By Samuel Ridout
David and Jonathan
1 Samuel 20.
As we have already seen, there is a marked contrast between Saul and his son Jonathan. Indeed, but for the relationship according to the flesh, there was nothing in common between them. Jonathan, in his initial conflict with the Philistines, in which the Lord wrought a great victory through him, and in a devotion to David which led him to strip himself of his own honors and place them at the feet of the victor, showed that faith which is the proof of a new life apart entirely from that which is born of the flesh.
Already there had been one well-nigh open breach between Saul and Jonathan which might have resulted fatally to the son, had it not been for the loyalty of the people who had delivered Jonathan from his self-righteous legal father. Jonathan, however, as son and natural successor of his father, would stand for that principle of government which is of God, and yet which, apart from divine grace, must go on deteriorating as it is handed down from father to son. This would have been impossible in the case of Jonathan, for faith does not grow old, and any measure of that is immeasurably superior to the strongest activities of nature.
Jonathan therefore occupies an anomalous position. As son of Saul, he owed him that filial respect and obedience which is the mark of every true child and which could not be arrayed against him in open rebellion. Indeed, we shall find as we go on with the history of Saul, that David himself never took up arms against him whom he always called "the Lord's anointed." It is this which is such a beautiful feature in the life of David and marks that meekness which was the foreshadow of Him who was "meek and lowly in heart."
Jonathan had already expressed in no equivocal way his attitude toward David. He had practically surrendered to him after the victory over Goliath and the Philistines, and later on, had loyally pled for him with his father, and with, as we see, temporary success. As the malignity of his father increases, Jonathan is constrained, as we shall find, to assume an attitude of devotion to David, which absolutely refuses to be identified with his persecution. It is this that we find in the chapter before us.
A further question as to Jonathan and his course confronts us at the close of what we shall now look at. Saul's enmity was so pronounced that there could no longer be the slightest question of a deliberately formed purpose to rid himself of David at all costs. David, therefore, as he had previously counted upon Jonathan's mediation, which had been temporarily successful, comes again to him, not now to seek his good offices in effecting a reconciliation which he realized to be impossible, but to bring matters to such an issue that there could be no mistake as to the enmity and the cause of it. He comes therefore to Jonathan, and asks boldly what his sin is against Saul for which he is seeking his life. Jonathan assures him that he is mistaken in this, for his father, he says, would do nothing without consulting him. David, however, reminds him of the well known devotion of Jonathan to himself which would cause the crafty Saul to keep to himself his sinister purpose.
In spite of Saul's assurance to Jonathan that David should not die, the pathetic words of the fugitive, "There is but a step between me and death," told the exact truth. So, too, it was with David's Son and Lord, as He went from place to place throughout this very land of Israel, practically a fugitive from the pursuing malignity of His enemies. His death was decreed early in His course and it was only the providence of God and His restraining hand that kept our Lord from His persecutors. There was ever "but a step" between Him and death.
When David thus appeals to Jonathan, he gets an immediate and a loyal reply. Whatever he has to propose in order to ascertain the reality of Saul's attitude, Jonathan is ready to acquiesce in. David therefore suggests a plan which will manifest everything, and while we cannot look upon it exactly as the feast to which Samuel came at Bethlehem at the time of his anointing, there are certain points of similarity. David had the right, and would naturally go to his home at the time of the feast of the new moon but there does not seem to be the same open seeking of protection against Saul as is suggested in the sacrifice which Samuel took, but rather it is used as a test to draw out what is in Saul's heart. Remembering that David is but a man, we need not seek to justify every detail here, and we must also be slow to condemn him for what was distinctly within his rights. As a matter of fact, he does not seem to have gone to his father's house at all. We therefore leave this, only calling attention to the possible feebleness of the faith which would resort to this course. We hardly think that any would feel that our Lord would have done exactly the same.
The feast of the new moon was the celebration of the beginning of a new period of time, marked, however, not by the yearly revolution of the sun, but the monthly reappearing of the moon. It is typical of the new phases of blessing for Israel; may we not see in it a suggestion that in David himself, thus anointed as king and openly separated from poor Saul, whose light indeed had been eclipsed, there was the advent of a new era for Israel? The nation still must wait for the rising, not of a moon, not of some earthly satellite, but of the Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings, to bring in the new day for them and for the earth.
David's place, according to court etiquette, would be at the king's table, at the feast of the new moon. Should Saul miss him and inquire after him, Jonathan was instructed to resort to the ruse above described. If, then, Saul should acquiesce, all was well; but if he was enraged at it, it would be a clear indication that his motive for desiring David's presence was evil.
Having settled this, David repeats that if there is indeed iniquity in him, he does not refuse the extremest judgment that may be inflicted. Let Jonathan himself smite him. Of course, Jonathan rejects any such thought, and engages to do all that had been asked. He reminds David, too, that were there the slightest evidence of danger, he would warn him.
The next question is, how is David to find out the result of their plan to discover the mind of Saul? It would not do for him openly to return to the vicinity where there were many who doubtless would have been willing to sacrifice his life to gain favor with king Saul. For Jonathan, too, in the jealous condition of his father, to absent himself for any great length of time would have aroused suspicion. Indeed, it was a time when, with both Jonathan and David, there was the need for much care. The plan therefore is arranged — a further ruse whereby Jonathan is to go through the pretence of practising marksmanship, and the position of the arrows, either close at hand or away off beyond the mark, is to indicate whether David can return in safety or must flee to a distance.
