The tabernacle was at this time at Nob. This place must have been in the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives, or a continuation of this ridge, a little north of the summit and north-east of the city; but no trace of it has yet been discovered. This may be taken to have been not more than five miles south from Gibeah, and it was to this place that David repaired after his separation from Jonathan. As the Sabbath—or the sunset of Friday, had already commenced when he reached Nob, and as it was not lawful to travel on the Sabbath day, it seems to us that, seeing it was not safe for him to remain at Gibeah, and that the little time which remained before the commencement of the Sabbath would preclude further travelling, he had concluded to go to Nob as a place of safety till the termination of the holy day should enable him to resume his journey. At that place he would be safe, because, supposing his presence there were known, no one could travel thither after him on the Sabbath day, neither could any one who might be at Nob when he came, go to Gibeah to give intelligence of his arrival. It seems to us, therefore, that David went to Nob first, because it was just at a sufficient distance for him to reach before the commencement of the Sabbath; and being such, he would prefer it to other places equally within reach, not only from its being, as a sanctuary, a place of greater safety than any other, but from the natural desire, that the last Sabbath he was likely for some time to enjoy in the land, should be spent in that holy place, and among the servants of God.
It seems to us, that from the time of his parting with Jonathan—if not, indeed, from the time of his leaving Naioth—David had lost some of his trust and confidence in God. In contemplation of the implacable hatred with which he was pursued, and the dangers which beset all his movements; and in the face of the now publicly avowed intention to destroy him—his heart failed him, and he no longer rested secure in the confidence of the Lord’s all-sufficient protection. He felt that his position was altered. Hitherto he had to meet, or rather to evade, what had been the private, unreasoning, and fluctuating antipathy of Saul. But now, the king no longer had any reserves or restraints; he had publicly denounced him as marked for slaughter—publicly declared his belief that he was a traitor who aimed at the crown, and with whom no terms were any longer to be kept. The fact, that he had been anointed by Samuel was now publicly known—even the Philistines knew it; and David could not but feel, that the public knowledge of that fact laid upon him heavy responsibilities, from which he had been before exempt; and that it was impossible now to hope for any reconciliation with a prince of Saul’s temper, or to expect any safety within his reach. He might have reflected, that all these things did but tend to bring his claims and destination into public notice; and that the pursuing hatred of the king was in fact but the means of working out the plan of the Lord’s providence towards him, and offered no real ground of discouragement or fear to one who believed that He was well able to accomplish all the purposes of his will. His plain course had been, “by patient continuance in well doing,” to put to shame the calumnies of malicious men; and, while taking all reasonable care for his own safety, to honor the Lord by the confidence evinced in the sufficiency of his protection. But it was not so. He began to look to the matter in its simply human points of view—and then he began to despair—to be afraid. He who had subdued the lion and the bear—he who stood up against the giant, whose very presence dismayed the armies of Israel, now at last quailed at the fear of Saul; and having lost his shield of faith, he became, like the shorn Samson, “weak as other men,” and has left us a memorial of what the best of men may become when left to themselves.
This is the view we take of the transactions now immediately before us. We have indeed met with elaborate and ingenious vindications of David’s proceedings throughout, in which very learned and worthy men have labored to show in what degree it is lawful to lie and to deceive—thereby compromising the sacred interests of truth and righteousness, in order to vindicate the character of Jesse’s son. Now, the character of David is very dear to us, and he has ever been the object of our sympathy, our admiration, and our love. But truth is dearer to us than even the character of David; and we must not consent to call evil good, and to put darkness for light, because the evil was David’s and the darkness David’s. If we were to set about to prove that all David did was right, and the best that could be done, we should not only contradict the Scripture, but have work enough upon our hands. Far be it from us to claim for him that which belongs to One only of all who ever walked the earth. Let us admit the errors and weaknesses of David, as they occur, and our task becomes easy, and his history becomes consistent and clear; but let us uphold him through good and evil, through “the bitter and the sweet,” and we soon find ourselves “in wandering mazes lost,” and our perceptions of the broad landmarks between truth and error very painfully disordered.
Then, we regard David as under a spiritual cloud from the time he left Jonathan, onward to a point which we shall in the proper place indicate. This cloud, we first trace distinctly in his declaration to Jonathan, that there was but “a step between him and death.” Now there were as many steps between him and death then as at any other time; but an excessive fear had come upon him, which for the time made him forgetful of God, and urged him to seek his safety by any feasible means, whether right or wrong.
