Sermon preached on 1 Samuel 20 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/19/2015 in Novato, CA.
1 Samuel 21
“So the Priest Gave Him the Holy Bread”
David is on the run from King Saul. As we studied last time, Prince Jonathan confirmed King Saul’s continued desire to kill David. Jonathan, in friendship and covenant with David, reaffirmed that covenant between them, and alerted David. David is now beginning a stage in his life where he’ll be on the run from Saul. He will flee for his life, with some of his faithful men, until God finally removes Saul from the office of king, and places David on the throne. God has already anointed David as king, yet David will have to wait for God’s timing for him to actually begin to reign over Israel. For now, then, David’s mission is to stay alive as he flees the unrighteous efforts of Saul to kill him. This is David’s calling and mission for now from God. And we’ll see that David understands the urgency and importance of this divine mission. And as we see David on this mission from God, we’ll have a chance to think about the mission God has us on. For God has placed a calling and mission on each of our lives. As Christians’ we share an overall calling and mission in this world that is the same for each of us. On the other hand, there are also unique ways God will use each of us as part of the greater mission we are all a part of as Christians. And so David’s mission from God today will help us to reflect on the mission Christians are on, and what is our part in it all.
And so as David starts out this mission, he’ll have some immediate practical needs. This is our first point for today, to consider David’s needs. So, to address those practical needs, David again comes to find help from God. He does this by going to the Tabernacle and the priests. And so he comes to the city of Nob where Ahimelech is priest. Before the Tabernacle was located in Shiloh, and Eli the priest was the high priest there. Now, the descendants of Eli continue to serve as priests, but now here at the town of Nob under the leadership of Ahimelech, a great grandson of Eli. And so when David arrives before Ahimelech, he explains to him that he is on a mission from the king. He explains that it is an urgent mission. And that it is a secret mission. He also explains that he is alone because he will be meeting his young men at a different place. Now this is an interesting story by David. On the one hand it is a deception. Clearly, Ahimelech understands David to be suggesting that he is on a mission from King Saul. That is obviously not the case. Why did David present things like this? Some have wondered if David didn’t know where Ahimelech’s loyalty lied. Others have wondered if David did this to try to protect Ahimelech, that if he didn’t know the details, then Ahimelech could innocently claim ignorance if Saul later confronted him. And yet unfortunately, next chapter this will all come back to haunt David. Saul will discover through this Doeg the Edomite in verse 7 that Ahimelech gave this help to David. Saul will confront Ahimelech. Ahimelech will innocently tell Saul that he thought he was helping the honored servant and son-in-law of King Saul. Yet, Saul will have this priest and a total of 85 priests at Nob put to death because of this. We’ll see in next chapter that when David learns of this he blames himself for their deaths.
And so this deceptive description of David’s mission here will not work out well in the long run. David will come to see the horrible collateral damage that comes with the abominable action of Saul in killing priests. And yet despite the deceptiveness of it, there is an ultimate truth to what David tells Ahimelech here. You see, David says that he’s on a mission from the king. David doesn’t say King Saul. He just says that the king has sent him on a mission. And that is ultimately true. The high King of Heaven, God himself, has David on a mission. We get a sense of this with Ahimelech’s name even. His name means the King is my brother. Surely his name is referring to God as king, not to King Saul. And so David likewise can speak about his king sending him on a mission. And when he says it’s a secret mission, it really is a sort of secret mission. It’s secret in that God has anointed David privately. David does not seem to think he is called to broadcast that yet. And of course the urgency that David presents for this mission is because Saul is after him. He doesn’t explain such details to Ahimelech, but it is the case. And so David must flee Saul’s persecution, and stay alive, so he can fulfill this ultimate mission to serve as God’s king over Israel.
And so, there is an ultimate sense in which David really is on a mission from the king, from the real king, the God of Israel. This mission is important, a bit of a secret, and at this point a bit urgent and out of the ordinary. How will David survive this affliction? Well, he will seek help from God. This passage shows that help in very practical ways. David needs food and weapons. He gets here holy bread and a hero’s sword. Jesus, in Mark’s gospel, teaches about this event, and he describes David being “in need” and being hungry. And so David goes to the tabernacle and to a priest of the Lord for such help. And he receives such help.
And though we don’t see it here, we learn next chapter that David also went here for another related reason. He went to inquire of the Lord. We’ll see that fact come out next chapter, in verses 11-15. And of course that makes sense. We could have assumed it. We know David is a man after God’s own heart. Surely his reason for fleeing here is for more than just physical help. Yes, he found that. But he was going to the priest! And so he inquired of God. In other words he sought spiritual help as well. And that he also received, as we’ll see confirmed next chapter. And so on this royal mission from God, the Lord provides for both the physical and spiritual needs of David during this time of particular difficulty for him.
