1 Samuel 20 – Jonathan’s Final Attempt to Reconcile His Father and David
A. David, coming from Naioth, meets Jonathan.
1. (1-4) David asks Jonathan about Saul’s intentions towards him; Jonathan promises his help to David.
Then David fled from Naioth in Ramah, and went and said to Jonathan, “What have I done? What is my iniquity, and what is my sin before your father, that he seeks my life?” So Jonathan said to him, “By no means! You shall not die! Indeed, my father will do nothing either great or small without first telling me. And why should my father hide this thing from me? It is not so!” Then David took an oath again, and said, “Your father certainly knows that I have found favor in your eyes, and he has said, ‘Do not let Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved.’ But truly, as the LORD lives and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death.” So Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you yourself desire, I will do it for you.”
a. Then David fled from Naioth: The Spirit of God protected David in Naioth in a powerful way. He could have simply stayed there for however long it took Saul to give up or die. Yet David left for a good reason: He wanted to know if Saul’s heart had changed and if there was still a chance to reconcile with Saul.
b. What have I done? Here David checked his relationship with Jonathan. He wanted to know what Saul thought but it was more important for David to know what Jonathan thought. In asking, “What have I done?” David wanted to know if Jonathan had come to a place of agreement with his father Saul.
c. So Jonathan said to him, “By no means!” This assured David that Jonathan was still his loyal friend and that Jonathan hadn’t bought into Saul’s lies about David. Jonathan also assured David of his protection by warning David of Saul’s intentions.
i. Why should my father hide this thing from me? It is not so: Apparently, David wondered why Jonathan didn’t tell him about the attempted arrest at Naioth. Jonathan expressed astonishment that his father did not tell him but assures David of his heart towards him.
d. There is but a step between me and death: This reveals David’s discouragement. He knew that Saul had attempted to kill him many times, and it seemed Saul would not quit until David was gone. David felt that his death was inevitable and that he walked on a slippery plank over a great canyon.
e. Whatever you yourself desire, I will do it for you: Jonathan continued to reassure David, bringing encouragement and an offer of help to a discouraged man. Conceivably, he could have said, “Where is your faith, brother? Why aren’t you just trusting God?” Instead, Jonathan knew David’s heart was pointed in the right direction, and he offered to help.
2. (5-11) David proposes to test Saul’s attitude.
And David said to Jonathan, “Indeed tomorrow is the New Moon, and I should not fail to sit with the king to eat. But let me go, that I may hide in the field until the third day at evening. If your father misses me at all, then say, ‘David earnestly asked permission of me that he might run over to Bethlehem, his city, for there is a yearly sacrifice there for all the family.’ If he says thus: ‘It is well,’ your servant will be safe. But if he is very angry, be sure that evil is determined by him. Therefore you shall deal kindly with your servant, for you have brought your servant into a covenant of the LORD with you. Nevertheless, if there is iniquity in me, kill me yourself, for why should you bring me to your father?” But Jonathan said, “Far be it from you! For if I knew certainly that evil was determined by my father to come upon you, then would I not tell you?” Then David said to Jonathan, “Who will tell me, or what if your father answers you roughly?” And Jonathan said to David, “Come, let us go out into the field.” So both of them went out into the field.
a. If your father misses me: David asked Jonathan to observe Saul’s reaction to David’s absence at an important feast held monthly for the high officials of state. David wondered if Saul would take the opportunity to reconcile or take the opportunity to kill him.
i. The New Moon, and I should not fail to sit with the king to eat: Special sacrifices were commanded for the new moon (Numbers 28:11-15), at the beginning of each month on the Jewish calendar.
b. If there is iniquity in me: Again, David seems somewhat shaken by the fact that Jonathan did not tell him about the attempted arrest at Naioth. David is asking Jonathan, “Am I in the wrong here? Are you still behind me?” Essentially, David says “If you really are working for your father and agree with him that I deserve to die, then just kill me now.”
