Situational Ethics


1 Samuel 21


Last Sunday, Pastor left no doubt where he stands on Situational Ethics. And it would be a great thing to hear his sermon on 1 Samuel 21. But – though I have a poor track record of predicting his messages – I seriously doubt he’s going to waste an Easter sermon on Situational Ethics. Still, I would prefer to hear that sermon than to write this Comment.


You can read 1 Samuel 21-24, Matthew 12 and Luke 61. But if you read it too quickly, you start think maybe there might be something acceptable about Situational Ethics after all. But not so: David was in rare form that day – everything he did was either unlawful, or it was done in an unlawful manner. The volume of activity in this passage is incredible. And David paid a price for everything he did wrong. Except he was excused for eating holy bread, and for travelling on the Sabbath – God never asks us to go without food – or set ourselves up for destruction – just to satisfy a command.


The setting: Under advice from Jonathan, David has fled King Saul. He arrives at Nob, a city of Priests and a familiar stopping point of David. It was the Sabbath – as revealed by the word “today” in 1 Samuel 21:5. The Priests there knew him – it is clear Ahimelech knew him, for Ahimelech recognized him on sight, and he knew that David never traveled alone. David and those accompanying him were hungry. Ahimelech was a bit low on discretionary food that day. He offered David some showbread – probably the moral equivalent of someone coming to our church hungry, and all we can find readily available is communion bread. It’s not our first choice to let him eat communion bread. But most of us would allow that before we tell him he must starve.


The custom was that bread was baked on the Sabbath, and that the fresh bread would be set aside for the Lord for seven days, and on the next Sabbath, the week-old bread would be replaced, and the old bread would belong to the Priests as Holy bread (Leviticus 24:5-9). The astute may wonder what business the Priests had baking bread on the Sabbath. Jesus Himself addressed this in Matthew 12:5, “on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless.”


God never uses the Sabbath law to provoke a man to act toward his own destruction. If you are hungry, by all means eat. So we fall into a world that we black-and-whiters hate. If life by means of Situational Ethics be wrong, then tell us, Lord. We have enough of a Pharisee mindset to blow the whistle on anyone. I’m sure I have the Spiritual gift of whistle-blowing. Just set me loose, God. But if Situational Ethics be right, then tell us that way too. For even with our Pharisaic mindset, we are capable of burying our head in the sand any time evil comes our way. Sand burying is my second best Spiritual gift – right behind whistle-blowing.


But You say, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” That can mean almost anything. I have no Spiritual gift that will provide insight on how to execute that. It’s like the only way I’ll be able to do your will is if I set my own will aside and allow the Holy Spirit to act out His will through me. Lord, is THAT what you want? To have to rely on You for wisdom?


And God answers, “Now you understand.”


The human mind will never get this one right on its own – at least not consistently. Preachers who tackle this passage are fond of saying that David was granted an exemption from the law because he was seeking to satisfy a legitimate fundamental need: nourishment. But put that language out on the street, and you may as well repeal everything God has ever commanded. Shall we rob grocery stores when we are impoverished as we seek to satisfy that same legitimate fundamental need? Shall we shoot store managers standing in our way, for they were acting so as to deprive us of satisfying that legitimate fundamental need2?


And what makes food so legitimate, and other needs less legitimate? The bachelor cries, “I have NEEDS!” So we scurry to our think tanks, confident he is in error, but hand-cuffed by a self-imposed rule that not to persuade him of his error is to concede he may be right. And we note to him that the need of nourishment will lead to a man’s death if the need is not satisfied.


But not really. A day without food will make a man uncomfortable, but will likely not kill him – the same level of discomfort that the bachelor feels when his so-called needs are not addressed. And I quickly realize that I might rather prefer that David starve to death than to expose myself to having to live according to “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” For at least I understand Leviticus 24:9. I don’t understand “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”


Can I suppose that no act of evil can be condemned as long as the violator can choose instead to trace his deviant actions back to “some legitimate fundamental need” – no matter how repugnant his definitions? And I feel relieved that God never asks me to judge anyway3.


God is the Judge, and it is not advisable to play the “fundamental need” card too loosely. For it was only as far back as 1 Samuel 6:19 that God wiped out a whole village for looking inside the Ark of the Covenant. Or coming up in 2 Samuel 6, an ox carrying the Ark of the Covenant will trip, and the Ark would have fallen, except for the quick-thinking Uzzah. And God ended Uzzah’s life for his heroics. If Situational Ethics would rule, then all involved should be excused.


Jesus says David was not condemned for his obtaining food. But do not suppose that Matthew 12 and Luke 6 condone all of David’s actions in 1 Samuel 21. Eating unlawful showbread, and profaning the Sabbath by travel4 are the only actions of David that Jesus gives a pass on. If David had been honest when asking for food, he would have escaped Nob with God’s full blessing. But each step David took dug him deeper and deeper into trouble.


