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Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament

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1 SAMUEL 20

THE FINAL BREAK BETWEEN SAUL AND DAVID;

DAVID FLEES FROM NAIROTH TO JONATHAN


 
Verses 1-3
And David fled from Naioth in Ramah, and came and said before Jonathan, What have I done? what is mine iniquity? and what is my sin before thy father, that he seeketh my life? And he said unto him, Far from it; thou shalt not die: behold, my father doeth nothing either great or small, but that he discloseth it unto me; and why should my father hide this thing from me? it is not so. And David sware moreover, and said, Thy father knoweth well that I have found favor in thine eyes; and he saith, Let not Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved: but truly as Jehovah liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death.

It is a mystery to this writer why certain critical commentators reject this chapter as "unhistorical,"F1 declaring that, "It cannot be reconciled with the story of Michal ... It is hard to see where this incident can be made to fit in."F2

All such "difficulties" in the acceptance of this chapter are due to the failure of writers to understand the situation. Note the following:

(1) David was the son-in-law of King Saul, having recently married his daughter Michal.

(2) David was an honored member of the king's court and, at this point in time, he had not been formally expelled.

(3) He was even expected to sit at the king's table in the approaching feast of the new moon.

(4) The king had recently sworn in a solemn oath that David should not die.

(5) David was uncertain whether he was indeed committed to life as a fugitive and an outlaw, or if Saul's violent attempt to take his life might be attributed to a sudden fit of madness, and from which a reconciliation through the aid of Jonathan might be arranged, as upon a similar previous occasion.

(6) Besides all this, a visitation from God himself had frustrated Saul's expedition to Nairoth. That visitation had overtones of prophecy connected with it; and, near the beginning of Saul's career, such an experience had resulted in Saul's being turned, "into another man" (1 Samuel 10:6). David had every right to hope that a similar change in Saul's life might have been effected by this new prophetic experience.

(7) "David is still a court member and would be acting very improperly if he absented himself at the approaching festival without permission."F3

(8) Finally, the loving arms of his wife Michal awaited him in their home on the city wall.

Any writer who finds it "difficult" to understand why David would have returned to Gibeah in the light of these circumstances has simply failed to read his Bible.

He (David) fled from Nairoth
(1 Samuel 20:1). While Saul lay bound by his trance at Nairoth, David, escaped to the court and got to speak with Jonathan.F4

What have I done? What is my guilt? What is my sin?
(1 Samuel 20:1). Saul had made no formal charge whatever against David; he had given no reason whatever to support his reasons for trying to kill David; and it was most natural that, in this circumstance, David should have attempted to find out what lay behind Saul's violent behavior.

Far from it!. It is not so
(1 Samuel 20:2). Jonathan simply could not believe that his father was trying to kill David after that solemn oath which the king had sworn that David should not die (1 Samuel 19:6). As one of the king's chief advisers, Jonathan felt sure that he would have been informed of any such intention on the part of his father.

There is but a step between me and death
(1 Samuel 20:3). David reinforced his words with a double oath, and provided Jonathan with the real reason why he had not been taken into the king's confidence in the matter of his decision to kill David. That reason was the king's knowledge that Jonathan, through his friendship for David, would not have approved of it.

JONATHAN HELPS DAVID TO KNOW THE TRUTH


 
Verses 4-11
Then said Jonathan unto David, Whatsoever thy soul desireth, I will even do it for thee. And David said unto Jonathan, Behold, to-morrow is the new moon, and I should not fail to sit with the king at meat: but let me go, that I may hide myself in the field unto the third day at even. If thy father miss me at all, then say, David earnestly asked leave of me that he might run to Beth-lehem his city; for it is the yearly sacrifice there for all the family. If he say thus, It is well; thy servant shall have peace: but if he be wroth, then know that evil is determined by him. Therefore deal kindly with thy servant; for thou hast brought thy servant into a covenant of Jehovah with thee: but if there be in me iniquity, slay me thyself; for why shouldest thou bring me to thy father? And Jonathan said, Far be it from thee; for if I should at all know that evil were determined by my father to come upon thee, then would not I tell it thee? Then said David to Jonathan, Who shall tell me if perchance thy father answer thee roughly? And Jonathan said unto David, Come, and let us go out into the field. And they went out both of them into the field.

