1 Samuel 20:1–42 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions

“A Test and a Covenant”

In chapter 20, we'll see Jonathan's last attempt to reconcile Saul to David. All three will be actively engaged in a dramatic play titled "A Test Can Be a Critical Element of a Covenant." In Act 1, David and Jonathan will collaboratively plan to test Saul; in Act 2, David will hide until Jonathan brings him verification of Saul's intent to kill him; Act 3 confirms Saul's declared intentions; and in Act 4, Jonathan, discovering Saul's commitment to kill David, shoots indicator arrows as planned. The play ends with Jonathan and David parting ways.

This is a sad chapter in the lives of all three men. It's abundantly clear that Saul was intent on killing David, and that he'd even kill his own son if he got in his way. This was a significant turning point in the relationship between David and Jonathan, and between David and Saul; it was the occasion for a confirmation of the covenant between David and Jonathan followed by a very sad parting. Yet there are some bright spots in this gloomy chapter, with some important lessons for hearty Christians today.

Concerned with His Safety, David Becomes a Fugitive (20:1–11)

Knowing that Saul would again attempt to kill him, David fled to Naioth in Ramah. He doesn't seem to have fled from Saul, as much as he'd eagerly sought to be with Jonathan. There in Ramah, David secretly met with Jonathan who assured him that he wouldn't allow his father to harm him. He promised David that he'd seek to discover his father’s intentions. We'll soon see that Saul would become so angry with Jonathan that he even attempted to kill him (see vv. 30–33).

Jonathan challenged David’s statement that Saul had sought to end his life (v. 2). David was wondering if he'd done something wrong to have provoked Saul's hatred. Jonathan's "Never!" (v. 2, NIV) assured David that he'd done nothing wrong. Apparently, Jonathan was in a state of denial. He was naive here when he assured David that, if his father had been intent on killing him, he'd surely tell him about it first.

David strongly disagreed with Jonathan’s assessment. Now that Saul knew that David and Jonathan were best buds, bound by a covenant, he wouldn't foolishly reveal to Jonathan his plan to kill David. He purposely quieted his plan to kill David who strongly affirmed then that his life was in grave danger. Jonathan realized how serious David was and how strongly he felt about this danger. He understood that David desperately wanted him to take him seriously, and so Jonathan relented, assuring David that he'd do whatever he asked. So he took a solemn vow to underscore just how serious he was about this. We learn of several vows, oaths, and strong affirmations made in this chapter (vv. 3, 12, 13, 16, 17, 23, 42). The one that David made in v. 3 was very strong. He believed correctly that he was in mortal danger, and he tried to make Jonathan see this. Thankfully, Jonathan was open to anything David suggested (v. 4).

Starting in v. 5, David made a simple plan to document Saul’s intentions toward him. The next day would be a new moon, a time for Saul to share a sacrifice at a royal meal. It was a religious and civil holiday (Numbers 10:10; Psalm 81:3). In certain months, the New Moon festival lasted two nights because it couldn't be observed on the evening of the festival's first day. Since David was part of Saul’s household, he was expected to be there; he'd normally have sat at the king's table because he was one of Saul's high-ranking military commanders. If Saul didn't intend to kill David, he'd simply feel sad if David didn't attend this feast; his absence shouldn't be a problem to Saul. So David planned to be absent to test Saul’s intentions toward him.

David’s absence needed to be explained so that it appeared reasonable for him to be absent. He'd already planned his explanation. Since Jonathan would be at the celebration, he'd be the one to present David’s excuse to Saul. If and when Saul asked about David’s absence, Jonathan would tell the king that David had asked that he be permitted to miss this feast because he had to go to Bethlehem to be with his family for this New Moon celebration. That was reasonable and shouldn't have caused Saul any problems, unless he planned to kill David. To see whether Saul intended to kill him, David appealed to Jonathan to carry out his plan. The basis for this appeal was the love both men had for each other and the covenants that they'd already made (see 18:1–4; 19:1). Rather than turn David over to Saul, we see that David, in v. 8b, told Jonathan: "If I am guilty, then kill me yourself!" In response, Jonathan was appalled at such a suggestion. He made it very clear in v. 9 that he'd definitely warn David of a plot against him.

The thinking behind their collaborative plan begins to unfold when David asked, “Who will tell me if your father answers you harshly?” (v. 10). Jonathan was probably beginning to realize just how serious the situation had become. If Saul was insanely jealous, and scheming to kill David, it appeared likely that someone overhearing their conversation might report it to Saul. So they went into a field where curious eyes and finely tuned ears couldn't discern what was being said between both friends. Since this was also the place where Jonathan would reveal to David the outcome of their “test,” they'd be able to agree on where each person would stand or hide.

David proposed his test (v. 7) to convince Jonathan that Saul really intended to kill him. The covenant to which David referred was the one he and Jonathan made previously. He appealed to it, asking Jonathan to be the one to kill him if he was to die, keeping Saul from doing it; David wanted to die by his friend's hand, not his enemy's. He urged Jonathan (v. 9), "If I am guilty, then kill me yourself!" Jonathan refused but promised to tell him if Saul responded angrily as David had predicted he would. Jonathan then suggested a plan allowing him to communicate with David without revealing David's location to Saul (vv. 10–11). David had temporarily lost sight of God's promise that he'd eventually rule over Israel.

David and Jonathan Make a Long-Term Agreement (vv. 12–17)

If their test showed that Saul had changed his mind about David, and his intentions became favorable, Jonathan would send word to David to make that known (v. 12). But if Saul’s intentions toward David were still hostile, Jonathan would convey that news to David so that he could make his getaway. If this was the case, and David had to flee (as Jonathan now suspected), he'd let David know that he was to depart with Jonathan’s blessing and love (v. 13). In this passage's opening verses, