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Saturday, July 13th, 2024
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14
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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 20

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

Verses 1-42

Jonathan's Moral Courage

1Sa 20:34

WE are to understand that David was in great jeopardy from Saul, the king of Israel. David himself was very sensible of the peril of his condition, so much so, that he graphically described it to Jonathan in these words: "As thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death!" David was anxious to know whether Saul was at all mollified towards him. So the two young men, Jonathan and David, made a little plan between them, by which they were to test the present condition of the king's mind. The dinner was provided as usual; Saul took his accustomed seat; but David was not present. But Saul had self-control enough that day to say nothing about the absence of David. The next day things were established in their usual order, and still David was not present. Saul now lost self-control, so far as to ask Jonathan why David, the son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, was not in his place. Jonathan, according to a prearranged scheme, made reply. Saul with murderous intent took up a javelin, and hurled it at Jonathan; and Jonathan arose from the table in fierce anger, for he was grieved for David, because his father had done him shame. We propose to inquire into the moral meaning of this incident, to see whether there is anything in it that applies to our own circumstances. It is impossible to read this story without having the mind arrested at several points of unusual interest

First of all, here is the saddest of all sights man arrayed against man. Not man against a savage beast; but man against his own kind, smiting the face of one made in his own image and likeness; thirsting, as it were, for human blood! Is there any sight sadder than that? It is, too, the king himself arrayed against those who are under him. It is no mean man. It is a man with a great name; and if great names should signalise great natures, it was the greatest man in the kingdom that was arrayed against a youth comparatively friendless. This is the state of society today. We are, as amongst ourselves, our own worst enemies. There is no fight between dogs that is comparable to the controversy between husband and wife, parent and child, master and servant, employer and employed. There are no wolves in the forest that can tear each other so terribly as men can do by unkind words, by unjust dealings, by taking sudden and unexpected advantage one of another. When God looks down from heaven to see the condition of his family upon earth, is there anything that can grieve his heart with so keen a pang as to see one man the enemy of another? Are we not mutual enemies? Is there not an eternal feud between man and man? Some accidental circumstances may be suggested which are apparently pointing in another direction. But, given a state of society in which limits and restrictions are taken away such as now bind us to what is at all events apparently right, is there not in our hearts the very spirit of homicide? This is not a popular doctrine to preach; but let us inquire whether it is not true. We are watching one another just now; we are to some extent upon our good behaviour; we live upon an island that is guarded and defended by a thousand limitations; but still take off all these artificial limitations, leave us to ourselves as ourselves, and is it not the part of man to devour man? That part was played so consistently and so urgently, that the apostle Paul at one time feared that it would get into the Church itself; and therefore he said, "See that ye bite not, nor devour one another!" He was actually afraid that the Church would be turned into a menagerie, and that the menagerie would have no iron bars around it, so that man would develop his fiercer disposition, and bite and devour and slay his fellow-men. We sigh for the spirit of brotherhood; and pray for the good time when man shall see in man the image and likeness of God. When human nature is more highly valued, the Spirit of Christ will prove to be more thoroughly established within us. Find a man that cares nothing for humanity, and you find a man who will never "go away into life eternal." Find a man who will divide the last crust with a fellow-pilgrim, and you find one whom Christ shall call into the prepared kingdom, and start on the line of immortality.