i. We have to see all of this from David’s perspective. He realized that Jonathan’s support for him was challenged by the fact that his father was against David. He also realized that Jonathan’s support for him was challenged by the fact that Jonathan was next in line for the throne and therefore might set himself against David.
ii. Jonathan’s response is the same as in 1 Samuel 20:2. He didn’t know that Saul set out to get David at Naioth, though previously his father told him everything.
c. Far be it from you! With this encouragement Jonathan told David to no longer doubt his loyalty. Jonathan senses that David is in a vulnerable place and he wants to give him encouragement in the midst of it.
d. Who will tell me: David now poses a practical problem. If Saul has determined evil against David and Jonathan intends to warn him, how will he do it? How will Jonathan get the message to David?
B. Jonathan’s agreement.
1. (12-13) Jonathan will discover the state of his father’s heart towards David.
Then Jonathan said to David: “The LORD God of Israel is witness! When I have sounded out my father sometime tomorrow, or the third day, and indeed there is good toward David, and I do not send to you and tell you, may the LORD do so and much more to Jonathan. But if it pleases my father to do you evil, then I will report it to you and send you away, that you may go in safety. And the LORD be with you as He has been with my father.
a. When I have sounded out my father: Jonathan will find out his father’s heart and will report it to David, to say if it is good or bad towards David.
b. And send you away, that you may go in safety: Jonathan knows that if his father Saul intends evil against David it means that David must go away. He would not be welcome again in the palace and he would not be safe again at home. By giving David an early warning of this, Jonathan will help David go in safety.
c. And the LORD will be with you as He has been with my father: Jonathan wanted to give David more than a warning; he wanted to also give him encouragement. “David, even if you must leave the palace and your home behind and flee as a fugitive, the LORD will be with you. You can be sure of it.”
i. Jonathan shows his spiritual maturity when he says, “as He has been with my father,” because one might think that the LORD was really against Saul instead of for him. Jonathan knew that God was really for Saul because God offered Saul opportunities for repentance.
2. (14-17) In response, Jonathan asks David to commit himself in a covenant.
“And you shall not only show me the kindness of the LORD while I still live, that I may not die; but you shall not cut off your kindness from my house forever, no, not when the LORD has cut off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.” So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “Let the LORD require it at the hand of David’s enemies.” Now Jonathan again caused David to vow, because he loved him; for he loved him as he loved his own soul.
a. You shall not cut off your kindness from my house forever: Jonathan was aware of the political dynamic between the family of David and the family of Jonathan. In those days when one royal house replaced another it was common for the new royal house to kill all the potential rulers from the old royal house. Jonathan knew that one day David and his descendants would rule over Israel and he wanted a promise that David and his descendants would not kill or mistreat the descendants of Jonathan.
b. So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David: Jonathan and David agreed to care for one another. Jonathan agreed to care for David in the face of Saul’s threat and David agreed to care for Jonathan and his family in the future. David fulfilled this promise to Jonathan (2 Samuel 9:1-8 and 21:7).
3. (18-23) Jonathan proposes a signal to inform David of Saul’s reaction.
Then Jonathan said to David, “Tomorrow is the New Moon; and you will be missed, because your seat will be empty. And when you have stayed three days, go down quickly and come to the place where you hid on the day of the deed; and remain by the stone Ezel. Then I will shoot three arrows to the side, as though I shot at a target; and there I will send a lad, saying, ‘Go, find the arrows.’ If I expressly say to the lad, ‘Look, the arrows are on this side of you; get them and come’—then, as the LORD lives, there is safety for you and no harm. But if I say thus to the young man, ‘Look, the arrows are beyond you’—go your way, for the LORD has sent you away. And as for the matter which you and I have spoken of, indeed the LORD be between you and me forever.”
a. I will shoot three arrows: After Jonathan learned his father’s heart and intention towards David, he would communicate to David through a signal. Jonathan would take target practice and where he shot the arrows would tell David the answer.
b. Three arrows: These would bring one of two messages. Either Saul’s heart has changed towards David and there is safety for you, or Saul was still determined to kill David and the LORD has sent you away.
i. This was a crucial time in David’s life. Either he would be welcomed back to the palace and his home or he would be a fugitive until Saul gave up the hunt for David. A lot depended on the message brought through a few arrows.
