corner graphic

Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

1 Samuel 23

 

 

Introduction

SECTION 4 B. David Occupies His Men, Acts As A Deliverer In Israel, And Avoids Saul (1 Samuel 23:1-28).

David and his men were now outlaws and every man’s hand was at least theoretically against them. They lived in constant fear of being hunted down and trapped by Saul’s army. We are given little detail of how they survived day to day, for although the forests would be full of game, four hundred hungry men would take a lot of feeding. But it would seem clear that David prevented his men from wreaking havoc on the people of Israel and Judah as they might so easily have done. He did not want to be seen as a bandit chief, and he knew that these were YHWH’s people. Thus amidst all his trials David kept true to God, and was being prepared for what lay ahead.

On the other hand you cannot be in charge of four fighting units (‘hundreds’) and do nothing. They had to be kept satisfied. So David apparently kept his eyes open for ways of using them and keeping them in trim, without causing offence to their own people. Some of the ways in which he did this will now be described. They could probably be multiplied, but these particular examples were selected out because they aroused the attention of Saul.

For at the same time we will see how Saul continued mercilessly to hunt them down, even though they did only good and made no attempts against him, and this would continue until at length they had to flee the country. In this way Saul forfeited some of Israel’s best fighting men. And he not only did that but he drove out of Israel the saviour of Israel, the one on whom was the Spirit (1 Samuel 16:13). If only Saul had been willing to trust David what a different ending he might have had. But his obsession with kingship thrust all other thoughts from his mind.

Some of us similarly need to ask ourselves what the obsession is that drives our Saviour from our lives so that He cannot operate through us as He would. The question is do we live to please God as David did, or do we live solely to our own advantage?

Analysis of Subsection 4B.


Verses 1-5

David Delivers Keilah From The Philistines (1 Samuel 23:1-5).

The last we heard David and his men were in the Forest of Hareth (whereabouts unknown). If they were still there when Abiathar sought them out it would appear that this was in the area around Keilah (1 Samuel 23:6). But, of course, they would always be on the move in order to avoid Saul, so it is not certain. It may be that they had now returned to the cave of Adullam. Keilah (Joshua 15:44) was a city in the Shephelah, the low limestone hills bordering the coastal plain where the Philistines were settled, It was a city of Judah built on a steep hill overlooking the valley of Elah, and was named in the Amarna letters as a Canaanite strongpoint. The area around would be included under the name.

The importance of this passage is that it brings out that YHWH was still delivering Israel, and was doing it through the one on whom His Spirit had permanently come (1 Samuel 16:13). That David and his men had a good reputation comes out in that when a Philistine raiding party attacked Keilah in order to rob it of its harvest, a cry for help was sent to them from the people informing them of what was happening. It is clear that David’s exploits against the Philistines were still not forgotten.

Recognising what an opportunity this presented to him and his men he sought YHWH’s guidance through the ephod brought by Abiathar, and on receiving a positive reply put it to his men that they deliver Keilah. But his men were not happy with the idea of annoying the Philistines. Did they not have enough trouble keeping out of Saul’s way? Thus David consulted the ephod again. Again the reply was positive. This appears to have satisfied the men because they now followed David to Keilah where they slaughtered the fairly large Philistine raiding party, and took possession of their cattle, which would provide necessary provisions for some time to come. In this way they also saved Keilah from the Philistine depredations.

Two things stand out in this passage. The first is that David acted in obedience to YHWH. It was his constant desire to discover YHWH’s will and do it. Perhaps he remembered the mess that he had made of things when he had acted without consulting YHWH at Nob and at Gath. The second is the contrast between David’s act of saving Keilah and Saul’s act of destroying Nob. The saving compassion of David contrasts strongly with the vindictiveness of Saul.

Analysis.

And they told David, saying, “Look, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah, and are robbing the threshing-floors” (1 Samuel 23:1).

Therefore David enquired of YHWH, saying, “Shall I go and smite these Philistines?” And YHWH said to David, “Go, and smite the Philistines, and save Keilah”(1 Samuel 23:2).

And David’s men said to him, “Look, we are afraid here in Judah, how much more then if we go to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines?” (1 Samuel 23:3).

Then David enquired of YHWH yet again. And YHWH answered him, and said, “Arise, go down to Keilah, for I will deliver the Philistines into your hand” (1 Samuel 23:4).

And David and his men went to Keilah, and fought with the Philistines, and brought away their cattle, and slew them with a great slaughter. So David saved the inhabitants of Keilah (1 Samuel 23:5).

Note that in ‘a’ the Philistines attacked Keilah seeking to rob their threshing floors (steal their harvest), while in the parallel David and his men defeated the Philistines and took their cattle as spoil, and in the process saved Keilah. In ‘b’ David enquired of YHWH and got a positive response, and in the parallel did the same. Central in ‘c’ is an indication of the precarious situation David and his men were in.

