The Letter of the Law Violated
1 Samuel 21:6
So the priest gave him hallowed bread: for there was no bread there but the show bread, that was taken from before the LORD…

How did David, being neither priest nor Levite, venture to eat the presence bread from the sanctuary? How did Ahimelech venture to give it to him?

I. THERE WAS THE PLEA OF NECESSITY. An ox or an ass which had fallen into a pit might be lifted out on the sabbath, notwithstanding the commandment to do no manner of work on the seventh day. The need of the poor animal, and the mercy due to it in its mishap, were justification enough for a breach of the letter of the law. When the disciples of Christ, walking with him along the edge of a cornfield, pulled some ears to relieve their hunger, they were blameless, for what they did was expressly permitted by the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 23:25). But they did it on the sabbath, and this the Pharisees challenged as unlawful. The Lord Jesus, however, held it quite lawful. It was necessary that his followers should relieve their hunger and recruit their strength, and the greater object must be put above the less. "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath." Our Lord brought out this truth into stronger relief than any other Jewish teacher had done; but it was not new doctrine. We see that while the Mosaic ritual was in the full force of its obligation the priest at Nob felt warranted to suspend one of its most minute regulations in order to relieve pressing human want. Perhaps the tendency in modern Churches is to take too much liberty with rules and ordinances of religion under pleas of necessity which are little more than pleas of convenience or self-will. But there is a golden mean between rigidity and laxity; and it must be left to the judgment and conscience of those who fear the Lord to determine for their own guidance what does or does not constitute a sufficient ground for setting aside regulations or restrictions which are ordinarily entitled to respect. Yet it is only the letter of the law, or the minutioe of religious observance, that may be thus dealt with. There are supreme obligations which not even a question of life and death may overrule. Nehemiah would not flee into the temple to save his life when his duty was to build up Jerusalem. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego would not worship the golden image at Babylon to save their bodies from the furnace; nor would Daniel desist from prayer to Jehovah to escape the lions' den. Paul insisted on his right of protection as a Roman citizen, but he would not for a moment compromise or conceal the gospel to evade persecution. No bonds or afflictions moved him; neither did he count his life dear to himself, so that he might finish his course with joy. It is true that not all the followers of Christ have had such fortitude. In days of persecution some faltered and apostatised, excusing themselves under a plea of necessity. They could not suffer; they dared not to die. But the noble army of martyrs consists of those who felt it the supreme necessity to be true to conscience, to the truth of the gospel, and the Christ of God. Not everything, then, must yield to necessity. David thought his hunger a sufficient warrant for taking from the priest's hand the sacred bread; but when Goliath blasphemed the God of Israel and defied his army, David had shown that his own life was not so dear to him as the glory of God and the honour and safety of his people.

II. THERE WAS A PROFOUND INSIGHT INTO THE TRUE MEANING OF PRIESTHOOD IN ISRAEL. No doubt the priests formed a hereditary order, wearing a distinctive dress, and having special provision made by statute for their position and maintenance. But they were never intended to be a caste of holy intercessors standing between God and an unholy nation. Neither they nor the Levites, their assistants, were isolated from the common life of their countrymen, as by separate charter of privilege or vows of celibacy. They were just the concentrated expression of the truth that all Israel was called to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." The rule was that the priests only should eat the bread which was withdrawn weekly from the table in the sanctuary; but it was no breach of the essence and spirit of the law if other Israelites, faithful to God, should on an emergency eat of this bread. David was as truly a servant of Jehovah as Ahimelech. Though all the Lord's people never were prophets, they always were, and now are, priests. Knowing this, David took and ate; not at all in a wilful mood, like Esau in his ravenous hunger eating Jacob's pottage, but with reverential feeling and a good conscience, under sanction of the fact that he was one of a priestly nation, and with confidence that God would not condemn him for exceeding in such a strait the letter of the law, so long as he honoured and obeyed its spirit. The leaders and rulers of the Church, according to the New Testament, are not sacerdots invested with a mystic sanctity and intrusted with a religious monopoly. They are simply the intensified expression of the holy calling of all the members of Christ, all the children of God. All these have a right to worship in the holiest; and as all of them may offer spiritual sacrifices, so all may "eat of the holy things." Order, indeed, is needful in the Church, and no man may assume a leading place or charge therein until duly called and appointed to the same. If David had for a light cause, or frequently, taken the presence bread, it would have been a sign of irreverence or arrogance. And in like manner if a Christian not intrusted with office in any constituted Church pushes forward when there is no emergency, and assumes to lead the Divine service, or to appoint or conduct the observance of the Lord's Supper, he steps out of his place, and may be designated "unruly." But there are places and occasions which do not admit of the usual regulations being observed; and in such cases a private or unofficial Christian may take upon himself any religious function rather than that any soul should suffer damage, and this under the general principle that all Christians form a "royal priesthood." The teaching of this passage is against religious pedantry and ecclesiastical hauteur. Count form subordinate to life. Value order, and reverence ordinances that are really of God. Play no "fantastic tricks" with sacred things "before high heaven;" but do not reduce religion to a question of meats and drinks, and do not count any one a serious offender who in a strait has violated prescription or usage. One who breaks the letter of the law may keep the law itself better than another who knows nothing but the letter. We are called to liberty; not licence, indeed, but order and liberty. If we are true to God and to our consciences we need not dread that, for a formality or an informality, Christ will cast us off. The Son of man is Lord of the sabbath and of the table, "Minister of the sanctuary and the true tabernacle," Lord of all the ordinances that are binding on his followers. And there is a freedom - not from order, but in God's order - with which the Son of man, being Son of God, has made his people free. - F.

Parallel Verses
KJV: So the priest gave him hallowed bread: for there was no bread there but the shewbread, that was taken from before the LORD, to put hot bread in the day when it was taken away.

WEB: So the priest gave him holy [bread]; for there was no bread there but the show bread, that was taken from before Yahweh, to put hot bread in the day when it was taken away.

The Letter and the Spirit
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