C. Saul’s settled hatred towards David.
1. (24-34) Saul is enraged when he learns of David’s absence.
Then David hid in the field. And when the New Moon had come, the king sat down to eat the feast. Now the king sat on his seat, as at other times, on a seat by the wall. And Jonathan arose, and Abner sat by Saul’s side, but David’s place was empty. Nevertheless Saul did not say anything that day, for he thought, “Something has happened to him; he is unclean, surely he is unclean.” And it happened the next day, the second day of the month, that David’s place was empty. And Saul said to Jonathan his son, “Why has the son of Jesse not come to eat, either yesterday or today?” So Jonathan answered Saul, “David earnestly asked permission of me to go to Bethlehem. And he said, ‘Please let me go, for our family has a sacrifice in the city, and my brother has commanded me to be there. And now, if I have found favor in your eyes, please let me get away and see my brothers.’ Therefore he has not come to the king’s table.” Then Saul’s anger was aroused against Jonathan, and he said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, you shall not be established, nor your kingdom. Now therefore, send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.” And Jonathan answered Saul his father, and said to him, “Why should he be killed? What has he done?” Then Saul cast a spear at him to kill him, by which Jonathan knew that it was determined by his father to kill David. So Jonathan arose from the table in fierce anger, and ate no food the second day of the month, for he was grieved for David, because his father had treated him shamefully.
a. But David’s place was empty: David was expected to be at this special feast of the New Moon, and so his absence was clearly noticed. At first, this did not trouble Saul greatly because he thought, “Something has happened to him; he is unclean, surely he is unclean.” Ceremonial uncleanness might cause a person to miss a feast such as this but the ceremonial uncleanness only lasted a day (Leviticus 22:3-7). So when it happened the next day…that David’s place was empty, Saul demanded an explanation.
i. Meyer on the son of Jesse: “Speaking of him derisively as ‘the son of Jesse,’ thus accentuating his lowly birth, and ignoring the relationship that bound him to the royal family.”
b. Jonathan answered Saul, “David earnestly asked permission of me to go to Bethlehem”: Jonathan covered for David, trying to give Saul a plausible (and truthful) explanation for David’s absence.
i. “It seems probable that he went first to Bethlehem, as he bade Jonathan to tell his father, verse 6, and thence returned to the field, when the occasion required; else we must charge him with a downright lie, which ought not to be imagined (without any apparent cause) concerning so good a man.” (Poole)
c. Saul’s anger was aroused…. You son of a perverse, rebellious woman: Jonathan knew from this response that Saul’s heart was settled on evil against David. If Saul’s heart was different towards David, he might have been disappointed but not furious.
d. He shall surely die: Certainly, this was Saul’s intention, despite his previous oath (As the LORD lives, he shall not be killed, 1 Samuel 19:6). Despite Saul’s intentions, David would not die at the hands of Saul or any other enemy. Man proposes, but God disposes.
e. Why should he be killed? What has he done? Jonathan responded by defending not only David but right in this cause. His support of David wasn’t blind support; it was based on what was right before the LORD. Jonathan’s support of David enraged Saul and Saul cast a spear at him to kill him. This shows how deep Saul’s hatred of David was – he would kill his own son for siding with David.
i. “Jonathan made one vain attempt to reason with the furious monarch; he might as well have tried to arrest the swelling of Jordan in the time of flood.” (Meyer)
2. (35-40) Jonathan reports to David through the signal of the arrows.
