To try to impress on Israel that death would befall anyone who gave aid to David, Saul ordered the execution of the priests of Nob, although only Ahimelech, the high priest, had helped David. Saul then sent the executioners, led by Doeg the Edomite, to kill all the other people in the little priestly town (I Sam. 22:9-19).
Doeg and his men arrived at night to quickly fall on the unsuspecting families of the slain priests in their homes. After they had cruelly disposed of the people, Doeg’s servants and other hired assassins slaughtered all the livestock in or near the town.
Only one man was known to have escaped the barbarous carnage. He was Abiathar, one of Ahimelech’s sons who hadn’t been taken to Gibeah to be slain with the other priests because he wasn’t in Nob at the time. Somehow Abiathar learned where David was hiding and fled there, with sacred objects and vestments, to relate what had happened (I Sam. 22:20; 23:6).
“When I was in Nob I well remember Doeg staring at me,” David told Abiathar, “and I knew that there would be trouble as soon as he reported my being there to Saul. If I hadn’t been so careless as to be seen by him, probably this terrible thing wouldn’t have happened. I can’t tell you how miserable I feel about it, but at least I can promise you refuge with us. My men and I will guard you with our lives” (I Sam. 22:21-23).
Shortly before Abiathar joined David, a report had come that the Philistines were making occasional attacks on the town of Keilah in Judah not far from the forest of Hareth. They were robbing the Israelites there of their fall harvest of grain. David didn’t feel inclined to idly stand by with his little army while this was taking place. He wanted to help. But before doing anything about the matter he prayed about it, asking if the God of Israel would allow him to undertake such a perilous task.
By some means – possibly through Abiathar – David learned that God would permit him to take his men to defend Keilah. But when David informed them of what he intended to do, they showed very little enthusiasm.
“We are in enough danger hiding here in the forest,” they pointed out respectfully to their leader. “If we go to Keilah we’ll be exposing ourselves to Saul as well as the Philistines. We could end up between two armies and be wiped out.”
The men weren’t refusing to go, but they felt that they would be so out-numbered and outmaneuvered that the effort would be in vain. Once more David prayed, this time asking the Eternal to help him – something he probably should have done in the first place. God made it known to him that He would make it possible for David and his men to succeed. When David told this to his soldiers, who by then numbered about six hundred, their attitude changed so much that they became eager to go after the enemy (I Sam. 23:1-4).
Keilah was a walled town where the inhabitants could live in comparative safety, but the threshing floors were outside the walls. After the grain threshers had come out and worked a while, Philistines hiding in nearby grain fields would attack the workers, seize the grain and rush way. The marauders would also take any grazing livestock they could catch.
As David and his men cautiously topped a rise on their march to Keilah, they saw the walled town in the distance. But something more interesting was much closer. Camped in a ravine out of sight of Keilah was the company of Philistines responsible for making the hit-and-run attacks!
There wasn’t time to make any special preparations for a charge, because Philistine lookouts stationed at high spots on both sides of the ravine, had already seen the approaching Israelites and were shouting an alarm. David quickly separated his company into two parts and sent them racing down the steep sides of the ravine to block the Philistines from escaping at either end. Bottled up almost before they could move, the hundreds of enemy troops fell before the confident Israelites in a bloody battle that didn’t last very long (I Sam. 23:5).
Some of David’s men carried the stolen grain back to Keilah. Others herded back the livestock. The inhabitants of Keilah were spared from what otherwise would have been a long period of hunger, followed by an eventual attack by the enemy that would have destroyed them and their town. In spite of the help they had been given, they seemed a bit backward in allowing David and his men to come into Keilah. It was plain to David that they were fearful of what Saul would think.
It wasn’t long before Saul learned what had happened. He welcomed the news that David and his men were staying in Keilah. This meant that Saul had only to surround the town with his army and close in at will with catapults, battering rams and a vastly superior number of soldiers. It didn’t matter very much to Saul if he had to destroy a whole town of Israelites in order to get David.
