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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 20

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-42



1 Samuel 20:1-42.

WE have no means of determining how long time elapsed between the events recorded in the preceding chapter and those recorded in this. It is not unlikely that Saul’s experience at Naioth led to a temporary improvement in his relations to David. The tone of this chapter leads us to believe that at the time when it opens there was some room for doubt whether or not Saul continued to cherish any deli- berate ill-feeling to his son-in-law. David’s own suspicions were strong that he did; but Jonathan appears to have thought otherwise. Hence the earnest conversation which the two friends had on the subject; and hence the curious but crooked stratagem by which they tried to find out the truth.

But before we go on to this, it will be suitable for us at this place to dwell for a little on the remarkable friendship between David and Jonathan - a beautiful oasis in this wilderness history, - one of the brightest gems in this book of Samuel.

It was a striking proof of the ever mindful and considerate grace of God, that at the very opening of the dark valley of trial through which David had to pass in consequence of Saul’s jealousy, he was brought into contact with Jonathan, and in his disinterested and sanctified friendship, furnished with one of the sweetest earthly solaces for the burden of care and sorrow. The tempest suddenly let loose on him must have proved too vehement, if he had been left in Saul’s dark palace without one kind hand to lead him on, or the sympathy of one warm heart to encourage him; the spirit of faith might have declined more seriously than it did, had it not been strengthened by the bright faith of Jonathan. It was plain that Michal, though she had a kind of attachment to David, was far from having a thoroughly congenial heart; she loved him, and helped to save him, but at the same time bore false witness against him (1 Samuel 19:17). In his deepest sorrows, David could have derived little comfort from her. Whatever gleams of joy and hope, therefore, were now shed by human companionship across his dark firmament, were due to Jonathan. In merciful adaptation to the infirmities of his human spirit, God opened to him this stream in the desert, and allowed him to refresh himself with its pleasant waters; but to show him, at the same time, that such supplies could not be permanently relied on, and that his great dependence must be placed, not on the fellowship of mortal man, but on the ever-living and ever-loving God, Jonathan and he were doomed, after the briefest period of companionship, to a lifelong separation, and the friendship which had seemed to promise a perpetual solace of his trials, only aggravated their severity, when its joys were violently reft away.

In another view, David’s intercourse with Jonathan served an important purpose in his training. The very sight he constantly had of Saul’s outrageous wickedness might have nursed a self-righteous feeling, - might have encouraged the thought, so agreeable to human nature, that as Saul was rejected by God for his wickedness, so David was chosen for his goodness. The remembrance of Jonathan’s singular virtues and graces was fitted to rebuke this thought; for if regard to human goodness had decided God’s course in the matter, why should not Jonathan have been appointed to succeed his father? From the self-righteous ground on which he might have been thus tempted to stand, David would be thrown back on the adorable sovereignty of God; and in deepest humiliation constrained to own that it was God’s grace only that made him to differ from others.

Ardent friendships among young men were by no means uncommon in ancient times; many striking instances occurred among the Greeks, which have sometimes been accounted for by the comparatively low estimation in which female society was then held. ’’The heroic companions celebrated by Homer and others," it has been remarked, "seem to have but one heart and soul, with scarcely a wish or object apart, and only to live, as they are always ready to die, for one another. . . . The idea of a Greek hero seems not to have been thought complete without such a brother in arms by his side."* (*Thirlwall’s ’’History of Greece. ’’)

But there was one feature of the friendship of Jonathan and David that had no parallel in classic times, - it was friendship between two men, of whom the younger was a most formidable rival to the older. It is Jonathan that shines most in this friendship, for he was the one who had least to gain and most to lose from the other. He knew that David was ordained by God to succeed to his father’s throne, yet he loved him; he knew that to befriend David was to offend his father, yet he warmly befriended him; he knew that he must decrease and David increase, yet no atom of jealousy disturbed his noble spirit. What but divine grace could have enabled Jonathan to maintain this blessed temper? What other foundation could it have rested on but the conviction that what God ordained must be the very best, infinitely wise and good for him and for all? Or what could have filled the heart thus bereaved of so fair an earthly prospect, but the sense of God’s love, and the assurance that He would compensate to him all that He took from him? How beautiful was this fruit of the Spirit of God! How blessed it would be if such clusters hung on every branch of the vine!

