Sermon preached on 1 Samuel 20 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 7/5/2015 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Samuel 20
“May the LORD be Between You and Me”
The story of Jonathan and David is often cited as an example of friendship. Clearly, they have an amazing friendship. We see their friendship especially coming out here in terms of their deep loyalty toward one another. Indeed, there is a model of friendship between these two that is inspiring. And yet when I hear people talking about the friendship between Jonathan and David, one thing that I don’t hear mentioned very much is the covenantal nature of their friendship. In other words, their friendship is such that they enter into formal covenant relationship with each other. And it’s not just here in this chapter. There are repeated references to this covenant relationship that they enjoy. And so as we see here today the sort of loyalty that exists between Jonathan and David in their friendship, we should recognize this. It’s not just some loose loyalty. It’s loyalty formally expressed and even demanded in covenant between them. This is not something that we really do today among our close friends. But probably the closest example we can think of is marriage. In marriage, a husband and wife are covenanting together their loyalty and fidelity to one another. Of course, the relationship with Jonathan and David is different than that between a husband and wife. But the promises they are making to one another certainly have some similarity as to a marriage in the sense that they are expressed so wonderfully in the form of a covenant.
And so today we are going to be thinking about covenant loyalty. And I’ll give you a Hebrew word to start to get you to think about this covenant loyalty. The word is chesed. That Hebrew word appears three times in our passage, in verses 8, 14, and 15. Our pew bibles translate it as kindness; some translations have steadfast love, but it’s a word that’s really hard to translate into just one word. And that’s because the concept of covenant is typically inherent to this word’s usage. In other words, it’s not that that it’s about kindness or love in general, but the kindness and love that flows out of a covenant relationship. It’s the demands that come out of a covenant that are not strictly legal to the covenant, but it expresses the positive spirit behind the covenant. And so to hear the word chesed is to think about the love and kindness that is shown because you’ve been faithful or loyal to that covenant relationship that you have.
And so, Jonathan and David have chesed toward each other. They have this covenant loyalty that expresses itself in the love and kindness that they are showing and will show. It is that covenant loyalty we will consider today. And it’s an important thing to think about because it helps us to think about the covenant we have with God in Christ. It helps us to think about the kind of chesed that we ought to show to Jesus. By extension it surely reminds us of the chesed we should show to each other too since together as a people we are in covenant with God. But it also and especially reminds us of the chesed God has shown to us in Jesus Christ.
So then, lets dig into the details of this covenant between Jonathan and David by first observing how this covenant loyalty is a bit unexpected. I mean think about it from this vantage point. Why should Jonathan make a covenant like this with David, and why express such unwavering loyalty? From a purely pragmatic level, you might wonder what Jonathan has to gain in it. Jonathan is the prince. He’s royalty. Even before David married into the family, Jonathan had entered into covenant with David, so his loyalty wasn’t because David married his sister. Why would a prince take such initiative with a relatively common citizen? And not only that, but at this point, Jonathan knows that his father Saul has had concerns with David. David, at least in Saul’s eyes, is a threat to what some might assume is Jonathan’s future reign as king. And so for Jonathan to show such covenant loyalty to David would be in opposition to his own father’s will, and might appear to not be very strategic for Jonathan’s own future prospects for the throne. And so for Jonathan to nonetheless take the initiative in covenanting with David, it strikes us as a bit unexpected.
Why does Jonathan have such covenant loyalty for David, even though it’s a bit unexpected? Well, one reason why Jonathan is so loyal to this seems to be for the sake of righteousness. Let’s be clear. Jonathan is a man of God. He cares about righteousness. And so why would he express such loyalty to David is because of the sake of righteousness. We see some of this play out in the opening verses. David himself asks the question in verse 1 to Jonathan about Saul’s hatred for David. David asks, “What have I done? What is my iniquity, and what is my sin before your father, that he seeks my life?” David maintains his innocence. David even goes as far as to tell Jonathan in verse 8 that if he is guilty of sin, that Jonathan should not wait for Saul but kill David himself!
