In 1 Samuel chapter 21 we have one of the most puzzling stories in the Old Testament. This is the one where David and his men come to Nob - which was apparently where the tabernacle had been set up in those days - and David asks Ahimelech the priest to give them some of the Bread of the Presence because they were hungry. The story is puzzling because we are left unsure as to who did the right thing here and who did the wrong thing. David is the 'good guy'; he's the hero is so many of these stories. Saul and his men are the 'bad guys.' And yet here David does something that is forbidden for him to do: he takes and eats the Holy Bread.
You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephahshall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile,on the table of pure goldbefore the LORD. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the LORD. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. Andit shall be for Aaron and his sons, andthey shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due. (Leviticus 24:5-9)
This bread was reserved only for Aaron and his sons (the family of the High Priest); it was not lawful for anyone else to partake of it. Jesus even points this out in Matthew 12:3-4: "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?"
So is what David did excusable? Is what Ahimelech did in giving the Bread to David and his men excusable? Many say yes. Even one of my great heroes, John Gill, says that pretty much anything is excusable when we're dealing with the preservation of life, and so of course this act is excusable. I have to take issue with that, though. Would it have likewise been excusable - it would still have been in the name of preservation of life - if David's men had not kept themselves morally pure on their journey? As I cited earlier, Jesus said that what they did was unlawful. The Law does not have some kind of "unless they're really hungry" loophole that suddenly makes everything okay. Therefore, I think we have no choice but to see this act as a violation of one of the things that God called "most holy" (Leviticus 24:9).
If that is the case, then what follows makes a good deal more sense. We are told that "a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before Yahweh. His name was Doeg the Edomite" (1 Samuel 21:7). Phrases like that always catch my attention. From a human standpoint, a real villain enters the story at this point. Here is the man who will rat out Ahimelech, telling Saul exactly what he did for David and his men. And when Saul declares that all of the priests shall be killed for helping his enemy, no one but Doeg the Edomite - this very villain - will lift his sword to carry out the death sentence. And yet we are told very clearly that this man was "detained before the LORD."
What could that phrase possibly mean? Since it was the Sabbath day, it could mean that Doeg was "detained" within a Sabbath-day's walk of the tabernacle, unable to travel any further until the following day. It could mean that he was there to fulfill some sort of vow and so could not leave until that was done. Regardless of why he was there, though, the fact remains that his detention was a part of God's plan.
There's a reason why God's Name is evoked in that statement: "detained before Yahweh". God had a purpose for his presence. Whatever else we may guess about Doeg and his business, we know this much: it was he who got the priests killed, and it happened by his hand. And so God was in the deaths of these priests. The text never goes so far to tell us that they died because they defiled the holy things of Yahweh, but it is certainly not a big stretch given similar stories in the Old Testament (Nadab and Abihu come to mind, as does Uzzah and the ark).
All of these stories of deaths surrounding the violation of God's holiness ought to leave us with a healthy and profound fear of misusing any of God's "holy things". This fear should really hit home for us in the area of worship. Aside from the holiness of His own Name - which is protected by one of the Ten Commandments - nothing else seems more jealously guarded by God than His formal worship (of which the Holy Bread was only one part). Oh, we must be so careful to worship our great God only in the ways that He has proscribed. He does not want our innovation (He showed that with Nadab and Abihu), but only our obedience. Let us strive to worship Him the way that He commands and leave all of our other ideas at the door.