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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 20

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verses 1-3


“Then David fled from Nairoth in Ramah, and came and said before Jonathan, “What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin before your father that he seeks my life”? And he said to him, “Far from it! You shall not die. Behold, my father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me; and why should my father hide this from me? It is not so.” But David replied, “Your father knows well that I have found favor in your eyes; and he thinks, `Let not Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved.’ But truly, as the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death.”

It is a mystery to this writer why certain critical commentators reject this chapter as “unhistorical,”(F1) declaring that, “It cannot be reconciled with the story of Michal… It is hard to see where this incident can be made to fit in.”(F2)

All such “difficulties” in the acceptance of this chapter are due to the failure of writers to understand the situation. Note the following:

(1) David was the son-in-law of King Saul, having recently married his daughter Michal.

(2) David was an honored member of the king’s court and, at this point in time, he had not been formally expelled.

(3) He was even expected to sit at the king’s table in the approaching feast of the new moon.

(4) The king had recently sworn in a solemn oath that David should not die.

(5) David was uncertain whether he was indeed committed to life as a fugitive and an outlaw, or if Saul’s violent attempt to take his life might be attributed to a sudden fit of madness, and from which a reconciliation through the aid of Jonathan might be arranged, as upon a similar previous occasion.

(6) Besides all this, a visitation from God himself had frustrated Saul’s expedition to Nairoth. That visitation had overtones of prophecy connected with it; and, near the beginning of Saul’s career, such an experience had resulted in Saul’s being turned, “into another man” (1 Samuel 10:6). David had every right to hope that a similar change in Saul’s life might have been effected by this new prophetic experience.

(7) “David is still a court member and would be acting very improperly if he absented himself at the approaching festival without permission.”(F3)

(8) Finally, the loving arms of his wife Michal awaited him in their home on the city wall.

Any writer who finds it “difficult” to understand why David would have returned to Gibeah in the light of these circumstances has simply failed to read his Bible.

“He (David) fled from Nairoth” “While Saul lay bound by his trance at Nairoth, David, escaped to the court and got to speak with Jonathan.”(F4)

“What have I done? What is my guilt? What is my sin?” Saul had made no formal charge whatever against David; he had given no reason whatever to support his reasons for trying to kill David; and it was most natural that, in this circumstance, David should have attempted to find out what lay behind Saul’s violent behavior.

“Far from it!… It is not so” Jonathan simply could not believe that his father was trying to kill David after that solemn oath which the king had sworn that David should not die (1 Samuel 19:6). As one of the king’s chief advisers, Jonathan felt sure that he would have been informed of any such intention on the part of his father.

“There is but a step between me and death” David reinforced his words with a double oath, and provided Jonathan with the real reason why he had not been taken into the king’s confidence in the matter of his decision to kill David. That reason was the king’s knowledge that Jonathan, through his friendship for David, would not have approved of it.

Verses 4-11


“Then said Jonathan to David, “Whatever you say, I will do for you.” David said to Jonathan, “Behold, tomorrow is the new moon, and I should not fail to sit at table with the king; but let me go, that I may hide myself in the field till the third day at evening. If your father misses me at all, then say, `David earnestly asked leave of me to run to Bethlehem his city; for there is a yearly sacrifice there for all the family.’ If he says, `Good? it will be well with your servant; but if he is angry, then know that evil is determined by him. Therefore deal kindly with your servant, for you have brought your servant into a sacred covenant with you. But if there is guilt in me, slay me yourself; for why should you bring me to your father”? And Jonathan said, “Far be it from you. If I knew that it was determined by my father that evil should come upon you, would I not tell you”? Then said David to Jonathan, “Who will tell me if your father answers you roughly”? And Jonathan said to David, “Come let us go out into the field.” So they both went out into the field.”

“Whatever you say, I will do for you” Jonathan reluctantly accepted David’s word and offered to help in any way possible. David at once responded with a plan to ascertain the real situation between himself and Saul.

“Tomorrow is the new moon, and I should not fail to sit at the table with the king” The Jews, and many other ancient peoples, celebrated a feast of the new moon. Numbers 10:10 and Numbers 28:11-15 give the Mosaic instructions regarding that festival. Apparently, Saul used the occasion for a meeting of important members of his government. David was obligated to be there.

“If there is guilt in me, slay me yourself” David’s word here meant that if Jonathan knew of any sin, guilt, or fault whatever on David’s part that could possibly justify his execution, then David requests that Jonathan himself slay David rather than turning him over to the king.