Now, of course, Jonathan at this point is a bit ignorant about Saul’s continued hatred for David. You might recall that last chapter we saw Saul tell his son Jonathan that he wanted to kill David. Yet, Jonathan protested and it appeared like he had talked Saul out of doing this. Jonathan’s argument to Saul was the same then as it is in this chapter. David is innocent. David’s done nothing wrong. It would be unrighteous for Saul to kill the righteous David. And so when David lets Jonathan know that Saul is still seeking his death, without Jonathan knowing, Jonathan is fully willing to help. Jonathan is a man who cares about righteousness, even to the point that he would oppose family for the sake of friendship, when it is for the cause of righteousness.
A second, and related, reason why Jonathan would express such unexpected covenant loyalty, is out of his love for David. We saw this back in chapter 18, and we see it again in verse 17. Jonathan greatly loved David. Right after in verse 16 when Jonathan again reaffirmed his covenant with David, it says then that it’s to be founded upon this love Jonathan has for David. Any why shouldn’t Jonathan have such love for him? Jonathan surely admired the way God has been using David and had been at work in his life. It was something that drew Jonathan to David in such amazing love. Jonathan loved David as he loved his very own life. This love meant that Jonathan wasn’t going to put his own interests before David. And so this freed Jonathan to covenant in such a way with David.
As we relate this first point to our relationship with Jesus Christ, we can think of how Jesus himself lamented like David here how people were unjustly treating him. Like in John 10, when the Jews went to stone Jesus, he said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” (John 10:32). Or when Jesus was on trial and he was struck in the face he said in John 18:23, “‘If I said something wrong,’ Jesus replied, ‘testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?'” Jesus, like David here, acknowledged that he was being unrighteously persecuted. David’s righteousness, of course, was imperfect. But Jesus’ righteousness was absolutely perfect. And so if we can appreciate Jonathan in his privilege wanting to align himself covenantly with David for the sake of righteousness, how much more us with Jesus Christ? Christ calls us to enter into covenant with him. Yes, the world accuses Jesus of many evils, but we know that such is not true. Jesus imminently is worthy of our complete covenant loyalty and allegiance.
Of course when we really know who Jesus is, there shouldn’t be anything too unexpected for us to want to be in covenant with Jesus. We have come to love our righteous Lord. But what is remarkable and unexpected that King Jesus would want to covenant with us. And yet he takes the initiative with us! With us who are unrighteous sinners! Jesus should kill us himself, but in unexpected gracious love, he shows kindness to us in order to draw us into a covenant relationship with him. And yet it’s in his sacrifice that he changes our standing from unrighteous to righteous. Thus making the unexpected covenant with us completely understandable. We have an awesome Lord!
So then, the next point I’d like us to consider is to see how Jonathan’s covenant loyalty is tested here. I have in mind particularly verse 31. When Jonathan and Saul finally confront each other on Saul’s plans to kill David, Saul gives an appeal to Jonathan. Saul says, “For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, you shall not be established, nor your kingdom. Now therefore, send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.” Now, I’m not sure if this actually tempted Jonathan’s heart or not. Nothing in the text would suggest that he actually entertained this thought. But it nonetheless is a real temptation. Saul makes the case to Jonathan that he won’t become king if David is allowed to live. Saul’s making the case that Jonathan’s actions are actually self-defeating from the standpoint of his being heir to the throne. And so faced with this reasoning, Saul appeals to Jonathan to not just agree with his father, but to help his father kill David.
Well, by the grace of God, Jonathan withstands this test of his covenant loyalty. Jonathan disregards the comment about the threat to his possible kingship, and instead falls back to the point that David hasn’t done anything wrong. I love how Jonathan shines here. Saul is actually king but is doing a horrible job. A king was supposed to be the ultimate judge of people. He had the power of the sword to put people to death, but was only supposed to use such authority as righteousness demanded it. And yet though Jonathan is not actually king, he is acting like one, not willing for an innocent man to be put to death.
And so I wanted us to observe this second point because the temptation that comes to Jonathan is something we can relate to as well. As we think about our own covenant loyalty to Christ, we know that these are the kinds of temptations that are very common. What Saul is offering Jonathan is something that is, from a fleshly perspective, something he could theoretically put his hand on very easily. Would Jonathan give up his reign as king for David? Well, Jonathan seems to have recognized rightly that it is God who establishes people as king and removes people as king. It seems that Jonathan has become increasingly aware that his place won’t be to be king: that God has appointed David to be the next king. And so Jonathan seems content to receive the place God has given him. He seems content to put his trust in the Lord’s Anointed One, David.