1 Samuel 23:1

And they told David, saying, “Look, the Philistines are fighting against Keilah, and are robbing the threshing-floors.” ’

We do not know who ‘they’ were, but presumably some local inhabitants, who knew of the presence of David and his men in the area, sought them out with the hope that they would come to the assistance of the beleaguered city. It would appear that the Philistines had their eyes on Keilah’s harvests which had been gathered in and were in process of being threshed. Alternately ‘robbing the threshing-floors’ may simply signify that they were after their grain stores. The border cities of Judah would unquestionably constantly experience such raids. That was why Keilah was a fortified city. But Saul could not monitor the whole border, and by the time he had raised help the Philistines would have disappeared with their booty leaving a devastated city behind. The one hope of the city, therefore, was that they could persuade David and his men, who were on the spot close by, to help them.

This is a reminder to us of the constant to and fro of life in Israel when they had no strong leader, with danger constantly threatening from the Philistines (and in other parts from other raiders). Life was hard and they often felt threatened, and if cities prospered they could always be sure that envious eyes would be watching so as to take advantage of it. This was especially true near the borders. On the border, raids and death would be a regular occurrence, but this was seemingly a raid in some force.

1 Samuel 23:2

Therefore David enquired of YHWH, saying, “Shall I go and smite these Philistines?” And YHWH said to David, “Go, and smite the Philistines, and save Keilah.”’

As he now had the means to do so because Abiathar was present with the ephod (1 Samuel 23:6), which presumably contained the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:6-35), David consulted YHWH about the position and was given the go ahead to smite the Philistines and save Keilah. The writer is reminding us that this indeed was why YHWH had put His Spirit within David, so that he could deliver His people while he would be allowed to do so. It was not by coincidence that David and his men were around at this time.

1 Samuel 23:3

And David’s men said to him, “Look, we are afraid here in Judah, how much more then if we go to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines?” ’

But David’s men were wary when he informed them of YHWH’s decision. They did not yet have David’s faith. And they were tired of being constantly harried by a vengeful Saul. Surely if they upset the Philistines they could find themselves being harried on two fronts? They preferred to melt into the background and live off what they could get, and avoid trouble. Besides, they felt that the trained Philistine soldiers were too strong for them. After all they themselves were only a motley band of outlaws.

1 Samuel 23:4

Then David enquired of YHWH yet again. And YHWH answered him, and said, “Arise, go down to Keilah, for I will deliver the Philistines into your hand.” ’

It is probable that we are now to see that David consulted the oracle publicly, so that all could be aware of the result. What the oracle would probably produce was ‘yes’ and ‘no’ decisions (or ‘no answer’) which are here interpreted for us. But its conclusions were quite clear in this case. YHWH would deliver the Philistines into the hands of David and his men. As a result David then managed to persuade his men that they could do this, and benefit by it. And he would point out that it would win them local support. But above all he was concerned to obey YHWH. Note, however, the emphasis on the fact that it was YHWH Who would give deliverance. It was ‘not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says YHWH of Hosts’ (Zechariah 4:6).

1 Samuel 23:5

And David and his men went to Keilah, and fought with the Philistines, and brought away their cattle, and slew them with a great slaughter. So David saved the inhabitants of Keilah.’

David was no mean general, and he would unquestionably have spent time training his men (it would keep them busy if nothing else). But this was the first time that they had faced a professional army. He knew that their real calibre was about to be tested. Nevertheless, true to YHWH’s word they proved successful, fought the Philistine raiding band, slaughtered them and captured their cattle. And at the same time they saved Keilah. They would go back to their hide out feeling a lot better about themselves, and with much booty as well. And what was more, without upsetting the people of Judah (which was always David’s aim. He had his eye on the future).


Verses 1-28

Section 4 Subsection B. David Delivers Keilah From An Invasion By The Philistines, Is Visited by Jonathan, And Evades Capture By Saul (1 Samuel 23:1-28)

a David Delivers Keilah From An Invasion By The Philistines (1 Samuel 23:1-5).

b Saul Calls In The Levy Of The Tribes In Order To Trap David In Keilah, David Learns That Keilah Will Hand Him Over To Saul (1 Samuel 23:6-13).

c Jonathan Visits David In Order To Assure Him That He Need Not Be Afraid Of Saul’s Searches Because YHWH Is With Him (1 Samuel 23:14-18).

b The Ziphites Try To Hand David Over To Saul And Saul Calls On His Men To Pursue David (1 Samuel 23:19-24).

a David Is Delivered From Saul By An Invasion Of The Philistines (1 Samuel 23:25-29).

In this subsection we have emphasised before us the undependability of men and the total dependability of God. Whether it was in delivering a needy city, or escaping from a vengeful Saul, men could not be relied on, and it was God alone Who would prove reliable. This would even be confirmed by Saul’s son as he declared that David’s future was secure, not because of his men, but because God was with him. That is not, however, to deny that there were faithful men who were ready to stand by him to the end.


Verses 6-13

Saul Learns That David And His Men Are Gathered In Keilah And Summons The Tribes So As To Capture Him (1 Samuel 23:6-13).

