The Fugitive

I Samuel 21-22

September 17, 2000 | Ray Pritchard

The morning light broke through the branches and the fugitive knew it was time to move on. Without a word, he began gathering his few things. It didn’t take long, for you travel light when you’re on the road. As his mind roamed back over the last few days and weeks, it seemed like he had been running from the law all his life. He knew every back road, every village, every cave, every gully, every place a man could hide for a few hours.

Some days were good and some, like today, were not so good. He didn’t have to eat breakfast. There was nothing to eat. He picked up his staff, his small duffel bag, and down the road he went. It was the kind of dusty, winding road that seems to lead nowhere in particular.

As he came over the crest of a small hill, there below him was his destination: a gathering of buildings with a large tent in the middle. With any luck, the fugitive might find some food for his empty stomach in this country town.

I. David at Nob: Deception and Fear 21:1-9

So it was that David came to the village of Nob, home to 85 priests of God, home to the High Priest Ahimelech, home to the tabernacle. It’s a terrible thing to run out of options but that’s exactly what has happened. David didn’t particularly want to come here but he hardly had any choice. And he didn’t really want to do what he was going to do but with Saul breathing down his neck, extreme measures were called for. When you’re a fugitive, you play the cards you’re dealt.

The story begins in I Samuel 21:1. “David went to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. Ahimelech trembled when he met him and asked, ‘Why are you alone? Why is no one with you?’ David answered Ahimelech the priest, ‘The king charged me with a certain matter and said to me, “No one is to know anything about your mission and your instructions.”’” It was a lie. David was running from Saul, not conducting a secret mission for him. David must have sounded convincing because Ahimelech believed it without any question. But it was a lie nonetheless. David lied because he was caught between a rock and a hard place. Saul was trying to kill him and after so long on the road a man gets desperate and he says whatever he has to say to stay alive. I’m sure the following statement is true: David did what he felt like he had to do. Not that he thought it was right. He thought it was necessary. And he never meant to hurt anyone else with his lie.

We’re told the purpose of the lie down in verse 3. “Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever you can find.” This partly explains what David was thinking. He has a few men on the run with him and they haven’t had a thing to eat. He lies to Ahimelech in order to get food for his men. When you stop to think about it, most of us would have done the same thing. This falls into the category of “little white lies,” the kind many people tell from time to time. Certainly it seems justified to tell a lie if that’s the only way to get food to eat. It was pure situation ethics—the end justifies the means.

Down in verse 7 is a little fact you might tend to overlook. There was a third person in Nob that day who saw this little transaction. He knew who David was and he knew David was telling a lie. His name was Doeg the Edomite. He was Saul’s head shepherd. He saw David and David saw him. And he saw Ahimelech give David the bread. We will hear from him again.

Just before David leaves town, he says, “Oh by the way, you don’t happen to have a sword handy do you? I left mine back home.” Notice the end of verse 8: “Because the king’s business was urgent.” He repeats the original lie a second time.

Ahimelech replied, “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you killed in the Valley of Elah, is here; it is wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you want it, take it; there is no sword here but that one.” David said, “There is none like it; give it to me” (I Samuel 21:9).

David, what’s gotten into you? First, you lie and then you lie again. Now you’ve taken the sword of Goliath to fight your battles. David, have you lost your mind? As we shall soon see, in a sense he has lost his mind. David is in the wilderness, cut off from friends and family. The wilderness makes a man do strange things. The constant pressure pulls and pulls at you, wears you down until your perspective begins to change and things that used to seem wrong don’t seem so bad anymore and things you swore you’d never do, you end up doing. Telling a lie was an act of fear; taking Goliath’s sword an act of desperation.

First there was fear, then there was a lie, then desperation. But the worst is yet to come.

II. David at Gath: Compromise and Humiliation 21:10-15

David is on his way to the bottom but he hasn’t hit it yet. Fear drove him to come to Nob. Fear drove him to lie to Ahimelech. Fear drove him to take Goliath’s sword. Now fear drives him to do the strangest thing he has ever done.

David goes to Gath. Verse 10 says “That day David fled from Saul and went to Achish king of Gath.” Gath? Haven’t we hear that name somewhere before? Yes we have. Gath is in Philistine territory. That means it’s not in Israel. But that’s not the key. Gath was the hometown of a chap named Goliath. David has now fled for refuge to the enemy camp. Why did David do something like this? It’s hard to know all the answers but I imagine he was thinking along these lines. “Gath is the last place Saul would ever look for me. I’ll go tell King Achish what’s going on and he’ll understand. After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. When I become king of Israel, I’ll come back down here and wipe these pagans out.”