Let’s turn now to our second point. To see how this royal mission takes on a bit of a holy nature by David receiving the holy bread for him and his men. When David asks Ahimelech for bread, the priest replies that he doesn’t have any common bread. In verse 4 he says that he only has holy bread. This was a reference to what was known in the Old Testament as the Bread of the Presence. Israel was supposed to have 12 loaves of bread set on a table in the Tabernacle. This was setting this bread before the Lord. The fact that there were twelve loaves showed that it represented Israel with its twelve tribes. And so it reflected the special sort of table-fellowship God’s people have with him. And whenever they replaced the bread with fresh bread, the bread that was removed was considered holy and thus given to the priests. It was then for the priests to eat it, and it was to be eaten in a holy place. Of course, part of the idea behind this is that it was a wonderful way that God provided for the physical needs of the priests in providing such bread for them to eat.
So then, ordinarily, this holy bread was for the priests. But the priest is willing to make an exception in this case, and give it to David and his men. But as a priest, whose job was to discern between the holy and the unholy, between the clean and the unclean, he adds a qualification. He says that the men must have kept themselves from women. Why this qualification? Well, this was an issue of ceremonial cleanliness. If they had been with their wives that day, they would have been ceremonially unclean until they had bathed and it reached evening, Leviticus 15:18. In other words, Ahimelech was willing to make this special exception given the nature of David’s mission. But only if David and his men were ceremonially clean. And so here Ahimelech navigates the laws of God with wisdom, employing the spirit of the law, versus a simplistic use of the mere letter of the law. We know this was right, because Jesus in the gospels of Mark and Luke reference this and says this was right. Jesus says this in the context of the Pharisees trying to condemn Jesus’ disciples for picking and eating some grain on the Sabbath while they were with him. When Jesus references this passage with David and Ahimelech, he was not only critiquing the Pharisees improper application of the Bible, but helping them to understand and use the Spirit of the Law. For Jesus, he ended his point by saying that he, Jesus, was the Lord of the Sabbath. In other words, the disciples were there with the King doing the King’s work on the Sabbath, and for them to grab some grain to keep nourished during this important mission, was in no way an actual violation of the law of God.
So too, here. David was on an urgent mission from the king. The priest understood that if they were on such a royal mission from the Lord’s Anointed One, that it made sense for the priests to gladly give up this holy bread for this. The Lord’s Anointed One and his men needed to eat to carry out urgent and important work from God. But since the priest required them to be ceremonially clean, it showed what’s going on here. This mission is seen as a sort of holy mission, by this requirement for ceremonial cleanness. By eating of this holy bread, on such an extraordinary mission, it sort of consecrates this important mission.
Let me make my point another way. You don’t get the sense that if poor starving people came here, that Ahimelech would have given them this holy bread. It wasn’t just the physical need. No, remember, when Ahimelech first sees David, and that he is coming alone, he starts to tremble. Ahimelech shows some great concern for what might be bringing David there like that. And then when he hears of this important and secret mission, then of course the priests would gladly help. The priests would gladly take what was rightly belonging to them and give it for the benefit of God’s messiah. This shows that the priests rightly understood the significance not just of their own priestly office, but also of the divinely instituted office of king, as the Lord’s anointed. And so they give back to God what they had received by God. This shows that the recognize a sort of holy status to this royal mission. And they were right in this. On a side note, if only their ancestors had this same spirit; you might recall that Eli’s sons were particularly wicked for how they tried to take extra parts of the sacrifices that God had not given them. Now, their descendants give back to God even of those parts that God had actually given them.
And so David was on a sort of holy mission from God, even as reflected in his being able to receive this holy bread. In our third point now, I want to tie this all together, like this. David was on a holy mission. Later, the greater son of David, the Lord Jesus Christ would all the more be on a holy mission. And we in Jesus Christ, and like David to some degree, are on a holy mission. And so let’s think about how the elements raised in this passage come together in Jesus Christ. I want to do this by referencing briefly three New Testament passages.
First, Mark 2. I already mentioned that Jesus defended his disciples’ picking and eating some grain on the Sabbath by quoting today’s passage here in Samuel. By then referring to himself as Lord of the Sabbath, he shows a way in which this urgent holy mission with David and his men has an application to Jesus and his men. And so Jesus was taking his disciples on a holy mission, and he said it was quite appropriate for his men to be fed so they could continue on this important mission. In other words, Jesus saw that the mission he has for his disciples does not disregard important practical needs like the fact that they need to eat. Since we too in this generation are on essentially the same mission as Christ’s disciples, we also will have practical needs when we are serving him. Jesus knows this and it’s because of the importance and urgency of this mission, that practical things like our intake of food need to be attended to. It’s great to know that Jesus knows this!
Second, John 4. Here’s an interesting complementary thought to what I just said. Jesus was traveling with his disciples. Along the way from Judea to Galilee they stop in Samaria. They need some food. His disciples go to town to get some food, while Jesus waits outside of town at a well. As Jesus sees a Samaritan women he starts to speak to her and teach her. So then, his disciples return back from town with food and they urge Jesus to eat. But Jesus says to them in John 4:32, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” And when they think he means that someone else has brought him some food, he goes on to say, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” And that becomes his priority here.
