Read the Passage: 1 Samuel 20
David’s Covenant (20:1–23)
Jonathan first appeared in the text of 1 Samuel in chapter 13 when he successfully attacked a Philistine garrison, which was a catalyst for a great victory for Israel. In 1 Sam. 14 Jonathan again attacked an enemy garrison, which led to another defeat of the Philistines. 1 Sam. 18–19 Jonathan appears yet again in the narrative, as he makes a covenant with David (cf. 1 Sam. 18:3) and serves as a buffer between David and Saul. After 1 Sam. 20, Jonathan only appears one other time in the Bible, at 1 Sam. 23:16–18, before his death is recorded at 1 Sam. 31:2. Today’s passage opens with David informing Jonathan about Saul’s latest attempt to kill him, and presumably the details of his flight to Ramah. It seems Jonathan was unaware of the details given in 1 Sam 19:9–24, as at first he expresses disbelief in David’s account. This is surely because he was trusting in Saul’s earlier oath not to hurt David (cf. 1 Sam. 19:6).
The fine details about the covenant between Jonathan and David were not explicitly stated when it is first reported in 1 Sam. 18:3; however, it was a covenant of friendship which would have entailed their seeking of each others’ well-being. It is clear from Jonathan’s earlier actions that he understood David would be king (cf. 1 Sam. 18:4), which he alludes to at 1 Sam. 20:13–15 and clearly states later at 1 Sam. 23:17 saying, “You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you.” Saul, too, recognized this fact, although he rejected it (cf. 1 Sam. 18:8; 20:31; 23:17). Given David and Jonathan’s covenant, which would be reiterated three times in this book (cf. 1 Sam. 18:3; 20:16–17; 23:18), Jonathan agreed to sound out his father to see if David’s fears were justified. Their plan entailed David intentionally missing a monthly meal at Saul’s table in order to provoke Saul to ask about his whereabouts.
In 1 Sam. 20:17–23 we learn the details of the plan that was agreed upon by David and Jonathan to test the validity of David’s story. At 1 Sam. 20:16–17, they apparently renewed their covenant. The details of this agreement can be seen at 1 Sam. 20:13–14, as Jonathan alludes to David being king and asks that David be kind to both himself and his descendants. While Jonathan is later killed in battle, we see David keeping this covenant as he is pleased to provide for Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth (cf. 2 Sam. 9:1–13). The plan suggested by Jonathan here entailed David hiding in a field, which is the same place where he had hidden previously (cf. 1 Sam. 19:3; 20:19). At this planned meeting Jonathan would pass along information about Saul’s intentions concerning David via the shooting of arrows and his statements to a young servant who would retrieve the arrows.
Saul’s Inquiry (20:24–34)
The narrative records that when David was absent from the king’s dinner table, Saul assumed that David was ceremonially unclean (cf. 1 Sam. 20:26). In accord with Jewish ceremonial law, this would have prevented David from attending the feast. However, on the second night of his absence, Saul inquired as to David’s whereabouts. When told by Jonathan that David was visiting family in Bethlehem, he was outraged. Saul’s response betrays his growing mental and spiritual instability. Whereas Saul had tried to impale David with his javelin on two or three previous occasions (cf. 1 Sam. 18:11; 19:10), he now cast his spear at Jonathan, his own son. Note that Saul’s statement at 1 Sam. 20:33 shows that he understood that David would be the next king. Needless to say, these events served to confirm to Jonathan the truth of David’s perception of Saul’s intent to kill him.
Jonathan’s Warning (20:35–42)
With the truth of David’s story confirmed, 1 Sam. 20:35–40 reports that Jonathan carried out the plan that he and David had decided upon at 1 Sam. 20:18–23. As they had earlier planned, so Jonathan shot arrows and told his young servant that the arrows were beyond the place in which he was looking—this being the signal that David was to flee. The young servant, we are told, was unaware of David’s presence in the field (cf. 1 Sam. 20:39). The last two verses of this chapter give us additional information, as Jonathan and David meet for the second to last time (cf. 1 Sam. 23:16–18). Upon their meeting here David bowed to Jonathan in humble recognition that he was the prince. From this point forward, David would be an exile from the royal court, as Saul’s persecution of him would increase until Saul’s death at the hands of the Philistines (cf. 1 Sam. 31:1–6).
- Given Saul’s spiritual bankruptcy, irrational behavior, and hatred of David, how can we explain the godliness of Saul’s son Jonathan and his love for David?
- Have you ever had a close friendship like David and Jonathan? How many true friends do you have? What’s the difference between a friend and an acquaintance?
- Like Jonathan, would you be willing to show more loyalty to a Christian friend than to an unbelieving family member (cf. Matt. 19:29; Luke 14:26)?
- Have you ever witnessed someone as irrational as Saul, who continued to oppose God despite his failing circumstances? At this point, could Saul have repented?
- Since Jonathan was surely aware of his father’s spiritual decline, as well as God’s choice of David to be king, why do you think he didn’t flee with David?