Realizing that he and his men weren’t exactly welcome, David asked Abiathar, who had accompanied him, to inquire of God if the people of the town would turn against him if Saul should besiege Keilah. The answer from God was that the people would do anything to save themselves and their town from an attack by Saul. David didn’t wait for Saul’s army to show up. He wisely left to avoid unnecessary trouble, taking his men southeastward to camp in a forested, mountainous region at Ziph, south of the city of Hebron in Judah. This was just a few miles east of David’s old hiding place in the forest of Hareth (I Sam 23:7-15).
Just as Saul set out for Keilah with an army of thousands, he learned that David and his men had left the town. There was no way of knowing, at the time, where he had gone, and Saul was furious. He sent bands of men into most parts of Judah, but they were unsuccessful in finding the elusive young Israelites.
A few days after departing from Keilah, David was informed that a small group of men was approaching the camp. David sent men to ambush the group and bring the prisoners to him. To his astonishment he found that his soldiers had brought in his friend Jonathan with a few trusted bodyguards (I Sam. 23:16).
David was very happy to see Jonathan, who had carefully slipped out of sight of his father’s spies to bring encouragement to his friend to whom he had pledged loyalty (I Sam. 20:42).
“Don’t be discouraged,” Jonathan advised David during a long conversation that followed his arrival in the woods. “My father won’t succeed in destroying you, no matter how stubbornly he keeps on trying. I realize that you will be the next leader of Israel, and so does he, but his consuming envy prevents him from giving in. Just keep away from him, and with God’s help this time of troublesome hiding will soon come to an end.”
Having brought hope and comfort to David, Jonathan departed a few hours later to return home to Gibeah by a devious route so that Saul’s informers wouldn’t have a correct clue as to where he had been. Jonathan wasn’t a traitor to his father. He was actually befriending Saul by helping to prevent him from harming David (I Sam. 23:17-18).
The movements of David and his small army were observed by several people who lived in the rugged region south of Hebron. Hoping to gain a reward by making a report, they went to Saul to disclose their information.
“If you’ll follow us,” they told Saul, “we’ll lead you right to David’s camp!”
“Well!” Saul exclaimed bitterly. “At long last people show up who want to help me! May God bless you for your efforts. But I’ll need more information before I take my army off in pursuit of that crafty fellow again. By the time we would get there, he would probably be elsewhere. Go back and find out more about his movements and his possible hiding places in that area. When I know more about these things, I’ll go after him. Meanwhile, I have no intention of chasing him all over Judah” (I Sam. 23:19-23)!
The disappointed informers returned to their homes without the rich rewards they thought they would receive. They had to be satisfied with relatively minor tokens from their king. Their reports would really have been of little value to Saul, because David and his men had already moved south a few miles along a mountain ridge. Saul later learned of this, and though he had said that he wouldn’t pursue David by risking a futile march, he ordered his army off to the south.
When David found out that Saul’s army was very close, he hid his men on the most obscure side of a mountain. Informers then told Saul where David had gone, and Saul rushed in pursuit to that particular mountain, but no one was in sight on the side he approached.
“If that foxy rebel is near this mountain,” Saul observed, “then he must be on the other side. If that’s the way it is, then we’ll outfox him by dividing forces and swinging around both shoulders of the mountain” (I Sam 23:24-26).
If Saul’s orders had been carried out, David’s army would have been trapped between two companies of soldiers. But God didn’t intend that such a thing should happen. Just as the troops were about to start out to encompass the mountain from two directions, a messenger arrived to inform Saul that Philistine troops were pouring into Canaan from the west.
Vexed and disappointed, Saul gave the order for his men to rejoin in one company and set off to the northwest to contact the enemy. If he had had known for certain that his quarry was on the other side of the mountain, he undoubtedly would have ignored the Philistines, for a time, in order to at last overtake and destroy David (I Sam. 23:27-28).
When David learned that Saul’s army had departed, he led his men northeastward to hide in caves in rough country close to the west shore of the Dead Sea (I Sam. 23:29). Several days later, after Saul had succeeded in chasing the invading Philistines back to the west, he was told of David’s latest place of concealment. Taking three thousand of his best-trained soldiers, he moved quickly into David’s hiding area, stubbornly intent on searching every cave and ravine for his son-in-law.