When news reached Saul that David and his men had delivered Keilah from the hands of the Philistines his first thought was not of rejoicing at the deliverance of Keilah (which should have been his responsibility), but of the fact that it might give him an opportunity to capture David. However, his fear of David was so great that he determined that he must do so with a large force, so that there was no danger of David escaping. Thus he put out the summons to all the tribes (‘all the people’) in accordance with their treaty obligations. Had he moved with his standing army he might well have been in time to encounter David before he left Keilah, but he might well also have recognised that with David’s skills in warfare the result might be far from certain. He dared not take the risk of attacking David and then being defeated. And he knew only too well what a skilful general David was.

At first reading it may appear as if the inhabitants of Keilah were blameworthy. However, we must not be too hard on them. It should be noted that their leaders (‘lords’) did not actually determine to hand over David. It was only that David learned that that was what they finally would have done, had they been put to the test. And we should recognise that they were in an impossible position. If Saul arrived with all the armies of Israel and besieged the city, demanding for David and his men to be handed over, they would have been in the parlous position of either having to do so, thus betraying David but saving their city from the fate of Nob, or of fighting their own countrymen and being branded as traitors, or even, if Judah sided with them and David (compare the Benjaminites in Judges 20), of being responsible for the commencement of a civil war. Thus they really would have faced a hard choice (assuming of course that David and his men allowed them that choice). Fortunately for them they were saved from having to make that choice by David removing himself and his men from their midst. In fact David remaining there would have been good for no one, least of all for him.

So we should recognise that no one in fact decided to hand David over. It was simply that YHWH knew what they would feel forced to do if the crunch came. We must face the fact that if everyone was blamed for what they would do if the temptation came none of us would stand.

Analysis.

a And it came about that when Abiathar the son of Ahimelech fled to David to Keilah, he came down with the ephod in his hand (1 Samuel 23:6).

b And it was told Saul that David was come to Keilah. And Saul said, “God has delivered him into my hand, for he is shut in, by entering into a town that has gates and bars” (1 Samuel 23:7).

c And Saul summoned all the people to war, to go down to Keilah, to besiege David and his men (1 Samuel 23:8).

d And David knew that Saul was devising mischief against him, and he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here”. (1 Samuel 23:9).

c Then David said, “O YHWH, the God of Israel, your servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city for my sake. Will the men of Keilah deliver me up into his hand? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O YHWH, the God of Israel, I beseech you, tell your servant.” And YHWH said, “He will come down” (1 Samuel 23:10-11).

b Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah deliver up me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And YHWH said, “They will deliver you up” (1 Samuel 23:12).

a Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed out of Keilah, and went wherever they could go. And it was told Saul that David was escaped from Keilah, and he forbore going forth (1 Samuel 23:13).

Note that in ‘a’ Abiathar came down to David to Keilah, and in the parallel David and his men leave Keilah. In ‘b’ Saul hears that David is in Keilah and thinks that God has delivered him into his hands while in the parallel David knows this and wants to know if the people of Keilah will deliver him into his hands (and receives the answer ‘yes’). In ‘c’ Saul calls out the tribes in order to go against David, and in the parallel David wants to know if Saul will come down, and learns that the answer is ‘yes’. Central in ‘d’ is David’s appeal to YHWH.

1 Samuel 23:6

And it came about that when Abiathar the son of Ahimelech fled to David to Keilah, he came down with the ephod in his hand.’

This note is put in with a view to explaining how David was now able to enquire of YHWH. It was because when Abiathar came, escaping the massacre of the priests, he brought with him the ephod, the special vestment of the High Priest which contained the Urim and Thummim in the breast pouch. These latter probably worked by their being tossed down, with the decision being dependent on how they fell.

The direction ‘to Keilah’ suggests that David and his men had at the time when Abiathar arrived, been hiding and operating in the local area. This would explain both why they received the news about the attack on the city of Keilah so quickly and why they were able to tackle the problem with such alacrity.

Alternately the brevity of ‘to David to Keilah’ can be seen as indicating that Abiathar came to David and then they both went to Keilah.

1 Samuel 23:7

And it was told Saul that David was come to Keilah. And Saul said, “God has delivered him into my hand, for he is shut in, by entering into a town that has gates and bars.” ’

When Saul learned that David had entered the city of Keilah, and had remained there, he was delighted. The news may have reached him through his spies, or it may have been because what most saw as glad tidings was being passed around without any thought of harming David. But to the blinkered Saul it indicated only one thing. With any luck he could have David trapped within the gates of Keilah. Of course he expressed it very piously. Literally “God has rejected him (treated him as profane) into my hand, for he is shut in, by entering into a town that has gates and bars.” He felt that YHWH had at last by this means rejected David. There was no need now to look for him in places where he could fade away, or even cause endless trouble by guerilla fighting. All he could hope was that he would stay there long enough for Saul to gather sufficient men to be able to surround the town and capture him.

1 Samuel 23:8

And Saul summoned all the people to war, to go down to Keilah, to besiege David and his men.’

