If Saul wasn’t allowed to offer sacrifices, why could David eat the consecrated bread?

This question was asked in a comment on my previous post.

Q. I agree with you that Saul was wrong to offer sacrifices, but I think you also need to explain how you see David eating the bread of the presence. (Jesus refers to this episode in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.) In both cases the royal/priest boundary was crossed.

You’re right that both Saul and David did things that only priests were supposed to do.  And as I observed last time, it was extremely important in ancient Israel that the monarchy and the priesthood not be combined. So we do need to account for why Saul is punished for his actions while David is not.

This issue arises again during the reign of Uzziah, and in his case, the nature of the offense is made very explicit:  “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the Lord followed him in. They confronted King Uzziah and said, ‘It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.’”

For crossing the royal/priest boundary, Uzziah was struck with leprosy and he lived out his reign in seclusion, with his son acting in his place as regent.  For the same offense, Saul was rejected as king. So you’d think that God would have had as much of a problem with David eating the consecrated bread as He did with Saul offering sacrifices or Uzziah burning incense.  But instead, Jesus cites David’s actions as a precedent for his own disciples lawfully plucking and eating grain as they travel through a field on the Sabbath.  In Matthew and Luke, this incident is paired with a Sabbath healing episode, suggesting that David also provides a precedent for Jesus healing on the Sabbath.  In other words, his actions are seen as positive and exemplary, not negative and dangerous.

So what’s going on here?  I think the best explanation is that there is a distinction between the privileges of a priest and the functions of a priest.

One of the privileges of a priest is that “those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and . . . those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar,” as Paul observes in 1 Corinthians when arguing for his own right to be supported as an apostle. In other words, as Leviticus explains, once consecrated bread has been replaced with fresh bread and removed from God’s presence, it “belongs to Aaron and his sons, who are to eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is a most holy part of their perpetual share of the food offerings presented to the Lord.”  So no one but the priests had a right to this bread, as it was part of the priests’ support.  But Ahimelek the priest was nevertheless free to share this bread with David and his hungry companions–to “do good,” as Jesus put it, with the food at his disposal.  David was not arrogantly demanding priestly privileges for himself as king; he wasn’t even king yet at this point.  He was simply a hungry man asking for food and receiving it from God’s sanctuary.

By contrast, both Saul and Uzziah were usurping priestly functions, and in both cases it seems they were doing so as an assertion of their own expanded powers.  This, as I noted last time, threatened to assimilate the Israelite monarchy to the Canaanite priest-king or god-king model, and it could not be allowed.

There’s one more related issue that I’ll take up in my next post.  According to the book of Samuel-Kings, during his reign in Jerusalem, “David’s sons were priests.”  Was David trying to go through the “back door”  and set up a priest-king dynasty starting in the next generation?  I’ll explore that one next time.

Statuary, “David receives sacral bread from the priest Ahimelech,” in the Ceremoniall Hall of the Hradisko Monastery, Olomouc, Czech Republic. Sculptor: Josef A. Winterhalder, 1734.

How could God call David a “man after his own heart” when he committed adultery and murder?

Q. I always felt sorry for Saul.  God chose him to lead His people, and he did a good job at it.  Saul only made one mistake and God sent David to replace him.  I think David did much worse, yet God said, “He’s a man after my own heart.”

In my first post in response to this question, I looked at why God rejected Saul as king.  In this post I’ll consider how God could call David a “man after my own heart.”

I think much of our difficulty in understanding how God could apply this phrase to a man who became an adulterer and murderer comes from the way we use the phrase today.  For us it means “just the kind of guy I like” or “someone who does what I would do in a situation.”  But that’s not what the phrase means when Samuel uses it to describe to Saul the kind of king God is seeking to establish a dynasty in Israel.

The Hebrew phrase is actually “a man according to God’s heart”—one who is in accordance with God’s wishes for the kingship.  Samuel makes this clear by observing, “You have not kept the LORD’s command,” that is, that the kingship should not be treated as divine or as encompassing priestly powers.

David set an example for all subsequent kings by never acting as if he were a divine king or priest-king.  (Uzziah, by contrast, one of his successors, was punished for going into the temple of the LORD to burn incense, effectively claiming to be a priest-king.  The priests challenged him, saying, “It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD. That is for the priests.”  Uzziah was smitten with leprosy and had to turn over royal power to his son as regent.  “His pride led to his downfall,” the biblical narrator observes.)

David was always devoted to the LORD as Israel’s supreme ruler and he never turned aside after other gods.  This heart of loyalty became the standard by which all later kings were judged.  The Bible says about Abijah, for example, “His heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his forefather had been.”  We might think of a “man after God’s own heart” as one whose heart is fully devoted to God.

King David, St. Martin’s Church, Yorkshire, England

But even such men and women need to be very careful about how they respond to the challenges and especially the disappointments of life.  David committed adultery after his army officers, out of a commendable desire to protect his life, made him stay back in Jerusalem when they went out to war.  For a military commander like David, this idleness and apparent uselessness were hard to bear. One may surmise that he tried to find renewed validation by getting a beautiful woman for himself, Bathsheba.

He should have regarded her as strictly off limits because she was another man’s wife—in fact, the wife of one of his trusted “mighty warriors,” Uriah the Hittite.  But instead David abused his kingly powers and committed adultery and murder to get her.  In a divine judgment, his royal house was torn apart in the next generation.  So no divine approval of David’s actions can be found in the earlier description of him as a “man after God’s own heart.”

