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PSALM 34 AND 1SAMUEL 21:10-22:1

by Peter Forbes


On reading Psalm 34 we learn that it was prompted by an historical event in the life of David, for we read [Psalm 34:1] "A Psalm of David, when he changed his behaviour before Abimelech; who drove him away, and he departed."

Our first question. 'Can we find an account of this event in the historical books dealing with David's life?' We should ask this question before reading the rest of the Psalm.

A Bible with marginal references will probably direct our attention to 1 Samuel 21:10. On reading [1 Samuel 21:10] "And David arose, and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath" we learn that whilst in the Psalm David speaks of "Abimelech" the historical account speaks of "Achish".

Our Second question may be 'Is the Psalm related to this event?' For even though the marginal reference takes us to 1Samuel 21 the difference in name might indicate that the historical account is speaking of a different event to the Psalm. We should note the difference and not simply assume that our marginal reference is correct.

The only way in which we can answer this question is to review the context of the Samuel account and see whether it fits with the title of the Psalm which provides us with our link into the historical books.

The language of 1Samuel 21:10 and Psalm 34 match precisely in this element "he changed his behaviour before". Further this phrase is not found anywhere else in the Bible - this was discovered using the Online Bible's search phrase facility.

So we might ask the question 'Why speak of Achish as Abimelech?'

A search for the name 'Achish' reveals that it is found 20 times in Scripture. All but two of them relate to the two different occasions when David went to the Philistines. The other two relate to an event in the early reign of Solomon.

Here is the result of the search.

1 Samuel 21:10,11,12,14 27:2,3,5,6,9,10,12 28:1,2 29:2,3,6,8,9 18
1 Kings 2:39,40 2
Total 20

Now what about 'Abimelech'

Genesis 20:2,3,4,8,9,10,14,15,17,18 21:22,25,26,27,29,32 26:1,8,9 26:10,11,16,26 23
Judges 8:31 9:1,3,4,6,16,18,19,20,21,22,23,24,25,27,28,29,31,34,35 9:38,39,40,41,42,44,45,47,48,49,50,52,53,55,56 10:1 36
Psalm 34:1 1
2 Samuel 11:21 1
1 Chronicles 18:16 1
Total 62

It can be seen that the preponderance of occasions are in the life of Abraham [Genesis 20-21] and Isaac [Genesis 26]. A further block [36 in Judges 9] speak of the son of Jerubbaal - who is Gideon [Judges 7:1]. The reference in 2 Samuel 11 is a references to the man spoken of in Judges. It is a comment about an historical event rather than a reference to an individual living at the time the comment was made. The reference in Chronicles is to "Abimelech the son of Abiathar the priest" so he is clearly not related to "Abimelech / Achish" of the time of David.

Question Did one man named "Abimelech" live through the time of Abraham where he is mentioned in Genesis 20 and continue on to live in the time of Isaac in Genesis 26?

We might question "How many years are there between Genesis 20 and Genesis 26?"

Let us review what we know about the time.

1] Isaac had not been born in Genesis 20.

2] Abraham was about 100 when Isaac was born [Genesis 17:17]

3] Abraham had died at the age of 175 by the time of Genesis 26 [Genesis 25:7]

4] Some time for God to bless Isaac after the death of Abraham has to elapse [Genesis 25:11].

However we cannot come to a certain conclusion because there is not enough information given to us in the text. It is important to realise that we are not always able to answer the questions we ask, even though we feel that the answer would be useful. Also we must be aware that we will not even answer all the questions that have answers in Scripture. We should be willing to talk to others about our questions and discoveries in order to broaden our understanding of Scripture.

However it is difficult to think that the reference is to one person. But when we see that it also occurs in the time of the Judges and then is still in around in the time of David we have to conclude that it was a name given to more than one person.

So we ask 'Is there any significance in the meaning of the name?'

Achish was able to say 'my father is king' thus demonstrating that his kingship was one which was passed from father to son rather than being a consequence of his own military conquests. Therefore Abimelech is a title - not a proper name. Like Pharaoh, Abimelech is a dynastic title.

We conclude, therefore, that the man who David 'changed his behaviour' before had the name 'Achish' but his title was 'Abimelech'.

Having established that Psalm 34 is speaking of the events of 1 Samuel 21:10 we have to ask another question.

