Many Are the Afflictions of the Righteous (1 Sam 21-22)

Sermon Discussion Questions:

  1. When you compare and contrast the characters of David and Saul in these chapters, what do you learn? Are circumstantial comforts and positions a clear indicator of God’s blessings?
  2. In what ways does Saul serve as a cautionary tale here for the worship of power?
  3. Read 1 Sam 21:10-15 and then read Psalm 34. What stands out to you as you compare and contrast these two passages? 
  4. “Most of the Bible looks like David, and less like Moses.” What does that mean? How does the perspective that God works through our work help you and give you opportunities to “taste and see that the Lord is good”?
  5. Read Psalm 52. How does God’s justice provide comfort for us when the wicked seem to triumph?

We have been studying the book of Samuel for sometime, but today we come to a place in David’s life where we find an abundance of psalms written by David (Ps 34, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 63, 142). So, let’s read an excerpt from Psalm 34, a psalm written during the period of time our passage in 1 Samuel 21-22.

11 Come, O children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the LORD.
12 What man is there who desires life
and loves many days, that he may see good?
13 Keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking deceit.
14 Turn away from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.
15 The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous
and his ears toward their cry.
16 The face of the LORD is against those who do evil,
to cut off the memory of them from the earth.
17 When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears
and delivers them out of all their troubles.
18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.
19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the LORD delivers him out of them all.
20 He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
21 Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22 The LORD redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

–       Ps 34:11-22

Life is hard. And life is hard, no matter what. You can choose to lead a godly, religious life, and life will be hard. Or, you can live a non-religious life where you shirk off tradition, and life will be hard. You’ll notice that the ending of the psalm (vs. 19, 21) show us that both the righteous and the wicked experience affliction. Everyone experiences affliction, but one leads to deliverance, and one leads to destruction.

The Afflictions of Righteousness

David is on the run. He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt of Saul’s desire to kill him, and so he flees so suddenly that he has no time to gather supplies. And where does he flee to? He runs to the tabernacle, the house of God. We aren’t told why David chooses this location to flee to—it certainly wouldn’t have been a secret location, but a public space frequented by many who would easily carry the information back to Saul (which is precisely what happens, 1 Sam 21:7). Nor would it have been a place that was abounding in equipment or resources. This is a holy place, a sanctuary, a place of worship. And perhaps this is precisely why David flees there. He is distraught and confused and longs to be near his God in whom he takes refuge.

However, Ahimelech seems to be aware of the tension between Saul and David, and so approaches David trembling, not wanting to get roped into the spat between the two of them (1 Sam 21:1; cf. 1 Sam 16:4). David seems to respond with an outright lie, claiming that he is on an errand for the king of the utmost secrecy (1 Sam 21:2)—maybe the reason he doesn’t use Saul’s name is because he is trying to not lie, maybe viewing “the king” here as God, not Saul. Either way, David asks for bread and is offered the holy bread that is used in the tabernacle, provided David (and the soldiers he is allegedly meeting up with) are ceremonially clean, to which David assures him they are (1 Sam 21:3-6). 

Then David said to Ahimelech, “Then have you not here a spear or a sword at hand? For I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste. And the priest said, “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you struck down in the Valley of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you will take that, take it, for there is none but that here.” And David said, “There is none like that; give it to me,” (1 Sam 21:8-9). David again claims, rather unconvincingly, that he has simply forgotten to bring along his weapons with him and so asks for a spear or a sword and is given the sword of all swords—Goliath’s. It has been kept in the Tabernacle like a trophy in a museum, and it seems fitting that the Giant Slayer should now wield the Giant’s sword.

Things are dire for David. He is on the run, but he has been to the house of God, has bread in his sack, and the sword of all swords in his hand! He is well prepared for another victorious outcome like the battle of Goliath, is he not? Surprisingly, what follows are three brief stories that emphasize David’s weakness, danger, and shame. There is no heroic moment here, no giant’s head who gets lopped off.

1.     David Flees to Gath (1 Sam 21:10-15)

David, hoping that Saul won’t follow him into enemy territory, runs to the Philistine capitol. However, he is immediately recognized (as the king of Israel!) and apprehended. But, just as he is brought before the king of the Philistines, David pretends to be insane; writhing around, frothing at the mouth, and beating upon the doors, letting “his spittle run down his beard,” (1 Sam 21:13). He is then mistaken for just another madmen, and is expelled from the court.

