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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 20

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 18-42

B. David Driven out by Saul 19:18-20:42

The previous section of text (1 Samuel 16:1 to 1 Samuel 19:17) gave evidence that God was preparing David to become king. This one (1 Samuel 19:18 to 1 Samuel 20:42) narrates the events that resulted in the rift that separated Saul and David. There were two events that were especially significant: God’s overruling Saul’s hostility against David at Ramah (1 Samuel 19:18-24) and Jonathan’s failure to heal the breach between Saul and David (ch. 20).

Verses 1-11

David’s concern for his own safety 20:1-11

David was wondering if he had done something wrong that had provoked Saul’s hatred (1 Samuel 20:1). Walking with God is sometimes confusing. We need to learn, as David did, that when we try to follow God faithfully some people will oppose us simply because we want to do God’s will. Their antagonism is not the result of our sinfulness but theirs. Jonathan assured David that he had done nothing wrong (cf. 1 Samuel 14:45), but Jonathan did not understand the intensity of Saul’s hatred for David (cf. 1 Samuel 19:6). He was in a state of denial.

There are several oaths and strong affirmations in this chapter (1 Samuel 20:3; 1 Samuel 20:12-13; 1 Samuel 20:16-17; 1 Samuel 20:23; 1 Samuel 20:42). The one that David made in 1 Samuel 20:3 is very strong. He believed correctly that he was in mortal danger, and he tried to make Jonathan see this. Jonathan was open to anything David wanted to suggest to prove his point (1 Samuel 20:4).

The new moon introduced the new month that the Israelites celebrated with a sacrificial meal. It was both a religious and a civil holiday (Numbers 10:10; Numbers 28:11-15; cf. 2 Kings 4:23). David would normally have been present at the king’s table since he was one of Saul’s high-ranking military commanders. However, David evidently believed that Saul would try to kill him again if he ate with the king (cf. 1 Samuel 18:11; 1 Samuel 19:10-11). Hiding in a field seems to be an extreme measure. Why could David not have gone home to Bethlehem or stayed with friends who would have kept his presence secret from Saul? Perhaps David trusted no one but Jonathan now.

Apparently David’s family held a reunion on one of these holidays each year (1 Samuel 20:6; cf. 1 Samuel 1:21; 1 Samuel 2:19). David told a lie; he did not go to Bethlehem but hid in a field. At the beginning of his period of flight from Saul, David resorted to trickery as well as trust in Yahweh. As this trial wore on, he learned to trust God more completely, as we shall see. His trials purified his character (cf. James 1).

David proposed his test (1 Samuel 20:7) to convince Jonathan that Saul really intended to kill David. The covenant to which David referred was the one he and Jonathan had previously made (1 Samuel 18:3-4). David appealed to it and asked Jonathan to kill him himself if he must die, rather than allowing Saul to do it. David wanted to die at the hand of his friend rather than at the hand of his enemy. David had temporarily lost sight of God’s promise that he would rule over Israel.

Jonathan refused to kill David but promised to tell him if Saul responded angrily as David predicted he would (1 Samuel 20:9). Jonathan then suggested a plan by which he could communicate with David without revealing David’s location (1 Samuel 20:10-11).

Verses 1-42

2. Jonathan’s advocacy for David ch. 20

This chapter records Jonathan’s last attempt to reconcile Saul to David. The emphasis is on the hardening of Saul’s heart that God allowed since the king refused to genuinely repent.

Verses 12-17

Jonathan and David’s long-range covenant 20:12-17

Jonathan appealed to the Lord in an oath indicating the seriousness of the situation (1 Samuel 20:12-13). He prayed that God would be with David as he had been with Saul, namely, as Israel’s king (1 Samuel 20:13). These verses indicate clearly that Jonathan believed David would someday be king and subdue his enemies, including Saul (1 Samuel 20:13-15; cf. 1 Samuel 13:14). He had come to appreciate Yahweh’s loyal love (Heb. hesed, 1 Samuel 20:14-15), and now called on David to deal similarly with his descendants in the future. He secured a promise from David that when he reigned he would protect Jonathan’s family. "Lovingkindness" (Heb. hesed, 1 Samuel 20:14-15) is a covenant term of commitment (1 Samuel 20:16; 1 Samuel 20:42; cf. Deuteronomy 7:7-9). Previously David and Jonathan had made a covenant that Jonathan would yield the throne to David and support him (1 Samuel 18:3-4). Now David promised not to kill Jonathan’s descendants after David became king. It was common in the ancient Near East for kings who began a new dynasty to kill all the descendants of the former king to keep them from rising up and trying to reclaim the throne. Jonathan called on God to require an accounting for antagonism at the hands of David’s enemies (1 Samuel 20:16). This was the second vow that David had made after the one in which he pledged his love for Jonathan personally (1 Samuel 20:17; cf. 1 Samuel 18:3-4).

Verses 18-23

The plan for communicating Saul’s intentions to David 20:18-23

Saul would miss David at his feast not only because his seat would be vacant but because warriors normally expressed their support for their king by eating with him at important meals (1 Samuel 20:18). David’s absence would have raised a question in Saul’s mind about David’s commitment to him. The writer did not identify the exact place where David had previously hidden himself on some eventful day (1 Samuel 20:19). Evidently it was near Ezel Stone, a site unknown today but well known then. Probably Jonathan chose this place to communicate with David because it was convenient and secure, evidently near Gibeah.