“For you brought your servant into a sacred covenant with you” Jonathan himself had taken the lead in forming that sacred covenant with David.

“Who will tell me if your father answers you roughly?” The private meeting between David and Jonathan here was possible only because Saul had not yet returned to his court from Ramah. The problem David mentioned here was simply that of how the result of the proposed test of Saul’s attitude could be communicated to David when Saul got back in town. Jonathan had the answer; and made an immediate response.

“Come let us go out into the field. And so they both went out into the field.” Critics affirm here that, “Jonathan’s proposition that they should go out into the field where they would be free from observation contradicts the intent of the main narrative, namely, that it would be dangerous for them to be seen together going into the field.”(F5) This is totally in error. The author of it simply forgot, or never did understand, that Saul was not in town when this interview occurred. He had not yet recovered his clothes and returned from Ramah!

As Willis noted, “These events (of 1 Samuel 19-20) transpired over a relatively brief period, following the ostensible reconciliation between Saul and David in 1 Samuel 19:7.”(F6) This explains why Jonathan was slow to believe that David was in any danger. There was also another factor in Jonathan’s incredulity regarding his father. “Filial attachment naturally blinded the prince to defects in the parental character.”(F7) “He also believed that his father would honor his oath that David should not be put to death.”(F8)

This trip of David to Saul’s court in Gibeah was exceedingly dangerous; but in the circumstances it was absolutely necessary. “Saul’s casting his spear at David (19:10) was during a state of madness in which Saul was not master of himself; and it could not be inferred with certainty that Saul would still plot against David’s life.”(F9)

Verses 12-17


“And Jonathan said to David, “The Lord, the God of Israel, be witness! When I have sounded my father, about this time tomorrow, or the third day, behold, if he is well disposed toward David, shall I not then send and disclose it to you? But should it please my father to do you harm, the Lord do so to Jonathan and more also, if I do not disclose it to you and send you away, that you may go in safety. May the Lord be with you, as he has been with my father. If I am still alive, show me the loyal love of the Lord, that I may not die. And do not cut off your loyalty to my house forever. When the Lord cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth, let not the name of Jonathan be cut off from the house of David. And may the Lord take vengeance on David’s enemies.” And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own soul.”

It appears that this appeal by Jonathan to David was made during their journey together “into the field.” There was a dreadful premonition on Jonathan’s part that Saul’s enmity against David would terminate in Saul’s being “cut off from the face of the earth.” Jonathan exacted from David a solemn oath that, “after Jonathan’s death,” and after David’s coming to the throne, that David would remember the house of Jonathan with kindness. David honored his promise here as revealed in 2 Samuel 21:17.

“If I am still alive, show me the loyal love of the Lord, that I may not die” In these words it is clear that Jonathan recognized the grave danger to himself when God would take vengeance upon all of David’s enemies. Jonathan, through filial loyalty, would not desert his father even when that inevitable day of reckoning would come.

Verses 18-23


“Then Jonathan said to him, “Tomorrow is the new moon; and you will be missed, because your seat will be empty. And on the third day you will be greatly missed; then go to the place where you hid yourself when the matter was in hand, and remain beside yonder stone heap. And I will shoot three arrows to the side of it, as though I shot at a mark. And behold, I will send the lad, saying, `Look, the arrows are on this side of you, take them,’ then you are to come, for, as the Lord lives, it is safe for you and there is no danger. But if l say to the youth, `Look, the arrows are beyond you,’ then go, for the Lord has sent you away. And as for the matter of which you and I have spoken, behold, the Lord is between you and me forever.”

There is nothing here that demands any special comment. The signal by which David would know whether or not he was an outlaw condemned to flee from the wrath of the king, or if a reconciliation could be brought about - that signal was clear enough. It would turn upon Jonathan’s words to the lad who would be assigned to chase his arrows.

“On the third day” This refers to the third day of the feast. The first day of the feast, David would be missed; but the real test would come if he missed the second day of the feast. The feast was apparently a night affair, because it was “in the morning” (1 Samuel 20:35) of that third day (following the second of the feast) that Jonathan would give the pre-arranged signal to David.

“Go to the place where you hid yourself when the matter was in hand” This is a reference to that occasion when Jonathan had successfully arranged a reconciliation.

“Remain beside yonder stone heap” F. C. Cook wrote that, “This hiding place was either a natural cavernous rock, or some ruin of an ancient building, especially suited for a hiding place.”(F10)

Verses 24-25


“So David hid himself in the field; and when the new moon came, the king sat down to eat food. The king sat upon his seat as at other times, upon the seat by the wall; Jonathan sat opposite, and Abner sat by Saul’s side, but David’s place was empty.”