What has already been said as to the first plan must also apply here. There seems a certain lack of dignity about it all which may not fully consist with a strong faith, and yet we must be slow to condemn. It shows however how perilous was David's position, and how few were his helpers.
Then follows a touching scene, in which Jonathan evidently foresees the end. David must be exalted to the throne, only he pleads that when the Lord should have cut off his enemies, he would remember the covenant between them and spare his seed. How faithfully David fulfilled this pledge is seen in the beautiful history of Mephibosheth.
The new moon arrives and David's seat is vacant at the feast. Saul, with that punctiliousness of outward form which marks the Pharisee, explains his absence by the thought that he may not be ceremonially clean; but missing him the next night, he inquires of Jonathan the cause of his absence, and the plan of explanation agreed upon is carried out. Saul's jealousy and hatred at once flash out in their full malignity, blazing even against Jonathan, his heir. The fact that he is attached to David makes him for the moment hateful to Saul. The mother's name is dragged in as a rebellious woman, the cause of Jonathan's attitude. In the heat of anger he discloses the whole situation. As long as David lives, his throne is unsafe. There is nothing but the cutting off of the son of Jesse that would prevent its overthrow.
We are familiar enough with this plea in the world's history, where the blood of countless "pretenders to the throne" has been shed. Jonathan stands firm and asks why he should be put to death, and gets, as his reply, the javelin which had been aimed again and again at David. Therefore there can be no question that evil is fully determined.
According to agreement now, Jonathan goes out into the field and makes known by the sign agreed upon, that David must flee. Having shot the arrows and urged the boy who gathered them to hasten, as though he would remind David of the imminence of his danger, Jonathan sends the boy and his weapons back to the city. His affection for David will not let him leave without one more expression of it. Most touching it is. It is a time of sorrow, and only those who love as did David and Jonathan, can know the bitterness of such a separation as this; but even here David exceeds, as though to remind us that He of whom he was but a type goes infinitely beyond the love of His most devoted people.
Then the separation takes place, and David departs with the blessing of one who loved him as his own soul.
We must now ask at this point, Did Jonathan miss the path of faith here? Should he have identified himself with David and fled with him now from his father's court? Should he have reasoned, If my father is plotting against David's life, I cannot recognize him at all and I will identify myself with David as the Lord's anointed, in complete separation from that court which it would be death for him to visit? The question is a delicate one and involves many details. As is well known, the usual application made of it is that here Jonathan missed the path of faith and that by returning to his father's court, he refused to take the place of separation. Looking upon Saul as the implacable enemy of David and typically as representing the enmity of the Pharisees against our Lord, and further as suggesting the whole establishment of a carnal ecclesiastical system which excludes Christ, it has been thought that in Jonathan there was the one thing lacking, typical of the complete renunciation of all earthly advantage and every association with ecclesiastical assumption which is not according to God.
According to this, Jonathan stands for those who, while having received much light, and who are unquestionably children of God, devoted to the Lord Jesus Christ, do not "go forth unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach." It must be confessed that we shrink from thus stigmatizing one of the most beautiful characters in the Old Testament, and many considerations at least should make us hesitate from too hasty or extreme a conclusion as to what would have been a better path for him than the one pursued. Most certainly, we should refuse all sympathy which the harsh spirit of criticism in any who perhaps lack much of the devotion which marked Jonathan, and yet who can lightly speak of him as disloyal or failing in true devotion to his best friend. In a day of confusion, and especially when the confusion is so wide-spread that we all are beneath its shadow, it ill becomes us lightly to characterize the tender devotion and loyalty of a true heart as being in any way like Laodiceanism.
On the other hand, David was obliged to flee. A company had already gathered around him, who shared in his rejection, profiting by his leadership, and were associated with him in his future glory; but we must remember that these were not in the place occupied by Jonathan. David himself never allowed any of his followers to lift their hand against the Lord's anointed. He was ever a sufferer, persecuted and fleeing from the malignity of Saul, but always recognizing the high office which he occupied. It reminds us to some extent of our Lord's attitude toward the Scribes and Pharisees. He said: "They sit in Moses' seat," and all therefore which they commanded and taught which was according to Moses, must be recognized. At the same time, He did not close His eyes to their own condition and walk.
David thus recognizes the position of Saul, and until the Lord's hand should remove him, he would do nothing to weaken the hold he had upon the respect of the nation. Jonathan would also have the same thoughts; and he, as the son of his father, owed that respect and obedience, may we not say, in remaining with him, to uphold him in all proper acts,while absolutely holding aloof from any evil. Thus, we may be sure Jonathan took no part in the pursuit of David. He would not have lifted his hand against his friend, and would doubtless do all in his power to hinder his evil-minded father.
It may be urged that Samuel came no more to Saul until the day of his death but Samuel was a prophet, and therefore must take the stand for God, which was called for. David continued with Saul long after Samuel had withdrawn. The whole question is a delicate one, and what should be kept inviolate in all its discussion is that in the devotion of Jonathan to David, we have a lovely example of the devotion of heart to our Lord which should mark us all.
Recurring for a moment to the application of all this to the present day of confusion and the separation of the people of God from a system of things which is contrary to His mind, we can only point out that the very devotion of Jonathan to David would lead such as have his spirit not to remain in a system which has no claims upon them, but to go forth unto Christ, without the camp. It is simply a question whether Jonathan failed in this way.