So now he’s down in Gath with Goliath’s people. It doesn’t look very good, does it? The man of God hiding in the enemy camp. It was an act of outright spiritual treason. The people of God were to have nothing to do with the Philistines. They were to be separated from the surrounding nations. But David looked around and said, “What’s the quickest way out?” That’s a huge temptation when you find yourself in the wilderness: to take the quickest way out. You can write it down as a spiritual principle: When you are in the wilderness, the quickest way out is almost always wrong. When you start compromising your convictions, when you go over to the world’s side, disaster is soon to follow.

This whole scheme would have worked except for some of the Philistine servants who saw David, recognized him, and remembered a little ditty that had been on the Hebrew Hit Parade, which they quoted to Achish: “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.” And they ask the natural question: O King, are you nuts? This man is a killer. What’s he doing here?

When David realized he couldn’t hide his true identity, his fear made him act like a madman. The text says that he feared what Achish might do to him so he “pretended to be insane in their presence; and while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard” (I Samuel 21:13). This is from the man who won the greatest military victory in Israel’s history, the victory over Goliath. God’s man now acting like a madman. I suppose it illustrates the saying that “honesty is the best policy, but insanity is a better defense.”

The funniest part of the story is in verses 14 and 15: “Achish said to his servants, ‘Look at the man! He is insane! Why bring him to me! Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me? Must this man come into my house?’” With that, David is kicked out of Gath. Now he’s back on his own. The compromise didn’t work. It only led to his humiliation. First there was fear, then a lie, then desperation, then compromise, and now humiliation. But the worst is yet to come.

III. David at Adullam: Depression and Restoration 22:1-5

David now has reached the bottom and he’s on his way up. But the story is not over yet. Now he’s back in Israel, still running, still hiding. He comes to a place called the Cave of Adullam. Chapter 22:1 tells us that his family went to meet him there. Then verse 2 tells us that “all those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their leader. About four hundred men were with him.” What a sight. The national hero and his court. Every troublemaker in Israel came out to join him. He was the captain of the crooks and the duke of the deadbeats. This isn’t all bad because these men who came to David in the wilderness would one day become his mighty men. In later years his greatest warriors would come from this unlikely group. As David changes, his men change. As he begins once again to walk with God, so do they. This is the beginning of David’s court. It doesn’t look like it, these 400 hoodlums huddling in a cave with the future king of Israel. But God has been at work in David’s life shaping him into a king. By the time David is ready, these men will be ready, too.

IV. David at Hereth: Confrontation and Confession 22:10-23

With that the story should be over, But it’s not. There’s a loose end hanging that needs to be tied up. Whatever happened to Doeg the Edomite and whatever happened to Ahimelech? Let’s return to the village of Nob for a moment. Things are quiet now. Very quiet. There’s not a sound in that little village of priests. There never was very much noise but now the only sound you hear is the wind whistling through the bushes. It’s too quiet. Deathly quiet. Overhead the vultures circle. In the hot sun, dismembered bodies lie on the ground. They have been hacked to death in some kind of execution. Eighty-five priests are dead. Their wives killed. And their children. A whole village has been wiped out.

What happened here? Who did this? Doeg the Edomite told Saul that he had seen Ahimelech give the sacred bread to David. Saul called in Ahimelech and accused him of treason for helping David. Ahimelech had believed David when he said he was on a mission for Saul. He had acted out of patriotism. He had no way of knowing it was a lie. And now he will pay with his life. When Saul ordered the priests killed, his own soldiers wouldn’t do it. They wouldn’t kill the servants of the Lord. But Doeg was an Edomite, a foreigner. Priests meant nothing to him. So the whole village was wiped out.

Only one man lived to tell the story. His name was Abiathar. Somehow he found David and told him the story. Here is David’s reaction in I Samuel 22:22: “That day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, I knew he would be sure to tell Saul. I am responsible for the death of your father’s whole family.” David thought he got away with it. But he didn’t. David the cool, confident, smooth-talking fugitive is now confronted with his own sin. He knew Doeg was there and he knew he would tell Saul, and he didn’t do anything about it. He was so wrapped up in himself that he didn’t even warn Ahimelech. Who killed the priests of Nob? Who is the real culprit of this tragedy? Not Doeg, not Saul, but David. David was responsible. David’s hands were dripping with the blood of the innocent people of Nob.