So, first he comes to Nob, with not only a lie, but with a whole nest of lies, in his mouth—the more heinous when we consider the place in which, and the person to whom, they were used—and when we recollect the danger into which they were calculated to bring that friendly and venerable person, and did bring him and his, even unto death; whereas, had he been sincere and candid with the high-priest, there can be little doubt that he would have found means of discharging the duties of hospitality and assistance, without any apparent compromise of his duty to his sovereign. As it was, David, aware that the priest would be astonished to see a person of his rank arrive alone—without the usual guard and attendants, with whom he had usually been seen at that place—prepared an ingenious tale to delude the pontiff. He told him that he was upon most urgent and private business for the king, citing the very words which, as he said, Saul had used in intrusting this secret mission to him; and his servants, he alleged, had been directed to meet him at a certain place. This, of course, left the high-priest to understand, that whatever aid or assistance was rendered to him, would be advancing the king’s service.
The unsuspecting high-priest, whose name was Ahimelech, finding David wanted bread, went so far as to give him some of that which had just been taken (at the commencement of the Sabbath) from the table of the shew-bread in the tabernacle, when the new bread had been laid on, and which, in strictness, it was not lawful for any but the priests to eat. There was no other; and we might be surprised at this, did we not know that bread was prepared from day to day. On any other day, bread might have been baked to meet any want that arose; but this could not be done on the Sabbath, and there was hence no bread to be had but the shew-bread, which would have sufficed for the use of the priests themselves on that day.
Having been furnished with bread, David intimated that in his haste he had left the court without a sword, and expressed a wish that one might be provided for him. He was told there was no sword but that of Goliath, which was wrapped up in a cloth, and laid up in the tabernacle. This David claimed, and it was given to him. This fact seems to prove, that in Israel swords were not worn even by military men when not on actual service or a journey.
David was not the only person detained at Nob over the Sabbath day. There was also present one Doeg, a proselyte of Edom, high in the confidence of Saul, and holding the post of chief herdsman, that is, having the management of this branch of the king’s property. He was arrested, by the arrival of the Sabbath, on his way to Gibeah, and not therefore aware of the recent occurrences, and did not find any ground for question or interference. He knew, however, that David was in growing disfavor with his master, and he watched narrowly all that passed. David himself was well acquainted with the malignant temper of this man, and himself confessed afterwards, that the time he was misleading the high-priest, he was aware that the attention shown to him at Nob, would, through the presence of Doeg, bring them to ruin. “I knew it,” he says, with bitter remorse, “I knew it that day when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul; I have occasioned the death of all the persons of thy father’s house.” Yes, it was no less. They did perish. When Saul was inquiring about David, and was lamenting that none would or could tell whither he had gone, Doeg related that he had seen him cherished by the priests at Nob, but he did not state the representations from David under which that assistance had been given. On hearing this, the king sent for all the priests, and on their arrival vehemently accused Ahimelech of being in a conspiracy with David against him. The high-priest repelled the charge with dignity and force, declaring that he was, at the time, utterly ignorant of there being any cause of complaint against him. But the king would not be convinced; and his dreadful words were, “Thou shalt surely die, Ahimelech, thou and all thy father’s house.” And forthwith he ordered the guard to fall upon them, condescending to give a reason, “Because their hand is also with David, and because they knew that he fled, and did not show it me.” But for once he was not obeyed. No hand moved against the priests of the Lord. If the king had been wise, he would have seen from this the danger of proceeding with this horrid purpose. But he was not wise; he would not be instructed. In his obstinate ferocity, he told Doeg to execute his purpose; and that person, assisted probably by his men, and not awed by the considerations which weighed upon the minds of native Israelites, turned upon them, and slew in that one day no fewer than “four score and five persons that did wear a linen ephod.”
From that day Saul was a doomed and ruined man. The atrocious massacre; filled every human and religious mind with disgust and horror, and it made the priestly body throughout the whole land, and in all its departments, inveterately hostile, and led them to look towards David as the instrument of their security and vengeance. Abiathar, the son, and virtual successor, of the murdered high-priest, escaped to him, and by his presence, with the means of officially consulting the Lord, gave weight and dignity to his position, so that the public attention became more and more directed to him, while Saul declined daily in public estimation; and sunk more and more, day by day, into the deepest glooms of horror and despair.