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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 20

Grant's Commentary on the BibleGrant's Commentary

Verses 1-42

David however was fearful of the very presence of Saul at Naioth. He left there and returned back to find Jonathan, apparently hoping to find some possibility of help in Jonathan's further interceding with his father. He asks Jonathan what reason Saul had for being determined to kill him. This could be justified only if David were guilty of serious iniquity. Jonathan cannot believe his father would go that far: if so, he would have let Jonathan know. But David insists that Saul is firmly set on killing him, but in this case has concealed it from Jonathan because he knows Jonathan is friendly with David. In fact, he assured Jonathan "there is but a step between me and death" (v.3).

Between them they agree to a test as to this matter. The following day was the new moon, when as a rule David was required to have meats with the king, evidently over a period of three days. David proposes to be absent, and would hide in the countryside, but asks Jonathan to excuse him to Saul by telling him that David asked permission to go to Bethlehem to attend a yearly sacrifice for his family. Of course this was deception, which we must not think of defending, but if Saul should be agreeable to David's absence, this would give confidence that he was not now holding the enmity that had surfaced more than once. If Saul became angry, this would indicate his intention of killing David (v.7).

In this case David entreats the kind consideration of Jonathan, telling him too that if he (David) was guilty of iniquity, he would rather have Jonathan kill him than Saul. But Jonathan's friendship for David was real, and he freshly assures him that if he knew Saul was purposed to kill him, he would certainly not conceal it from David.

David then asks how Jonathan would communicate to David the information as to what Saul's attitude was after he had tested him (v.10). In answer Jonathan takes him out to a field, no doubt a wooded area. There he invokes the witness of the Lord God of Israel, that whether Saul showed a favorable attitude or whether he showed a hostile attitude, Jonathan would faithfully let David know. In the latter case he would send David away in peace, desiring the blessing of the Lord to go with him. He also asks David's consideration of his (Jonathan's) family, that he would show kindness to them when God would cut off David's enemies and establish him as king over Israel. This takes the form of a covenant, with David giving his oath to Jonathan, which Jonathan desired because he loved David as his own soul (vs.16-17).

Jonathan anticipated that though David would be missed even the first day of the new moon, yet that Saul would make no issue of it until later, so that he arranges with David that he should be present at the stone Ezel, hidden, on the third day. On that day Jonathan would come to that vicinity with bow and arrows, and a young boy with him (v.20). Such practicing of archery would be quite normal and would raise no suspicions on the part of the people.

In sending a boy to find three arrows, Jonathan would shoot them either short of where the boy was or beyond him. If short, he would call out to the boy that the arrows were on this side of him. This would indicate that Saul's intentions against David fell short of his actually desiring to kill him. But if he called to the boy that the arrows were beyond him, this would inform David that Saul would not stop short of killing him if he had the opportunity. In this case the only wise course would be for David to leave.

The day of the new moon finds Saul's court gathered to eat together, the chief men present with him. When Saul saw David's place empty he missed him, but said nothing, thinking that David must have contracted some ceremonial defilement and therefore could not be present until he was ceremonially cleansed from this (v.26). It seems strange that it did not occur to him that David might feel he was not safe in Saul's presence, specially since Saul had threatened his life more that once.

The second day, however, Saul questions Jonathan as to why ""the son of Jesse" was not present either the first of second day. When Jonathan answers that David had earnestly asked leave to go to Bethlehem since his family observed a sacrifice at the time, Saul was infuriated. A matter like this ought to have caused no objection whatever, but Saul's outburst showed that he only wanted David there so that he could kill him. His vicious anger is directed against Jonathan whom he calls the "son of a perverse, rebellious woman." Jonathan himself was not characterized by perverse rebellion, and this was a most cruel way of describing Jonathan's mother. Saul's unreasonable tirade only exposes the folly of his own pride. It was true that Jonathan had chosen David in preference to himself. But this was not to Jonathan's confusion. Saul said this because Saul thought Jonathan would have the same pride as his father in wanting to reign. His insulting language shows that he is ignorant of the dignity becoming to a king (v.30).

Why was Saul so concerned that Jonathan would not be established as king so long as David was alive? Was it because Saul loved Jonathan? No, it was because he loved himself, for his own pride involved pride of his family name. Jonathan had showed that he was perfectly willing that David should be king, as God had decreed (ch.18:1-4). But Saul was so enraged that he demanded that Jonathan should send and bring David to Saul to be killed. It is the sad characteristic of this world's rulers that they would rather see Christ dead than taking the reins of government.

Jonathan was not a mere "yes-man", however: he protested with the question, "Why should he be slain? what has he done?" Saul had no answer for this except to allow his bad temper to rise to such a height as to throw a javelin at his own son (v.33). If he had killed Jonathan, then he would have fulfilled his own words that Jonathan would not be established as king.

We can only approve Jonathan's fierce anger against his father, for his motives were not selfish. He was grieved for David, that Saul should have so shameful an attitude toward him. Yet he did not retaliate or speak insulting words to Saul as Saul had to him. He did show his displeasure by leaving the table and not eating that day. This shows that one may have fierce anger without losing control of his temper. Today we know that many have the same unwarranted hatred toward the Lord Jesus as Saul had toward David. We should feel this, but should still control our own temper as regards the matter. The righteous "fierce anger" of the Lord is recorded often in scripture (Jeremiah 4:8; Jeremiah 12:13; Jeremiah 25:37; Jeremiah 51:25 etc.)

The next morning (the third day) Jonathan took a boy with him out to the field at the time he had appointed with David (v.35), instructing the boy to find the arrows he shot. Shooting the arrow beyond him, he called out to the boy that the arrow was further. He shot more than the one arrow, for the boy obediently gathered up the arrows, whatever the number was, and brought them back to Jonathan. Jonathan then gave his bow and arrows to the boy and told him to return with them to the city. Though David had received his message, evidently Jonathan decided that he did not want David to leave without their speaking together.

When the boy who gathered up the arrows had gone, David came from his hiding place, fell on his face before Jonathan and bowed himself three times. Evidently David intended to show all due respect to King Saul through the person of his son Jonathan, and instead of being angered and resentful, would bow to the ordeal of being rejected and a fugitive (v.41). This spirit of true subjection to government is seen in perfection in the Lord Jesus, who did not resist though government was grossly unfair toward Him.

The cruelty of Saul, however, only strengthens the affections of Jonathan toward David. They kissed one another and wept "until David exceeded." As well as feeling the sorrow of his exile, David felt the pain of being separated from Jonathan. They part with the reminder to each other of their having sworn in the name of the Lord to remain faithful to one another and to each other's families, the Lord Himself being the Bond between them.

Bibliographical Information
Grant, L. M. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 20". Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lmg/1-samuel-20.html. 1897-1910.
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