But here David provides an example in another way.  Beware, men and women:  even if you are devoted solely to God, you have to flee temptation, recognizing that it will assault you most strongly when you are at your weakest.  (For many men, this comes on the “down slope,” when they’ve held an important position but now are facing some new limitations on their role or reductions in their status, as David was here.  Be especially vigilant under these circumstances!)

Why did God reject Saul as king for making one small mistake?

Q. I always felt sorry for Saul.  God chose him to lead His people, and he did a good job at it.  Saul only made one mistake and God sent David to replace him.  I think David did much worse, yet God said, “He’s a man after my own heart.”

Rembrandt, King Saul (detail)

These are excellent questions.  In this post I’ll look at why God rejected Saul as king.  In my next post I’ll consider how God could call David a “man after my own heart.”

Kingship in Israel was supposed to be different from kingship in the surrounding nations.  Israel’s king was not to be considered divine.  In the law of Moses, God carefully distinguished the priesthood from the kingship and gave future kings careful instructions that put them under the law.

So it was vital that Israelite kings not usurp any priestly or divine prerogatives.  The precedent that Saul set as Israel’s first king would influence all of his successors (like George Washington declining a third term).  So he was held to a strict standard.

At one point during Saul’s reign, he was campaigning against the Philistines and waiting for Samuel to come and offer sacrifices to seek God’s favor.  When Samuel didn’t arrive as soon as he expected, Saul offered these sacrifices himself, assuming the prerogatives of a priest.  When Samuel did arrive, he told Saul, “You have done a foolish thing,” using the Hebrew term for people who act without regard for God.  Samuel warned that Saul’s kingdom would not endure, meaning that his family would not establish a dynasty.  He’d be succeeded on the throne by someone from a different family.

Some time later, however, God gave Saul a new assignment in his capacity as king.  Samuel introduces this assignment by saying, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel.”  So perhaps this was intended as a “second chance.”

God commanded Saul to destroy the Amalekites.  (This is one of those episodes of total destruction in the Bible that are very difficult for us to understand; I’ve shared some thoughts about them here.) One thing we can recognize in such episodes is that the Israelites were never to take any plunder because weren’t in the war for themselves; they were considered agents of divine judgment.

But Saul and his army spared “the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good.”  They only destroyed what they thought was undesirable and worthless.  They spared King Agag because in this time captured kings were a prized trophy of war.  By conducting this raid as if it were ordinary warfare that he was directing, Saul once again usurped a divine prerogative and misrepresented the character of divine judgment, which doesn’t privilege the powerful and the beautiful.

It seems that God gave Saul a second chance, but this only showed that he still hadn’t learned to respect the limits of his authority as king.  And so, to prevent Israelite kingship from being established on the model of the divine kings or priest-kings of surrounding nations, God didn’t allow Saul to establish a dynasty.

Nevertheless, even after Samuel announced this judgment a second time, he granted Saul’s request, “Please honor me [as king] before the elders of my people and before Israel.”  Saul reigned for 42 years and throughout that time he was acknowledged as the rightful king.  David, even though promised the kingship himself, respected and protected him as the “LORD’s anointed.”

One of the last things we hear about Saul in the Bible is David’s tribute to him after he was killed in battle.  Acknowledging how Saul had made Israel secure and prosperous by defeating its enemies, David laments,

Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
How the mighty have fallen in battle!

So even though Saul wasn’t able to establish an Israelite royal dynasty on the right principles, the Bible acknowledges the benefits Israel received from his long reign.

Does Isaiah’s prophecy about a remnant returning predict the formation of the state of Israel?

I’m reading through the Bible and have gotten as far as Isaiah, where I’ve just read, “The Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.  In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people” from nations all over the world.  Is this a prophecy of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948?

My study guide to the book of Isaiah in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series takes readers through the entire book, situating each passage in its historical context and explaining how Isaiah’s words apply both to his own day and to future events.  The guide explores the Messianic significance of this specific prophecy about the Root of Jesse.  Let me tell you a bit of what it says here.

With biblical prophecy, it’s important always to determine first what the original message was for the original audience.  Only then can you understand any further Messianic or end-times implications.

The “shoot from the stump of Jesse” in this passage is originally a new king in the line of David, Hezekiah, who will be faithful to Yahweh and reverse the policy of his father Ahaz.  Ahaz appeased Assyria and even put up altars modeled after Assyrian ones.  But Hezekiah will trust Yahweh, refuse to serve Assyria as a vassal, and see Yahweh’s deliverance.  Then there will be peace, and just as God reached out his hand to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he will reach out “a second time” to bring home the “remnant,” Israelites who were carried off into Assyria as exiles or who fled to other countries to escape the Assyrians.  That’s the message for the original audience.

But Hezekiah is also a type of Christ, and what is said about him has Messianic overtones.  When Jesus comes to reign, there will be a similar gathering of the “remnant.”  But who will they be?  My understanding is that they are gathered from all the nations because they’re people from all the nations. This gathering brings together the “great multitude” described in Revelation, which comes “from every nation, tribe, people and language.”  In other words, under the New Covenant the “chosen people” become a multinational community.  As Paul writes in Galatians, “If you are in Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.”  (See the study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, session 19.)

The implications of this are that the 1948 formation of the state of Israel is most likely not what is envisioned and predicted in Isaiah’s oracle about the “Root of Jesse.”  So modern Israel does not enjoy any special privileges in the world. Rather, it is a nation-state that is responsible before God for conducting itself with justice and prudence like any other nation.

I’m glad you’re reading through the whole Bible!  That’s the best way to come to understand each individual part: by seeing where it fits within the whole.  Keep on reading!