This morning we’re going to tackle a rather lengthly passage as we continue working our way through the book of 1 Samuel. There are 42 verses in 1 Samuel chapter 20, so I want to jump right into it, but first, let me help you get your bearings as to where we are in this story.
There are three main characters in this story today. First, there is King Saul – who is of course, the king of Israel. He has been repeatedly disobedient to God and so God has determined to give Saul’s kingdom to another man – a man who will do all that God wants him to do. And that man is David.
As it happens, David is Saul’s son-in-law and a commander in Saul’s army. He is still quite young, but has repeatedly proven himself to be not only a great warrior, but also a man of tremendous character and faith. As the Lord gives him success after success, all of Israel grows to love David! But as Israel grows to love David, Saul become increasingly jealousy and fearful of David. In fact, things have gotten so bad, that Saul has determined to kill David.
To date, Saul has attempted to pin David to the wall with his spear three times, he has plotted to have David killed by the Philistines at least twice, and he has recently called on his men (including his son Jonathan) to assassinate David!
But Jonathan (who is the third character in this story) is best friends with David! Even before David married Jonathan’s sister, Jonathan had sworn an oath and made a covenant with David – pledging his loyalty and friendship for the rest of his life! What’s more amazing is that, even though Jonathan is the oldest son of King Saul and is next in line to be king, Jonathan has acknowledged and fully supports that David will be the next king instead of him.
So all of this makes for some incredibly complicated relationships!
David is married to the king’s daughter, but the king wants him dead. The king’s son (David’s brother-in-law) has orders to kill David, but he has pledged an oath of loyalty to him. In the meantime, David has no idea why Saul is so determined to kill him and has remained by Saul’s side, faithfully serving him, despite repeated attempts by his father-in-law to run him through with a spear.
And you thought things were messed up in your family!
But all of this comes to a head in today’s chapter. The lines finally get drawn in the sand and everything comes out into the open. No more secret plots. No more charades. Everyone can finally see things for how they really are.
We are reading this morning in 1 Samuel chapter 20, starting at verse 1.
David now fled from Naioth in Ramah and found Jonathan. “What have I done?” he exclaimed. “What is my crime? How have I offended your father that he is so determined to kill me?”
1 Samuel 20:1
Understandably, David is bewildered as to why Saul is so determined to kill him. He has been nothing but loyal to Saul and has served him faithfully and successfully ever since they first met when David was just a lad. What’s more, Saul had been the one to encourage David to marry his daughters and become his son-in-law. So it seems really bizarre to David that Saul is now so desperate to kill him!
And so he asks Jonathan – what terrible thing have I done to your father that he is so determined to kill me!? verse 2…
2 “That’s not true!” Jonathan protested. “You’re not going to die. He always tells me everything he’s going to do, even the little things. I know my father wouldn’t hide something like this from me. It just isn’t so!”
3 Then David took an oath before Jonathan and said, “Your father knows perfectly well about our friendship, so he has said to himself, ‘I won’t tell Jonathan—why should I hurt him?’ But I swear to you that I am only a step away from death! I swear it by the Lord and by your own soul!”
1 Samuel 20:2-3
It seems that Jonathan & David had quite differing perspectives on this situation. You’ll recall in chapter 19 that after Saul had urged his men to assassinate David, Jonathan had sat down with his father and had a heart-to-heart conversation with him and eventually convinced his father that killing an innocent man like David would be a terrible sin, and so at that point, Saul had relented from his pursuit to kill David. He vowed to Jonathan that David would not be killed.
Of course, we saw that Saul quickly changed his mind about that and had again unsuccessfully tried to have David captured and killed. But it would appear that Saul was careful not to let Jonathan know about these latest attempts to kill David.
It seems from what Jonathan says, that he and his father had a pretty close relationship – where Saul would tell Jonathan everything he was going to do – even the little things. And that close relationship would certainly explain how Jonathan was able to confront and correct his father in the last chapter, but it would also explain why Saul would hide something like this from Jonathan – as David surmised.
Saul knows that David and Jonathan are like brothers, and it would crush Jonathan to see his father trying to kill David. And so David explains that Saul must have determined in his heart not to tell Jonathan about his plan to kill David so that Jonathan wouldn’t be hurt.
