Mercy Not Sacrifice: I Samuel 21

The giant slayer was now the spear evader.  The one who slew tens of thousands is now the one who is being pursued.  And, he’s being hunted not by some giant.  Not by some Philistine.  He is being hunted by the King of Israel.  Saul.  The sweet musician of Israel is now running for his life.

Guercino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Guercino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Where does he run?

Well, he makes  a pit stop with the priest at Nob.  He enters the holy area with his men.  The priest is stunned.  Why is David here?  Isn’t this odd?  Why would the biggest military leader in all of the land show up unannounced, and why isn’t the army with him?  You can understand the priest’s misgivings.  You can hear the quiver in his voice when he asks David what’s going on.

Now, what happens next is what really gets to me.  He eats the consecrated bread.  The priest lets him do it.  In fact, the priest even gives him a sword, which turns out to be Goliath’s.  How’s that for a parting present!

Aert de Gelder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Aert de Gelder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Back to the showbread or the Bread of the Presence.  Now, that might not sound like a big deal to you…but to someone who grew up with a “never break the rules” mentality…then this really hits me hard…because after all, wasn’t David a man after God’s own heart?

Leviticus 24:9 says that the show bread is specifically for Aaron and his sons, i.e., the priests from the tribe of Levi.  And, David is not of the tribe of Levi.

So, was it right for David and his men to eat this holy bread?

Well, my initial response is a strong, kicking and screaming…

No! No! No!  Of course not!

Now, what if someone wrote a commentary on this and said that, in fact, it was alright for David to do this.  What if their argument was this:

It’s about the big picture here, and not about the ritual.

What if their argument was something like:

God is all about mercy and not about ritual and ceremony.

How would you react?

Well, some might call that person a false teacher.  Some might call them a liberal.  Some might even call them a heretic.  But, here’s the thing.  Would you like to know the author of this commentary?

Are you ready for it?

It’s Jesus.

God’s Son.  The Son of Man.  The Messiah.  King of kings and Lord of lords.  And, as someone has pointed out, he really has an advantage in Bible interpretation.

So, what does he say?  Well, listen to the words of Matthew 12:3-7:

He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.

I’m partial to Jesus’ argument.

It wreaks of grace.  It smells like the Lamb of God.

It looks like the God who stoops.  It looks like Servant who would wash the disciples grimy feet and then suffer on a cruel cross.

It sounds a lot like the one whose voice calms the storms and stills the tempest and one day will raise our bodies to life.

Yes, this sounds a lot like Jesus.

And, Jesus’ words convict me.   The one whose side was pierced pierces my heart with his words of grace, with his Sword of Spirit.

And, ironically, it’s these words that cut me deep:

And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.

Those words cut to my very heart whenever someone brings up that question, so do you think y’all are the only ones going to heaven.

Those words ring in my ears whenever I think of all the people with whom I’ve argued about ritual and forgot about mercy.

Those words sear in my mind whenever I’m starting to condemn other sincere Christ seekers who might not have all the same understandings as I do.

The Point

Now, back to David.  Why was David approved of God in that he did what he did?  Well, he was on God’s mission.  He was serving God’s purpose.  He was God’s anointed.  The showbread was there to serve God’s purpose, not the other way around.

That’s the same thing Jesus was saying when he said it was alright for him and his disciples to pluck grains of wheat on the Sabbath in order to eat.  That were doing God’s work.  He was God’s anointed.

The question isn’t really how do we, like David, get to do something that we normally wouldn’t be permitted to do.  That misses the point.

The real point I want to get to is how do we, like David, and like Jesus, how do we really get on purpose for God?  How do we really get into his work, his mission, and his passion, so much so that God is literally helping us along the way with his creation.  How do we do that?

Well, we simply follow Christ.  We take our cross.  We get involved in the real work of his kingdom building in this world.  That’s a lot harder than simply getting the right ritual.  That’s about becoming God’s person.  Becoming the body of Christ.  We take on a heart like his and we act like him.  Our hands become his hands.  Our feet become his feet.  And, should we do so, and one day we find ourselves needing some provisions in order to do his work, then God will provide..



  1.  How do we sometimes value the wrong things?
  2.  Do we ever miss the forest for the trees?
  3. When you first read this, did you side with the idea that David was wrong?
  4. How does Jesus interpretation of this event resonate with you?
  5. How can we value mercy over ritual?
  6. How can we become Jesus’ hands and feet?

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