Thus the progress of sin. First there is fear, then a lie, then desperation, then compromise, then humiliation, and finally disaster. The saddest part is that David never intended for things to end up like this. Far from it. He lied to get food for his men. It seemed justifiable at the time. Most of us would have done the same thing. If David had known, if David had stopped to think, if he had even dreamed of such a thing, he never would have told the lie. If…If…If…. But he didn’t know, he didn’t think, he didn’t dream, and he did tell the lie. As the poet said, “O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

Two Truths to Ponder

Of all the truths that shine out of this story, two especially cry out for our attention. The first is this: No one ever gets away with sin. It is a moral law of the universe that all sin is eventually punished. Tucked away in the book of Numbers is a solemn warning for all of us: “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23). Galatians 6:7 says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” It was a lesson David learned the hard way. The chickens always come home to roost. The skeletons eventually come out of the closet. From the tiniest transgression to the greatest crime, no one ever gets away with sin.

There is a second truth from our text today. When he is confronted, the wise man confesses his sin. You find out what a man is made of when he is confronted with his sin. Saul lived in a dream world. He was always saying, “He did it, she did it, they did it. It’s not my fault.” But David said, “I did it.’ Right there is the whole difference between David and Saul. David made a lot of mistakes and his mistakes hurt a lot of innocent people. But there’s one good thing you can say about him: When he was confronted, he didn’t try to make excuses. Proverbs 28:13 says, “He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but he who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”

The hardest thing you will ever do is to come to your senses and say, “I did it” or “I am guilty” or “I was wrong.” Chuck Swindoll says that for the Christian, living in sin is a form of temporary spiritual insanity. When we do wrong, we lose our moral compass and head right over the cliff. There is no cure until we come to our senses and admit what we have done. As we grow in Christ, it ought to become easier for us to say, “Please forgive me. I was wrong.” Until we can say that, we will never get better.

What happened to David can happen to any of us. There’s no limit to the sin we can commit once we begin to give in. We begin to cut corners and suddenly one thing leads to another and we end up doing things we swore we’d never do. If we don’t stop, somebody is going to get hurt. We lie and then we lie again, we swear and can’t stop, we break one promise and then we break another, we blow our top and then we blow it again, we hurt one person and then we hurt another, we spread one rumor and then we embellish it and spread it again, we take a small step into immorality and soon we’ve jumped in with all we’ve got. And so it goes. One sin soon leads to another.

The reason this story hits home is because so many of us are like David. We cut corners morally and ethically, we make excuses for our small sins, and under pressure we do things that we’d rather not do. All the while we are like fugitives in the wilderness, running, hiding, always looking over our shoulder, hoping against hope we won’t get caught today.

The Danger of “Little” Sins

What lesson was God trying to teach David? Primarily the lesson that little sins can have big consequences. Being a man of integrity means more than taking care of the big issues of life. It also means you take care of the little things. David had to learn that lesson because life is made up of about 99% little things and maybe 1% big things. Most of us tend to think that if we do right on the big things, the little things will take care of themselves. But the reverse is true. If we will do right on the little things, we won’t have much trouble when the big ones roll around. We would all be better off if we paid more attention to the way we live. And we would all be better off if we stopped making excuses for ourselves.

Where is the grace of God in all of this? Although it seems as if David has forgotten God, God has not forgotten him. Even in his disobedience, David is still God’s man and someday he will be king. That raises a good question. Couldn’t God have supplied David’s need for food so that he didn’t have to go to Ahimelech in the first place? The answer is yes. Why then did God allow David to disobey, knowing that a whole village would be wiped out in the process? It’s not possible to fully understand the ways of God, but this much is true: God allowed David’s deceit in order to humble him and to teach him that left to himself, he would ruin his own life. Sadly, an entire village was wiped out in the process of learning this lesson. This is indeed a “severe mercy” of God. That brings me to the final lesson: When we sin, someone is going to have to pay the price. In this case, an entire village of innocent people paid the price. But precisely at this point we see the gospel, for when we sinned Christ paid the price for us. He died for our sins and he too was innocent. And because he was the Son of God, he not only died because of our sins, he died that our sins might be forgiven forever. The Bible says that Christ died for us, the innocent for the guilty, that he might bring us to God.

Here is the heart of the Gospel. By God’s grace you can stop your wayward living, at any point you can be forgiven. The good news of the gospel is that God specializes in forgiving sinners. That applies just as much to Christians who sin as it does to those who do not know the Lord. Whenever we are ready to turn for home, the Heavenly Father will run to meet us on the way. After I preached this sermon, a man met me in the aisle and said, “You were talking right to me.” He had the rough look of a man who has known the hard side of life. “When you talked about lying, you were talking about me. I’ve been lying and lying for many years and just recently I turned my life over to God and I’m making a new start.” What God has done for him, he can do for anyone reading these words. If you want a new life, you can have one. If you are ready to say, “I have sinned,” God is ready to forgive you. Forgiveness is free but you’ve got to admit you need it and then you’ve got to ask for it. When you do, your new life will begin. God help you to do it today. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?