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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 20

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary



(1 Samuel 20:1-42) Jonathan and David Seal their Friendship with a Solemn Covenant—David is Declared a Public Enemy—The Last Interview between David and Jonathan.

Verse 1

(1) And David fled from Naioth in Ramah, and came and said before Jonathan.—The strange course of events in the prophetic schools by Ramah, while warning David that even the home of his old master, the great seer, was no permanent sanctuary where he could safely rest, still gave him time to fly, and to take counsel with his loved friend, the king s son. It was, no doubt, by Samuel’s advice that he once more betook himself to the city of Saul, but his return was evidently secret.

Alone with his friend, he passionately asserts his entire innocence of the crimes laid to his charge by the unhappy, jealous Saul. His words here are found in substance in not a few of his Psalms, where, in touching language, he maintains how bitterly the world had wronged and persecuted a righteous, innocent man.

Verse 2

(2) God forbid; thou shalt not die.—Jonathan even now refuses to believe that his loved father, when he was himself, really wished ill to David; all that had hitherto happened the princely Jonathan put down to his father’s unhappy malady. He urges upon his friend that if the king in good earnest had designs upon David’s life, he would in his calm, lucid days have consulted with him, Jonathan, to whom he ever confided all his State secrets.

Will do nothing.—Here the commentators and the versions—LXX., Vulg., and Cbaldee—all agree to read in the Hebrew text, lo “not,” for lo “to him,” that is, for a vau an aleph must be substituted.

Verse 3

(3) Thy father certainly knoweth that I have found grace in thine eyes.—David urges that his fall, and even his death, had been decided upon by Saul, who, knowing how Jonathan loved him, would shrink from confiding to his son his deadly plans respecting his loved friend. David, with his clear, bright intellect, looked deeper into Saul’s heart than did the heroic, guileless son. He recognised only too vividly the intensity of the king’s hatred of him; and we see in the next verse that the mournful earnestness of the son of Jesse had its effect upon the prince, who consented to make the public trial of Saul’s real mind which his friend asked for.

Verse 5

(5) The new moon.—On the religious ceremonies connected with the day of the new moon at the beginning of each month, see the Mosaic enactments in Numbers 10:10; Numbers 28:11-15.

At the court of Saul the feast seems to have been carefully observed, doubtless with the blast of trumpets, and with solemn burnt offerings and sin offerings, for we notice in this narrative that the plea of possible ceremonial uncleanness was at once accepted as an excuse for absence. (See 1 Samuel 20:26.)

The sacrificial and ceremonial rites were accompanied by a state and family banquet, at which David, as the king’s son-in-law, and also as holding a high post in the royal army, was expected to be present.
Jonathan persisted in looking upon his father’s later designs against the life of David as simply frenzied acts, incident upon his distressing malady, and evidently believed that after his strange seizure at Ramah he would return, and treat David with the confidence of old days when he met him at the feast of the new moon. David, however, believed otherwise, and was convinced, to use his own expressive words, that there was but a step between him and death. He would not trust himself, therefore, to Saul’s hands until his friend had made the experiment he suggested.

Verse 6

(6) A yearly sacrifice.—The Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 12:5 and following verses) strictly required these great sacrificial feasts to be kept at the Tabernacle, “unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes;” but ever since the destruction of the Tabernacle of Shiloh there had been no central sanctuary, and these solemn feasts had been held, most probably, in tribal centres. “In the then disorganised condition of public worship to which David first gave regular form, family usages of this sort, after the manner of other nations, had established themselves, which were contrary to the (Mosaic) prescriptions concerning the unity of Divine worship.”—O. von Gerlach, in Lange. It is highly probable that the festival in question was at this time being held at Bethlehem. It is, however, clear that David did not purpose being present at it, and therefore the excuse was a feigned one. The morality of this request of David is by no means sanctioned by the compiler of the history; he simply relates the story.

Verse 8

(8) A covenant of the Lord with thee.—It may at first sight seem strange that we have these last meetings of David and Jonathan told us in such detail—the speaker’s very words quoted, and so many apparently trivial circumstances related.