And so it was, in the morning, that Jonathan went out into the field at the time appointed with David, and a little lad was with him. Then he said to his lad, “Now run, find the arrows which I shoot.” As the lad ran, he shot an arrow beyond him. When the lad had come to the place where the arrow was which Jonathan had shot, Jonathan cried out after the lad and said, “Is not the arrow beyond you?” And Jonathan cried out after the lad, “Make haste, hurry, do not delay!” So Jonathan’s lad gathered up the arrows and came back to his master. But the lad did not know anything. Only Jonathan and David knew of the matter. Then Jonathan gave his weapons to his lad, and said to him, “Go, carry them to the city.”
a. Is not the arrow beyond you? It took courage for Jonathan to communicate with David, even secretly – because he knew that if his father became aware of it, he would focus his murderous rage against Jonathan again. Jonathan had a noble commitment to David as a friend.
i. “But there is something still nobler – when one dares in any company to avow his loyalty to the Lord Jesus. Like David, he is now in obscurity and disrepute; his name is not popular; his gospel is misrepresented; his followers are subjected to rebuke and scorn. These are days when to stand up for anything more than mere conventional religion must cost something; and for this reason let us never flinch.” (Meyer)
b. Jonathan and David knew of the matter: A small thing – the signal of a single arrow – told David his whole life was changed. He would no longer be welcome at the palace. He would no longer be welcome among the army of Israel. He could no longer go home. David was now a fugitive on the run from an angry, jealous king determined to destroy him.
i. Sometimes our life turns on a small thing. One night of carelessness may change a girl’s life forever. One night with the wrong crowd may give a boy an arrest record. It often does not seem fair that so much in life should turn on small moments, but a lifetime is made of nothing but many small moments.
3. (41-42) The tearful farewell of David and Jonathan.
As soon as the lad had gone, David arose from a place toward the south, fell on his face to the ground, and bowed down three times. And they kissed one another; and they wept together, but David more so. Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, since we have both sworn in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘May the LORD be between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants, forever.’” So he arose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city.
a. They wept together: David and Jonathan loved each other and had a strong bond of friendship. Jonathan and David probably envisioned working together, as partners, as friends; both before and after the time David became king. But now all that was gone because David couldn’t stay and Jonathan couldn’t go, so they wept together.
b. But David more so: If Jonathan had reason to weep, David had more so. The pain of being apart was bad enough, but it was worse for David because he was cut off from everything and destined to live the life of a fugitive for many years.
i. “Behind you is the sunny morning, before you a lowering sky; behind you the blessed enjoyment of friendship, wife, home, royal favor, and popular adulation, before you an outcast’s life.” (Meyer)
c. Go in peace, since we have both sworn in the name of the LORD: Jonathan knew he might never see David again. In fact, David and Jonathan will only meet once more, shortly before Jonathan’s death. Yet as David now left for a life of hiding and danger, Jonathan could send David away in peace because they both agreed to honor each other not only in life, but also to honor each other’s families beyond their own lifetimes.
d. So he arose and departed: David will not return to “normal life” until Saul is dead, and David is king. This was a pretty bleak road for David to walk, but it was God’s road for him.
i. Was David in God’s will? How can anyone set out on such a bleak road and be in the will of God? Because God often has His people spend at least some time on a bleak road, and He appoints some of His favorites to spend a lot of time on that road – think of Job, Joseph, Paul, and even Jesus.
ii. This bleak road was important in David’s life because if God would put David in a place where people must depend on him, God must teach David to depend upon Him alone. Not himself, not Saul, not Jonathan, not anyone except God
iii. This bleak road was important in David’s life because if David would be safe now and promoted to king later, David must learn to let God be his defense and his promoter.
iv. This bleak road was important in David’s life because if David would be set in such a great position of authority, David must learn to submit to God’s authority, even if it were through a man like Saul.
v. “Let God empty you out that He may save you from becoming spiritually stale, and lead you ever onward. He is always calling us to pass beyond the thing we know into the unknown. A throne is God’s purpose for you; a cross is God’s path for you; faith is God’s plan for you.” (Redpath)