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Leading Question: Does one last mistake, overshadow forever a life that otherwise was marked by faithfulness?

Key Passages:

  • 1 Samuel 21:1-9, Ahimelech, Abiathar’s father, gives holy bread to David
  • 1 Samuel 22, Abiathar escapes the massacre of the priests at Nob
  • 1 Samuel 23:6-14, Abiathar’s ephod guides David
  • 2 Samuel 15-17, Undercover agent for David during Absalom’s rebellion
  • 1 Kings 1-2, Support for Solomon’s rival, and a prophesied demise


1. Faithful Abiathar. A faithful servant of David through his life, Abiathar lost his standing by backing the wrong candidate to succeed David. How should we judge the value of a man’s life, by what comes last or by what is enduring? Abiathar’s life may be short on “inspirational” value but it does provide the opportunity to address two much larger and more complex issues, namely, how we deal with truth and how we understand prophetic predictions. Two articles that address these issues are included as Appendices to this lesson, and are linked to below:

Appendix A, on truth-telling: Commentary on the ninth command, Alden Thompson, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” Signs of the Times, November 1988, 20-22. Published as “When the Truth Is a Lie,” in Russell Holt, ed., Lyrics of Love: God’s Top Ten. Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1988, 79-86.

Appendix B, on conditional prophecy: Commentary on conditional prophecy (Jeremiah 26), Alden Thompson, “Who Can Change the Mind of God?” Signs of the Times, Feb. 1992, 25-27.

2. Falsehoods: David’s lies to Ahimelech led to the massacre of a entire community of priests at Nob. Yet in the Gospels, Jesus casts David’s emergency eating of the shewbread in a positive light. There Jesus is defending a more open attitude toward Sabbath activities. Interestingly enough Mark’s account refers to Abiathar as high priest (Mark 2:26) whereas 1 Samuel identifies Ahimelech as high priest [cf. Mat 12:1-8//Mark 2:23-28//Luke 6:1-5]. In 2 Samuel 15-17, Abiathar contributed significantly to the downfall of Absalom by deliberately misleading him. Is that ironic in view of the fact that Abiathar’s whole family was killed at Nob because of David’s deception? Is one’s attitude toward the telling of truth inherited? When is it appropriate to shade the truth? In defense of our leader? In defense of the ultimate truth? Here is Ellen White’s comment on the web of deception to which Abiathar (and Hushai) contributed that led to Absalom’s downfall.

“And David said, O Lord, I pray Thee, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.” Upon reaching the top of the mount, the king bowed in prayer, casting upon God the burden of his soul and humbly supplicating divine mercy. His prayer seemed to be at once answered. Hushai the Archite, a wise and able counselor, who had proved himself a faithful friend to David, now came to him with his robes rent and with earth upon his head, to cast in his fortunes with the dethroned and fugitive king. David saw, as by a divine enlightenment, that this man, faithful and truehearted, was the one needed to serve the interests of the king in the councils at the capital. At David”s request Hushai returned to Jerusalem to offer his services to Absalom and defeat the crafty counsel of Ahithophel. – PP 735.4

The actual actual wording of the 9th command may be crucial: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16). Most of the Old Testament narratives that seem to give approval to deception are those which involve the response to an evil tyrant who is out to destroy innocent people. These examples can be cited:

  1. The midwives to Pharaoh: Exod. 1:17-20.
  2. Samuel to Saul (at God’s direction): 1 Sam 16:1-3.
  3. Hushai and Abiathar to Absalom: 2 Samuel 15-17.

Deuteronomy 19:19 clearly defines the nature of the command in its description of the penalty, a penalty that underscores the aspect of self-interest at the expense of another: “You shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other.”

3. The prophesied demise of Eli’s house. When Solomon demoted Abiathar, as described in 1 Kings 2:13-27, the Bible writer interprets the demotion as the fulfillment of prophecy against the house of Eli (1 Kings 2:27). Yet other passages in Scripture clearly indicate the conditional nature of prophecy, even ones that include the word “forever” (in English translations). In Psalm 89 the psalmist celebrates God’s promise that the royal line would continue “forever” (Psalms 89:36-37), then complains bitterly that God has broken his promise (Psalms 89:38ff). Jeremiah 26 provides an impressive list of illustrations that help define the biblical understanding of conditional prophecy. The book of Jonah is also part of the evidence, perhaps one of the best known illustrations of conditional prophecy.

One of the clearest illustrations, however, is God’s promise to – and subsequent rejection of – the house of Eli. When the messenger confronts Eli with the bad news, he notes that God had promised an enduring line: “I promised that your family and the family of your ancestor should go in and out before me forever” (v. 30). Immediately following, however, comes the huge “but”! Then, as the messenger continues his projection into the future he declares that God has a new plan: “I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed one forever” (vs. 35).

In short, “forever” doesn’t mean “forever.” Ellen White’s comment, growing out of her understanding of the Great Disappointment is an important one:

The angels of God in their messages to men represent time as very short. Thus it has always been presented to me. It is true that time has continued longer than we expected in the early days of this message. Our Saviour did not appear as soon as we hoped. But has the Word of the Lord failed? Never! It should be remembered that the promises and the threatenings of God are alike conditional. – MS 4, 1883, 1SM 73 [Evangelism, 695]

4. On balance. Abiathar is clearly a background character in the story of David. And yet his story forces us to come to grips with two complex issues: Truth telling and the nature of Prophecy. On balance, what would you tell your children about Abiathar?

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