Poole's Outline of 1 Samuel 21:10-15: Feigning Madness
Verse 10: And David arose, and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish (or, Abimelech, Ps. 34 title) the king of Gath.
[He came to Achish, the king of Gath] This plan is full of temerity and audacity; to go to the Philistines, so many of whom he had afflicted with slaughters and indignities: and especially to go to the men of Gath, whose champion he had killed, even indeed with the sword of Goliath, which was known to all (Sanchez). But David is defended from suspicion of imprudence by pressing necessity. 1. He knew that death was altogether certain for himself from Saul: But he was not able to flee safely into other neighboring kingdoms, because at that time those had peace with the Israelites, and so would have delivered him to Saul (Tostatus): and in those there were many Israelites to whom David was known (Sanchez). 2. He was hoping that the Philistines would not recognize him; for they had not ever seen him except in the rush of battle, in which no one was able carefully to regard the face of another; and perhaps in battle David was having his head covered with armor (Tostatus): He had only been seen by the Philistines either in his pastoral habit formerly, or armed afterwards (Menochius). Neither were they readily believing that David, especially alone, would come to place himself in their hands. And, if Achish and his servants had most certainly recognized him as David, by no means would they have dismissed him (Tostatus). 3. David was able to hide the sword, lest the Gittites recognize it. 4. If anything adverse happened, David preferred to perish at the hands of Achish, than of Saul. See 1 Samuel 20:8 (Sanchez). 5. Achish was able to congratulate himself over the coming of David, and to attempt to make a friend of his enemy; since he had fled to him in straits. If it had happened so, David would appear to have saved himself by his own effort. But God willed to make His own work evident. Wherefore, instead of flatteries, he excites the anger of the King, etc. (Calvin). 6. Perhaps either by a divine instinct, or the Oracle brought forth by the Priest, he went to Gath (Menochius out of Salian). But it is possible, either that he did not consult God, or that God did not respond, as it appears from the outcome; and from 1 Samuel 22:5 (Sanchez). Achish was the proper name of the King; but he is called Abimelech in the title of Psalm 34, a common appellation of the Philistine kings (Junius, Piscator, Malvenda).
And David…fled, etc.: A strange action; but it must be considered, 1. That Saul’s rage was so great and implacable, his power also and diligence in hunting after him so great, that he despaired of escaping him any other way; and it is not strange if a desperate disease produceth a desperate remedy. 2. David might reasonably think, that being persecuted and banished by Saul, and the Israelites under his command, he should be welcome to the Philistines; who would be glad, not only to be freed from all those evils which he had from time to time done, and was likely further to do to them, but also to make him their friend, and oblige him by their kindness, and to make him the more odious and irreconcilable to Saul and the Israelites. Question: But why did he go to these, and not rather to some other neighbour nation? Answer: Because they were all at peace with Saul; and therefore would certainly have delivered him up, upon Saul’s demands.
Verse 11: And (Ps. 56 title) 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, (1 Sam. 18:7; 29:5; Ecclus. 47:6) Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?
[Surely this is not David, the King of the land?] Either, 1. King; that is, Captain of the land. For this word is sometimes taken improperly, as in Deuteronomy 33:5 (Grotius). King; that is, governor of the land, as in Genesis 36:31 (Malvenda out of Junius). A Synecdoche of species. Of that land, the neighboring, Judah (Piscator). Or, 2. King of this region? that is, to whom pertains the Kingdom of this region because of the defeat of Goliath. For, by this law was it fought, that the victor might possess the region of the conquered; that is to say, Since thy Kingdom appears to pertain to him, O Achish, why art thou admitting him? (Vatablus). Or, 3. he is that renowned David, and a second King of the Hebrews, as it were (Menochius); received by his people with royal triumph and applause, as if he were King od the land (Martyr); who, wherever he makes war, conquers and exercises mastery (Lapide); who is the leader of all wars against us (Tostatus). Or, 4. because word had spread that he had been anointed by Samuel (Lyra). This does not satisfy: For this was not known to Saul and the Israelites (much less to the Philistines); otherwise Saul would have killed Samuel (Tostatus). King; that is to say, who among the Israelites is now believed to be destined for their kingdom, because of so many heroic deeds (Osiander).
The king of the land, or, of this land, that is, of the land of Canaan. They call him king, either more generally for the governor, as that word is used Deuteronomy 33:5, for the most eminent captain and commander, and, as it were, the king of the Israelitish armies; or rather, more specially, the king, to wit, the king elect, the person designed to be king; for by this time the fame of Saul’s rejection, and David’s destination to the kingdom, was got abroad among the Israelites, and from them probably to the Philistines’ ears. Did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands? and therefore consider what to do; and now thine and our great enemy is in thy hand, be sure thou never let him go alive.
Verse 12: And David (Luke 2:19) laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath.
[And he was alarmed] Because, while he was thinking himself to be able escape notice unrecognized, his plan was not succeeding (Menochius).
And was sore afraid, etc.: Lest either their revenge or policy should prompt them to kill him.
Verse 13: And (Ps. 34 title) he changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled (or, made marks) on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard.
