The painting's subject comes from the Old Testament: the first book of Samuel, which describes the turning point in David's relationship with King Saul. The priest Ahimelech gives the sword of Goliath to the young David, who won it in battle. When King Saul learned that this symbol of power had been given to David, he had Ahimelech murdered.
The sleeve and headdress of the priest Ahimelech reveal scratches and uneven working of the pigment so it catches the light in vivid contrasting highlights. Aert de Gelder made these scratches with a paint knife or the end of a brush, which he often used to highlight the paint surface. De Gelder was a pupil of Rembrandt, and the influence of Rembrandt's late style is evident in his choice of half-length, life-size figures, muted colors, and expressive brushstrokes.