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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
MEPHIBOSHETH has been an enigma of motive and a study in self-interest from David's day down to our own day. Wherever the heart of man comes in you have always an enigma of motive and a study in self-interest. Wherever the heart of man plays a part you are soon out of your depth. There are many devices in a man's heart, and counsel in a man's heart is like deep water. The sacred writer sets us the enigma of Mephibosheth and his servant Ziba; but he gives us no hint at all as to how we are to decipher that enigma. He tells us Mephibosheth's story from the outside and on the surface, and so leaves us to make of the inside of it what we can. By that time both Mephibosheth and Ziba and David had long passed away; and already their motives and their mainsprings may well have become a sacred riddle in Israel. Given the story of Mephibosheth, and the story of Ziba, first at the flight of David and then at his victorious return, and then-was Mephibosheth a heartless, selfish, contemptible time-server, while Ziba, his servant, was a prince beside him? Or, was Ziba a lying scoundrel, and Mephibosheth a poor, innocent, ill-used, lameter saint? Let us see the surface of the story.
Mephibosheth was the son and heir of Jonathan, David's oldest and best friend. Mephibosheth, the future king of Israel, was only five years old when Jonathan his father, and Saul his grandfather, both fell in the same battle on Mount Gilboa, and with their fall their family fell from the throne. In the terror that took possession of Jonathan's household that terrible day, Mephibosheth's nurse caught up the child and fled with him in her arms. But in her haste she let the little prince fall, and from that fall Mephibosheth was lame in his feet all his days. Years pass on. David sits in the throne of Saul and Jonathan and Mephibosheth, and his enemies are all subdued round about David. In his remembrance of God's great mercies, and in the magnanimity of his heart, David often called Saul and Jonathan to mind. And David said, Is there yet any that is left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan's sake? And there was of the house of Saul a servant whose name was Ziba. And when they had called him unto David, the king said unto him, Art thou Ziba? And he said, Thy servant is he. And the king said, Is there not yet any of the house of Saul, that I may show the kindness of God to him? And Ziba said unto the king, Jonathan hath yet a son, which is lame on his feet. And the king said unto him, Where is he? And Ziba said unto the king, Behold, he is in the house of Machir, the son of Ammiel, from Lo-debar. Then King David sent and fetched Mephibosheth out of the house of Machir, the son of Ammiel, from Lo-debar. And David said unto him, Fear not, for I will surely show thee kindness for Jonathan, thy father's sake, and will restore thee all the lands of Saul thy father, and thou shalt eat bread at my table continually. So Mephibosheth dwelt in Jerusalem, for he did eat continually at the king's table, and was lame on both his feet.
Years passed on again, till Absalom by fair speeches and skilful courtesies had stolen the hearts of all Israel, of all of which Mephibosheth was a silent student, eating at David's table continually. And Absalom sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David's old counsellor, from his city, even from Giloh. And the conspiracy was strong, for the people increased continually with Absalom, but Mephibosheth still ate at the king's table. And there came a messenger to David, saying, The hearts of the men of Israel are gone after Absalom. And David said unto his servants, and to them that sat at his table, Arise, let us flee. And the king went forth, and all his household after him. But Mephibosheth was lame on both his feet. And when David was a little past the top of the hill, behold, Ziba, the servant of Mephibosheth, met David with a couple of asses saddled, and upon them two hundred loaves of bread, and an hundred bunches of raisins, and an hundred of summer fruits, and a bottle of wine. And the king said to Ziba, What meanest thou by these? And Ziba said, The asses be for the king's household to ride on, and the bread and the summer fruits for the young men to eat, and the wine that such as be faint in the wilderness may drink. And the king said, Where is thy master's son? And Ziba said to the king, Behold, he abideth in Jerusalem; for he said, Today shall the house of Israel restore to me the kingdom of my father. Then the king said to Ziba, Behold, thine are all that pertained to Mephibosheth. A few days after that the great battle was set in the wood of Ephraim, and of Absalom's side there was a great slaughter of twenty thousand men. And it was on that day that David went up to the chamber over the gate of Mahanaim, and wept; and as he went there he said, O my son Absalom; my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!