Question 'When and why did David flee to Abimelech?'

This question is answered by looking at the context in the Samuel account. Summarised it is as follows.

David was fleeing from Saul who wanted to kill him 1 Samuel 19:1, 10, 12, 20 20:1, 30-31 21:10.

However when David was before Achish [1 Samuel 21:11] "the servants of Achish said unto him, Is not this David the king of the land? did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?"

David had fled to the Philistines [1 Samuel 21:10] "for fear of Saul" and on hearing the Philistines speak of his valour [1 Samuel 21:12} "David laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath."


The Psalm was written by a man who was afraid of Saul who wanted to kill him. He went to Achish to escape from Saul and found himself in another dangerous situation. One might say that he was more ask risk of losing his life by the hand of the Philistines than he was whilst he was fleeing from Saul in the land of Israel.

David had jumped 'out of the frying pan into the fire'.

How Is This Context Reflected In The Psalm?

Reading the Psalm we notice that David speaks of deliverance in verses 4, 6, 7, 15, 17, 19, 22

We notice, against the background of David fearing both Saul and Achish, that David speaks of 'fear' in the Psalm in verse 9. However, on this occasion it is "the fear of the Lord'.

David tells us that when he was before Achish he prayed for he says v 6 "this poor man cried, and the Lord heard".

Context [Again]

Reading on from the event we are considering we notice that when David fled from before Achish he [1 Samuel 22:1] "escaped to the cave of Adullam" He was not alone there for [1 Samuel 22:2] "And every one that was in distress, and every one that was in debt, and every one that was discontented, gathered themselves unto him; and he became a captain over them: and there were with him about four hundred men."

The Psalm informs us that David used his experience before Achish to instruct those "four hundred me" for he said [Psalm 34:11] "Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the LORD."

As an aside there are at least two other Psalms that were written as a consequence of the time that David was in the cave at Adullam. Psalms 57, 142. We learn this from the titles of those Psalms. Again this search was undertaken using the Online Bible. Of course there may well be other Psalms from the same time. However simply looking at the titles, as we did with Psalm 34, provides us with a quick way of fitting the Psalm into history.

For Our Learning

It has already been stated that we must see Scripture as relevant to our own lives. If we cannot learn from David's experience all we have is an interesting story.

So we question again; 'Can I identify with David at this time?'

To do this we have to enter into David's mind and understand what he did and why.

David feared for his life and so planned to sort out the problem for himself. He thought that going to the Philistines was the best way to deal with Saul's threat and plans. However it was a foolish move.

If we had been able to discuss with David when he was planning to go to Achish he would have been able to provide an explanation for his plan which satisfied him. To David at the time it would have been the most obvious thing to do. It was only when David was before Achish that he realised the folly of his action.

When he was before Achish he certainly did change his behaviour. He stopped relying on his own skills of evasion and placed his trust in his God. Therefore his God delivered him out of the compromised situation that he had put himself in.

Whenever we plan to deal with a problem in our life we can find Psalm 34 and its' historical context, helpful.

David used his experience to teach the four hundred men in the cave "the fear of the Lord". The Psalm and its' origin are for our instruction. The instruction is most powerful when we appreciate what prompted David to write.

Bible Echoes

Making Scripture relevant in our own lives is not a matter of reading the text in context and thinking how it might speak of us. We are not left to work out this for ourselves. We have to realise that Scripture actually does this for us giving us patterns which we can copy in our own studies.

Consider the way in which the Psalm is quoted in the New Testament.

8 O taste and see that the LORD is good: 1 Peter 2:3 'taste'

12 What man is he that desireth life, and loveth many days, that he may 1 Peter 3:10-12

see good?

13 Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile. 1 Peter 2:1 'guile'

14 Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.

15 The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry.

We are exhorted to [1 Peter 2:1] "lay aside ... guile", to [1 Peter 2:3] "taste " God's goodness. Peter then develops an extensive argument about lifestyle by quoting four verses from the Psalm.

Peter is using David's instruction to others which is based on the events recorded in 1 Samuel 21:10-15 as the basis for his instruction to believers in the first century.

Peter, if we needed it, provides a clear Scriptural argument which demonstrates that Old Testament events have a relevance to us in our lives today.

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