But that was the problem, the number of men he would need. The summoning of ‘all the people’ suggests a general levy of the tribes. So Saul was taking no risks, because he knew what he was up against. It is doubtful whether in making the levy he genuinely explained why he was doing it. Many probably thought that the Philistines were attacking again. But Saul’s purpose was simply to go and besiege Keilah and trap David. And he was prepared to call the levy, seemingly at the time of harvest, in order to do it. Such was the penalty to Israel of having a king.

Of course the one problem with the general levy was that word inevitably got around, and the gathering of the army would take some days. But as far as Saul was concerned there was no alternative, for there was no way in which he was going to risk meeting a David, trapped with four to six hundred desperate fighting men at his call, unless he had overwhelming force. They had after all proved their calibre against the Philistines.

1 Samuel 23:9

And David knew that Saul was devising mischief against him, and he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” ’

Inevitably the news reached Keilah about Saul’s plans so that David was alerted to them and realised that Saul was planning mischief. So he immediately called on Abiathar to bring the ephod to him. In fact had he actually thought about it he would have realised that there was nothing to be gained by staying, but both he and his men were probably enjoying their current popularity. It was a change from hiding in the forest, and sleeping in caves. It may indeed have been with the purpose of persuading his men that it was time that they were on the move that he again consulted the ephod. But it may equally well have been because he could not really believe that Saul was going to this great trouble just to capture him. Right up to the end David never really understood what Saul’s problem with him was. He did not realise the light in which Saul saw him.

1 Samuel 23:10

Then David said, “O YHWH, the God of Israel, your servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city for my sake. Will the men of Keilah deliver me up into his hand? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O YHWH, the God of Israel, I beseech you, tell your servant.” And YHWH said, “He will come down.” ’

So David did what was so typical of him. Far from being ‘treated as profane’ by YHWH he got down to genuine praying, and in doing so he was bursting with questions, which poured out from him. But the ephod was not designed for dealing with multiple questions which is why only one was answered at a time. Firstly David wanted to know what the leaders of Keilah do if Saul came and besieged the city. Would they hand them over to Saul? But even before that. Was Saul coming at all? As the last was the most urgent question it was answered first. Yes, Saul was coming.

We can understand why David was a little perplexed at the thought that Saul would destroy Keilah just to capture him. After all Keilah was an Israelite city (of the tribe of Judah) for which Saul had responsibility. But the news that had reached him would have included the fact that Saul had called up the levy. So that raised the question of what Saul’s aims really were. Would he really have called up the levy just in order to take David? And the answer was ‘yes’.

1 Samuel 23:12

Then David said, “Will the men of Keilah deliver up me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And YHWH said, “They will deliver you up.” ’

The question then was as to whether the ‘leading men’ (the baalim - lords) of Keilah would hand them over to Saul. And the reply was, ‘yes, they would deliver them up’. We have only to think about it to realise that they would have had little alternative. They were in an impossible position. They were certainly grateful to David, but not to have handed him over would have been treason, and with the host of Israel surrounding them they would have had no hope of holding out for long, with the certainty of death and destruction following. Better to be in the hands of the Philistines than in the hands of a vengeful Saul. Nor would they have wanted to fight their fellow-countrymen. And besides, they would not want to start a civil war between Israel and Judah, and that was what might have been involved. It is doubtful if Judah would have just sat by and watch one of their own towns being besieged by Saul. It would have been a question of tribal loyalty. So the position was impossible. (We should, however, note that they never had to make this decision. Nor in the event did they even have to think about what they would do if Saul came. It was YHWH Who knew what they would in the end do out of concern for their town, and once David was aware of that he saved the leading men from having to face up to an impossible situation. The emphasis is thus on David’s concern for them, not on their duplicity.

On the other hand the fact that the question about Keilah handing him over is asked twice in the narrative points to an indication of the horror that the thought would raise in the minds of readers and hearers as the story was read out at the feasts. We should remember that what are regularly called ‘duplications’ by some are often simply a way of ensuring that the audience gets the message. They are equally found in the writings of other nations. As the audience heard the words, and then heard them repeated, their hearts would say ‘surely not’, but their heads would say ‘yes’. It raised the whole question of tribal honour, and each would ask himself what he would have done. However, the aim behind it was probably in order to emphasise the straightness of all David’s dealings in that first he saved them from having to make that decision, and secondly in that all would know what David would have done in such a circumstance (or at least they would all think that they knew).

But as we think more deeply about this whole situation we are also made aware of how despotic Saul had become. How otherwise would he have dared to call the levy, and have risked war between Israel and Judah, simply over a personal grievance and because of his own ambitions? The truth was that David and his small band of outlaws who caused no trouble to anyone (except the Philistines) did not really warrant it. It is thus being made quite clear that his mind had become unhinged as a result of his intense hatred of David. Israel really were learning what ‘having a king like the nations’ really meant.

1 Samuel 23:13

Then David and his men, who were about six hundred, arose and departed out of Keilah, and went wherever they could go. And it was told Saul that David was escaped from Keilah, and he forbore going forth.’