So the king returned and came to Jordan. And Shimei, who had cursed and stoned David on the day of his flight from Jerusalem, hasted first and came down to meet King David. And Shimei fell down before the king and said, Let not my lord impute iniquity unto me, neither do thou remember that which thy servant did perversely the day that my lord the king went out of Jerusalem, that the king should take it to his heart. For, behold, I am come the first this day to go down to meet my lord the king. And the king said to Shimei, Thou shalt not die. And the king sware unto him. And Mephibosheth also, the son of Saul, came down to meet the king. Our too otiose English is unjust to Mephibosheth; or else it has taken Mephibosheth's infirmity in his feet much too seriously. Mephibosheth was not so crippled in his intellects, at any rate, as to stay in Jerusalem till the king came home. He was too eager for that to congratulate the king on his victory. We all know how the mind overmasters the body, and makes us forget all about its lameness, on occasions. And Mephibosheth was at the Jordan all the way from Jerusalem almost as soon as Shimei himself. Four hundred years before, just at the same place, when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, they did work wilily, and went and made as if they had been ambassadors, and took old sacks upon their asses, and wine bottles old and rent and bound up, and old shoes and clouted upon their feet, and old garments upon them, and all the bread of their provisions was dry and mouldy. And Joshua said, Who are ye, and whence come ye? And they said, From a very far country thy servants are come, because of the name of the Lord thy God. And Joshua made a league with them, to let them live; and the princes of the congregation sware unto them. And all that about Joshua and the Gibeonites came back to David's mind when he saw Mephibosheth lifted down from off his ass. For Mephibosheth had not dressed his wooden feet, nor trimmed his beard, nor washed his clothes for grief, so he said, from the day that the king departed. Nor had he taken time today to make himself decent for such a journey, such was his joy that the king was coming back again to Jerusalem. Yes, but what came of thee that morning, Mephibosheth? asked David. I looked for thee, I was afraid that in the overthrow some evil had befallen thee. Thou art not able to bear arms for me; but thy father so strengthened my hands in God, that to have seen the face of his son that morning, and to have heard the voice of Jonathan's son would have done for me and for my cause what thy father did. My lord, said Mephibosheth-but 'the tale was as lame as the tale-bearer.' Ziba had stolen his ass just as he was mounting him to come with the king-and so on. David did not stoop to ask whose ass this was that Mephibosheth had got saddled so soon this morning. Say no more, Mephibosheth, said David, as he saw Jonathan's son crawling so abjectly before him. Dr. Kitto complains of David's tart answer to Mephibosheth. But if David was too tart, then with what extraordinary and saintly sweetness Mephibosheth received the over-tartness of the king. 'Let Ziba take all my estates today, forasmuch as my lord the king is come again in peace to his own house.' No, there was nothing cripple in Mephibosheth's intellects. 'Mephibosheth was a philosopher,' says Dr. Parker. 'I find no defect of his wits in Mephibosheth,' says honest Joseph Hall. And the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, because of the Lord's oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul.
Now, the first thing that goes to our hearts out of this miserable story is this, that Mephibosheth was the son of Jonathan. But Solomon, as he moralises in one place on fathers and sons with Jonathan and Mephibosheth before him, tells us to rejoice with trembling when our sons are born to us, for who knoweth whether they shall be wise men or fools?
Rarely into the branches of the tree
Doth human worth mount up: and so ordains
He who bestows it, that as His free gift
It may be called.
The poor child's accident while he was yet a child may well have been at the bottom of it all. Diminutive and dwarfed persons, deformed persons, and greatly crippled persons are sometimes so thrown in upon themselves as to make them melancholy, morbid, and misanthropic. If their hearts are bad, their bodily disabilities will sometimes work in their hearts to a deep and a malignant wickedness. Both true history and truthful fiction have taken firm hold of this frequent fact in human life. I do not know that the other side has been so often brought out-that great bodily infirmity and disability, alongside of a renewed and a humble heart, will sometimes result in a sweetness and a saintliness of a most uncommon kind. In poor Mephibosheth's case, it would seem as if his early and life-long infirmity, taken along with the hopeless loss of his brilliant prospects, had all eaten into his heart till he became the false, selfish, scheming creature that David found him out to be.
Hephæstion loved Alexander, while Craterus loved the king. And Jonathan was like Hephæstion in this, that he loved David at all times, whereas his son Mephibosheth resembled Craterus in this, that he preferred David on the throne to David off the throne. Jonathan strengthened David's hand in God in the wood of Ziph; but Mephibosheth, like another classical character, fled the empty cask. How Mephibosheth's heart had overflowed with gratitude to David when the royal command came that he was to leave Machir's house in Lo-debar, and was henceforth to take up his quarters in the king's house in Jerusalem! All Mephibosheth's morosity and misanthropy melted off his heart that day. But such was Mephibosheth at the bottom of his heart that, as he continued to eat at David's table, Satan entered into Mephibosheth and said to him in his heart that all this was his own by original and divine right. All this wealth, and power, and honour, and glory. But for the bad fortune of his father's royal house on Mount Gilboa, all this would today have been his own. 'Ingratitude,' says Mozley, 'is not only a species of injustice, it is the highest species of injustice.' And the ingratitude of Mephibosheth grew at David's table to this high injustice, that he waited for both David and Absalom to be chased out of Jerusalem, that he might take their place. There is no baser heart than an ungrateful heart. And it was Mephibosheth's ungrateful heart that prepared him for the baseness that he was found out in both at the flight of David and at his victorious return.