Here we have not only the saddest of all sights, but we have the rupture of the most sacred bonds. Who is it that is offended in this case? It is not a stranger; it is the son that rose in fierce anger, being grieved for David and ashamed of his own father. "Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath." Here is the natural order of things inverted. What is the natural order of things? That the young should look up to the old; that the old should be the inspiration and the defence of the young; that the father should be as God to the child, and that the child should look up with reverence and veneration to the father. Here is a son getting up from his own father's table in shame and grief. To such passes may we come. Can anything be more pathetic, anything more fully charged with the highest elements of tragedy, than this that a son should get up in the presence of a great number of people ashamed of his own father? How are you bringing up your children? You cannot leave them great fortunes, but you may leave them good examples; you cannot leave them an illustrious name, but you may leave them a name that they can pronounce in every company, and defy the world to impeach. Your sons are taking notice of you. For a son to rise from his own father's table, to go out of the house ashamed of his own father, is a possibility of which all men, heads of houses, ought to be fully aware. Are there not today fathers of whom children are ashamed? drunken fathers, indolent fathers, extravagant, thoughtless, imperious, self-willed fathers: the head of the house its only human curse, the man that ought to be "guide, philosopher, and friend," either the terror of his household or the shame of his progeny! When fathers occupy their right positions, sons, in most cases, will be likely to occupy theirs. A good example is never lost. For a time it may seem to have no good effect; but the period will come, in living out this troubled human life of ours, when the boy will remember whose son he is, when the spirit of traditional piety may seize him, when he will remember whose mantle it is that has fallen upon his shoulders. Oh, to have a name left that can be pronounced without fear or shame, that you can defend with both hands, is surely to have an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. When your son is ashamed of you, know that the time of your destruction draweth nigh.

Here, too, is the assertion of the highest instinct What is it that asserts itself in this case? It is the spirit of right. "There is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding." There are times in life when we must put aside all parental, traditional, ecclesiastical, and parliamentary authority, and do the right, as Jonathan did when he arose on this occasion. What was it that stirred him to this deed? His father had done wrong, and he himself was determined to vindicate right. The voice of right ought to be heard through all the noise and tumult and distraction incident to human society. Have we had any experience of this kind? Oh, how it shakes a man! We know of no finer sight than to see the spirit of rectitude filling out a man's nature, making his very weakness strength, giving a strange penetrating emphasis to a voice naturally weak, giving fire to the youth whom we thought incapable of vehemence. The sight is grand, beyond all the imaginings of poetry and dreams. These are the men that keep the world square: men that get up from dinner-tables and say, "No! I am ashamed of your evil doing; and I will not taste your bread!" We tarry at the trough, and satisfy our appetites, and slake our thirst, but the man that is going out will save the world! Now and then it does us good, it heightens us with a divine elevation, to see a man who even under the most restricted circumstances will assert the right. How many people would have said, "Let dinner pass quietly over; do not outrage the conventional decencies of domestic society. Sit still. Be quiet. Eat your dinner, and when it is over we will see what can be done." But Jonathan took no such course. The bread was in his mouth, but he said, "I will not swallow it!" The cup was in his hand, but he said, "I will set it down again! I cannot make thee a wise and true king; but I can do the next thing, I can protest against thee, and I will; and see, I leave thee with the fire of shame on my cheeks! I am ashamed, not because of David, but because of the king, my father!" Thank God for a man with a voice like that! There are so many of us that must have our dinner if all the Davids in creation were wronged!

We fear, however, that some are making distinctions which in the long run will be found to be not only foolish, but immoral and destructive. Do we not hear now and then some persons making a distinction between what they term abstract right and practical right? When the abstract right is trifled with, the practical right must sooner or later be thrown down. If any scheme of politics, education, government, social regeneration, is not metaphysically right, it never can be practically right in the long run. It may be expedient; it may be apparently right; it may do a little useful work for the time being; but if we are wrong at the centre, wrong in the highest metaphysical thinking, the outcome of our work will prove itself a failure. Get hold of a man who is right in the abstract, right in the soul, right in his theories; and beware of that man who says, "It's all very well, in theory." If a thing be wrong in theory, it never can be right in practice. It may be veneered, painted, gilded, and done up for a price; but it never can be right out and out from the centre to the circumference. Jonathan in this case made a protest on behalf of the abstract right, the essential right; and his voice has gone through the generations like a thunderbolt. Thank God that we had such testimony, because it may now and again touch the heroic nerve in young natures, and prove that even yet there are men amongst us who will not see wrong at least without crying shame and protesting against it.