The result was that David and his men reluctantly left Keilah with all its love and friendliness overflowing towards them and went back to hiding in the forests, wherever they could find safety. And once Saul learned that David had left Keilah and had ‘disappeared’, no one knew where, he simply stayed where he was. There was now no point in going to Keilah. (How he explained having made the levy we do not know). But we note one further point of significance. David’s private army was growing. It now had six effective units. It was becoming a formidable fighting force.


Verses 14-18

Jonathan Comes To David In Order To Encourage Him As Saul Continues To Pursue Him (1 Samuel 23:14-18).

Meanwhile David had a pleasant surprise, for Jonathan came looking for him and found him. Jonathan was unquestionably a true man of faith (as we have already seen) and a godly and humble man. And he was totally submissive to what YHWH wanted to do. He was indeed quite content to play second fiddle to David. He was so unlike his father that in many ways it is difficult to understand how he could have been a son of Saul at all, even though he was. Furthermore it is clear that from the beginning he had seen the genius of David, and had been willing to accept it without rancour. Jonathan would have made a good, steady king, but he did not have David’s genius, and he knew it. And he was therefore perfectly willing to go along with being his lieutenant. He was a truly great man.

And besides he loved David in a way that can only be understood by comrades-in-arms. That is why when he saw how things were going he put himself at great personal risk by seeking David out in order to encourage and strengthen him. At this torrid time in his life Jonathan’s friendship and love must genuinely have been a great encouragement to David. To have a friend like Jonathan (which means ‘gift of YHWH’) was to have a friend indeed.

Analysis.

a And David abode in the wilderness in the strongholds, and remained in the hill-country in the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God did not deliver him into his hand (1 Samuel 23:14).

b And David saw that Saul was come out to seek his life, and David was in the wilderness of Ziph among the brushwood (1 Samuel 23:15).

c And Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose, and went to David among the brushwood, and strengthened his hand in God (1 Samuel 23:16).

b And he said to him, “Do not be afraid, for the hand of Saul my father will not find you, and you will be king over Israel, and I will be next to you, and that also Saul my father knows” (1 Samuel 23:17).

a And they two made a covenant before YHWH, and David abode in the brushwood, and Jonathan went to his house (1 Samuel 23:18).

Note that in ‘a’ David abode in the wilderness in the hill country and in the parallel he abode among the brushwood. But note also the great contrast. On the one hand we have David versus Saul in continual opposition, and in the parallel we have David and Jonathan in complete harmony. In ‘b’ Saul comes out to seek David’s life, and in the parallel Jonathan assures David that he will not find him. Central in ‘c’ is the fact that Jonathan seeks David out in order to comfort him and make him strong.

1 Samuel 23:14

And David abode in the wilderness in the natural strongholds, and remained in the hill-country in the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God did not deliver him into his hand.’

Compare 1 Samuel 23:7. There Saul had convinced himself that God had delivered (literally ‘rejected’) David into his hand. But it had been a vain dream. Now we learn that God continued with His policy of not delivering David into Saul’s hand. Indeed we will shortly learn from the mouth of none other than Saul’s son, that God would never deliver David into Saul’s hand. He was inviolable in the purposes of God. (Nevertheless God would still give him a hard time. After all he was in training).

David and his men were ever on the move in order to avoid Saul. They were now in the barren wilderness of Judah, the wild uncultivated tract between the mountains of Judah and the Dead Sea. And in that area, the hill of Hachilah in the hill country in the wilderness of Ziph appears to have been a favourite camp site (1 Samuel 23:19). From there they would be able to scan the area for miles around, and be aware of anyone approaching from any direction. In view of the undoubted strength of David’s small army, which having got used to the terrain would be able to pick off any enemy unless they came in unusual strength, this continual movement must have been as much because David did not want to attack his fellow country men as because he was afraid of them. Indeed from what we know of his exploits it was Israel who would have been wise to be afraid of him. But fortunately for them he had no desire to vent his rage on them. He was prepared to bide his time, and clearly kept his men in good order, even protecting local communities from those who meant them no good.

On the other hand Saul’s determination to find him had increased even more, for while we must not take ‘every day’ too literally, his manoeuvres clearly took up a large part of Saul’s time. It could not have been good for Israel, for Saul should have been watching the borders. But Saul had become obsessed with David, and to him nothing else mattered.

1 Samuel 23:15

And David saw that Saul was come out to seek his life, and David was in the wilderness of Ziph among the brushwood.’

David was now well aware that this was a life and death game. He had no wish to harm Saul, but he knew that Saul did not feel the same and was unquestionably seeking his life. He knew therefore that if he was caught he could expect no mercy. This was why he and his men constantly changed their haunts, and it was why they had come to this desolate region. Life would not have been easy there. The burning heat and the shortage of water would have provided them with a constant problem. But its undoubted advantage was that it was not a place to which most men liked to come, and while it is doubtful if there were trees in that dry and barren land, the brushwood would provide ample cover for men as skilled as David’s men had become in avoiding being seen. Indeed they were becoming so skilled as fighting men that we have to wonder what would have happened if Saul had ever come up with David and his men without a huge force behind him. Perhaps fortunately for Saul it never happened. David and his men were too elusive.