2.     David Flees to the Cave of Adullam (1 Sam 22:1-2)

David then hides in a hole in the ground, where his family (apparently fearful for their life as well) meets him. But then a grouping of unsavory characters begin to show up. “…everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men,” (1 Sam 22:2). David doesn’t run them off, but embraces them, and becomes their commander. Like Jesus, David draws together the sinners and rebels and ragamuffins. Like Jesus, David isn’t ashamed to call them brothers (Heb 2:11). 

3.     David Flees to Moab (1 Sam 22:3-5)

David needs to find somewhere for his elderly parents to be safe and remaining in a cave isn’t a good long-term solution. So, perhaps relying on his great-grandmother’s family connections (Ruth), he travels to Moab and asks for his parents to be safely kept there till, he knows not when, hoping that these ancient enemies of Israel will show him mercy.

In all three of these brief vignettes David’s life appears to hang precariously in the balance. Not only that, but David who has been beloved and honored by so many, been in a position of prominence as the commander of the armies of Israel, is now degraded and shamed. He saves his own skin by pretending to be insane, hiding in holes in the ground with the lowest caste of society, and is counting on pagan enemies to look after his family. David is not in an enviable position. 

Now, what did David do wrong to deserve this? Nothing, of course. In fact, David did everything right. He was faithful to the Lord, so he fought Goliath. He was faithful to the Lord, so he went out and fought Israel’s battles. He was even faithful to Saul. And yet, sometimes our life gets harder, not because we did something wrong, but because we did what was right. As David sings, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all.”

But for the wicked? Affliction will slay them.

The Afflictions of the Wicked

“Now Saul heard that David was discovered, and the men who were with him. Saul was sitting at Gibeah under the tamarisk tree on the height with his spear in his hand, and all his servants were standing about him,” (1 Sam 22:6). Could there be a starker contrast between David’s location and Saul’s? David is on the run, casting honor aside, surrounded by the scruff of society, while Saul is seated in honor up in the high places, surrounded by servants, and with his ever-present symbol of power in his hand: his spear (cf. 1 Sam 18:10; 19:9, 10; 20:33; 26:7, 8, 11, 12, 16; 2 Sam 1:6). 

And Saul said to his servants who stood about him, “Hear now, people of Benjamin; will the son of Jesse give every one of you fields and vineyards, will he make you all commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, 8 that all of you have conspired against me? No one discloses to me when my son makes a covenant with the son of Jesse. None of you is sorry for me or discloses to me that my son has stirred up my servant against me, to lie in wait, as at this day,” (1 Sam 22:7-8). 

Saul’s madness has taken a hard conspiratorial bent. Saul is surrounded by his kin, other members of the tribe of Benjamin, yet he accuses all of them of being bribed by David to “conspire against” him. Of course, we are not told anywhere that David has done such a thing. 

Saul accuses his fellow tribesmen of plotting his downfall by failing to report that Jonathan and David made a covenant together—something that the narrator described openly in 18:3, immediately following Saul’s glowing approval of David in 18:2, as if it happened directly under Saul’s nose. Yet, Saul now believes this was a secret coup intended for his overthrow. So, Saul pouts like a moody child that nobody is sorry for him, nobody cares to tell him what’s going on. Saul is the center of his own world, untethered from reality, and willing to attempt any tactic to get what he wants.

Amidst the awkward silence that follows, one person speaks up. “Then answered Doeg the Edomite, who stood by the servants of Saul, “I saw the son of Jesse coming to Nob, to Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, 10 and he inquired of the LORD for him and gave him provisions and gave him the sword of Goliath the Philistine,” (1 Sam 22:9-10). Who is this guy? Back in 1 Sam 21:7, while David is speaking with Ahimelech, we are told this passing comment: “Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the LORD. His name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s herdsmen,” (1 Sam 21:7).

Doeg, a non-Israelite, is happy to provide this critical piece of information to a desperate king. He is already the chief of Saul’s herdsmen—an important office—yet he is eager to rise further in Saul’s ranks. David’s psalm about Doeg seems to imply that he was financially motivated in these affairs (Ps 52:7). 

Saul summons Ahimelech, and all 85 priests, to come to him. “And Saul said to him, “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?” (1 Sam 22:13).

Then Ahimelech answered the king, “And who among all your servants is so faithful as David, who is the king’s son-in-law, and captain over your bodyguard, and honored in your house? 15 Is today the first time that I have inquired of God for him? No! Let not the king impute anything to his servant or to all the house of my father, for your servant has known nothing of all this, much or little.” (1 Sam 22:14-15).