And so for us, we might get temptations for things of this world that conflict with our allegiance to Christ. If you are a bold supporter of Christ, you might miss out on certain positions in this world. Or you might be tempted with things like pornography or drugs that offer some immediate satisfaction, if you but ignore for a moment that allegiance you have to Christ. The list of such temptations to immediate gratification versus the living in covenant loyalty to Christ is a big list. But don’t buy into the lie. Saul held out to Jonathan a throne that wasn’t Saul’s to give. If Jonathan had tried to pursue that by handing over David, it’s not like he would have succeeded to be able to take the throne against God’s will. He would have just joined with the enemy of God’s Anointed One. Let us instead put our hope and our allegiance in the Christ of the Lord; not in the deceptive lusts of the flesh that tempt us.
Let’s turn now to our third point and think finally how the covenant loyalty that we see in this passage brings a great unity together of the two parties in covenant. This is in general how covenants down through the ages have tended to work, even secular covenants. For example, even when a covenant in the ancient near east was between some more powerful king with some lesser king, the covenant would typically be something like this. The less powerful king would agree to be a loyal subject and supporter of the more powerful king; probably pledging to give some money or tribute too. But the more powerful king might then tend to promise his military support for the lesser king. The result would be that those two nations would become closely connected. What happened to one would have an effect on the other, etc. Well, my point is that this is the case with Jonathan and David. Their covenant together brings them into a close unity and connection. Likewise, by application, our covenant relationship with Christ also brings us into close union and connection.
We see this with Jonathan and David in terms of persecution. It’s really wonderfully illustrated beginning in verse 30. Saul and Jonathan are talking about David’s absence. When Jonathan in covenant loyalty gives the story to Saul that David wanted him to give, all of a sudden Saul just blows up at him. In verse 30, Saul rails at him with words. He says to 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?” Moments later in verse 33, Saul is hurling a spear at Jonathan just like he had already repeatedly done to David. And look at how verse 33 interprets Saul throwing a spear at Jonathan. It says that Jonathan realized that this meant that Saul really was determined to kill David. You know if someone throws a spear at me, I’d probably assume they were trying to kill me. But Jonathan realizes that that this was actually expressing how much Saul wanted to kill David. And yet do you see the point? In Jonathan siding in covenant loyalty with David over his father, there is a moment here when Saul’s persecution of David spills over onto Jonathan. But that’s how these things tend to work. When you are in close covenant with someone, there is this unity and connection. It can mean that what happens to one party in the covenant might then happen to the other party as well.
We know this is true in our relationship with Jesus. Jesus said in John 15:18, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” As we’ve come into covenant relationship with Jesus, we have a close unity with him. Of course, we think about this unity and union with Christ in terms of spiritual realities. We have a mystical, spiritual, union with Christ that has many ramifications. But as we think about our unity and connection with Christ in covenantal terms, we see how this works. Our covenantal solidarity means that the persecution people have for Jesus will spill over onto us. As we stand in covenant loyalty to Jesus, those who hate him will also hate us. In covenantal solidarity with Jesus, we experience persecution with him.
And yet the ramifications of such covenantal solidarity doesn’t come just in negative ways like persecution. And that’s where this is all especially exciting. I mean just look at the point here in this passage. Jonathan makes David swear that the covenantal loyalty and kindness will go both ways, and that this is supposed to extend beyond just them, but to their offspring. The point is that as David succeeds by the hand of God, David is to show kindness to Jonathan and to Jonathan’s house. Now we know from the rest of this book that Jonathan won’t be alive when David finally becomes king (I hope I didn’t spoil the ending here for anyone). But Jonathan doesn’t know that. So, I can see that Jonathan thinks that maybe there will be a time when David becomes king and he can stand alongside in peace and friendship while David is king. In fact, we’ll see that in chapter 23. Jonathan will say to David in 23:17 that he knows David will be the next king and that Jonathan will be next to him. In other words, the covenant that Jonathan and David enter into today is one where there will be peace and friendship between them. Jonathan realizes that this will mean that when David becomes king he and his family will be well under David’s kingship, even in a place of honor before him.