The whole wilderness of Ziph was a hot, waterless and almost barren place. It is doubtful if trees would grow there. But brushwood (choresh) is very persistent and probably grew there in some profusion. On the other hand, some see Choresh as signifying a place name which is simply not mentioned elsewhere.

1 Samuel 23:16

And Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose, and went to David among the brushwood, and strengthened his hand in God.’

But then out of the blue another Saulide sought David. He had clearly learned of where he was and sought him out to strengthen his hand in God. He must have constantly grieved over his father’s attitude towards David. Not being aware of the kind of mental illness that his father had, he must have been totally unable to understand it. But Saul was a prisoner of his own mental instability and delusions. What Saul did not, of course, realise, was that he was preparing David for a bright future. David would never have become the man he was without Saul.

Jonathan’s faith and loyalty to God shine through in all that he does. He would have made a good and godly king. But he would never have achieved what David did, and even compared with his, David’s godliness was exceptional (in spite of his mistakes). We may wonder how Jonathan found David when Saul could not. The answer probably lies in the fact that people would tell Jonathan things that they would never tell Saul. And, of course, Jonathan’s approach would neither have been hindered or avoided. Indeed he would have been helped. All knew that he was David’s friend.

1 Samuel 23:17

And he said to him, “Do not be afraid, for the hand of Saul my father will not find you, and you will be king over Israel, and I will be next to you, and that also Saul my father knows.”’

Jonathan, a man of great spiritual insight, recognised the hand of God in David’s life. He therefore knew that God would keep him safe from the hand of his father. He knew that come what may, Saul would never find David. And that was because he knew in his heart that it was God’s purpose that David be king over Israel, and he knew that deep in his heart that was also something that Saul knew. And then he, Jonathan, would be quite content to be ‘next to him’. He was quite prepared to be his second-in-command. And that was something that Saul also knew, and which added to his fury.

1 Samuel 23:18

And they two made a covenant before YHWH, and David abode among the brushwood, and Jonathan went to his house.’

And there in the burning wilderness the two men made a further covenant before YHWH, confirming the covenant that they already had, solemnly agreeing to protect each other’s future, and guaranteeing that they would work together in harmony in the future. And then they parted for the last time. And meanwhile David continued to live among the brushwood, and Jonathan returned to his home in Gibeah. For those who would serve God fully the way is often in the brushwood.


Verses 19-24

The Ziphites Inform Saul Of David’s Whereabouts (1 Samuel 23:19-24).

Because we favour David we can tend to be harsh with anyone who supported Saul, but in fact we do have to remember that Saul was the rightful king in Israel’s eyes, and that many therefore felt that they owed their duty to him. The people who lived in this area would be a remote, probably tight knit, people, suspicious of strangers, and to such people loyalty to the king (who was too far off for them to know what he was really like) was often paramount.

Furthermore in the case of the Ziphites who sought to survive in that lonely wilderness there was also probably more to it than that, for the presence of David’s men would not only make them feel uneasy (however disciplined his men were) but would also be taking up valuable provisions of water and food in an area where such were in short supply. They may well have found themselves suffering because of it and they would therefore have seen it as being to their advantage to get rid of David and his men as soon as possible. Thus they approached Saul and informed him of David’s whereabouts. Let him come and rid them of this unwelcome intrusion.

Analysis.

a Then the Ziphites came up to Saul to Gibeah, saying, “Does not David hide himself with us in the strong points in the brushwood, in the hill of Hachilah, which is on the south of the Waste?” (1 Samuel 23:19).

b Now therefore, O king, come down, according to all the desire of your soul to come down, and our part will be to deliver him up into the king’s hand” (1 Samuel 23:20).

c And Saul said, “Blessed be you of YHWH, for you have had compassion on me. Go, I pray you, make yet more sure, and know and see his place where his haunt is, and who has seen him there, for it is told me that he deals very subtly (is very cunning)” (1 Samuel 23:21-22)

b “Watch therefore, and take knowledge of all the lurking-places where he hides himself, and come you again to me of a certainty (i.e. with sure knowledge), and I will go with you, and it will come about that, if he be in the land, I will search him out among all the thousands (small family clans) of Judah” (1 Samuel 23:23).

a And they arose, and went to Ziph before Saul, but David and his men were in the wilderness of Maon, in the Arabah on the south of the Waste (1 Samuel 23:24).

Note that in ‘a’ Saul learns that David is in the Hill of Hachilah which is on the south of the Waste (Jeshimon), and in the parallel he is in the wilderness of Maon, in the Arabah on the south of the Waste. In ‘b’ the Ziphites call on Saul come down to where they are so that they might deliver David into Saul’s hands, and in the parallel Saul declares that he will go with them once they have brought more certain news, and will ensure that he finds him. Centrally in ‘c’ he blesses them before YHWH for their love for their king.

1 Samuel 23:19

Then the Ziphites came up to Saul to Gibeah, saying, “Does not David hide himself with us in the strong points in the brushwood, in the hill of Hachilah, which is on the south of the Waste?”