Here we have a disproof of a familiar proverb. The familiar proverb is, "Blood is thicker than water." Jonathan says, "Right is thicker than blood. David is no relation of mine physically; but David is an injured man; and my father is the individual who is injuring him, and I snap all ties that I may go and stand by the side of God and proclaim myself in favour of the right!" Consider no ties where righteousness is in question. There are secondary rights, and there are primary rights. You are your father's child, and you say you ought to be filial and obedient. The spirit of righteousness says, No! "Children, obey your parents in the Lord." That is the explanatory qualification. Whatever your father tells you to do, if it be not "in the Lord," you have a right to resist. Whatever your Government tells you to do that is not "in the Lord," you have a right to protest against and to resist to the utmost. We are often serving some sub-gods, some under-deities, some little proxy kings, and forgetting the one eternal, absolute Ruler. We are measuring ourselves by false standards, and not by the one great judgment. Will you do wrong for your father's sake, and call it filial obedience? There is only one Father. This term "father" that we use, we use only temporarily and with qualifications. One is your Father God. Let every tie be broken; let it go, so that you serve him who is clothed with righteousness, and who sits for ever in the light. Shall a man say, "If it had been anybody but my father, I certainly would have taken another course"? We ask, What is the question in controversy? If it be a question of mere politeness, civility, honour due to age, attention required by the ordinary courtesies of life, then all honour to you for honouring your father. But if it be a moral question, a question as between right and wrong, your father ceases to have any claim upon your conscience, if so be he indicate a course that is wrong or questionable. You are in partnership with your father, and will you think to put down to his credit all the elements of the management that are not exactly to your taste? You cannot do so, You aggravate your own guilt by doing it. What am I then to do? To come out of it and to be separate to leave my own flesh and blood? Yes! To be a stranger and an alien in the land? Yes! It is not necessary that you should live, but it is necessary that you should be true.

Men delude themselves with proverbs; they say, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Nothing of the sort, unless the question be one that is very limited in its scope. "Blood is thicker than water." The question is not between blood and water; the question is between blood and God, blood and righteousness, physical kinship and eternal alliance with the virtues and the honesties of the universe. A man says, "You know I must live." We know just the contrary, if it be a moral question that is involved. There is no need in creation for any particular individual to live. It is a perfect fallacy to say, "You know I must live." No! I must be good; I must be right; I must be honest; I must be true. There your music is of a pure kind; the angels march according to the beat of that rhythm. But when you say that you must live, it is the grandest mistake you can possibly make. No man can be of the slightest consequence to the universe as mere existences. It is when there is virtue in us, life, nobleness, purity, divinity it is then that the universe cares for us, and will keep itself together, as it were, for our convenience and progress. Who is deterred from doing right because his father is on the other side? Who is kept in a wrong church, where the truth is not spoken, because his father has a pew there? Kept from the open profession of Christianity, because his father would feel annoyed if he said anything about it? Are you comforting yourself with this text from the fool's Bible "Blood is thicker than water"? Then, we say: Give up your father, rather than give up conscience, righteousness, truth, purity. Do not make his shame public, if you can avoid it; but let everything be struck down, rather than the Spirit of righteousness shall be grieved or quenched. "Grieve not the holy Spirit of God." "Quench not the Spirit." Inasmuch as you have had bitter experience of this kind of conduct from your father, see to it that, in your turn, you give your children the benefit of a right example.

Here we have the espousal of a noble policy. What was the policy of Jonathan? He espoused the cause of right against might. David had no resources. Saul had everything; and Jonathan said, "I know that he is the king, that he is my father, and that he has life and death upon his lips, so far as this existence is concerned; but in the name of the eternal right I defy him!" Shall the example be lost upon us? Is there no weak cause we can espouse? Can we do nothing to put down the evil side of that foolish proverb, "Nothing succeeds like success"? Let us beard Success in its own den; fight the most popular evils; espouse the poorest and the weakest causes, if it be that they are inspired by one element of right. It takes a strong man to stand alone. It is only a man here and there that can raise a tune; almost everybody tries to mumble after it is raised. But stand alone, young man; stand alone, poor man; stand with the right. Do not stand with it presumptuously and self-displayingly, with self-idolatrous demonstrativeness; but stand beside it because it is right, with all meekness and self-control and purity and honesty. We are in the minority, but we are in the minority of God! We do not believe in majorities, popularly so called. We believe that men should be weighed as well as numbered. Better have the support of one man of a certain kind than the support of ten thousand men of a kind directly opposite. If we cannot have them both, let us say: Give me that one man. "If God be for us, who can be against us?"