That too would be an unexpected thing, by the way, in terms of how things worked back then in the ancient Near East. Normally, a rival new king would wipe out all of the descendants of the previous king, to eliminate anybody that could try to make a claim to the throne. But Jonathan knows that won’t happen because of the covenant he has with David. His covenantal solidarity means that when it goes well with David and David becomes king, then it will also go well with Jonathan. Their covenant connects them in such a way. Well, this will be the case. Yes, Jonathan will be killed in battle before David becomes king. But after David becomes king, he will remember this covenant with Jonathan. He’ll investigate and find a descendant of Jonathan that is still alive. His name is Mephibosheth. In 2 Samuel 9 we’ll see David then bring Mephibosheth into his own court. David practically adopts him and has him eat continually at his own table. This is because of the covenant. So, on the one hand, Jonathan and his house share in the sufferings of David. But he also will share in the rewards with David. This is an outworking of this covenant relationship they have.
Well, we know how true this is too with our relationship with Christ. As Christ is exalted, we know we share in that exaltation too. We are called co-heirs with Christ. We are adopted into God’s family and are members now of this divine household. Christ shares his heavenly inheritance with us. We reap along with Christ in his glory. This of course should encourage us. It should strength us in our faith when we face the persecutions. The persecutions for Christ only reminds us of the glory we will taste in Christ. All of this is directly related to the covenantal relationship we have with Christ. As we place our allegiance in Christ, we know that he will be faithful to the terms of the covenant to bring us to glory and to eternal life.
Saints of God, in closing, I remind you that Jesus has called us who are in covenant with him, he has called us friends (John 15). This passage reminds us a little bit about what it means to express such friendship in the context of a covenant relationship. As we are encouraged by the covenant loyalty and love, that chesed, that is here between David and Jonathan, we should remember our difficulty sometimes in showing such loyalty to Christ. Christ is always faithful, but we sometimes struggle. I think of even David. Though he is a type of Christ, it’s in that really awesome way that he shows chesed to Mephibosheth that we see David’s struggle. Because later on, there will be some lie by an evil person against Mephibosheth. David will make a bad judgment and the result will be a way that his chesed toward Mephibosheth is somewhat weakened. This is 2 Samuel 19. That was a failing on David’s part in terms of his covenant loyalty. There we see how David is not the ultimate Christ. But in Jesus Christ, he never fails to show his love and loyalty to us who is united to him in covenant. He shed his blood on the cross so we could even be in such a relationship with him. He worked by his Spirit to bring you to himself in faith, and he will finish the work. And yet though he is so faithful, and so kind, we know that like David, we sometimes fall short in reciprocating such love and loyalty.
That should sadden us. Who of us would want to ever fail in our loyalty to Christ after all he’s done for us? Yet each of our sins is a failure of loyalty. It should sadden us. It highlights our weakness. Well, to our weakness I say this. Christ’ power is made perfect in our weakness. Christ’s perfect covenant loyalty is only all the more exhibited in that he does not give up on us. But he, by his Word and Spirit, continues to work in us. He even helps us to see our shortcomings, and renews our hearts in repentance, and draws us to keep looking to follow him. Of course, I do not say this so that we have an excuse for our sin. But let us be encouraged that in our weaknesses, and in our failings, we have a covenant Lord who is always faithful. Be encouraged then that our friend and Lord, Jesus the Christ, is at work in us.
And so as we look to grow in our covenant kindness and loyalty to Christ who is not only our Lord but our friend, there is surely an extended application to how we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ. I mean, how can we not be reminded of the value of godly friendship in this passage as we see Jonathan and David. And so we remember that as we look around at our fellow Christians, that we are friends in Christ. And that means there is this new covenant that brings that friendship together in Christ. We have a covenant bond all together in Christ. So surely, there’s an application here to continue to cultivate such friendships in our midst.
And so, yes, we all will fall short in how we live out such covenant loyalty to Christ and to one another. Let us keep looking to Christ’s covenant faithfulness to work in us, even amidst our own struggles at such. Trust again today in his chesed. When you face persecution, trust in his chesed. When you fall short in your allegiance to Christ, trust in his chesed. As you repent daily and renew your efforts to follow him, trust in his chesed. And as you trust in that chesed, be excited as you see the day getting closer and closer when we’ll experience that chesed in the context of standing next to Christ in glory. How wonderful will that be then, when we experience such blessing of being in covenantal solidarity with Christ our King. Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.