So this creates an interesting dynamic between David and Jonathan now. David is convinced that Saul is trying to kill him (and he certainly has good reason to believe that!) But Jonathan is equally convinced that Saul is NOT trying to kill him. His father always tells him everything and he has vowed to him that he wouldn’t kill David.
So what does Jonathan do? How does he react to David’s insistence that Saul is trying to kill him? Does he just brush off David’s concerns? Does he say, “Oh, you’re just over reacting! You’re making a mountain out a mole hill!”
Well, let’s take a look at verse 4 and find out.
4 “Tell me what I can do to help you,” Jonathan exclaimed.
1 Samuel 20:4
I’ve mentioned a few times now how much I admire and respect Jonathan, and he continues to impress me.
Probably many of us know what it’s like to go to a friend for help when we’re facing some kind of difficult situation, only to have them either downplay our concerns and tell us that it’s not such a big deal – or they do nothing but tell us all of their solutions to our problems. If we would just do this, this, and this… our problems would be solved. But it’s usually not that simple, is it? And most of the time, I would guess, when we share these concerns with someone, we’re not even necessarily looking for answers, we’re really just looking for someone to listen to us and validate our concerns.
And that’s exactly what Jonathan does for David.
When his friend comes to him feeling overwhelmed and distressed, Jonathan makes himself fully available to help in anyway he can. Even though he might not agree with David’s evaluation of the situation, Jonathan doesn’t argue his side or dismiss David’s concerns – but he just hears David out, and offers to help in any way he can. That’s the mark of a good friend!
And as we’re going to see, David already has a plan in mind – he’s not looking for Jonathan’s wise advice. He’s just looking for Jonathan to listen and to be available – which is exactly what Jonathan does. So now with Jonathan’s offer to help, David proposes a plan. Verse 5.
5 David replied, “Tomorrow we celebrate the new moon festival. I’ve always eaten with the king on this occasion, but tomorrow I’ll hide in the field and stay there until the evening of the third day. 6 If your father asks where I am, tell him I asked permission to go home to Bethlehem for an annual family sacrifice. 7 If he says, ‘Fine!’ you will know all is well. But if he is angry and loses his temper, you will know he is determined to kill me.
1 Samuel 20:5-7
So David’s plan is pretty straight forward. The new moon festival was a monthly festival that David would always attend with the King. However, David would purposely not show up this time to see how Saul reacted. If Saul was plotting to kill David at this festival, he would no doubt have a strong reaction if David thwarted his plans!
So if Saul had no issues with David’s absence, that would be a sign that all was well – Saul obviously had no plans to kill David at the festival. But if Saul got angry and lost his temper, then that would be evidence that Saul had it out for David and wanted him dead!
So David explains this all to Jonathan – and then he adds this: verse 8
8 Show me this loyalty as my sworn friend—for we made a solemn pact before the Lord—or kill me yourself if I have sinned against your father. But please don’t betray me to him!” 1 Samuel 20:8
David implores Jonathan to do as he has asked and not to betray David to his father. In fact, David says, “If you believe I deserve to be put to death, then kill me right here and now, but just don’t lie to me and betray me to your father.”
And of course, Jonathan has no such intentions.
9 “Never!” Jonathan exclaimed. “You know that if I had the slightest notion my father was planning to kill you, I would tell you at once.” 1 Samuel 20:9
So with the assurance that Jonathan will carry out the plan as discussed, David then realizes there are a few more details to be worked out. verse 10.
10 Then David asked, “How will I know whether or not your father is angry?”
11 “Come out to the field with me,” Jonathan replied. And they went out there together. 12 Then Jonathan told David, “I promise by the Lord, the God of Israel, that by this time tomorrow, or the next day at the latest, I will talk to my father and let you know at once how he feels about you. If he speaks favorably about you, I will let you know. 13 But if he is angry and wants you killed, may the Lord strike me and even kill me if I don’t warn you so you can escape and live. May the Lord be with you as he used to be with my father. 14 And may you treat me with the faithful love of the Lord as long as I live. But if I die, 15 treat my family with this faithful love, even when the Lord destroys all your enemies from the face of the earth.”