At one point in the difficult search among hot boulders and gulches, Saul became so weary that he told his officers that he wanted to lie down in some cool spot and refresh himself with a few minutes of sleep. Some of his aides went inside a nearby cave that appeared to be rather small, and having satisfied themselves that it was a safe place, they suggested that Saul rest there. Saul went inside by himself, leaving the main body of his troops resting in shaded spots while some of his officers and aides sprawled out not far from the mouth of the cave.
Soon the Israelite king fell into a deep sleep that would have been impossible if he had known that David was so close. The cave was much larger than his light-blinded aides had estimated. It cut far back into the cliff, and in its dark recesses David and some of his soldiers were silently observing Saul!
“This is unbelievable!” some of them exclaimed to their leader. “You have spent months escaping from him, and now he stumbles into your power. Surely God has made this possible so that at last you will be able to treat him as he wishes to treat you.”
Motioning to his men to stay where they were. David walked quietly toward the mouth of the cave and gazed down on the man who had caused him so much trouble. With his sword he could have put an instant end to his persecutor. Instead, he stooped down and used his sword to carefully slice off the lower part of Saul’s robe (I Sam. 24:1-4).
“If that’s all you’re going to do to him,” some of David’s men angrily exclaimed as he returned to them, “then let us take care of the matter properly!”
“No!” was David’s firm but quiet answer as he looked thoughtfully at the piece of cloth. “Suddenly I feel that I have done a childish thing. After all, God ordained Saul as our king, and it was wrong of me to do anything to him – even to cause him embarrassment.”
The men understood what he meant, and said no more to him about punishing Saul, although most of them would have welcomed the opportunity to vengefully whack the king over the head with a spear. They watched in bitter silence as Saul roused himself, stretched, got to his feet and walked out of the cave (I Sam. 24:5-7).
Abruptly David broke away from his men and ran after him.
“King Saul!” he shouted.
Saul turned to see who had addressed him, but he failed to recognize David, who fell to his knees and bowed his forehead to the ground for a few seconds.
“Why have you listened to certain men who have told you that I am your enemy?” David loudly addressed Saul. “Today God caused you to go into this cave where I have been hiding, and I could easily have taken your life. Some of my men urged me to kill you, but I told them that I couldn’t do such a thing because God had ordained you the ruler of Israel. Look at your robe. I could have slashed you as I slashed off this part of your garment I’m holding. Doesn’t this prove that I have no intention of doing away with you?”
Saul looked down at his robe, and for the first time noticed that part of it was missing. He stared back at the piece David held, seemingly too perplexed or surprised to say anything. Behind him his men had leaped up for action, and were poised to rush at David. Saul glanced back and held up a hand to restrain them.
“Why do you go to such trouble to try to take my life?” David continued. “God knows that I haven’t schemed to kill you, so what is your reason for being here with your soldiers? Your cause is really no greater than it would be if you were looking for a dead dog or pursuing a flea. Surely God isn’t pleased, because He knows that envy has made you this way!”
Not until then did Saul begin to recognize David, who had become huskier and quite tanned (I Sam. 24:8-15).
“Are you really David, my son-in-law?” queried Saul a little suspiciously.
“I am David,” was the answer.
“You are a better man than I am!” Saul muttered, breaking into tears. “I have treated you miserably and you have behaved toward me without hatred or revenge. You have proved that you aren’t my enemy by not taking my life, even though God gave you the opportunity. Any other man is your place would have surely killed me. I trust that God will reward you for your goodness. David, I am aware that you are to become the next king of Israel. I want you to promise me now that you will do nothing to cut off my name in Israel, and that you won’t destroy those of my family who came after me.”
This was an odd time for Saul to ask favors, what with David having just acted as he did, and with Saul’s men ready to lunge at David. Saul’s unpredictable behavior was probably due, to some extent, to his fears and confusion of mind, which resulted from being under an influence that troubled him with fits of depression.
David solemnly promised what Saul requested, whereupon the king promptly left. As David watched the men depart, he knew that Saul would continue to trouble him in spite of his expression of regret (I Sam. 24:16-22).
A few days later word came that Samuel had died. David was very grieved, but he knew it would be unwise to attend the funeral because Samuel’s death would cause Saul to feel freer to try to do away with David.
Watch for the next installment of the Story of the Bible.