Besides being disinterested, Jonathan’s friendship for David was of an eminently holy character. Evidently Jonathan was a man that habitually honoured God, if not in much open profession, yet in the way of deep reverence and submission. And thus, besides being able to surrender his own prospects without a murmur, and feel real happiness in the thought that David would be king, he could strengthen the faith of his friend, as we read afterwards (1 Samuel 23:16): ’’Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose and went to David into the wood, and strengthened his hand in God." At the time when they come together in the chapter before us, Jonathan’s faith was stronger than David’s. David’s faltering heart was saying, ’’There is but a step between me and death" (1 Samuel 20:3), while Jonathan in implicit confidence in God’s purpose concerning David was thus looking forward to the future, - "Thou shalt not only while yet I live show me the kindness of the Lord that I die not; but also thou shalt not cut off thy kindness from my house for ever; no, not when the Lord hath cut off the enemies of David everyone from the face of the earth." There has seldom, if ever, been exhibited a finer instance of triumphant faith, than when the prince, with all the resources of the kingdom at his beck, made this request of the helpless outlaw. What a priceless blessing is the friendship of those who support and comfort us in great spiritual conflicts, and help us to stand erect in some great crisis of our lives! How different from the friendship that merely supplies the merriment of an idle hour, at the expense, perhaps, of a good conscience, and to the lasting injury of the soul!

But let me now briefly note the events recorded in this chapter. It is a long chapter, one of those long chapters in which incidents are recorded with such fullness of detail, as not only to make a very graphic narrative, but to supply an incidental proof of its authenticity.

First of all, we have the preliminary conversation between David and Jonathan, as to the real feeling of Saul toward David. Incidentally, we learn how much Saul leant on Jonathan: ’’My father will do nothing, either great or small, but he will show it me," - a proof that Jonathan was, like Joseph before him, and like Daniel after him, eminently trustworthy, and as sound in judgment as he was noble in character. Guileless himself, he suspected no guile in his father. But David was not able to take so favourable a view of Saul. So profound was his conviction to the contrary, that in giving his reason for believing that Saul had concealed from his son his real feeling in the matter, and the danger in which he was, he used the solemn language of adjuration: ’’As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death." Viewed from the human point, this was true; viewed from under the Divine purpose and promise, it could not be true. Yet we cannot blame David, knowing as he did what Saul really felt, for expressing his human fears, and the distress of mind to which the situation gave birth.

Next, we find a device agreed on between David and Jonathan, to ascertain the real sentiments of Saul. It was one of those deceitful ways to which, very probably, David had become accustomed in his military experiences, in his forays against the Philistines, where stratagems may have been, as they often were, a common device. It was probable that David would be missed from Saul’s table next day, as it was the new moon and a feast; if Saul inquired after him, Jonathan was to pretend that he had asked leave to go to a yearly family sacrifice at Bethlehem; and the way in which Saul should take this explanation would show his real feeling and purpose about David. In the event of Saul being enraged, and commanding Jonathan to bring David to him, David implored Jonathan not to comply; rather kill him with his own hand than that; for there was nothing that David dreaded so much as falling into the hands of Saul. Jonathan surely did not deserve that it should be thought possible for him to surrender David to his father, or to conceal anything from him that had any bearing on his welfare. But inasmuch as David had put the matter in the form he did, it seemed right to Jonathan that a very solemn transaction should take place at this time, to make their relation as clear as day, and to determine the action of the stronger of them to the other, in time to come.