Now came a very beautiful little incident. Jonathan went out of the house, and took his way into the field by appointment, took a little lad with him, shot some arrows, called out to the boy words upon which himself and David had agreed; and David knew that anger was determined against him, "but the lad knew not anything." There are unconscious workers in society. We do not know the full measure of all that we are doing. Had the lad been asked: "What are you doing?" he would have replied: "I am picking up arrows for Jonathan, the king's son." That is the end of his tale, so far as he knows it. Did he know that through him was telegraphed to a breaking heart that the king was determined against him? It is just so with us. We see part of our work; the other side of it we know nothing about. What a mysterious life, then, is this! We are observed; we are set in order; we are made instruments in some cases. We are called with the consent of our will up to a certain point; and then beyond that we seem to be utterly helpless, not knowing the influences that are shed off the sides of our character, and the indirect results or the moral meanings of what we are doing. We have been comforted sometimes by people who did not know that they were doing so. Sometimes a very poor and weak man, as the world calls poor and weak, has said something to us that has enabled us to redeem years of our life, bringing them back again so as to work with their experience; and the man has gone away without knowing that he has done anything. You give a child a book; can you tell what the influence of that is to be in after-years? You smiled upon some young man who was grappling with a difficulty. The smile cost you nothing. Yet, seeing that it came from your heart as well as from your face, it fell upon him like sunshine, and did another kind of work than that which it was intended at the moment it should do. So there is an unintentional and unconscious life. There is a part of our life that is lived on purpose; and there is a part of our life we know nothing about. There is a straight line; and suddenly it sweeps off into poetry and curvings. "No man liveth unto himself" in a far deeper sense than is usually attached to that passage. The boy was not living unto himself. He was doing a poor kind of thing without poetry or perspective in it, yet he was the telegraph between two hearts. This ought to invest life with something very solemn. We do not know whom we may be addressing, or what application this subject may have; but the word of the Lord cannot return unto him void. Children, obey your parents; let it be in the Lord! Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Servants, obey your masters, but remember that One is your Master. Do not be deceived by sub-titles, by secondary divisions, but look at the primary, the essential, the everlasting.

What is the cure for all social chaos, domestic trouble, secret pain, all wrongdoing as between kings and subjects, fathers and children, man and man? The one cure is the Cross of Christ. There is no second prescription. The prescription by which we must abide is this: "The blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth us from all sin." "If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his." Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus. We may veneer ourselves, and put ourselves into transient attitudes, but the only way to get right outwardly is to get right inwardly; the only one way to have clean hands is to have a clean heart; the only way to be holy is to have the Holy Spirit. You cannot hush society into a perpetual rest; you cannot beckon men into righteousness. You may say to Saul, "Saul, do not exclaim so today; and let this meal pass without putting these questions to Jonathan; see him, alone." He may for a moment heed you, but you have not arrested the man. You must get at his heart. So it is with all social questions. You may give men better dwellings, you may give them better drainage, and better air. But never forget that, when man did fall, he fell, not in a metropolitan alley, not in a London slum; he fell where the sunshine was broadest, where the rivers were deepest and calmest. When he fell he fell amid surroundings which God himself had placed for his convenience and gratification. The only cure is not in change of circumstances, but in change of heart.


