“Only a Step From Death.” (First Samuel 20)

Then David fled from Naioth at Ramah and went to Jonathan and asked, “What have I done? What is my crime? How have I wronged your father, that he is trying to take my life?” (1 Samuel 20:1)

In chapter 19, Saul was looking for both Samuel and David. They were both potential targets of the paranoid Saul. When Saul was overcome by the presence of God at Naioth, he “prophesied in Samuel’s presence” (see I Samuel 19:24). David, by divine contrast, had fled. Saul did not harm Samuel. He couldn’t. Had David stayed in Naioth, he would have been as safe as Samuel—as safe as he had been when Saul missed him twice with his spear—as safe as he had been while facing lions, bears, and giants. But David had become enough like Saul that he was afraid for his life. This was not the old David who trusted the invisible God. Saul had successfully imposed his nature upon David.

“Never!” Jonathan replied. “You are not going to die! Look, my father doesn’t do anything, great or small, without confiding in me. Why would he hide this from me? It’s not so!” (1 Samuel 20:2)

Something new was going on with Saul. He was under a spirit of deceit, though Jonathan did not yet know it. He had never seen his father lie.

But David took an oath and said, “Your father knows very well that I have found favor in your eyes, and he has said to himself, ‘Jonathan must not know this or he will be grieved.’ Yet as surely as the Lord lives, and as you live, there is only a step between me and death” (1 Samuel 20:3)

As I said, the oaths in Samuel are pregnant with meaning. David thought he was only a step from death, and yet the Lord kept him from swearing on God alone.

Before his marriage, David believed he was invulnerable because he was dwelling in God. Even a giant was not a problem to the boy who believed the omnipotent God had promised him something that was as yet unfulfilled. At this point, however, David believed that only the quickness of his feet had delivered him. He had begun to believe that staying alive was something he had to take care of himself.

It was not true that there was only a step between David and death. David was under the Lord’s sovereign love and care, although he didn’t know it. He had been moved from his simple faith, and the Lord had allowed him to be moved, but the Lord Himself had not moved an inch. Therefore David was as safe as ever. So God sovereignly changed David’s oath to make it true—terribly, ironically true. David, without realizing it, put a double condition on the oath: “as surely as the Lord lives and as you live.”

How secure was Jonathan’s life? David’s oath stated that as surely as Jonathan lived, David was a step from death. But Jonathan’s life was not secure, which meant that David was not a step from death.

Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do for you.” So David said, “Look, tomorrow is the New Moon festival, and I am supposed to dine with the king; but let me go and hide in the field until the evening of the day after tomorrow. “If your father misses me at all, tell him, ‘David earnestly asked my permission to hurry to Bethlehem, his hometown, because an annual sacrifice is being made there for his whole clan.’ “If he says, ‘Very well,’ then your servant is safe. But if he loses his temper, you can be sure that he is determined to harm me. As for you, show kindness to your servant, for you have brought him into a covenant with you before the Lord. If I am guilty, then kill me yourself! Why hand me over to your father?” “Never!” Jonathan said. “If I had the least inkling that my father was determined to harm you, wouldn’t I tell you?” David asked, “Who will tell me if your father answers you harshly?” “Come,” Jonathan said, “let’s go out into the field.” So they went there together. Then Jonathan said to David: “By the Lord, the God of Israel, I will surely sound out my father by this time the day after tomorrow! If he is favorably disposed toward you, will I not send you word and let you know? “But if my father is inclined to harm you, may the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I do not let you know and send you away safely. May the Lord be with you as he has been with my father. (1 Samuel 20:4-13)

Jonathan unwittingly put his finger on something: “May the Lord be with you as he has been with my father.” God was allowing the same demons that had ruined Saul to come against David. The purpose of this sequence in David’s life was to show us that a David heart may be manipulated into behaving like Saul for a time, but it will eventually revert back to its true Davidic nature. Likewise, though Saul came under God’s Spirit several times, he always reverted back to his fleshly nature.

“But show me unfailing kindness like that of the Lord as long as I live, so that I may not be killed, and do not ever cut off your kindness from my family — not even when the Lord has cut off every one of David’s enemies from the face of the earth.” So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the Lord call David’s enemies to account.” And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself. Then Jonathan said to David: “Tomorrow is the New Moon festival. You will be missed, because your seat will be empty. “The day after tomorrow, toward evening, go to the place where you hid when this trouble began, and wait by the stone Ezel. “I will shoot three arrows to the side of it, as though I were shooting at a target. “Then I will send a boy and say, ‘Go, find the arrows.’ If I say to him, ‘Look, the arrows are on this side of you; bring them here,’ then come, because, as surely as the Lord lives, you are safe; there is no danger. “But if I say to the boy, ‘Look, the arrows are beyond you,’ then you must go, because the Lord has sent you away” (1 Samuel 20:14-22).

When Jonathan said, “… because the Lord has sent you away” he was verbalizing his and David’s belief that Yahweh was in charge of whatever happened, through good men or bad. And they were right.

“And about the matter you and I discussed—remember, the Lord is witness between you and me forever.” So David hid in the field, and when the New Moon festival came, the king sat down to eat. He sat in his customary place by the wall, opposite Jonathan, and Abner sat next to Saul, but David’s place was empty. Saul said nothing that day, for he thought, “Something must have happened to David to make him ceremonially unclean—surely he is unclean” (1 Samuel 20: 23-25).