This is the third thing in the chapter. Jonathan takes David into the field, that is, into some sequestered Wady, at some distance from the town, where they would be sure to enjoy complete solitude; and there they enter into a solemn covenant. Jonathan takes the lead. He begins with a solemn appeal to God, calling on Him not as a matter of mere form or propriety, but of real and profound significance. First, he binds himself to communicate faithfully to David the real state of things on the part of his father, whether it should be for good or for evil. And then he binds David, whom by faith he sees in possession of the kingly power, in spite of all that Saul may do against him, first to be kind to himself while he lived, and not cut him off, as new kings so often massacred all the relations of the old; and also after his death to show kindness to his family, and never cease to remember them, not even when raised to such a pitch of prosperity that all his enemies were cut off from the earth. One knows not whether most to wonder at the faith of Jonathan, or the sweetness of his nature. It is David, the poor outlaw, with hardly a man to stand by him, that appears to Jonathan the man of power, the man who can dispose of all lives and sway all destinies; while Jonathan, the king’s son and confidential adviser, is somehow reduced to helplessness, and unable even to save himself. But was there ever such a transaction entered into with such sweetness of temper? The calmness of Jonathan in contemplating the strange reverse of fortune both to himself and to David, is exquisitely beautiful; nor is there in it a trace of that servility with which mean natures worship the rising sun; it is manly and generous while it is meek and humble; such a combination of the noble and the submissive as was shown afterwards, in highest form, in the one perfect example of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Next conies a statement of the way in which Jonathan was to announce to David the result. It might not be safe for him to see David personally, but in that case he would let him know what had transpired about him through a preconcerted signal, in reference to the place where he would direct an attendant to go for some arrows. As it happened, a personal interview was obtained with David; but before that, the telegraphing with the arrows was carried out as arranged.

On the first day of the feast, David’s absence passed unnoticed, Saul being under the impression that he had acquired ceremonial uncleanness. But as that excuse could only avail for one day, Saul finding him absent the second day, asked Jonathan what had become of him. The excuse agreed on was given. It excited the deepest rage of Saul. But his rage was not against David so much as against Jonathan for taking his part. Saul did not believe in the excuse, otherwise he would not have ordered Jonathan to send and fetch David. If David was at Bethlehem, Saul could have sent for him himself; if he lay concealed in the neighbourhood, Jonathan alone would know his hiding-place, therefore Jonathan must get hold of him. If this be the true view, the stratagem of Jonathan had availed nothing; the plain truth would have served the purpose no worse. As it was, Jonathan’s own life was in the most imminent danger. Remonstrating with his father for seeking to destroy David, he narrowly escaped his father’s javelin, even though, a moment before, in his jealousy of David, Saul had professed to be concerned for the interests of Jonathan. "Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and to the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?" What Strange and unworthy methods will not angry men and women resort to, to put vinegar into their words and make them sting! To try to wound a man’s feelings by reviling his mother, or by reviling any of his kindred, is a practice confined to the dregs of society, and nauseous, to the last degree, to every gentle and honourable mind. In Saul’s case, the offence was still more infamous because the woman reviled was his own wife. Surely if her failings reflected on any one, they reflected on her husband rather than her son. But that it was any real failing that Saul denounced when he called her ’’the perverse rebellious woman," we greatly doubt. To a man like Saul, any assertion of her rights by his wife, any refusal to be his abject slave, any opposition to his wild and wicked designs against David, would mean perversity and rebellion. We are far from thinking ill of this nameless woman because her husband denounced her to her son. But when we see Saul in one breath trying to kill his son with a javelin and to destroy his wife’s character by poisoned words, and at the same time thirsting for the death of his son-in-law, we have a mournful exhibition of the depth to which men are capable of descending from whom the Spirit of the Lord hath departed.

No wonder that Jonathan arose from the table in fierce anger, and did eat no meat the second day of the month. One wonders how the feast went on thereafter, but one does not envy the guests. Did Saul drown his stormy feelings in copious draughts of wine, and turn the holy festival into a bacchanalian rout, amid whose boisterous mirth and tempestuous exhilaration the reproaches of conscience would be stifled for the hour?