The virtues were invited once
To banquet with the Lord of All:
They came,-the great ones rather grim,
And not so pleasant as the small.
They talked and chatted o'er the meal,
They even laughed with temp'rate glee;
And each one knew the other well,
And all were good as good could be.
Benevolence and Gratitude
Alone of all seemed strangers yet;
They stared when they were introduced,-
On earth they never once had met.
Dean Milman says that the writings both of Tacitus and Dante are full of remorse. And it is, as I believe, in our own remorse that we shall find the true key to Mephibosheth's heart and character. When a government goes out of power, when a church is under a cloud, when religion has lost her silver slippers, and when she walks in the shadow of the street, and when any friend of ours has lost his silver slippers-then we discover Mephibosheth in ourselves, and hate both him and ourselves like hell. And commentators have taken sides over the case of Mephibosheth very much as they have found that contemptible creature skulking in themselves, and have had bitter remorse on account of him. 'I am full of self-love, fear to confess Thee, or to hazard myself, or my estate, or my peace.… My perplexity continues as to whether I shall move now or not, stay or return, hold by Lauderdale, or make use of the Bishop. I went to Sir George Mushet's funeral, where I was looked at, as I thought, like a speckled bird.… I find great averseness in myself to suffering. I am afraid to lose life or estate. Shall I forbear to hear that honest minister, James Urquhart, for a time, seeing the stone is like to fall on me if I do so?' And then our modern Mephibosheth has the grace to add in his diary, 'A grain of sound faith would easily answer all these questions. I have before me Mr. Rutherford's letter desiring me to deny myself.' And though you will not easily believe it, the author of that letter himself has enough of Jonathan's crippled and disinherited son still in himself to give a tang of remorse to some of his very best letters. 'Oh,' agonises Samuel Rutherford, 'if I were only free of myself! Myself is another devil, and as evil as the prince of devils. Myself! Myself! Every man blames the devil for his sins, but the house and heart devil of every man is himself. I think I shall die still but minting and aiming to be a Christian man!'
This, then, is the prize for finding out that enigma of motive, Mephibosheth's hidden heart. This is the first prize, to receive of God the inward eye to discover Mephibosheth ever deeper down in ourselves. And the eye never to let Mephibosheth for a moment out of our sight as he sits at David's table feeding his ingratitude, and his duplicity, and his calculation of his chances. To see him also as he waits on providence in Jerusalem to hear how the battle is to go. And then to see him in his hurry to get to Jordan, where he arrives by a sport of providence just at the same moment with Shimei. If all that is the riddle of the sacred writer, and if all that is the right answer, then the reward of our skill is that we shall be made both able and willing to see Mephibosheth in everything in ourselves. For are we not told that all these Old Testament men are there as our examples? And that the wheel of providence is still turning in our day as it turned in their day? One man goes up on that wheel of God and another man goes down. One cause prospers and another cause decays. And in the manifold wisdom of God it is all ordered and overruled, as if both the wheel, and He whose wheel it is, and all the men, and movements, and governments, and churches, and everything else that is tied to that wheel were all tied to it and lifted, now up and now down, in order to discover us to ourselves, and to send us to His feet, who will not cast away even Mephibosheth himself if he comes to His feet in time. Our own good name and fame also, all our possessions, and all our expectations are all tied on to that wheel, for our hearts to be discovered and denounced, and for deliverance to be wrought in us from the dominion of such a heart. Every day, by the sovereign and electing grace of God, we are surely making some way in this knowledge of the wickedness past finding out of our own hearts, and some progress in the clearing out and conquest of that wickedness. Every day we are surely putting ourselves more and more in the place of our neighbour, and are doing more and more to him as we would he did to us. Till at last-O blessed hope!-every tang and taint of Mephibosheth's heart shall be taken out of us, and till truth, and righteousness, and fidelity, and gratitude, and courage, and love shall for ever reign in us and around us and over us. Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus!
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Mephibosheth'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wbc/m/mephibosheth.html. 1901.
the Third Week after Epiphany