Notice that Saul was completely willing for David to be absent if it was a matter of his keeping the law. He was planning to murder David, but he didn’t mind postponing it if that was what was necessary for David to remain kosher!

Do you remember how the New Testament scribes would not go inside Pilate’s house in order to talk to him about murdering Jesus, the Son of David? Pilate had to come out to them. He was a Gentile, and they didn’t want to become unclean right before Passover. They didn’t mind murdering God’s Son, but they didn’t want to be technically unclean! (John 18:28)

The most common way for a married person to become unclean was through marital relations. It was not shameful to become unclean in this manner; it was expected of married Jews. Cleansing from this uncleanness required a twenty-four hour process, so Saul was not upset when newlywed David was missing for one day. Saul was zealous for the ceremonial side of the law. He was zealous for outward appearance.

The wonderful divine irony here is that David sleeping with Michal was in fact the real issue, though in a different way than Saul thought. Neither God nor man was really concerned with the technical uncleanness that came with the marriage bed. But Saul had succeeded in making David spiritually weak through Michal’s bed. The hardest thing to accept in this little book is, as strange as it sounds, Saul’s own fears had come upon David since he had “become one” with Michal. Saul thought when he arranged the marriage that God would be angry with David for marrying an idolatrous woman. Saul did not fully understand that Michal had influenced David to the extent that he now fervently believed he was “only a step from death.” Saul also did not begin to understand the depth of God’s unfailing love that was going to deliver David despite the demon’s of fear that had overtaken him.

Saul, and everyone else, was genuinely surprised that David hadn’t come back into their circle. They had reserved his chair for him. Saul had a record of irrational behavior, and David had a record of dealing with it. But this was not the David they had known before.

But the next day, the second day of the month, David’s place was empty again. Then Saul said to his son Jonathan, “Why hasn’t the son of Jesse come to the meal, either yesterday or today?” Jonathan answered, “David earnestly asked me for permission to go to Bethlehem. “He said, ‘Let me go, because our family is observing a sacrifice in the town and my brother has ordered me to be there. If I have found favor in your eyes, let me get away to see my brothers.’ That is why he has not come to the king’s table”. (1 Samuel 20: 27-29)

Jonathan was cringing inside as he defended David to Saul. He even went to the extent of throwing in the bit about David being ordered by Eliab to attend the feast. Jonathan didn’t fully know his father’s intentions, and yet he suspected them. And he strove mightily to pacify him.

Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, “You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don’t I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you? “As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he must die!” “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” Jonathan asked his father. But Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him. Then Jonathan knew that his father intended to kill David. (1 Samuel 20: 30-33)

Sin is not sane. In order to insure Jonathan’s throne, Saul tried to kill him? Again he used the spear, the preferred weapon of both Saul and Goliath.

Let’s go further here: Saul was glad to see David keep the law with regard to ritual uncleanness, but he had murder in his heart. In chapter 14 Saul was zealous about insuring that the men didn’t eat meat with blood in it, and a few verses later he is about to kill Jonathan. It is beyond the scope of this book, but let me mention that in Second Samuel 12 David had become a Saul heart when he committed adultery and murder … and yet he is very legalistic about assuring that the man in Nathan’s story who’d stolen a lamb pay back four fold to the man it was taken from. The Saul heart is all about the letter of the Law, but it cares little for the Spirit of the Law

Jonathan got up from the table in fierce anger; on that second day of the month he did not eat, because he was grieved at his father’s shameful treatment of David. (1 Samuel 20:34)

At the battle of Gilgal, Jonathan had been the only one not fasting, and his father had threatened his life. Here he was the only one who was fasting, and his father took a shot at him again. Have you gathered by now that there’s a pattern of Saul’s fear weakening even the strong?

In the morning Jonathan went out to the field for his meeting with David. He had a small boy with him, and he said to the boy, “Run and find the arrows I shoot.” As the boy ran, he shot an arrow beyond him. When the boy came to the place where Jonathan’s arrow had fallen, Jonathan called out after him, “Isn’t the arrow beyond you?” Then he shouted, “Hurry! Go quickly! Don’t stop!” The boy picked up the arrow and returned to his master. (1 Samuel 20:35-38)

This was not according to their planned set of signals. Jonathan was beside himself with grief. He was not able to send David away without talking to him one more time.

(The boy knew nothing of all this; only Jonathan and David knew.) Then Jonathan gave his weapons to the boy and said, “Go, carry them back to town.” (1 Samuel 20: 39-40)

Again, Jonathan gave his weapons away.

After the boy had gone, David got up from the south side of the stone and bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground… (1 Samuel 20:41)

The stone had already been named Ezel. Ezel means “departure.” It was predestined in God that David would have to depart. And I don’t believe this note that David was on the south side of this particular stone is there for nothing. The clan of the high priest was the Kohathite clan and they camped on the south side of the tabernacle in Numbers chapter three. Clearly, David is pictured throughout Samuel as one who transcends the law, even as Christ did. Because of David’s heart, he was qualified to be even more intimate with God than the high priest’s family.

Then they kissed each other and wept together—but David wept the most. (1 Samuel 20:41)

Did David weep the most because he had a spiritual instinct that his friend was sliding toward a deadly precipice, and he was in no condition to rescue him?

Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever.'” Then David left, and Jonathan went back to the town.
(1 Samuel 20:42)