David and the Showbread


Matthew 12:3-4 NIVHe answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.”

This particular scripture has always intrigued me, especially because it answers questions about the functionality of the Law and how David, seemingly got away with eating the hallowed bread that only priests were allowed to eat, as recorded in 1st Samuel.

So let me set the scene for you: prior to the response of Jesus to the Pharisees as noted in Matthew 12:3-4, the Pharisees had accused the disciples of Jesus of breaking the Law by picking some heads of grain and eating them as they walked through a grain field. (Matt 12:1) on the Sabbath. Ultimately the Pharisees were challenging Jesus about His adherence to the Law pertaining to the Sabbath because these were His disciples.

The Law, as you recall, had some pretty strict limitations on what could be done and what could not be done, on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:9-10) so what the Pharisees were inferring was that His disciples were “working” by picking these grains and eating them.

Jesus reminded the Pharisees of an event in the life of David (recorded in 1 Samuel 21:1-6), where he and others, while fleeing from king Saul, ate of the showbread, which divine law restricted to the priests (Leviticus 24:5-9). The priest had given David the old showbread that had been replaced by new showbread. According to the Law, only the priests were allowed to eat the old showbread after it was replaced with new.

Notice that Jesus stated that what David and his men had done was wrong, e.g. not lawful but that what his disciples had just done by picking and eating grains in the grain field was right or they were innocent (Matt 12:7). Obviously there is a greater truth being indicated here and this is indicated by Jesus when He also notes in Matt 12:5 that the priests who are “working” on the Sabbath are in essence breaking the Law yet they are deemed as innocent. And what is this greater truth? That God desires mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6). The principle that Jesus is drawing their attention to about the Law is that in cases of necessity (such as in the case of David), acts of mercy are preferred to ritual services.

The Pharisees jealously guarded their role as interpreters of the law, and vigorously resisted disagreement. But Jesus—the great Lawgiver in the flesh—knew that their reasoning was sometimes wrong. All of Jesus’ clashes with the scribes and Pharisees regarding the Sabbath were over demonstrable mistakes in their oral tradition about the Torah. In each case, Jesus went to Scripture to teach what was actually intended by a particular law, and in doing so affirmed and magnified the Sabbath commandment. Jesus never said it is permissible to break the law as it was given to Moses, and would never have done so Himself.

The disciples were not permitted by Jesus to break the law on this occasion (or any other) just because it was convenient (compare with Matthew 5:17-19). The Pharisees simply were wrong in their accusations. The only “law” that Jesus’ disciples broke was the Pharisaical interpretation of the law (their extensive tradition that interpreted the Torah, which seems to have been more sacred to the Pharisees than the law itself). In the Pharisees’ view, the disciples were guilty of threshing wheat! This nit-picking mentality could have made someone guilty of irrigating land had they inadvertently knocked off a few drops of dew while passing through the fields.

Jesus used the instruction of 1 Samuel 21 to get the Pharisees to recognize their insincerity, and to justify His disciples. David, a man about whom the Jews ever boasted, blatantly violated God’s law by eating the showbread, and yet the Pharisees justified him. On the other hand, Jesus’ disciples merely plucked some grain on the Sabbath while walking through a field, an act that the law did not forbid (Deuteronomy 23:25, and yet the Pharisees condemned them. Harvesting on the Sabbath is forbidden, minor preparation and serving of food is not.

The truth is, the Sabbath law “did not forbid work absolutely, but labor for worldly gain. Activity in the work of God was both allowed and commanded” Just as the priests who served God in the temple on the Sabbath were totally within the law, so likewise were Jesus’ disciples as they served the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8), Whose holiness was greater than that of the temple (Matthew 12:6).

Worthy is the Lamb! Blessings!


One comment

  1. This is really good, Bruce. Thank you. One cannot help but see the gerrymandering for religious control by creating and invoking the oral law, in that it took one of a special high religious class to be qualified to create it, in essence making their commentary of the Law equal to the Law. In fact, because it became easier to invoke and gain control through the oral tradition, it actually gained a higher place than the Law by its creators. One understands in part the possible need for better explaining the Torah and making it more conducive to specific cases, but the danger here is compromising and lessening the very foundation it is based on.

    Christians do this also, of course. Christians have created all manner of theological “oral” traditions later codified into the equivalent of spiritual law, through such written traditions, church bylaws, denominational confessions, and etc, which often oppose the Lord’s original teachings, change them, or compromise them to the tune of ineffectiveness. This entire process is dangerous regardless of its possibly good intentions. It is far better on the one hand to let the Torah stand alone as it should and also that the pure teachings of the Lord also stand alone as well. The Lord Jesus came to fulfill the Torah, not change or eliminate it, or write over it, and He did, perfectly. Thus, His teachings are higher than the Torah as it was originally given, which Paul explained very well on several occasions.

    Therefore, David was justified in eating the showbread because he answered to a higher law, as you stated, since the heart of the Lord is mercy. Those without mercy will use the law as a club to enforce it, which actually negates it, which, again, Paul taught about in his letters (for one example, see Romans 2).

    Blessings to you.


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