[And he changed his countenance, וַיְשַׁנּ֤וֹ אֶת־טַעְמוֹ֙] And he changed that his sense (Vatablus, Montanus). The relative before the antecedent, in the place of, that sense of his, or mind of his; that is, he feigned madness (Vatablus). The relative suffix here is superfluous, as in Exodus 2:6, וַתִּרְאֵ֣הוּ אֶת־הַיֶּ֔לֶד, and she saw him, the child (Glassius’ “Grammar” 217). He changed his reasoning (Jonathan). His taste (Syriac), that is, prudence; he showed himself to be imprudent, and not to taste or have sense (Malvenda). His demeanor (Tigurinus). Perhaps he put on a ridiculous and mad habit, as fools are wont to do (Malvenda). Speech (Pagnine), or, utterance (Munster), especially with respect to pronunciation and accent, lest he appear a Jew (Serarius). His carriage (Castalio, Grotius, Strigelius). His appearance, that is, carriage, words, and whatever is able to occur to the senses of men (Junius, similarly Martyr). A term transferred from the sense of taste to sight, and hearing, and if there are any other senses, whereby man is able to inspect man (Junius). Hebrew: taste, whereby men give some idea of themselves, so that it might be able to be understood of what sort they are: just as from smell and taste we are wont to discern food (Martyr). His face; a Metaphor. For, as agreeable foods are accepted, and tasteless rejected: so one of a firm and grave countenance is held as accepted, but one presenting the face of a foolish man is rejected (Piscator). He changed the expression of his mouth and face, by twisting, contracting, opening that, etc. (Lapide).
His behaviour; his speech and gesture; and, it may be, his habit also.
[He was collapsing: Just like an Epileptic (Lyra): But from the Hebrew, Chaldean, and Greek, it is to be explained from a slipping of the mind (Serarius), וַיִּתְהֹלֵל] And he was made senseless (Jonathan); he rendered himself vile (Syriac); he feigned himself mad (Grotius, Montanus, thus Tigurinus); he was acting insane (Junius and Tremellius, similarly Vatablus). He feigned stupidity (Vatablus, similarly Munster, Osiander).
[Into their hands] That is, beset by them (Grotius). While he was in their power, Psalm 34; 56 (Junius). He feigns insanity; that is, 1. because the insane appear more deserving of pity than punishment. 2. Lest they should think him to be David, concerning whose virtue and prudence they had heard so many things (Martyr).
Feigned himself mad; which they might the more easily believe, partly because of the disappointment of his great hopes, and his extreme danger and trouble from Saul, which might well make him mad; and partly because he had put himself into their hands, which they supposed none but a fool or a madman would have done. And David counterfeited this madness, that he might procure both their pity and their contempt; that they being freed from jealousies and fears of future mischief from David, and from his wise conduct, of which they had sad experience, might be secure of him, and so spare him. In their hands, that is, whilst he was in their power, and before them.
[And he was dashing against the doors of the gate, וַיְתָו֙ עַל־דַּלְת֣וֹת הַשַּׁ֔עַר] He was marking (was drawing [Pagnine], was painting [Grotius out of Rabbi Salomon], made lines [Jonathan], scratched with his nails [Tigurinus]) upon the doors of the gate (Montanus) [similarly nearly all interpreters]. He was marking the double doors of the gate (Junius and Tremellius), after the manner of fools (Vatablus, Estius).
[And his spittle was flowing down into his beard] See Mark 9:18, 20; Luke 9:39, and what things are said in that place (Grotius).
Verse 14: Then said Achish unto his servants, Lo, ye see the man is mad (or, playeth the mad man): wherefore then have ye brought him to me?
Ye see the man is mad; and so were Achish and his men too, to be so soon cheated. But this must be ascribed to the wise and powerful providence of God, who, in answer to David’s prayer now made, which is recorded Psalm 34; 56, did infatuate them, as he hath done many others in like cases. Wherefore then have ye brought him to me? what service can I expect from him? or what cause have I to fear him?
Verse 15: Have I need of mad men, that ye have brought this fellow to play the mad man in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?
[Are mad men wanting to us? חֲסַ֤ר מְשֻׁגָּעִים֙ אָ֔נִי] Do I lack insane men? (Pagnine, similarly Montanus, Septuagint, Jonathan, Munster, Tigurinus). Are mad men wanting to us, or idiots in the Palace? (Osiander). There are enough foolish men in Philistia, and it is not necessary to admit fools from abroad (Sanchez). Am I mad? (Arabic), or devoid of sense? (Syraic).
Have I need of mad men? etc.: I need wise men, not such fools or madmen as this is. I will not have my court disgraced with entertaining such fellows.
[That ye have brough this man, that he might rave with me present,לְהִשְׁתַּגֵּ֖עַ עָלָ֑י] That he might act insane before me (Pagnine, thus Munster), in my presence (Junius and Tremellius), upon me (Montanus), unto me (Syriac, Arabic).