Ahimelech’s answer is imminently reasonable. He gives six reasons why he is innocent of the charge of treason: 1) David is Saul’s most faithful servant, 2) he is the king’s son-in-law, 3) captain of Saul’s personal bodyguards, 4) he is revered in Saul’s house, 5) Ahimelech has inquired of God numerous times before on behalf of David, and 6) if aiding David was wrong, he had no knowledge of it. As he lays this out, it is hard to see how anyone could conclude that Ahimelech was a traitor, or that even David is a traitor. Ahimelech’s answer is so good that it makes Saul’s plot against David look embarrassing itself. Don’t you realize that David is innocent, that he is your loyal servant, that your plot to kill him is insane? But what is obvious to everyone isn’t obvious to blind Saul, and you cannot reason someone out of a position that reason never led them to.

And the king said, “You shall surely die, Ahimelech, you and all your father’s house.” (1 Sam 22:16). The phrase “you shall surely die” comes from Genesis 2:17, the consequence of eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In all the Bible, the only people who use this phrase are God and Saul. What does that tell us? Saul thinks he is like God. But what happens when a creature exalts himself like he is the Creator? What happens when you try to use a toothpick like a load-bearing bolt? The man Saul is sheared in half. He becomes irrational (four times in Samuel, Saul pronounces this sentence of death, each time on an innocent person 1 Sam 14:39; 14:44; 20:31; 22:16), and increasingly impotent. Every time he pronounces the sentence of death like he is God, the person isn’t killed. Worship power, and you become weak. “And the king said to the guard who stood about him, “Turn and kill the priests of the LORD, because their hand also is with David, and they knew that he fled and did not disclose it to me.” But the servants of the king would not put out their hand to strike the priests of the LORD,” (1 Sam 22:17). 

Saul’s soldiers know he is insane, they know it is ludicrous to kill the priests Yahweh for this, so they refuse. Saul’s authority is flaccid and the soldiers fear God more than Saul. But, there is one figure who is eager to please the king, “Then the king said to Doeg, “You turn and strike the priests.” And Doeg the Edomite turned and struck down the priests, and he killed on that day eighty-five persons who wore the linen ephod. 19 And Nob, the city of the priests, he put to the sword; both man and woman, child and infant, ox, donkey and sheep, he put to the sword,” (1 Sam 22:18-19).

The 85 priests who had been summoned to the king are executed by Doeg, but that still isn’t enough for Saul. He wants to send a message that anyone who helps David will suffer, them and their people. So, he annihilates an entire city, man and woman, child and infant, ox, donkey and sheep. That language sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The last time we heard something like that was the command that Saul was given to destroy God’s enemies, the Amalekites back in chapter 15—the command that Saul disobeyed. But here? Saul carries out his bloodthirsty vengeance, not against enemies who were raiding and pillaging Israel, not against those God had placed under judgment, but against those who were under Saul’s judgment—Saul thinks he is God. 

One man, Abiathar, escapes and runs to David and tells him what Saul has done. “And David said to Abiathar, “I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul. I have occasioned the death of all the persons of your father’s house. 23 Stay with me; do not be afraid, for he who seeks my life seeks your life. With me you shall be in safekeeping,” (1 Sam 22:22-23).

The Difference Between Saul and David

  • David is fleeing, powerless, and shamed; Saul is stationary, established, and powerful.
  • David is hiding in holes in the ground; Saul is seated on the height.
  • David has no spear; Saul’s spear is always in his hand.
  • David is surrounded by the losers and ruffians; Saul is surrounded by servants and soldiers.

In so many ways, the circumstances of Saul’s life sounds so much better than David. But there is vastly different internal reality going on between these two men that could not be more different.

  • David seeks out the tabernacle to receive help from God; Saul seeks out the tabernacle because he thinks he is God.
  • David pretends to be insane; Saul is insane.
  • David seeks out non-Israelites to save life; Saul seeks out non-Israelites to destroy life.
  • David takes responsibility for others; Saul evades responsibility and blames others for his problems.

Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice,” (Prov 16:8). 


In the book of Psalms, there are thirteen psalms that give us the historical setting in which they were written. Eight of those thirteen come from this period in David’s life (Ps 34, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 63, 142). Maybe take some time later today or this week to read through all of those. That in of itself is instructive for us: some of David’s most difficult seasons in life led to some of his deepest praise and communion with the Lord. Let’s look at just one of them from our story today to reflect on:

Magnify the Lord!

