Bread is an important symbol of life in Scripture (John 6:35), so it is not surprising to see the bread of the Presence, which was put before the life-giving Creator, reappear in several significant places in the Bible. Today’s passage is one such place, describing a time when David came to the tabernacle looking for something to eat and a weapon with which he could defend himself (1 Sam. 21:1–9).
At that point in his life, David was running from Saul, who was motivated to kill him out of a desire to protect his own throne (20:30–31). After realizing that Saul was out to get him, David fled to Nob to meet Ahimelech, the priest who was presiding over the tabernacle (21:1a). Ahimelech was afraid when he first saw David, and many commentators think he might have feared that the enemies of Israel would be right behind the future king, bringing destruction in their wake (v. 1b).
David lied to Ahimelech about his reason for coming to him, for Saul had most certainly not sent him out on a special mission (v. 2). Commentators speculate that David probably lied in order to protect Ahimelech from any charges of conspiracy if Saul were to later find out the priest had helped David. The future king might have reasoned that Ahimelech could not legitimately be prosecuted for treason if he did not know David was on an unapproved mission. Saul, however, was an unreasonable man and later slaughtered Ahimelech and all but one of his fellow priests at Nob (22:6–23).
In any case, David asked for food, and the only thing that was present at the tabernacle was the bread of the Presence, which was normally reserved only for the priests (21:3–4; see Lev. 24:5–9). There was nothing in the letter of the Law that allowed the bread to be given to anyone else, but Ahimelech knew the Law was given to further life and that the spirit of the Law demanded that feeding the needy must be put ahead of ritual if the two ever seem to conflict (Deut. 15:7–8).
Jesus later appealed to this incident to justify His practice of ignoring those Pharisaic traditions that put safeguarding religious ritual above helping the hungry (Mark 2:23–28). Following such traditions leads only to bondage to sin and not freedom according to the law of liberty that the Spirit enables us to obey (James 1:25).