As we have seen above the Ziphites had good reason for wanting to be rid of David and his men. They were intruding on their quiet tribal life, in an area which they saw as their own, and where therefore intruders were not welcome, and on top of that they were using up scarce supplies of food and water which they themselves needed for their livelihood.

So they despatched messengers to Saul in Gibeah informing him that David and his men were hiding themselves in strong positions in the brushwood on the Hill of Hachilah, to the south of the Waste (Jeshimon). It probably caused quite a sensation when these wild desert dwellers from the wastelands arrived at Saul’s court, and even more so when they explained their reason for coming.

1 Samuel 23:20

Now therefore, O king, come down, according to all the desire of your soul to come down, and our part will be to deliver him up into the king’s hand.”

They called on their king to ‘come down’ to them (they would see Gibeah as the capital city) if that was what he desired, and they promised that they on their part would deliver David into Saul’s hands.

1 Samuel 23:21

And Saul said, “Blessed be you of YHWH, for you have had compassion on me.” ’

That these wild desert dwellers were more loyal (in his eyes) than most of the country stirred Saul’s heart. It seemed that they were the only ones who cared for him. And he blessed them in the Name of YHWH for their loyal attitude.

1 Samuel 23:22

Go, I pray you, make yet more sure, and know and see his place where his haunt is, and who has seen him there, for it is told me that he deals very subtly (behaves very cunningly).”

But he had sought David many times, only to discover that he had disappeared, and he did not therefore want to enter the wastelands on the mountains near the Dead Sea without being sure of his prey. He knew how inhospitable the conditions were. So he told them to go and make absolutely sure of where he was, and identify his exact haunt, and who had seen it in order to be able so to identify it, because he had learned from the hard experience of his spies how elusive and cunning David was.

1 Samuel 23:23

Watch therefore, and take knowledge of all the lurking-places where he hides himself, and come you again to me of a certainty (i.e. with sure knowledge), and I will go with you, and it will come about that, if he be in the land, I will search him out among all the ‘thousands’ (small family clans) of Judah.”

So he wanted them to watch David’s movements, learn where all his hide-outs were, and then come again to him when they were sure of the facts. Then he would go with them to rid them of this scourge, and once he was there they could be sure that he would root out all David’s followers from among all the small family clans. They would not be able to hide from him. (It would not have been a very comfortable experience for the small family clans of Judah as they were interrogated and possibly tortured, but that would not worry the heartless Saul). But Saul knew that he would be bringing with him a large army of men, and so he would not want them to have to spend too much time hanging around or searching that desolate place.

1 Samuel 23:24

And they arose, and went to Ziph before Saul, but David and his men were in the wilderness of Maon, in the Arabah on the south of the desert.’

So the Ziphite messenger returned home ahead of Saul, only to discover when they got back to Ziph that the elusive David had moved on, and was now in the wilderness of Maon, going as far as the Arabah (the Arabah is the continuation south of the Dead Sea of the rift between two mountain ranges through which further northward the Jordan flowed into the Dead Sea), even further south of the Waste.

In view of the fact that they do not think that the Arabah itself could have been the destination many would translate arabah here as ‘plain’ or ‘steppe’. The exact geographical details are not too certain, although they would have been at the time of writing.


Verses 25-29

David And His Men Have A Near Escape In The Wilderness of Maon (1 Samuel 23:25-28).

When intelligence reached Saul that David was now in the wilderness of Maon it probably caused him similar delight to when he had heard that he was trapped in Keilah, for he would know that the Wilderness of Maon provided little cover. Thus he would consider that if he moved quickly he would be able to take him. Humanly speaking David may have made one of his rare tactical mistakes by taking his men there, for it left them open to discovery, but of course in amelioration we must remember that he was running out of places to hide. The probably unexpected activities of the Ziphites had made things very difficult for him. What had been a safe hiding place had suddenly become a trap and a snare. What it was to prove in the end, however, was that YHWH was still with him, for when he came to the end of himself God stepped in. And it must be seen as ironic that the coming king of Israel who would finally destroy the power of the Philistines, was, (looking at it from a human point of view), saved from destruction by a Philistine invasion of Israel!

Analysis.

a And Saul and his men went to seek him. And they told David, which was why he came down to the Rock (sela), and abode in the wilderness of Maon (1 Samuel 23:25 a).

b And when Saul heard that, he pursued after David in the wilderness of Maon (1 Samuel 23:25 b).

c And Saul went on this side of the mountain, and David and his men on that side of the mountain, and David made haste to get away for fear of Saul (23:26a).

d For Saul and his men surrounded David and his men round about to take them (1 Samuel 23:26 b).

c But there came a messenger to Saul, saying, “Hurry yourself and come, for the Philistines have made a raid on the land” (1 Samuel 23:27).

b So Saul returned from pursuing after David, and went against the Philistines (1 Samuel 23:28 a).

a Therefore they called that place Sela-hammahlekoth (the rock of slipperiness or smoothnesses). And David went up from there, and dwelt in the natural strongholds (hillside caves) of Engedi (1 Samuel 23:28-29).

