David and the Showbread

Greg Gwin

There are often questions raised about the incident where Jesus' disciples were chastised by the Pharisees for gathering corn on the Sabbath. The account goes like this:


"At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pick the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the Sabbath day. But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the showbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? ... if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless." (Matthew 12:1-7)

There are many, including some well known Bible commentators, who attempt to use this passage to teach "situation ethics." It is their view that under extreme circumstances it is allowable to set aside the specific commands of God. However, it is a misapplication to use this text in such a way. Note:

1) The action of the disciples was lawful. It was not stealing (Deut. 23:25) and it was not a type of work that was forbidden on the Sabbath day (Ex. 20:8-11). In fact, it should be observed that Jesus specifically said they were "guiltless" (vs. 7).

2) David's actions in the matter of the showbread were sinful. Jesus said that he did that which was "not lawful" (vs. 4). A careful reading of 1 Samuel 21 & 22 shows that David also lied in that episode and later repented of his sinful conduct.

With these truths clearly understood, then the question remains: Why did Jesus even mention David and the showbread? The reason is this: The Jews loved and honored the memory of David. They would never criticize his actions. Jesus was pointing out their inconsistency. They justified David in an obvious and blatant sin, and they condemned His disciples for doing something that was not a sin at all.

Clearly, this text can not be used to defend "situation ethics."