In other words, even in that John 4 passage, Jesus recognizes that while he and his men are on a holy mission, that they will need physical food to eat. Jesus doesn’t stop them from going to town to get food while he remained at the well. Of course not; he knows they need such food. And yet simultaneously, he also shows them a different need as well. There’s the need of God’s work that sometimes will defer food for a time to be about the very work of their holy mission. And so Jesus ministers to this Samaritan woman while waiting on a meal for himself. I think this shows a wonderful balance between knowing that we have practical needs like food and water, yet also showing how particularly important the spiritual work we have before us is.
A last passage to mention is John 6. This is John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. Here Jesus takes five loaves and two fish and feeds this great multitude. On the one hand, we see the same practical point. The disciples recognized that the people were weary and needed some physical sustenance. Jesus agreed. But he uses this to teach a point. Instead of sending the people away to find food on their own, he does a miracle so that he and his disciples are used to feed the multitude. And yet the chapter doesn’t end there. When the people come back the next day basically looking for more food, Jesus teaches them that their real need is to receive him as the bread of life that has come down out of heaven. They need to feast upon him. That seems very strange to the people, and turns most of them away. But Jesus explains that he is talking in spiritual terms. Just like David came to the priest at Nob not just for physical needs like food and a sword, but also to inquire of God, so the same is true for us. We need more than just our physical needs met when we are serving King Jesus on the holy mission that he has us on. Yes, we will have physical needs. This passage is wonderfully practical in that. It reminds us to keep such practical matters in mind. But it also sets a greater priority too. We will especially have spiritual needs as we serve Christ in the holy mission that he has us on. Just as Jesus told the devil that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord, so to for us. Yes, we need physical bread. But we especially need to be fed by Jesus. Jesus is our spiritual bread and our spiritual nourishment. We spiritually feast on Jesus by his Word, and in our prayers, and through the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In these things we are partaking of Christ, and are meeting this great spiritual need of ours.
And so Trinity Presbyterian Church, I’ve been saying it throughout this sermon, that as Christians, we are on a holy mission of sorts. What I mean is that though we live in this common world, we are set apart now as disciples of Christ. The world is the common realm; the non-holy realm; with non-holy peoples. As Christians though, the Bible says we have been sanctified. That’s a fancy way of saying we have been made holy. In Christ, we are cleansed and able to partake now of holy bread. I’m not talking about that old covenant bread. Now, such bread is mere shadow. The substance is Christ. So, we, as a holy priesthood in Christ, partake of Christ as our spiritual nourishment. Whenever we partake of the Lord’s Supper, that’s a very tangible way to remind us of this. But it’s not just in the Supper. In all the ways we exercise our spiritual communion with Christ, we are being nourished by him. And so we are holy. But we are also on a mission.
What does that mission actually entail for us? Well, there’s a general way I can answer that for all Christians. I could say several things, but let me emphasize this: you are a disciple of Christ who is called in the church to seek to make more disciples of Christ. In other words, we are part of a group mission to reach this community for Christ. We are a church living in a Babylon, called to try to rescue people out of this Babylon by calling people to repent and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We then bring Christ’s teachings to the world around us. And so we can talk about this holy mission that Christians have in this general way. This is true in one way or another for all Christians.
And yet how that is lived out does vary. Yes, when we come together on Sundays, there’s a lot of unity in how we live that out. But even then, there is some variety. For example, the Bible says that different Christians have different spiritual gifts that complement each other. And so even when we gather together, there are different complementary roles we play. Some speak; some serve; We bring out different skills and talents to bear in the church. We complete each other. And yet again, this is true not just at church, but especially all week long. You see, we each have our different callings in life. Now, on the one hand, the callings we each have are not something we would ordinarily describe as a holy mission. If you are an accountant or a mechanic, there is nothing particularly “holy” about that. Actually, those are rather common or mundane things. Yet, as a Christian, you should do those things as unto the Lord. And as you do those things, you should do them in such a way that shows that you are salt and light in this world. So there is a way even in our common and earthly callings that we are serving the holy and heavenly mission of Jesus Christ. Because people begin to recognize something different about you.
So then, because Christians are on holy mission from Christ the King, I hope you can take this away from today’s passage: it’s an urgent and important mission. But it’s also a mission where God will provide for your needs in it. He knows both your spiritual and physical needs. Go then like David to God for help in your needs. Pray for your daily bread. And pray especially for your spiritual needs. I think of even that spiritual armor, like the sword of the spirit. Pray for the physical and especially the spiritual equipping you will need on this mission for the king. And take delight that he is with you always, that you are never truly alone, even until the day of his return. By his grace we in Christ’s church will ultimately complete the holy mission he has sent us on. Praise be to God! Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.