[Shall this man enter my house?] David had not rashly intruded into the palace, but had presented himself to one of the nobles, as a common soldier ready to fight for the king. Thus was he introduced into the palace (Menochius). That is to say, Keep this man at a distance, for he is not worthy to enter into my palace (Vatablus). This feigning of madness was not vain, which God was not willing to be without effect (Sanchez). Thus Achish thinks in his heart, these my servants err greatly. For, that man is not David, but some madman of the gutter. Thus God draws and turns the hearts of kings. God is able to save through wisdom, indeed, through madness, through infirmity, etc. Moreover, to feign foolishness in this place, says he, is the highest prudence. So did Ulysses, lest he should be compelled to serve as a soldier; and Brutus, while he was pondering the liberation of his country (Martyr); and Solon, so that he might say those things that were a capital offense to say (Lapide). Question: Whether David sinned in feigning himself mad? Response 1: Some answer in the affirmative, because the pretense was a lie not of word, but of fact (certain interpreters in Lapide). But surely this pretense was not a lie, but only silence or dissimulation of the truth for a just cause. Of which sort made use Joshua, Joshua 8; Gideon, Judges 7:20; and Samuel, 1 Samuel 16 (Lapide). Pretense of this sort was not unlawful, since it was done to his advantage without the harming of another (Tostatus). Response 2: Others answer in the negative (thus Lapide, Tostatus, Osiander): because the greatest necessity drove him to it: and at that time he composed two most excellent Psalms, namely, Psalm 34 and 56 (Osiander). If this deception flowed from excessive fear and distrust, it is not able not to be blamed; but, if it had faith conjoined (as it appears from the Psalms cited), I do not see why it ought not to be commended. It is not proper for us to imitate the deceit of David: but rather to consider this, that he attributed his salvation, not to his pretense, but to the mercy of God (Martyr).
 Hebrew: וַיָּ֣קָם דָּוִ֔ד וַיִּבְרַ֥ח בַּיּוֹם־הַה֖וּא מִפְּנֵ֣י שָׁא֑וּל וַיָּבֹ֕א אֶל־אָכִ֖ישׁ מֶ֥לֶךְ גַּֽת׃  Hebrew: וַיֹּ֙אמְר֜וּ עַבְדֵ֤י אָכִישׁ֙ אֵלָ֔יו הֲלוֹא־זֶ֥ה דָוִ֖ד מֶ֣לֶךְ הָאָ֑רֶץ הֲל֣וֹא לָזֶ֗ה יַעֲנ֤וּ בַמְּחֹלוֹת֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר הִכָּ֤ה שָׁאוּל֙ בַּאֲלָפָ֔ו וְדָוִ֖ד בְּרִבְבֹתָֽו׃  Ecclesiasticus 47:6: “So the people honoured him with ten thousands, and praised him in the blessings of the Lord, in that he gave him a crown of glory.”  Hebrew: וַיָּ֧שֶׂם דָּוִ֛ד אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה בִּלְבָב֑וֹ וַיִּרָ֣א מְאֹ֔ד מִפְּנֵ֖י אָכִ֥ישׁ מֶֽלֶךְ־גַּֽת׃  Hebrew: וַיְשַׁנּ֤וֹ אֶת־טַעְמוֹ֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיהֶ֔ם וַיִּתְהֹלֵ֖ל בְּיָדָ֑ם וַיְתָו֙ עַל־דַּלְת֣וֹת הַשַּׁ֔עַר וַיּ֥וֹרֶד רִיר֖וֹ אֶל־זְקָנֽוֹ׃  Hebrew: וַיְתָו. טַעַם signifies taste, judgment, sense. תָּוָה signifies to make a mark.  Hebrew: מִשְׁתַּגֵּעַ.  Hebrew: חֲסַ֤ר מְשֻׁגָּעִים֙ אָ֔נִי כִּי־הֲבֵאתֶ֣ם אֶת־זֶ֔ה לְהִשְׁתַּגֵּ֖עַ עָלָ֑י הֲזֶ֖ה יָב֥וֹא אֶל־בֵּיתִֽי׃  See Proverbs 21:1.  Hyginus’ Fabulæ 95; Apollodorus’ Epitome 3:7. In Greek mythology, Odysseus feigns madness by sowing his field with salt and plowing with an ox and donkey together, in order to avoid joining Menelaus’ war against Troy. Palamedes places Odysseus’ infant son in front of the plow; Odysseus’ stratagem is exposed when he swerves to avoid his child.  Livy’s Ab Orbe Condita 1:56. Lucius Junius Brutus (sixth century BC) was a founder of the Roman Republic and one of its first consuls. He was involved in the expulsion of the last Roman King, his uncle, Tarquinius Superbus. It is said that Brutus feigned idiocy, while he was plotting Tarquinius’ overthrow, so that the King would not recognize him as a threat.  Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 1:1. Solon (c. 638-558 BC) was one of the Seven Wise men of Greece, and is remembered as one of the great Athenian lawmakers. When the island of Salamis was lost to the Megarians, a law was passed, forbidding the mention of the loss of the island. Solon feigned madness, reciting a provocative poem about the the failure. He was appointed to recover the island, and succeeded.