The third day has come, on which, by preconcerted agreement, Jonathan was to reveal to David his father’s state of mind. David is in the agreed-on hiding-place; and Jonathan, sallying forth with his servant, shoots his arrows to the place which was to indicate the existence of danger. Then, the lad having gone back to the city, and no one being on the spot to observe them or interrupt them, the two friends come together and have an affecting meeting. When Jonathan parted from David three days before, he had not been without hopes of bringing to him a favourable report of his father. David expected nothing of the kind; but even David must have been shocked and horrified to find things so bad as they were now reported. In an act of unfeigned reverence for the king’s son, David bowed himself three times to the ground. In token of much love they kissed one another; while under the dark cloud of adversity that had risen on them both, and that now compelled them to separate, hardly ever again (as it turned out) to see one another in the flesh, "they wept one with another until David exceeded."

’’They wept as only strong men weep,

When weep they must, or die."

One consolation alone remained, and it was Jonathan that was able to apply it. ’’Jonathan said to David, Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, The Lord be between me and thee, and between my seed and thy seed forever." Yes, even in that darkest hour, Jonathan could say to David, ’’Go in peace.’’ What peace?" Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee." "The angel of the Lord encampeth about them that fear Him, and delivereth them." "Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivereth them out of them all." We cannot turn from this chapter without adding a word on the friendships of the young. It is when hearts are tender that they are most readily knit to each other, as the heart of Jonathan was knit to the heart of David. But the formation of friendships is too important a matter to be safely left to casual circumstances. It ought to be gone about with care. If you have materials to choose among, see that you choose the best. At the foundation of all friendship lies con- geniality of heart - a kindred feeling of which one often becomes conscious by instinct at first sight. But there must also be elements of difference in friends. It is a great point to have a friend who is above us in some things, and who will thus be likely to draw us up to a higher level of character, instead of dragging us down to a lower. And a friend is very useful, if he is rich in qualities where we are poor. As is in In Memoriam-

’’He was rich where I was poor,

And he supplied my want the more

As his unlikeness fitted mine."

But surely, of all qualities in a friend or companion who is to do us good, the most vital is, that he fears the Lord. As such friendships are by far the most pleasant, so they are by far the most profitable. And when you have made friends, stick by them. Don’t let it be said of you that your friend seemed to be everything to you yesterday, but nothing to-day. And if your friends rise above you in the world, rejoice in their prosperity, and banish every envious feeling; or if you should rise above them, do not forget them, nor forsake them, but, as if you had made a covenant before God, continue to show kindness to them and to their children after them. Pray for them, and ask them to pray for you.

Perhaps it was with some view to the friendship of Jonathan and his father that Solomon wrote, "There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother." Jonathan was such a friend to David. But the words suggest a higher friendship. The glory of Jonathan’s love for David fades before our Lord’s love for His brethren. If Jonathan were living among us, who of us could look on him with indifference? Would not our hearts warm to him, as we gazed on his noble form and open face, even though we had never been the objects of his affection? In the case of Jesus Christ, we have all the noble qualities of Jonathan in far higher excellence than his, and we have this further consideration, that for us He has laid down His life, and that none who receive His friendship can ever be separated from His love. And what an elevating and purifying effect that friendship will have! In alliance with Him, you are in alliance with all that is pure and bright, all that is transforming and beautifying; all that can give peace to your conscience, joy to your heart, lustre to your spirit, and beauty to your life; all that can make your garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia; all that can bless you and make you a blessing. And once you are truly His, the bond can never be severed; David had to tear himself from Jonathan, but you will never have to tear yourselves from Christ. Your union is cemented by the blood of the everlasting covenant; and by the eternal efficacy of the prayer, ’’Father, I will that they also whom Thou hast given me be with me where I am."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 20". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/1-samuel-20.html.
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