Almighty God, we too are in the mount, the mount Zion, the mount of peace and reconciliation. Whilst we tarry upon its sacred heights may we see God through the pureness of our hearts, and feel the nearness of his presence, and respond to every appeal of the divine voice. We bless thee for mountain days. We thank thee for power to climb; it is next to power to fly. By-and-by, we shall fly in the midst of heaven. Now we tarry on high places and see glimpses of heaven, and feel upon us the air from a better land. For sanctuary days, and church-opening, we bless thee. They are the festivals of the soul; they are times of emancipation and deliverance and inexpressible delight. We thank thee for rapture, for ecstasy, for the times when we know not whether we are in the body or out of the body, but where the place whereon we stand is as the high heavens. Give us now and again such uplifting of soul, such transport and rapture of heart, and then enable us to return to the common duties of the time and to do them with cheerfulness and religious zeal, and to accept all the purpose of God thankfully and obediently. We thank thee that we do see now and again beyond the narrow lines of time. Now and again we see heaven opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. We ask questions concerning the white-clothed host, the wondrous band moving to strains of infinite music before thy throne. We cannot tell what we see, where we are, or what we are; but our souls are enlarged, influenced, ennobled, and variously enriched; so that when we return to earth and time and all the duties that lie nearest hand, behold we feel within us a new power, a touch of immortality, a strange royalty, which is yet kindred with the purposes of our creation. Help us now to gather around the mount of God and to enjoy expectations which thou alone canst excite, and may our prayer be answered with a great peace and our desire be consummated in the blessed consciousness of the divine nearness. This must be the time of triumphing over sin. If we name it, it is enough; if we point towards it with the confessing finger, it is sufficient. Thou wilt not hear our whole speech in hideous detail: thou wilt stop us in the recital of the iniquity by forgiveness, by assurance of love, by showing us the relation of the mystery of the cross to all the evil we have done. Thus whilst we are still talking of our straying away from home, and our folly and vice and iniquity behold, there the tale ceases; the house will be lighted, and there shall be mirth and joy and festival among the angels because the lost are found. Amen.

Verse 25

Varied Treatment.

"... David's place was empty." 1 Samuel 20:25 .

I. Some absent who might be expected to be present. ( a ) Children of good parents. ( b ) Those who have long been hearers of the word. ( c ) Those who have proved the vanity of the world for themselves.

II. Some apparently absent who are really present. ( a ) The timorous and fearful. ( b ) Those whose love is greater than their hope.

III. Some present who ought to be absent. ( a ) Hypocrites. ( b ) Schemers.

IV. Some absent on the most frivolous excuses. ( a ) Nothing worth hearing. ( b ) Inconsistencies of other people.

Application. ( a ) Are we afflicted by such absences? ( b ) How far are we responsible for them? ( c ) The work of the Church is not done so long as there is one absentee!

Verse 39

"But the lad knew not any thing." 1 Samuel 20:39 .

A sentence of this kind leads us to think of the unconscious ministries of life. "The "little lad" supposed that he was simply finding out arrows which were shot by Jonathan. May we not be doing work of this kind, and supposing all the time that we are occupied only with frivolous engagements? As a matter of fact we know very little about the mystery of life. In running an errand we may be carrying a gospel. In sitting in a sick chamber we may be connecting that room of dreariness and solitude with the very precincts of heaven itself. God sends us upon errands which look trivial; we suppose that we are almost wasting our time; we think that men of our abilities might be more profitably employed; let us be rebuked by the incident before us, for no man can really tell the issue of his simplest transactions. We are set for signs and tokens to other people. We know not what inferences are being drawn from our conduct. Again and again it is said that if such and such a man take such and such a course this or that will be the issue. The man in question is utterly ignorant of all the reasoning that is proceeding respecting his movements. Who can tell how we are watched by the angels? are they not all ministering spirits? Who knows the concealments of life: who may be in hiding places watching our conduct, what detectives may be upon our track, what traps may be set for our capture and overthrow? We are watched for evil as well as for good, for good as well as for evil. We say, What can it matter whether we go a few yards further, or a few yards shorter? Everything may depend even upon so trivial an incident as that. How marvellously a man's destiny is sometimes indicated. If a feather will tell how the wind blows, the accident of a moment, as we call accident, may show us the course of our whole future upon earth. Never despise the least services, for we know not with what benefactions they may be charged to others.

Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 20". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/1-samuel-20.html. 1885-95.
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