16 So Jonathan made a solemn pact with David, saying, “May the Lord destroy all your enemies!” 17 And Jonathan made David reaffirm his vow of friendship again, for Jonathan loved David as he loved himself.
1 Samuel 20:10-17
So as Jonathan and David work out this plan to determined whether or not the king is trying to kill David, these two men again reaffirm and even extend their vow of friendship. Not only do they pledge loyalty to each other for as long as they live, they pledge to continue that loyalty to each other’s families even after they die.
You’ll noticed that Jonathan says “Treat my family with this faithful love, even when the Lord destroys all your enemies from the face of the earth.” Typically in those days, when a new king would take over the throne, he would wipe out anyone who might pose a threat to his kingship – including all the friends and family of the old king. Jonathan knows the day is coming when David will be king, and so he requests that David show kindness to his family, rather than treating them like his enemies.
Of course, David readily agrees with this and the two of them reaffirm their vow of friendship once again.
With their vows of friendship reaffirmed, Jonathan then continues with the second part of the plan.
18 Then Jonathan said, “Tomorrow we celebrate the new moon festival. You will be missed when your place at the table is empty. 19 The day after tomorrow, toward evening, go to the place where you hid before, and wait there by the stone pile. 20 I will come out and shoot three arrows to the side of the stone pile as though I were shooting at a target. 21 Then I will send a boy to bring the arrows back. If you hear me tell him, ‘They’re on this side,’ then you will know, as surely as the Lord lives, that all is well, and there is no trouble. 22 But if I tell him, ‘Go farther—the arrows are still ahead of you,’ then it will mean that you must leave immediately, for the Lord is sending you away. 23 And may the Lord make us keep our promises to each other, for he has witnessed them.”
1 Samuel 20:18-23
So now they have both a plan to discover the king’s true intentions and a secret code to communicate the results. In two days Jonathan will go out to the field where David is hiding to do some practice shooting with his bow and arrows. He’ll have a young lad with him to help retrieve the arrows he shoots. After shooting three arrows, if Jonathan calls to the boy “They’re on this side” – then all is well. The king is not trying to kill David. But if Jonathan calls to the boy “Go further – the arrows are still ahead of you” – then David will know that Saul does indeed want him dead and his only option is to flee from the king.
So with all the details worked out, David & Jonathan put their plan into motion. Let’s read how it all plays out… Starting at verse 24.
24 So David hid himself in the field, and when the new moon festival began, the king sat down to eat. 25 He sat at his usual place against the wall, with Jonathan sitting opposite him and Abner beside him. But David’s place was empty. 26 Saul didn’t say anything about it that day, for he said to himself, “Something must have made David ceremonially unclean.” 27 But when David’s place was empty again the next day, Saul asked Jonathan, “Why hasn’t the son of Jesse been here for the meal either yesterday or today?”
28 Jonathan replied, “David earnestly asked me if he could go to Bethlehem. 29 He said, ‘Please let me go, for we are having a family sacrifice. My brother demanded that I be there. So please let me get away to see my brothers.’ That’s why he isn’t here at the king’s table.”
30 Saul boiled with rage at Jonathan. “You stupid son of a whore!” he swore at him. “Do you think I don’t know that you want him to be king in your place, shaming yourself and your mother? 31 As long as that son of Jesse is alive, you’ll never be king. Now go and get him so I can kill him!”
32 “But why should he be put to death?” Jonathan asked his father. “What has he done?” 33 Then Saul hurled his spear at Jonathan, intending to kill him. So at last Jonathan realized that his father was really determined to kill David.
34 Jonathan left the table in fierce anger and refused to eat on that second day of the festival, for he was crushed by his father’s shameful behavior toward David.
1 Samuel 20:24-34
I think what surprises me most is the fact that Saul has just totally berated his son, in fact, he has just attempted to kill him – and Jonathan is upset not at his father’s actions towards him, but at his father’s shameful behaviour toward David!
Jonathan is still more concerned about the well-being of David than he is of himself! What a man of Godly character! What an example of self-less love! And what a contrast to his father! Saul is so self-absorbed that he’s willing to kill his own son for protecting an innocent man! Saul’s jealousy has driven him to insanity!