The question, too, might be asked: Whence did the compiler of the book derive his intimate acquaintance with what took place at these meetings, when David was alone with Jonathan? But the difficulties are only surface ones, for we must never forget how intensely interesting to the chosen people were all the circumstances connected with their loved king’s life—never lose sight of the deathless interest with which they would hear and read the particulars of David’s rise through great suffering and long trial to the throne; and this period here related in such detail was the turning-point of a grand career. From this moment, David’s way diverged from the every-day life of ordinary duty and prosperity, and became, during a long and weary period, for him the way of almost uninterrupted suffering. The way of suffering and of trial is in all ages the royal road to true greatness. As to the source whence the compiler of the book derived his knowledge of what passed at these last meetings of the two friends, Ewald suggests that when in after years David drew to his Court the posterity of Jonathan, he often told them himself of these last events before their separation (events with which no one but the two friends could be acquainted).

Slay me thyself.—“This supposes that Jonathan had the right to inflict capital punishment for crimes against his father as king.”—Lange. This was David’s last earnest request to the prince. If Jonathan felt there was any truth in the charges brought against him by Saul—if he deemed his friend a traitor to the reigning dynasty—let him slay the betrayer himself there and then.

Verse 9

(9) Far be it from thee.—Vulg., absit hoc a te. This strong expression bears emphatic testimony to Jonathan’s implicit belief in his loved friend’s stainless loyalty. He indignantly refuses to take his life, or even to allow that life to be touched by his father. The sentences here are broken ones; the next one following is left, in the Hebrew, incomplete. They betoken the agitation and deep feeling of the chivalrous, indignant speaker.

Verse 10

(10) Who shall tell me? or what if thy father answer thee roughly?—The language in the original is here very abrupt and involved. Evidently the very words uttered in the memorable scene by the excited and sorrowful friends are remembered and reported.

The “if” supplied in the English Version probably is nearest the meaning intended to be conveyed by the broken, agitated words. Another rendering is, “If thy father shall answer thee harshly, who will declare it to me?”
“These questions of David were suggested by a correct estimate of the circumstances—namely, that Saul’s suspicions would lead him to the conclusion that there was some understanding between Jonathan and David, and that he would take steps, in consequence, to prevent Jonathan from making David acquainted with the result of his conversation with Saul.”—Keil.

In the next verse Jonathan leads David into a solitary spot—“the field”—where, before saying their last words together, they might agree upon some secret sign by means of which Saul’s real mind towards David might be communicated, if necessary, by Jonathan to his friend.

Verse 12

(12) O Lord God of Israel.—Now that the two friends have come to a remote solitary spot, Jonathan prefaces his reply to David’s piteous request by a very solemn invocation of that God they both loved so well. The vocative, however, “O Lord God,” &c., of the English Version has been generally looked upon as an impossible rendering—“there being no analogy for such a mode of address”—Lange.

The versions avoid it by supplying different words. So the Syriac and Arabic render “The Lord of Israel is my witness”; the LXX., “The Lord God of Israel knows.” Others have supplied a word which they find in two Hebrew MSS., “As the Lord God of Israel liveth.” The meaning, however, is perfectly clear.

Or the third day.—This statement of time on the part of Jonathan evidently assumes that the festival was continued the day after the “new moon” by a royal banquet. The time is thus reckoned: the present day; the morrow, which was the new moon festival; and the day after, which would reckon as the third day.

Behold, if there be good toward David.—In the event of the news being good—that is, if Saul, contrary to David’s expectation, spoke kindly of him—then Jonathan would send to him a special messenger; if, on the other hand, the king displayed enmity, in that case Jonathan would come himself and see David (for the last time). This sad message should be brought by no messenger.

Verse 14

(14) And thou shalt not only while yet I live shew me the kindness of the Lord, that I die not.—The Hebrew of this and the next verse is again very confused, abrupt, and ungrammatical, but this is evidently to be attributed to the violent emotion of the speaker. We have, doubtless (as above suggested). David’s own report of what took place, and the words of his dead friend had, no doubt, impressed themselves with a sad accuracy on his heart.

The Syriac and Arabic renderings have been followed by Maurer, Ewald, Keil, Lange, and others, who change v’lo (“and not”) in the first two clauses of 1 Samuel 20:14, into the interjection v’lu (and “O that,” or “would that”). They render them, “And mayest thou, if I still live, show to me the favour of the Lord, and if I die, not withdraw thy favour from my house for ever, not even when Jehovah shall cut off the enemies of David, every one from the face of the earth.”

