We’ve haven’t seen good things from King Saul in the past few weeks. As each chapter comes and goes in the back half of 1 Samuel we see that Saul has a peculiar ability to surprise us in his wickedness. Just when we think he’s reached the bottom, just when we think Saul couldn’t get any fouler, Saul goes deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.
As the events unfold in this chapter, there are three different scenes for us to see.
The World (22:6-10)
v6 sets the stage for us. As David continues to be on the run Saul is back in Gibeah sitting on a mountain underneath a tree with his spear in his hand. It is not surprising to see him like this. Throughout the past few chapters his spear has always been close to his hands. It’s almost as if the events of chapter 18 to the present have changed Saul, in that he’s always suspicious now, never trusting anyone, so naturally he’s always got his spear nearby. The picture we get here is one of Saul portraying the force that he intends to rule with as king. No one should question him, challenge him, or go against him, he will put an end to all treason in Israel. Saul states his mind in v7-8 making it clear that he thinks there is a conspiracy happening among his servants because even though David isn’t able to give them land or vineyards or troops or high ranking military positions, for some reason no one tells him that his own son made a covenant with David. This is treason to Saul, and you can imagine how quickly that spear would’ve flown if someone were to speak up at this point in their own defense.
But in v9 we do see someone speak up. Doeg the Edomite spoke up and said, “I saw the son of Jesse with Ahimelech, he prayed for him, gave him food, and gave him the sword of Goliath at the temple in Nob.” These things were true, but Doeg didn’t tell the whole truth. He didn’t tell Saul that David had tricked Ahimelech into believing that Saul sent him on a secret mission, he didn’t tell Saul that Ahimelech was trembling when he saw David alone, and he didn’t tell Saul that Ahimelech questioned David as to why he looked so suspicious. Such information would’ve cleared Ahimelech and thrown all the blame on David, but Doeg left it out, incriminating Ahimelech (David penned Psalm 52 about Doeg’s deception).
What began as mere thoughts of jealousy concerning David and his military successes has become a wholehearted devotion to murdering him. So when he heard the words of Doeg he was pleased. Saul is officially mad. Lesson? Sin grows quickly in the fertile soil of a discontented heart. I wonder how many of you have experienced this. You feel like you’re missing out on something, feel wronged by another, or feel like you’ve earned more than you’ve been given and you begin to dip your toe in waters you know you should stay away from. ‘Just a little look at something forbidden, just a little embrace of filth deep in the recesses of your heart, just a little enjoyment of wickedness, just a little looseness with your anger won’t hurt anybody, right? I mean who is going to know?’ Wrong, for two reasons, wrong. First, God sees all things and God knows all things. He knows your secrets better than you do. To think you can sneak around behind His back is not only arrogant, it’s foolish. Second, what you think is hidden and in control now, will grow quicker and uglier than you ever imagined. For Saul, it was a small jealousy that he lingered on which turned into a murderous rage. What is it for you? What sin are you dipping your toes into now? Be sure of this – it’s that same sin that you’ll be diving into later if you continue to linger on.
Beware the discontented, entitled, prideful heart. If we entertain sin in our hearts or linger on sin in our minds, we won’t be satisfied with just a smidgen of it, we’ll just want more of it. So let Saul be a lesson to you here. In fact, let this whole scene be a lesson to you about what the world is like. We may live in this world, but the world is fallen and it is not our ally. “Do not love the world or the things in the world…” the Apostle John says “…If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life – is not from the Father but is from the world” (1 John 2:15-16). The world, the flesh, and the devil, this unholy trinity, wages war against us, hates us, and will (like Saul does here) believe any kind of conspiracy against us just to be able to carry out its evil intentions. Because of this, you cannot be friends with sin and have fellowship with God.
The Church in the World (22:11-19)
So we’ve seen what the world is like in v6-10, let’s move onto v11-19 where we get a glimpse of the Church in the world.
Saul was pleased with the comments of Doeg and he sent for Ahimelech the priest and all the other priests who are with him at Nob. They all came and in v13 Saul asks his question, “Why have you conspired against me, you and the son of Jesse, in that you have given him bread and a sword and have inquired of God for him, so that he has risen against me, to lie in wait, as at this day?” Then in v14-15 Ahimelech gives a clear, logical, and reasonable answer saying, ‘Doesn’t David have a high rank and a glowing reputation among the nation? Isn’t he your son-in-law? Was my praying for him something new? Haven’t I done that many times? I’ve heard rumors of something going on between you two but I know nothing of this conspiracy.’ If you’re going to be ordered to give an answer before such a violent and murderous king as Saul this is the answer to give. Every one of the things Ahimelech stated in v14-15 Saul would have agreed with! And we see this because most of Ahimelech’s answers to Saul are rhetorical questions. Yet as logical and rational as the answer was Saul, being steeped in sin, does not at the moment contain a heart or mind that functions properly, he is no longer a logical or rational man. So when he gives the order in v16 to kill Ahimelech and all the other priests we’re not caught off guard…but we are grieved at Saul’s condition. He clearly has no regard for the sacred office of the priesthood, and therefore shows his lack of regard for God. Perhaps he’s still angry at being rejected as King by God and takes some revenge on God’s priests since God was out of reach.
Look in v17, did you notice the servants weren’t willing to do it? These were the same henchmen who were willing to go on a long journey to hunt down David and kill him, but when asked to kill the priests of God, they show some sense and don’t move a muscle. It seems that these servants are showing that they now would prefer God to be their king rather than Saul. So Saul asks Doeg to do it in v18, and he not only killed all 85 priests, he killed their wives, their children, and laid waste to the city of Nob. That Saul ordered such a massacre places him among the ranks of some of the most villainous men in the Bible. Back in chapter 15 he was not willing to massacre God’s enemies, but now he’s willing to do it to his own people?
