the hand of God (Romans 12:20).
Being rejected from Israel; and not belonging in the house of Gath. Holding the sword of Goliath, yet withholding murder. Compassion to his companions, yet breaking the law of the bread of presence; making a covenant of love and relationship with the prophet Samuel and the priest Ahimelech and the brother Jonathan, yet becoming the enemy of the powerful Israelite and Philistine kings; and straddling in between heaven and earth is our Christ, the living paradoxical God-man. In the words of Karl Barth in his “Dogmatics in Outline”:
“…But since within this world there really exist an above and a below confronting one another, since in every breath we take, in every one of our thoughts, in every great and petty experience of our human lives heaven and earth are side by side, greeting each other, attracting and repelling each other and yet belonging to one another, we are, in our existence, of which God is the Creator, a sign and indication, a promise of what ought to happen in creation and to creation – the meeting, the togetherness, the fellowship and, in Jesus Christ, the oneness of Creator and creature.”
This fellow, indeed, shall not go into Gath’s house (v.15) – but he should walk into the House of God, that sanctuary, in the land of Nob – the land of fruit in vicinity of Jerusalem. It is therefore in between the two destinations of Gath and Saul’s house where David finds his true home in the house of peace, the house of Yahweh; he is the man seen as crazy, he is the man who is rejected – yet he is the man under whom that men from both houses shall be united.