David lied about why he was there: “The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, ‘Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place.” How about “I’m running for my life.” But the authority of a mission for the King seemed a story more likely to win Ahimelech’s cooperation. THIS – not the showbread – is Situational Ethics: when you chart your own course, for you do not trust God to turn the hearts of man to supply your needs.


Situation: Hunger. If I say I’m running from Saul, Ahimelech might supply, but probably will not.

If I say I’m on a special mission, Ahimelech surely will provide.

If I’m on a mission, then he will overlook that I’m traveling on the Sabbath.

Situational Ethic: Increase the odds.


Jesus had no problem with satisfying David’s hunger. Jesus had no problem with David traveling on the Sabbath. But He did not condone David’s implied message that he could manage the circumstances and accomplish the task better than God could.


Deceit always breeds further deceit: And David got caught in the web. Ahimelech had a heart’s desire to help David. But he knew handing him the showbread to be unlawful. On the other hand, the bread belonged to him. Does Ahimelech not have the right to share his own goods? But the showbread is holy bread – and somewhere in there, Ahimelech found the right balance. If David and his men had at a minimum abstained from women, then the holy atmosphere surrounding the bread will at least be maintained.


I can’t prove he lied again. But does anyone believe David in his response? There is nothing David’s conscience would have stood firm for had Ahimelech requested he swear otherwise.


Now, the story gets interesting. Secret sins eventually get revealed in the light. God placed Doeg right there to observe. Doeg was a servant to Saul. The moment David saw Doeg, he knew that within a few hours, Saul will know exactly where to find David.


The side story of Doeg continues into Chapter 22. 85 innocent people got killed when Saul came looking for David, and David knew what was going on. David was fully aware that he himself, through his lies to Ahimelech, was en pointe responsible for those lives. (1 Samuel 22:22-23)


Deceit always breeds further deceit. When David saw Doeg, he knew he may find himself in battle, and he needed battle equipment. Again David turns to Ahimelech, and again, David lies. 1 Samuel 21:8 – “The King’s business requires haste.” And now David is so surrounded by deceit that his own senses deceive him. I read 1 Samuel 21:9-10, and my heart screams that David knows better than to do what he did.


David evidently reasoned that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and turned off his thinker after that. Saul was at war with the Philistines. So now, with bright red hair (easily identified in a crowd), and wearing Goliath’s battle gear, David escapes into Gath – Goliath’s home town – seeking to gain support as he fled from a mutual enemy. And Goliath’s friends and family remembered the fall of their hero quite well. This was Tony Romo – dressed in his Dallas Cowboy uniform – escaping to Washington, DC to seek our aid as he flees from those who pursue him. I couldn’t have scripted a dumber plan.


David was the silly dove of Hosea 7:11. He was a deluded man – deluded by his own self-deceit – who when in danger, instinctively flies straight into the source of his danger – just like a silly dove would do. He could have turned his mind off, and run any other defense plan selected at random, and it would have been more effective than the plan he chose.


This comment is longer than normal, and I have plenty to say that could keep me going. But it is time to bring it to an end. There is much we can learn from David’s wilderness experience. And there is much David learned – and the 15 Psalms cited above (called “the Wilderness Psalms) reveal to us that David learned through the experience to trust in God. But he still had a long way to go. For he still seems to think that he was facing undeserved persecution.


The initial flight may have been undeserved persecution, and he was not condemned for eating holy bread. Nor was he condemned for Sabbath travel. But the passages that surround this scene in no way condone Situational Ethics. For that, his persecutions were wholly deserved. And I pray that in another twenty readings of all these passages as a whole – without the diversion of commentary that could be as harmful as it is helpful – that I may better understand the miracle of keeping holy the perfect Sabbath – and keeping perfect the holy tools such as the Sabbath that God has provided not for our service, but for our good.


115 Psalms come out of 1 Samuel 21-24. Psalm 17, 31, 34, 35, 52, 54, 56, 57, 58, 63, 64, 109, 120, 140, 142


2Looting after a natural catastrophe is commonplace today. And spokesmen would have you believe these are desperate people simply seeking food. They find no need to explain why (say) televisions are more frequently stolen than food is.


3Of course, this does not work for those in accountability relationships. The accountability partner must be wise in discerning when true desperation. Textbook exercises come cheap. Eventually there will be a superannuated relative in a coma on life support. We know God’s priority for life. But I doubt we could agree on whether financial survival is a fundamental need. And for those who would call for a Living Will to resolve this, I have never seen a Living Will reconciled to Hebrews 9:17.


4The legitimate fundamental need for the showbread was nourishment. The legitimate fundamental need for the travel was self-preservation from Saul’s death orders.


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