This chapter contains several puzzling features. The incident is referred to by Jesus in Mark 2:25-28 when he defended the disciples against the accusation of the Pharisees over breaking the Sabbath.
Ahimelech was surprised that David did not have an official retinue with him when he arrived at Nob, located close to Jerusalem. Instead he was accompanied by a few young men, who seem to have been standing a short distance away as he spoke to the priest. In order to explain the situation, it looks as if David made up a story about being on a secret mission on behalf of Saul. Ahimelech accepted David’s explanation, an explanation that would cost the priest his life.
When he discovered that David wanted food, Ahimelech could only give him the showbread which had been replaced, perhaps that day. The day for changing the bread was the Sabbath (Lev. 24:8), and this detail may be a reason why Jesus referred to this incident.
How did Ahimelech know that he could give those loaves to David since the law said they could only be eaten by the priests (Lev. 24:9)? One possible answer is the reference in the next chapter to the priest enquiring of the Lord on behalf of David (22:10, 15). Perhaps the Lord gave permission, indicating that it was appropriate to put compassion above ceremonial requirements. Even if that is not the answer, it is intriguing that the priest, who was the great-grandson of Eli, was praying that day whereas David resorted to deceit.
Even although he had just told a lie, David proceeded to tell the priest that whenever he and his men went on an expedition they always did so in a sanctified state, which he certainly was not in on his current journey. No doubt David was desperate with hunger, but the combination of desperation and deceit can be explosive.
It is surprising that David did nothing about the presence of Doeg. David had spotted him (1 Sam. 22:22) and had suspected what he would do. Yet David made no attempt to ensure the safety of the priest, a man who was loyal to David even when it was dangerous to be so (22:14-15).
David and his friends had been forced to flee weaponless. On discovering that the sword of Goliath was stored at Nob, he asked the priest for it and was given it. Rather strangely, he then decided to flee to Gath, the location from where Goliath had come, but not to use the sword against the Philistines. Instead he wanted sanctuary among them. So it is sad to see him trying to find shelter there.
Yet Gath was not a place of security. David may have forgotten who he was meant to fight against, but the Philistines had not. Moreover they recognised him, and not Saul, as the king, a reminder for us that the opponents of God’s kingdom may be sometimes far more perceptive than we might think.
David had to resort to a ruse in order to preserve his life, and pretended to be mad. Instead of being a witness to the power and grace of God in a pagan community, he had to engage in a form of deceit that is embarrassing at best. Yet we cannot forget that God had his hand on David, even while David was running away from him. This downward spiral would only go so far before God turned things round for David.