Whatever you say, I will do for you
(1 Samuel 20:4). Jonathan reluctantly accepted David's word and offered to help in any way possible. David at once responded with a plan to ascertain the real situation between himself and Saul.

Tomorrow is the new moon, and I should not fail to sit at the table with the king
(1 Samuel 20:5). The Jews, and many other ancient peoples, celebrated a feast of the new moon. Num. 10:10 and Num. 28:11-15 give the Mosaic instructions regarding that festival. Apparently, Saul used the occasion for a meeting of important members of his government. David was obligated to be there.

If there is guilt in me, slay me yourself
(1 Samuel 20:8). David's word here meant that if Jonathan knew of any sin, guilt, or fault whatever on David's part that could possibly justify his execution, then David requests that Jonathan himself slay David rather than turning him over to the king.

For you brought your servant into a sacred covenant with you
(1 Samuel 20:8). Jonathan himself had taken the lead in forming that sacred covenant with David.

Who will tell me if your father answers you roughly?
(1 Samuel 20:10). The private meeting between David and Jonathan here was possible only because Saul had not yet returned to his court from Ramah. The problem David mentioned here was simply that of how the result of the proposed test of Saul's attitude could be communicated to David when Saul got back in town. Jonathan had the answer; and made an immediate response.

Come let us go out into the field. And so they both went out into the field…
(1 Samuel 20:11). Critics affirm here that, Jonathan's proposition that they should go out into the field where they would be free from observation contradicts the intent of the main narrative, namely, that it would be dangerous for them to be seen together going into the field.F5 This is totally in error. The author of it simply forgot, or never did understand, that Saul was not in town when this interview occurred. He had not yet recovered his clothes and returned from Ramah!

As Willis noted, "These events (of 1 Sam. 19--20) transpired over a relatively brief period, following the ostensible reconciliation between Saul and David in 1 Sam. 19:7."F6 This explains why Jonathan was slow to believe that David was in any danger. There was also another factor in Jonathan's incredulity regarding his father. "Filial attachment naturally blinded the prince to defects in the parental character."F7 "He also believed that his father would honor his oath that David should not be put to death."F8

This trip of David to Saul's court in Gibeah was exceedingly dangerous; but in the circumstances it was absolutely necessary. "Saul's casting his spear at David (19:10) was during a state of madness in which Saul was not master of himself; and it could not be inferred with certainty that Saul would still plot against David's life."F9

DAVID AND JONATHAN REAFFIRM THEIR COVENANT


 
Verses 12-17
And Jonathan said unto David, Jehovah, the God of Israel, [be witness]: when I have sounded my father about this time to-morrow, [or] the third day, behold, if there be good toward David, shall I not then send unto thee, and disclose it unto thee? Jehovah do so to Jonathan, and more also, should it please my father to do thee evil, if I disclose it not unto thee, and send thee away, that thou mayest go in peace: and Jehovah be with thee, as he hath been with my father. And thou shalt not only while yet I live show me the lovingkindness of Jehovah, that I die not; but also thou shalt not cut off thy kindness from my house for ever; no, not when Jehovah hath cut off the enemies of David every one from the face of the earth. So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, [saying], And Jehovah will require it at the hand of David's enemies. And Jonathan caused David to swear again, for the love that he had to him; for he loved him as he loved his own soul.

It appears that this appeal by Jonathan to David was made during their journey together "into the field." There was a dreadful premonition on Jonathan's part that Saul's enmity against David would terminate in Saul's being "cut off from the face of the earth." Jonathan exacted from David a solemn oath that, "after Jonathan's death," and after David's coming to the throne, that David would remember the house of Jonathan with kindness. David honored his promise here as revealed in 2 Sam. 21:17.

If I am still alive, show me the loyal love of the Lord, that I may not die
(1 Samuel 20:16). In these words it is clear that Jonathan recognized the grave danger to himself when God would take vengeance upon all of David's enemies. Jonathan, through filial loyalty, would not desert his father even when that inevitable day of reckoning would come.

JONATHAN REVEALS THE SIGN THAT WILL ALERT DAVID


 
Verses 18-23
Then Jonathan said unto him, To-morrow is the new moon: and thou wilt be missed, because thy seat will be empty. And when thou hast stayed three days, thou shalt go down quickly, and come to the place where thou didst hide thyself when the business was in hand, and shalt remain by the stone Ezel. And I will shoot three arrows on the side thereof, as though I shot at a mark. And, behold, I will send the lad, [saying], Go, find the arrows. If I say unto the lad, Behold, the arrows are on this side of thee; take them, and come; for there is peace to thee and no hurt, as Jehovah liveth. But if I say thus unto the boy, Behold, the arrows are beyond thee; go thy way; for Jehovah hath sent thee away. And as touching the matter which thou and I have spoken of, behold, Jehovah is between thee and me for ever.

There is nothing here that demands any special comment. The signal by which David would know whether or not he was an outlaw condemned to flee from the wrath of the king, or if a reconciliation could be brought about -- that signal was clear enough. It would turn upon Jonathan's words to the lad who would be assigned to chase his arrows.

On the third day
(1 Samuel 20:19). This refers to the third day of the feast. The first day of the feast, David would be missed; but the real test would come if he missed the second day of the feast. The feast was apparently a night affair, because it was in the morning (1 Samuel 20:35) of that third day (following the second of the feast) that Jonathan would give the pre-arranged signal to David.

Go to the place where you hid yourself when the matter was in hand
(1 Samuel 20:19). This is a reference to that occasion when Jonathan had successfully arranged a reconciliation.

Remain beside yonder stone heap
(1 Samuel 20:19). F. C. Cook wrote that, This hiding place was either a natural cavernous rock, or some ruin of an ancient building, especially suited for a hiding place.F10

DAVID MISSES THE FEAST OF THE NEW MOON


 
Verses 24, 25
So David hid himself in the field: and when the new moon was come, the king sat him down to eat food. And the king sat upon his seat, as at other times, even upon the seat by the wall; and Jonathan stood up, and Abner sat by Saul's side: but David's place was empty.

David's absence on the first day was not considered sufficiently important by the king to elicit any inquiry from him.

SAUL DEMANDS A REASON FOR DAVID'S ABSENCE


 
Verses 26-29
Nevertheless Saul spake not anything that day: for he thought, Something hath befallen him, he is not clean; surely he is not clean. And it came to pass on the morrow after the new moon, [which was] the second [day], that David's place was empty: and Saul said unto Jonathan his son, Wherefore cometh not the son of Jesse to meat, neither yesterday, nor to-day? And Jonathan answered Saul, David earnestly asked leave of me to go to Beth-lehem: and he said, Let me go, I pray thee; for our family hath a sacrifice in the city; and my brother, he hath commanded me [to be there]: and now, if I have found favor in thine eyes, let me get away, I pray thee, and see my brethren. Therefore he is not come unto the king's table.

Saul had, at this time, become very suspicious and critical of his son Jonathan, especially regarding his friendship for David. One may wonder if some tattle tale at Saul's court, who perhaps had seen David and Jonathan together "in the field," had told Saul of it. At any rate, Saul demanded from Jonathan a reason for David's absence.

SAUL VIOLENTLY ANGRY WITH DAVID AND JONATHAN


 
Verses 30-34
Then Saul's anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said unto him, Thou son of a perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own shame, and unto the shame of thy mother's nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse liveth upon the ground, thou shalt not be established, nor thy kingdom. Wherefore now send and fetch him unto me, for he shall surely die. And Jonathan answered Saul his father, and said unto him, Wherefore should he be put to death? what hath he done? And Saul cast his spear at him to smite him; whereby Jonathan knew that is was determined of his father to put David to death. So Jonathan arose from the table in fierce anger, and did eat no food the second day of the month; for he was grieved for David, because his father had done him shame.

You son of a perverse and rebellious woman
(1 Samuel 20:30) This vile slur cast upon Jonathan was the ancient equivalent of the vulgar present-day insult, You son-of-a-bitch. These words possibly meant that Jonathan was born of a prostitute.F11 From the most ancient times, it has been customary to revile a person by slandering or belittling his ancestors. It became perfectly clear to all present, when Saul thus addressed Jonathan, that Saul would not only kill David if possible, but anyone else who stood between him and the achievement of his fiendish purpose.

The shame of your mother's nakedness
(1 Samuel 20:30). In these words, Saul recognized the prevalent Oriental custom of those times that gave all of a deposed king's wives and concubines to his successor. Saul meant by this that Jonathan's mother, Would become the wife of the new king.F12 Second Samuel has this statement from the prophet Nathan in his rebuke of David for his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband:

"Thus saith the Lord ... I anointed you king ... I delivered you from Saul ... I gave you your masters house ... and your master's wives into your bosom ..." (2 Samuel 12:8).

Neither you nor your kingdom shall be established
(1 Samuel 20:31). From this it is clear that Saul did not believe the word of the prophet Samuel who had told him long previously that his kingdom would not continue. In this unbelief of God's prophet, the sin of Saul was approaching its climax. He was in this purpose the avowed enemy, not only of David, but of God Himself. He would continue to be king, so he thought, in spite of the will of God; and here it appears that he expected Jonathan to succeed him and continue his dynasty.

JONATHAN SIGNALS THE BAD NEWS TO DAVID


 
Verses 35-42
And it came to pass in the morning, that Jonathan went out into the field at the time appointed with David, and a little lad with him. And he said unto his lad, Run, find now the arrows which I shoot. And as the lad ran, he shot an arrow beyond him. And when the lad was come to the place of the arrow which Jonathan had shot, Jonathan cried after the lad, and said, Is not the arrow beyond thee? And Jonathan cried after the lad, Make speed, haste, stay not. And Jonathan's lad gathered up the arrows, and came to his master. But the lad knew not anything: only Jonathan and David knew the matter. And Jonathan gave his weapons unto his lad, and said unto him, Go, carry them to the city. And as soon as the lad was gone, David arose out of [a place] toward the South, and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed himself three times: and they kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded. And Jonathan said to David, Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of Jehovah, saying, Jehovah shall be between me and thee, and between my seed and thy seed, for ever. And he arose and departed: and Jonathan went into the city.

This episode confirmed the status of David as an outlaw, to be hunted down and destroyed like a ravenous beast, provided that Saul, with all of the resources of the kingdom of Israel at his disposal, could successfully achieve it. The rest of First Samuel is devoted to the record of how God protected and preserved David from the myriad dangers that confronted him.

This final meeting of David and Jonathan is sad indeed.

David rose from. the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground
(1 Samuel 20:41). We cannot suppose that this final farewell of these two noble men took place in the open field. After the lad had gone, Jonathan no doubt went to the hiding place where he knew David was waiting; and there, in the safe security of that hiding place, these tearful actions occurred. David's falling upon his face and his repeated bowing down before Jonathan were David's way of extending his thanks and honor to Jonathan for saving his life. In this, he also honored Jonathan as the Crown Prince of Israel and the heir-apparent of the throne.


Footnotes for 1 Samuel 20
1: International Critical Commentary, Samuel, p. 184.
2: The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 2, p. 989
3: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 298.
4: Matthew Henry's Commentary, Vol. 2, p. 388.
5: International Critical Commentary, op. cit., p. 188.
6: John T. Willis, p. 212.
7: Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown's Commentary, p. 188.
8: Adam Clarke, Vol. 2, p. 274.
9: C. F. Keil, Keil and Delitzsch's Old Testament Commentaries, Vol. 2b, p. 206.
10: Albert Barnes, Samuel, p. 51.
11: John T. Willis, p. 217.
12: J. R. Dummelow Commentary, p. 192.

Copyright Statement
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.

Bibliography Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 20". "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament". <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=1sa&chapter=020>. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.  

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