But as I’ve mentioned before, that’s the path of sin. What starts off as a seemingly harmless little sin, grows and festers and before you know it, it’s taking you down a path that you never thought you’d ever go.
I think we’ve all experienced that to some extend. Whether it starts as a little lie, or a little envy, or a little bitterness, or a little lust, or whatever it is – but before too long, you find yourself much further down the path of sin than you ever expected to go – and the hurt and destruction in your wake has grown far more than you ever imagined.
But the good new is, no matter how far down that path you find yourself, and no matter how wretched a person you’ve become, there is a way to change direction. Paul writes in Romans 7:24…
24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus Christ died on a cross so that you could be freed from sin. He died so that you could change directions. That’s actually what the word repent means – it means to change directions. And maybe that’s something that you need to do today. Maybe you’ve been following the path of sin and you need to repent – you need to change directions. Jesus Christ has made that possible. When he died and rose from the grave, He defeated the power of sin so that it no longer has control over you and I. He offers complete forgiveness and restoration and he will empower you to truly repent.
If you, like Paul, find yourself saying “Oh what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Well, thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. Chose today to put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ who will give you the power to repent!
But to get back to our story, we’d better see how things all wrap up. Verse 35
35 The next morning, as agreed, Jonathan went out into the field and took a young boy with him to gather his arrows. 36 “Start running,” he told the boy, “so you can find the arrows as I shoot them.” So the boy ran, and Jonathan shot an arrow beyond him. 37 When the boy had almost reached the arrow, Jonathan shouted, “The arrow is still ahead of you. 38 Hurry, hurry, don’t wait.” So the boy quickly gathered up the arrows and ran back to his master. 39 He, of course, suspected nothing; only Jonathan and David understood the signal. 40 Then Jonathan gave his bow and arrows to the boy and told him to take them back to town.
41 As soon as the boy was gone, David came out from where he had been hiding near the stone pile. Then David bowed three times to Jonathan with his face to the ground. Both of them were in tears as they embraced each other and said good-bye, especially David.
42 At last Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, for we have sworn loyalty to each other in the Lord’s name. The Lord is the witness of a bond between us and our children forever.” Then David left, and Jonathan returned to the town.
1 Samuel 20:35-42
As David and Jonathan sadly parted ways, they once again reminded each other of the loyalty they had pledged to each other and to each other’s families. David and Jonathan would actually only see each other a hand full of times after this – and only briefly as David would continue to live as a fugitive for the rest of Jonathan’s life.
But if we were to jump ahead in the story, we’d see that David does indeed continue to show loyalty to Jonathan! In 2 Samuel chapter 9, once David has been firmly established as King, he seeks out any of Jonathan’s family so that he can show kindnesss to them. By this point, both Saul and Jonathan have been killed in battle, and not much of their family remains alive. In fact, David can only find one of Jonathan’s sons – a man named Mephibosheth who had been crippled in both feet.
But when David finds that one of Jonathan’s son is still alive, he summons Mephibosheth, and treats him like he would treat Jonathan. He gives him all the property that originally belonged to Saul’s family, and invites him to live and eat with the King on a daily basis! David certainly upheld his vow to Jonathan and continued to show kindness to his family even to the next generation after Jonathan had died.
And of course, this is all just a reflection of the Lord’s kindness to us. Deuteronomy 7:9 says…
“Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands.”
It’s incredible that the Lord’s faithfulness isn’t good just for one or two generations – but it extends to a thousand generations! That means that the Lord’s covenant to lavish unfailing love on those who obey him extends even to you!
In fact, just like how David and Jonathan affirmed and reaffirmed their covenant with each other, God too has affirmed and reaffirmed his covenant with us! On the evening before his death, Jesus ate a meal with his disciples and during that meal he reaffirmed God’s covenant with us. It says in Matthew 26:26…
26 As they were eating, Jesus took some bread and blessed it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take this and eat it, for this is my body.”
27 And he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. He gave it to them and said, “Each of you drink from it, 28 for this is my blood, which confirms the covenant between God and his people. It is poured out as a sacrifice to forgive the sins of many. Matthew 26:26-28
Jesus’s death and resurrection is confirmation and affirmation that the Lord will continue to lavish his unfailing love on us. He will keep his covenant with those who obey and love him.