The shooting of arrows was probably just a practical way to signal David. Jonathan reminded David of their agreement as they parted (1 Samuel 20:23; cf. Genesis 31:48-53). [Note: For discussion of a minor textual problem in 1 Samuel 20:23, see Emunah Finkelstein, "An Ignored Haplography in Samuel," Journal of Semitic Studies 4:4 (October 1959):356-57.]

"Friendships are one of the most enriching of life’s experiences: how poor is the man or woman who is friendless! Friends enrich life because they give, without counting the cost. Jonathan was a man who gave to David more than he received; and in doing so he showed how different he was from the typical king described in 1 Samuel 8:11-17, whose sole function was to take. Life has its givers and its takers; Jonathan was supremely a giver-and David, though destined to become a king, persistently declined to take anything away from Saul. He patiently waited for God to give him the crown of Israel." [Note: David Payne, p. 106.]

Verses 24-34

Saul’s anger over David’s absence 20:24-34

Saul concluded at first that David had not come to the new moon sacrificial meal because he was unclean (cf. Leviticus 7:20-21; Leviticus 15:16). His continued absence required an explanation, which Saul looked to David’s friend to provide. Saul hated David so much he could not bring himself to use his name (1 Samuel 20:27; 1 Samuel 20:31). "The son of . . ." was a mild insult (cf. 1 Samuel 10:11). [Note: Youngblood, p. 723.] By insulting Jonathan’s mother Saul was intensifying his insult (1 Samuel 20:30). Today’s English Version translated Saul’s epithet, "You bastard!" The New Jerusalem Bible rendered it, "You son of a rebellious slut!" The note in the NET Bible says, "You stupid son of a bitch!" Jonathan had chosen David as his friend to his own shame (1 Samuel 20:30) in the sense that because he had made him his friend, rather than killing him, as Saul wanted him to do, David would take Jonathan’s place as the king of Israel. That would be a shame for Jonathan. Jonathan had chosen David to the shame of his mother’s nakedness in that Jonathan’s conception and birth were useless if David replaced him. Jonathan would fail to achieve the purpose for which he had been born, in Saul’s way of thinking (1 Samuel 20:31). Saul perceived David as a threat to his continuing dynasty, not just to his personal rule. Clearly Saul was rejecting and opposing God’s will that his reign and his dynasty would not endure. Saul said he would kill David so that David could not do what God had said He would do.

Jonathan’s ambitions were not the same as Saul’s. He wanted God’s plans to succeed more than he wanted to become Israel’s king. Therefore he interceded for David again (1 Samuel 20:32; cf. 1 Samuel 19:4). Saul, exasperated by what he interpreted as Jonathan’s selfless folly, tried to execute David’s advocate as he had formerly tried to kill David himself (1 Samuel 20:33; cf. 1 Samuel 18:11; 1 Samuel 19:10). This brush with death finally convinced Jonathan that David had been right about Saul’s intentions after all (cf. 1 Samuel 20:3). It also convinced him to get out of the king’s presence. Jonathan departed in hot anger because of Saul’s attitude toward David and because of Saul’s attitude toward himself. Saul had said David would not allow Jonathan to rule, but Saul himself almost prevented that from happening by attacking the crown prince. Jonathan’s departure from Saul’s table symbolized his departure from his father’s fellowship.

Verses 35-42

David’s final departure from Gibeah 20:35-42

The next morning Jonathan proceeded to communicate Saul’s intentions to David in the way they had previously planned. Jonathan probably used a very young boy as his arrow retriever so the lad would not ask embarrassing questions or figure out what was happening. God permitted David and Jonathan to say good-bye face to face. They had anticipated that such a parting might be impossible (cf. 1 Samuel 20:22). David gave proper respect to Jonathan as the king’s son even though they were best friends (1 Samuel 20:41). Saul’s rebellion against God’s will had made their companionship impossible. They parted, reminding themselves of the commitments they had made to each other and to their descendants (1 Samuel 20:42; cf. 1 Samuel 20:16; 1 Samuel 20:23; 2 Samuel 9). David and Jonathan decided not to see each other again for their mutual protection (but cf. 1 Samuel 23:16-18).

This chapter reveals that both Saul and Jonathan realized that David was the Lord’s anointed who would one day replace Saul. However, their responses to this inevitable situation were opposite because their desires were opposite. Saul wanted to see his own plans fulfilled, but Jonathan wanted to see God’s will done. Jonathan ended up choosing David, his natural rival, in preference over Saul, his natural father. His sister Michal had made the same choice. David later kept his covenant with Jonathan (2 Samuel 9:1), showing that he was a covenant-keeping individual similar to Yahweh. This is another evidence that David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14).

The main character in this pericope is Jonathan. His attitude to God’s will contrasts positively with Saul’s attitude. Rather than opposing God’s will and His anointed, as Saul did, Jonathan humbled himself before God’s will and supported the Lord’s anointed, David. Jonathan faced a terrible tension since Saul’s attitude divided Jonathan’s loyalty. He solved this problem by putting God’s will first. He submitted to the domestic authority of his father, and to the civil authority of his king, by obeying Saul, except when obedience to Saul conflicted with obedience to God (cf. 1 Peter 2:13-17).

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 20". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-samuel-20.html. 2012.
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