Perhaps some of you have felt or feel now what Ahimelech (and his 84 co-workers) felt in this passage? We live in a time when laws are being passed that will make it very difficult for Christians to practice Christianity in the public sphere. We live in a time that says you are free to believe in whatever you want to believe in, as long as I’m ok with it. We live in a time when the pressure is rising on Christian organizations to function in a way the government wants them to function in rather than in the way the individual owners created them to function in. How does the Church operate in the world? Do we retreat? Do we take up arms and fight back? Do we run for political office and change laws? No, we don’t do any of those things. Remember: many Christians before us have lived in worse times than us and have done amazing things for the Glory of God. Remember: God is sovereign over all of history, the only leaders who win elections are leaders whom God chooses, and He may in fact want wicked leaders in place for a time for His sovereign purposes. Remember: lasting transformation does not come by political agendas, it does not come through getting prayer back in schools, or having the 10 commandments engraved on court houses once again, no, lasting transformation only comes from hearts that are changed by the Gospel. In this world the Church ought to always remember two primary things: sin is always the problem, and Jesus is always the answer.
So what happens when ravenous wolves surround the sheep of the Great Shepherd? The pressure indeed rises. So Church, do not think it strange when you find yourself in Ahimelech’s shoes. When it seems that the world may be plotting and planning against us as Christians. Get it straight right now in your hearts: the world is against us. The sooner we settle this issue in our souls the better. Jesus has saved us out of this world, yet we continue in this world living life to glorify Him and spread His Gospel. He doesn’t intend us to reach the world with His Gospel by seeking to secure our lives in this world. No, Jesus intends us to reach the world with His Gospel regardless the cost that it brings our lives in this world. Paul’s words become our own words in times like this, in 2 Cor. 6:9-10 he says “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true, as unknown, and yet well known, as dying, and behold, we live, as punished, and yet not killed, as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, yet possessing everything!” Corrie Ten Boom once said it and I say it to you now, “If you look at the world you’ll be distressed. If you look at Christ, you’ll be at rest.”
The Church (22:20-23)
We’ve seen the world, we’ve seen the Church in the world, now to end we’ll see the Church. There is such hope when we see that one man made it out of Nob alive. Abiathar flees and goes to David, tells him what happened, and David responds by telling him three things: David confessed he knew that Doeg was up to no good that day when he saw him at the temple and that he would surely tell Saul what he saw. David admitted that it was his own fault that Abiathar’s whole family had just been slaughtered. And David comforted Abiathar telling him that he is safe with him.
When we come to these final verses in our passage we see a deliberate contrast the author of 1 Samuel is trying to make between God’s people and those who are not God’s people. Contrast the scene where Ahimelech the priest stood before Saul with this scene where Abiathar the priest stands before David. The words of Saul to Ahimelech were “…you shall surely die” while the words of David to Abiathar are “…with me you shall be safe.” Saul stands out as the persecutor of the priests while David stands out as the protector of the priests.
Here we see the nature of the Church.
Like we said before, this world is fallen and in the midst of a fallen world the Church still exists. The Church isn’t to run away and hide or shrink back when threatened. The Church stands in the midst of this world. In the comfort David gives to Abiathar we see something of what the Church is to be like for all of us. The Church is to be a table in the wilderness, where lavish spreads of the richest spiritual delicacies are offered by God and enjoyed by His people. The richness of His Word laid out for us in song, in prayer, and in preaching. The richness of His Supper where we are mysteriously strengthened to grow in grace. The rich encouragement if His discipline that not only trains us for holiness, but reveals our true sonship. And the rich fellowship among us, fellow pilgrims and publicans traveling the narrow way together to the heavenly city. There is nothing else like the Church. It is to be a haven for the refugee, a home for the saint, and a hospital for the sinner, where we glory in God’s glory.
Abiathar felt this rich welcome in David’s arms even there among the pain and wreckage of Saul’s vengeance. May you feel such a welcome here even amid the pain and wreckage of this fallen world.
So what have we seen today? We’ve seen the vile nature of worldly Saul still growing, which stands in greater and greater contrast to David’s righteousness. We’ve seen the fowl realities of living in this fallen world as Ahimelech stood before Saul and Doeg, only to be slaughtered along with his entire family. Yet in the midst of it all we’ve also seen the warm welcome of Abiathar in David’s safety and taste the richness of the warmth God gives us among the community of His people.
The original audience of 1 Samuel would’ve been strengthened by this chapter. They would’ve been reminded that even in the wilderness God can spread a table of delights for His people. And they would’ve learned anew the difference in character between God’s people and the lost pagans surrounding them in Saul’s actions. Even though you and I are far removed from these events these things can strengthen us as well. Even in this present evil age, we too can feast on God’s table full of rich delights, spread for us in this wilderness that is growing more and more hostile to Christians with each election. So how does the Church survive in the world, how does the Church grow in the world? More so, how does the Church have an impact for the Glory of God on this world? By continuing to proclaim the twofold truth of the Gospel – the problem is always sin, and the answer is always Jesus (faith in Him, and rest in His rule).
Does anyone remember an event in the gospels that is similar to the slaughter of Nob? Just as God preserved Moses when Pharaoh had all the male Hebrew babies cast into the Nile river, just as God preserved Abiathar when Saul had Doeg destroy the city of Nob, so too, it was God who preserved toddler Jesus when Herod had all the boys under 2 years old killed in Bethlehem. But eventually the day would come when little Jesus would grow up, and be delivered over to the chief priests and Pilate to be crucified. God would not preserve His Son at that moment, but allowed Him to die, so that we could enjoy being preserved by God through faith in His Son. All Christians now enjoy a table spread in the wilderness given to us by, for, and through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.