David’s absence on the first day was not considered sufficiently important by the king to elicit any inquiry from him.

Verses 26-29


“Yet Saul did not say anything that day; for he thought, “Something has befallen him; he is not clean, surely he is not clean. But on the second day, the morrow after the new moon, David’s place was empty, and Saul said to Jonathan his son. “Why has not the son of Jesse come to the meal, either yesterday or today”? Jonathan answered Saul, “David earnestly asked leave of me to go to Bethlehem; he said, `Let me go; for our family holds a sacrifice in the city, and my brother has commanded me to be there. So now, if I have found favor in your eyes, let me go away, and see my brothers.’ For this reason he has not come to the king’s table.”

Saul had, at this time, become very suspicious and critical of his son Jonathan, especially regarding his friendship for David. One may wonder if some tattle tale at Saul’s court, who perhaps had seen David and Jonathan together “in the field,” had told Saul of it. At any rate, Saul demanded from Jonathan a reason for David’s absence.

Verses 30-34


“Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said to him, “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Therefore send and fetch him to me, for he shall surely die.” Then Jonathan answered Saul his father, “Why should he be put to death? What has he done”? But Saul cast his spear at him to smite him; so Jonathan knew that his father was determined to put David to death. And Jonathan rose from the table in fierce anger and ate no food the second day of the month, for he was grieved for David, because his father had disgraced him.”

“You son of a perverse and rebellious woman” This vile slur cast upon Jonathan was the ancient equivalent of the vulgar present-day insult, “You son-of-a-bitch.” “These words possibly meant that Jonathan was born of a prostitute.”(F11) From the most ancient times, it has been customary to revile a person by slandering or belittling his ancestors. It became perfectly clear to all present, when Saul thus addressed Jonathan, that Saul would not only kill David if possible, but anyone else who stood between him and the achievement of his fiendish purpose.

“The shame of your mother’s nakedness” In these words, Saul recognized the prevalent Oriental custom of those times that gave all of a deposed king’s wives and concubines to his successor. Saul meant by this that Jonathan’s mother, “Would become the wife of the new king.”(F12) Second Samuel has this statement from the prophet Nathan in his rebuke of David for his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband:

“Thus saith the Lord… I anointed you king… I delivered you from Saul… I gave you your masters house… and your master’s wives into your bosom” (2 Samuel 12:8).

“Neither you nor your kingdom shall be established” From this it is clear that Saul did not believe the word of the prophet Samuel who had told him long previously that his kingdom would not continue. In this unbelief of God’s prophet, the sin of Saul was approaching its climax. He was in this purpose the avowed enemy, not only of David, but of God Himself. He would continue to be king, so he thought, in spite of the will of God; and here it appears that he expected Jonathan to succeed him and continue his dynasty.

Verses 35-42


“In the morning Jonathan went out into the field to the appointment with David, and with him a little lad. And he said to his lad, “Run and find the arrows which I shoot.” As the lad ran, he shot an arrow beyond him. And when the lad came to the place of the arrow which Jonathan had shot, Jonathan called after the lad and said, “Is not the arrow beyond you”? And Jonathan called after the lad, “Hurry, make haste, stay not.” So Jonathan’s lad gathered up the arrows and came to his master. But the lad knew nothing; only Jonathan and David knew the matter. And Jonathan gave his weapons to the lad, and said to him, “Go and carry them to the city.” And as soon as the lad had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed three times; and they kissed one another and wept with one another, until David recovered himself. Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, `The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.’“ And he rose and departed; and Jonathan went into the city.”

This episode confirmed the status of David as an outlaw, to be hunted down and destroyed like a ravenous beast, provided that Saul, with all of the resources of the kingdom of Israel at his disposal, could successfully achieve it. The rest of First Samuel is devoted to the record of how God protected and preserved David from the myriad dangers that confronted him.

This final meeting of David and Jonathan is sad indeed.

“David rose from… the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground” We cannot suppose that this final farewell of these two noble men took place in the open field. After the lad had gone, Jonathan no doubt went to the hiding place where he knew David was waiting; and there, in the safe security of that hiding place, these tearful actions occurred. David’s falling upon his face and his repeated bowing down before Jonathan were David’s way of extending his thanks and honor to Jonathan for saving his life. In this, he also honored Jonathan as the Crown Prince of Israel and the heir-apparent of the throne.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 20". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-samuel-20.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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