The last words, “when Jehovah shall cut off,” tells us with striking clearness how thoroughly convinced was Jonathan that in the end David’s cause, as the cause of their God, would surely triumph. Mournfully he looked on to his father’s downfall and his own (Jonathan’s) premature death; and in full view of this he bespoke the interest of his friend—though his friend would probably in a few hours become an exile and outlaw—on behalf of his own (Jonathan’s) children, who would, he foresaw, before many years had expired, be landless, homeless orphans.

Verse 16

(16) So Jonathan made a covenant.—It is not necessary to supply (as in the English Version) “saying,” but it is better to understand this verse as a remark interposed in the dialogue by the narrator, and to translate the Hebrew literally, “So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, and Jehovah required it at the hand of David’s enemies.”

Verse 17

(17) And Jonathan caused David to swear again.—Throughout this touching interview it is the prince who appears as the suppliant for the outlaw’s ruture kind offices. Jonathan—looking forward with absolute certainty to the day when his persecuted friend would be on the throne, and he in his grave—dreaded for his own fatherless children the fate which too probably awaited them, it having been in all ages a common custom in the East, when the dynasty was violently changed, to put to death the children and near relations of the former king.

Verse 18

(18) Thou shalt be missed.—Well then, resumes Jonathan—after the passionate conclusion of the solemn covenant betwixt the friends—the last trial shall be as you propose. At the State banquet of my father tomorrow your seat, as agreed upon, will be empty, then you and I—when King Saul misses you—will know the worst.

Verse 19

(19) Go down quickly.—“Quickly” represents, but not faithfully, the Hebrew m’od. “Quickly” comes from the Vulg., descende ergo festinus. The literal rendering of m’od is “greatly,” and probably Dean Payne Smith’s rendering, “and on the third day go a long way (greatly) down into the valley,” represents the meaning of the original, which has been a general stumbling-block with the versions. The Chaldee, Arabic, and Syriac here interpret rather than translate, “on the third day thou will be missed the more.” “It did not matter,” writes the Dean, “whether David went fast or slow, as he was to hide there some time, but it was important that David should be far away, so that no prying eye might chance to catch sight of him.”

When the business was in hand.—The expression, b’yom hammaăseh, rendered in our version by “when the business was in hand,” is one hard to understand. Perhaps the best translation is that adopted by Gesenius, De Wette, and Maurer, who render it quite literally “on the day of the deed,” and understand by “deed” King Saul’s design of killing David (see 1 Samuel 19:2).

By the stone Ezel.—This stone, or cairn, or possibly ruin, is mentioned nowhere else. Some have supposed it to have been a road-stone, or stone guide-post. The following ingenious conjecture is hazarded in the Speaker’s Commentary:—“The LXX. here, and again in 1 Samuel 20:41 (where the spot, but not the stone, is spoken of), read argab, or ergab, a word meaning a heap of stones. If this is the true reading, David’s hiding place was either a natural cavernous rock, which was called argab, or some ruin of an ancient building equally suited for a hiding place.” Ewald, slightly changing the text, understands the word as signifying “the lonely waste.”

Verse 20

(20) I will shoot three arrows.—The two friends agree on a sign. It was a very simple one, and seems to speak of very early primitive times. Jonathan slightly varies from his original purpose. In 1 Samuel 20:12 it seems as though he meant to have sent a special messenger had the news been good, but now the arrangement is that in either event he should come himself out from the city into the solitary valley where it was agreed David should remain in hiding by the stone “Ezel.” Dean Payne Smith rather strangely conceives that the arrows of the “sign” were to be aimed at the stone Ezel, but the description points to the “mark” as situated on the side of “Ezel,” in or behind which David was to be concealed.

The prince agreed that after the feast he would leave the city, as though about to practise shooting at a mark, and that he would bring with him a servant—probably-one of his young armour-bearers—when, at the spot agreed upon in the neighbourhood of David’s place of concealment near Ezel, he would post his servant in his place as marker, and then would shoot. After shooting, he would call out to his attendant, “the arrows are on this side of thee” (that is, between the mark and Jonathan himself), then David would know all was well; but if he cried “the arrows are beyond thee,” that is, on the further side of the mark, David would understand that all was over, and that he must fly. Jonathan evidently took these precautions not knowing whether or no he would be accompanied by friends of his father from the city, in which case the “sign” agreed upon would be sufficient to tell David what had happened at the feast. As it turned out, Jonathan was able to escape observation, and to go alone with his servant to the place of meeting. He used the sign to attract his friend’s attention, and then followed the last sorrowful parting, told in 1 Samuel 20:41-42.