Note that in ‘a’ David came down to the Rock (sela), and abode in the wilderness of Maon, and in the parallel as a result of what happened that rock was called the Rock (sela) of slipperiness, and David dwelt in the caves of Engedi. In ‘b’ Saul pursued after David, and in the parallel Saul ceased pursuing after David. In ‘c’ David was hastening to get away because of his fear of Saul, and in the parallel Saul was told to hasten for fear of the Philistines . Centrally in ‘d’ is the fact that for the first time Saul almost had David in his grasp (only to be thwarted once again).

1 Samuel 23:25 a

‘And Saul and his men went to seek him. And they told David, which was why he came down to the Rock (sela), and abode in the wilderness of Maon.’

Learning of the activities of the Ziphites and that Saul was coming with an army to find him David made for the wilderness of Maon south of the Dead Sea, where he knew of ‘the Rock’, a large rocky eminence which would provide them with some kind of protection and cover, and could be defended. He no doubt hoped that once the Ziphites knew that he had gone they would forget about him and no longer help Saul. It was a slim hope but the only one that he seemed to have left.

1 Samuel 23:25 b

‘And when Saul heard that, he pursued after David in the wilderness of Maon.’

Saul, however, learned where he had gone and continued to pursue after him, confident that this time David would not escape his clutches. No doubt recognising that the Rock was one of the few places where David and his men could have taken refuge he and his army made for it.

1 Samuel 23:26

And Saul went on this side of the mountain, and David and his men on that side of the mountain, and David made haste to get away for fear of Saul, for Saul and his men surrounded David and his men round about to take them.’

David’s lookouts had no doubt seen Saul and his army coming, so he moved his men to the other side of the Rock (a rocky eminence). But his heart must have sunk, for it would look as though at last they were approaching a final showdown. He would have had no doubt that his men would give a good account of themselves, but the question was, would it be enough against an army of the size that Saul had brought? He did not want to take the risk. As a good general he knew his men’s limitations.

“For fear of Saul.” It is doubtful if David was actually afraid, for he would know that YHWH was with him. This ‘fear’ is rather speaking of the awareness of a general for the difficult position his troops find themselves in so that he fears for their welfare and is making every effort to extract them from it, however hopeless it might seem. He was probably enjoying the excitement, but every nerve was strained. And how desperately he must have been praying.

But as he and his men moved round the cliff paths on their side of the Rock it must have looked more and more as though they would have to make a last stand, for part of the army of Saul were climbing the cliff paths on the other side, while the remainder had moved out to encircle the Rock where they were in hiding. The enemy were closing in and there seemed no way of escape. All they could do was make a last brave stand. Some might escape, but a lot of men would die.

1 Samuel 23:27

But there came a messenger to Saul, saying, “Hurry yourself and come, for the Philistines have made a raid on the land.” ’

And then the miracle happened. The ram’s horns sounded and to his surprise David recognised that they were signalling not the final charge but the call to assemble. And at that signal Saul’s army ceased its steady and wary approach on the Rock, and began to muster and move away before their very eyes, leaving them looking at each other in wonderment. They did not know what had caused it, but the explanation was humanly speaking quite simple. A messenger had arrived with the urgent news of a Philistine invasion, with the result that Saul and his army were needed immediately to deal with it. Even a dictatorial Saul could not ignore a call like that when the facts were known to his commanders. The Philistines were always the prime enemy. So David would have to wait. We can imagine the chagrin in Saul’s heart. In his view he had ‘almost had him’. But perhaps there was relief too? For who knew what David, who had won so many battles against the odds in the past, might have accomplished? It was an unknown quantity, and the Rock would certainly not have been easy to take against trained hill fighters with their backs to the wall.

David, however, would have known what it all meant, for as Jonathan had said at their earlier meeting in the wilderness, ‘the hand of Saul my father will not find you’. Thus he knew that it was YHWH Who had been watching over them and had delivered them at the last moment.

1 Samuel 23:28 a

‘So Saul returned from pursuing after David, and went against the Philistines.’

So as a result of the call of duty Saul returned from his hopeless task of pursuing the man whom YHWH did not want caught, and went against the Philistines. At least he could comfort himself with the thought that YHWH was not on the Philistines’ side (even if He had used them in order to deliver David).

1 Samuel 23:28 b

‘Therefore they called that place Sela-hammahlekoth (the rock of slipperiness, or of smoothnesses).’

And the Rock where it all happened was given a new name. It was called ‘the rock of smoothnesses’ or ‘slipperiness’, because of the smooth way in which David and his men had slipped away from capture.

1 Samuel 23:29

And David went up from there, and dwelt in the natural strongholds (hillside caves) of Engedi (1 Samuel 23:29).’

David and his men then made for the caves of Engedi, which looked out from the limestone rock cliffs over the barren western bank of the Dead Sea. That barren and desolate area, (save only for the oasis of Engedi itself where there were palm trees and vineyards), was not a place that men frequented. And its multiplicity of caves mad it easier to hide in.

 


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 23:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/1-samuel-23.html. 2013.

Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology