In the last essay we studied 1 Samuel 18-19, which passage revealed Saul’s jealousy and fear of David. In this essay we study chapter 20, which develops for us the relationship between Jonathan and David. After leaving the protection of Samuel, David went to his friend Jonathan to try to discover why Saul was so angry with him. It seemed obvious to David that Saul wanted to kill him, but he didn’t fully understand why (v. 1).
Jonathan tried to pacify David, because he never had heard his father say that he wanted to kill David. And it is true that to this point, Saul had attacked David only when under the spell of the evil spirit (v. 2). But David was unconvinced (v. 3). So Jonathan agreed to “test the waters” so to speak (v. 4).
They worked out a plan. David would miss Saul’s new moon celebration, which was to take place over the next three days (v. 12). David would be expected to attend. Jonathan agreed to make an excuse for David, if Saul missed him; namely, that David asked to be excused so that he could go to Bethlehem to make a family sacrifice (vv. 5-6). The idea was that Saul would make clear his feelings about David when he heard that excuse (v. 7).
David was so concerned about the situation that he reminded Jonathan of the friendship covenant Jonathan had made with David, which was a covenant in the name of the Lord. And he charged Jonathan to kill David himself rather than let his father do it (v. 8). Jonathan ‘s reply indicated that he still believed David was not in danger; and he assured David that he would tell him if Saul viewed David unfavorably (v. 9).
In response David asked who would bring him the news. It seems he was thinking that Jonathan might not be able to do it himself (v. 10). So Jonathan invited David out into a field to talk further, perhaps to assure that they would not be overheard (v. 11). Once in the field Jonathan first of all vowed to David in the name of the Lord that he would inform David of Saul’s feelings towards him. That is in verses 12 and 13. The original text of verses 14 and 15 is uncertain, but the various translations manage to get the idea intended by Jonathan. Jonathan evidently had some understanding that the Lord had chosen David as the new king. And of course that meant that Jonathan would not succeed his father on the throne.
In those ancient times it was not uncommon for a king of a new line to kill all from the old line who had any claim to the throne. So Jonathan, in effect, was “cutting a deal” with David respecting the future. He was seeking safety for himself and his family. David agreed, and they struck a covenant in that regard (v. 16). David later fulfilled that pledge in respect to Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth. The story is in 2 Sam. 9:1-13 (cf. 2 Sam. 21:1-7). Jonathan, just to seal the deal, also asked David to renew their personal friendship covenant (v. 17).
That done, Jonathan and David made their plans for communication of the news about Saul’s reaction to David’s absence from the feast. They agreed on a place where David would hide. It was the same place where David had hid earlier, as recorded ion chapter 19. It was near a large stone (v. 19). Then Jonathan laid out how he would communicate the news with the shooting of arrows, apparently in case it would be impossible for them to speak in person. It was a very simple sign. He would tell the boy who was to retrieve the arrows one thing if David was safe, and another thing if he was in danger (vv. 20-22). Furthermore, this arrangement was to remain a secret between them forever (v. 23).
All right, next we see David hiding himself in the field instead of attending Saul’s banquet (v. 24). Meanwhile at the banquet Abner was in his place and Jonathan in his; but David was absent, a fact that Saul noticed, though he said nothing about it. Saul simply assumed that David had not come because he was ceremonially unclean. New Moon festivals required ceremonial cleanliness. Something as common as sex could make a person unclean until evening (Lev. 15:16-18), so Saul didn’t think too much of David’s absence the first day (vv. 25-26).
But when David didn’t show up the second day, Saul was upset and asked Jonathan why David wasn’t there (v. 27). Jonathan gave Saul the pre-arranged excuse about the family sacrifice in Bethlehem (vv 28-29). Instead of accepting that excuse, and saying “Good,” as Jonathan expected, Saul became extremely angry and vented his anger against Jonathan: “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 upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die” (vv. 30-31).
The reference to Jonathan’s mother didn’t have anything to do with Jonathan’s mother as such. That was an expression in Hebrew that meant the person addressed was such a person. Thus the insult was aimed at Jonathan not his mother. We also see clearly here that Saul understood that David was a rival to Jonathan for the throne, and that Jonathan would never be king unless David were killed. So Saul demanded that Jonathan deliver David to Saul so that Saul could kill him.
Jonathan was shocked. And he protested: “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” And Saul in his rage responded by throwing his spear at Jonathan, convincing Jonathan once and for all that his father was determined to kill his friend, David (vv. 32-33). That made Jonathan angry; and he ate nothing that day, because he felt disgraced by his father and grieved for David (v. 34).
The next morning Jonathan reported to David what happened by the sign agreed upon (vv. 35-38). Then Jonathan dismissed the boy whom he had brought with him to chase the arrows so that he could speak with David personally (v. 39). Apparently the arrows were necessary in case personal discussion turned out to be impossible. But once the boy left (v. 40), it was possible to talk, and they did.
Unfortunately very little of their conversation is recorded. Indeed only Jonathan’s parting remark is shared. It is essentially a reaffirmation of their covenant relationship. And then they parted (vv. 41-42).
Turning now to application, I want to focus on verses 24-34, which is the account of Saul’s explosion of anger at his New Moon feast. In the last lesson we looked at Saul’s jealousy. In this one I want us to look at another one of his negative emotions, his anger. But once again we have a contrast between Saul and his son Jonathan, who also became angry. Therefore we also want to take Jonathan’s anger into account. The point is that not all anger is sinful. We will call the one unrighteous anger, and the other righteous anger. And we will begin with the unrighteous anger.
First, unrighteous anger can be triggered without adequate reason. Notice that Jonathan did nothing but give Saul a perfectly plausible reason for David’s absence from the feast. But Saul exploded in anger against his son. Anger can be kindled without adequate reason.
Second, unrighteous anger, like the envy we studied last week, springs from selfishness. Saul’s anger was just as irrational as his jealousy. He was so self-involved he had no perspective, no objectivity. Thus his anger arose from selfishness.
And third, unrighteous anger, when left unchecked, becomes malice and wrath. Notice that nothing is said on this occasion about the evil spirit’s coming on Saul. Rather Saul simply indulged his anger, which flared out in malice and wrath.
See other Scriptures in regard to unrighteous anger. According to the Psalmist, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath” (Ps. 37:8). According to Jesus, “if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council” (Matt. 5:22). According to Paul, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger” (Eph. 4:31). And according to James, “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:20).
Now then, in respect to righteous anger, as expressed by Jonathan. Jonathan became angry in response to Saul’s unrighteous wrath. But Jonathan’s anger was totally different from Saul’s. Jonathan was angry because of what his father had done. Saul not only had disgraced Jonathan in public, he also had expressed his sincere desire to kill David. But notice what Jonathan did in response. He fasted. The text doesn’t tell us if the fasting was combined with prayer, but it is quite likely.
The first point I want to make in regard to righteous anger is that it is kept under control. Notice that Jonathan didn’t strike out against his father or anyone.
A second point arises out of the first. Unlike unrighteous anger, righteous anger is directed against the wrong done instead of against the wrong doer.
Jesus himself, when the Pharisees were seeking to accuse him on a Sabbath, “looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mk. 3:5). But look at what he did. He did nothing to the Pharisees. Instead he healed a man with a withered hand.
Third, righteous anger springs from love, not hate. Jonathan was angry; but like Jesus, Jonathan’s anger expressed itself in grief rather than wrath. “He was grieved for David,” we are told.
And fourth, righteous anger does not continue too long. Jonathan showed no evidence of his anger the next morning. As Paul teaches us in Eph 4:26: “Be angry,” meaning in the righteous sense, “but without sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.”