Verse 24

(24) Sat him down.—The LXX. paraphrases here, “came to the table.”

Verse 25

(25) David’s place was empty.—All took place as the two friends had calculated. Saul’s seat was by the wall—then, as now, in the East the highest place of honour was opposite the door. The exact meaning of the phrase, “and Jonathan arose,” has been disputed. The LXX. translate here from a different text thus: “He (Saul) went before Jonathan.” Keil speaks of this, however, as “the senseless rendering of the Greek Version.” The sense in which this difficult passage is understood by Abarbanel and Rashi seems on the whole the best. Understanding that Jonathan had already seated himself after Saul, and that David’s absence was observed, “he (Jonathan) arose and seated Abner at Saul’s side,” that is, in the place left vacant by David’s absence, in order that the seat next to Saul might not be empty, he himself having taken the seat on the other side of Saul. This rendering considers vayêshev as causative, a verb in the Hipnil conjugation, written defectively, as in 2 Chronicles 10:2; so Lange, who also quotes Kitto as suggesting an explanation of Saul’s expecting David’s presence at all at the new moon feast. David, after the strange events at Naioth by Ramah, would suppose (so the king thought) that Saul’s feelings towards him had undergone a complete change, and that now, after the ecstasy into which Saul had fallen, he would be once more friendly with him as aforetime.

Verse 27

(27) On the morrow.—David’s continued absence on the second day of the feast awoke Saul’s suspicion, and he asked his son, who was sitting by him, what was the reason of his friend’s absence, aware that no accident connected with ceremonial defilement would keep him away two following days.

Verse 29

(29) Our family hath a sacrifice in the city; and my brother, he hath commanded me.—Jonathan answers the king’s question in the way previously agreed upon between him and David. He quotes the excuse in David’s own words.

The LXX., instead of “my brother,” has “my brothers.” It thus alters the original, not understanding the singular “brother,” Jesse, their father, being still alive. The brothers collectively might, the LXX. seemed to think, have bidden David to the family sacrificial feast. Dean Payne Smith suggests that as the ceremony was not a private family gathering, but one shared in by the district, the “brother” (probably the eldest), likely enough, was the convener of the absent member of the house of Jesse.

Verse 30

(30) Saul’s anger was kindled.—As David expected, his absence kindled into a flame the anger of Saul. Probably he had determined at that very feast, surrounded by his own devoted friends and members of his family, to carry out his evil designs against David’s life.

Murder was, probably enough, one of the incidents arranged for at that banquet, but the absence of the intended victim marred the plot; besides which, the king, too, with the cunning which the partially insane so often display, saw through the veil of the specious excuse that David too clearly suspected his wicked design, and purposely stayed away; nay, more, that his own son Jonathan, the heir of his kingdom, suspected him, and openly sympathised with his friend David, for whose pointed absence he thus publicly apologised.

Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman.—These words, spoken in public, in any sense were a bitter insult to the prince. Another and better rendering has, however, been suggested. The word naăvath, rendered perverse, instead of being a feminine adjective, is probably an abstract noun. The translation would then run, “Thou son of perversity of rebellion,” a common Hebraism for “a man of perverse and refractory nature;” so Clericus, Lange, and Payne Smith. This avoids the extreme improbability that Saul insulted his own wife, Jonathan’s mother, which, as has been observed, contradicts the Hebrew family spirit.

The confusion of thy mother’s nakedness.—This is far from insulting Jonathan’s mother; it is simply an Oriental mode of saying, “she will feel ashamed at having brought such a son into the world.”

Verse 31

(31) Thou shalt not be established.—Here the king gives expression to the thought which was ever torturing that poor diseased brain of his—David, his own kind physician, his faithful soldier, and his son’s dearest friend and loved companion, was plotting basely against that master for whom he had done so much, and the son whom he loved so well.

Saul, in his blind fury, goes on to betray his fell purpose when he exclaims, “he shall surely die.” His command, “Send and fetch him unto me,” tells us that the murder had been pre-arranged to take place at the feast. Doubtless those rough soldier chiefs sitting round the royal table would be ready at any moment to carry into effect their master’s savage behest.