1 I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2 My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the humble hear and be glad.
3 Oh, magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together!

–       Ps 34:1-3

What does it mean to “magnify the Lord”? You magnify what can be easily missed or hidden. You put a telescope on a tiny pinprick of light in the sky, and you see that there is an enormous planet that you have been missing. Put a scoop of dirt under a microscope, and you find a whole world teeming with life. We can be blind to the glory of what is, especially when it comes to God. We must widen the frame, and see what is there. This is what David does, and he gathers others to do it alongside him. Let’s exalt his name together!

4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
5 Those who look to him are radiant,
and their faces shall never be ashamed.
6 This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.
7 The angel of the LORD encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
8 Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
9 Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints,
for those who fear him have no lack!
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger;
but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.

–       Ps 34:4-10

What is David writing about? What would need to be going on in your life for you to write those words? To be confident of God’s supernatural intervention, personal answer to prayers that make you say, “I lack nothing.” That makes you explode with joy and summon others to “taste and see” the goodness of the Lord?

He is writing about his escape from the Philistines in chapter 21, when he pretends to be insane. Now, think of that story, and set it against David’s interpretation of the events in this psalm. David saw his deliverance as coming exclusively from God’s intervention, as if he sent the angel of the Lord as a sentry to personally protect him. When we read the story, we strain to see such supernatural intervention. It appears that God didn’t intervene, but that David simply thought quickly on his feet. It also seems odd for David to claim that those who look to the Lord are “radiant” and “their faces shall never be ashamed.” David saved his own skin, literally, by shaming himself, by letting the spittle dribble down his beard. 

What we lack is David’s perspective on the Lord’s work. We need to widen the frame. When you read David’s psalms, he attributes all his deliverances and salvations and helps to the Lord—spectacularly to the Lord, as if God rips the heavens opens and steps down to personally aid him (cf. 2 Sam 22). But David’s life isn’t like Moses or Elijah. It isn’t filled with the shock and awe and miracles of those prophets. David is a soldier and a king who practices an earthy spirituality. The battle is won because he fights, he wields the sword, he pulls the bow. Yet, David claims, God does it. “He trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle” (Ps 144:1). When God helps Moses by parting the Red Sea, we think, That’s what I’m talking about—I want that kind of help, but when we see David save his life by resorting to false insanity, we think: I would like to receive help different way, please. 

But most of the Bible looks like David, and less like Moses. Consider one example, where Paul tells us regarding the other apostles, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me,” (1 Cor 15:10). Paul sees the rigorous efforts he poured into his ministry—something that he thinks is outstanding—can ultimately only be attributed to God who was working through the channel of Paul’s effort. We work, but God works.

But if we can pay attention to what others may be blind to: how God intervenes and delivers us through our work, then we have a cornucopia of joy and gratitude and praise before us. And perhaps it will deliver us from our own apathy and passivity if we realize that our labor and God’s labor are not mutually exclusive.

The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous
and his ears toward their cry.
16 The face of the LORD is against those who do evil,
to cut off the memory of them from the earth.
17 When the righteous cry for help, the LORD hears
and delivers them out of all their troubles.
18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.
19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the LORD delivers him out of them all.
20 He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
21 Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22 The LORD redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

–       Ps 34:15-22

Everyone experiences affliction: the righteous and the wicked. Everyone receives God’s face; the righteous and the wicked. We can endure the same realities, yet have vastly different experiences—if we take refuge in Him.

John, the gospel writer, while recounting the story of Jesus’ crucifixion cites this passage from Psalm 34. Nestled between the afflictions of the righteous and the afflictions of the wicked is verse 20, “He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.” David here is explaining that while the afflictions of the righteous are many, yet God’s deliverance prevents the righteous from being shattered, from having their bones splinter. John sees this fulfilled finally in Jesus Christ: “So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs… For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” (John 19:32-33, 36).

Even at the cross, where Jesus is forsaken by the Father, where He absorbs the sins of the world and suffers their punishment, even there, God does not abandon His Son, the Righteous one, over to affliction as severely as He does the wicked. He places His hand between His Son and Affliction and says, “No further.” And three days later, Jesus resurrects from the dead to life and victory and joy. And if we have faith in Christ, that shall be our trajectory as well. Our afflictions may be numerous, but there stands between us and the affliction a loving Father who will say, “No further,” and the hope of resurrection waiting for us. For those who take refuge in Jesus Christ, they will find the Lord to be a great Redeemer, Deliverer, and Savior.

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