Verse 32

(32) And Jonathan answered.—Jonathan, remembering the effect of his quiet, earnest remonstrance on a previous occasion, again tried to deprecate his father’s unreasoning jealous anger, but this time to no purpose. A paroxysm of madness seized Saul, and he grasped the long spear leaning by his side, and with hate and fury in his eye raised the great war weapon to strike down his son.

Verse 34

(34) So Jonathan arose.—“In fierce anger,” so runs the too true record. The son of Saul left the presence, and appeared no more at that fatal feast. The hot anger was stirred up, first, no doubt, by the terrible insult offered him, the prince and heir to the throne, before the assembled great ones of Israel. The great spear uplifted to strike, following the harsh and bitter words spoken, was an act not likely soon to be forgotten by the spectators. And secondly, by the determined and relentless enmity of Saul against David, of whose stainless integrity and perfect loyalty Jonathan was firmly convinced. The bitter wrong done to David his friend no doubt affected Jonathan most.

Verse 35

(35) At the time appointed with David.—This meeting between the friends is not described at any length; all was done as had been pre-arranged, and, alas! everything had come to pass as David in his sad foresight had expected.

Verse 36

(36) He shot an arrow beyond him.—This was the sign agreed on if all was over for David at the court of Saul. Expositors are in a little difficulty, though, here, as only one arrow is mentioned, whereas “three” had to be shot according to the terms of the understanding. We cannot imagine, as some have suggested, that “Jonathan shortened the affair, and shot only once, considering that there was danger in delay,” and that every moment was of consequence; had there been such need of haste, the parting scene would have been cut even shorter. It is better, with Keil, to assume that the “singular” here stands in an indefinite general way, the author not thinking it needful, after what he had before said, to state that Jonathan shot three arrows one after another.

Verse 38

(38) Make speed, haste, stay not.—Although Jonathan, of course, trusted to a certain extent the youth (probably an armour-bearer) who was with him, still he hurried this attendant away, that he might not see David, who was close by in hiding, and who, after the sign, would presently appear in sight. The next clause (1 Samuel 20:39) expressly tells us how this meeting was unknown and unwitnessed. The youth was sent to the city that Jonathan might be alone once more with David.

Verse 40

(40) His artillery.—Literally, his implements. The word “artillery,” expressive though it be, would scarcely now be used in this sense; we should now translate the Hebrew word by “arms.”

Verse 41

(41) David arose out of a place toward the south.—If the text be correct here, which is very doubtful, we must understand these words as signifying that as soon as David perceived that Jonathan was alone (as soon as the lad was gone), he rose from the south side of the rock, where he had been lying concealed. [The “arrow” sign would have been enough to have warned David; and had he not seen that Jonathan was alone and waiting for him, David would, from his place of hiding, have made his escape unseen.] The Chaldee here reads, “from the stone of the sign (or the stone Atha) which is on the south;” the LXX. (Vat. MS.), “from the Argab;” Alex. MS., “from sleep.” The different versions, more or less, have repeated the statement in 1 Samuel 20:19, failing altogether to understand the two Hebrew words mêêtzel hannegev, translated in our English Version, “out of a place toward the south.”

And fell on his face.—Josephus’ words, in his traditional account of the event, explain David’s reason for this. “He did obeisance, and called him the saviour of his life.”

Until David exceeded.—The expression is a strange one, and apparently signifies either simply that while Jonathan wept bitterly at the parting, David wept still more, or else that “David broke down,” that is, “was completely mastered by his grief.”—Dean Payne Smith. The LXX. translators here are quite unintelligible in their rendering, which represents David as weeping “until a (or the) great consummation.”

Verse 42

(42) Go in peace.—The abruptness of the closing words is most natural, and accords with the evident deep emotion of the speaker. David’s heart was too full to reply to his friend’s words; blinded with tears, he seems to have hurried away speechless.

“We may indeed wonder at the delicacy of feeling and the gentleness of the sentiments which these two men in those old rough times entertained for one another. No ancient writer has set before us so noble an example of a heartfelt, unselfish, and thoroughly human state of feeling, and none has described friendship with such entire truth in all its relations, and with such complete and profound knowledge of the human heart.”—Phillipson, quoted by Payne Smith.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 20". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-samuel-20.html. 1905.
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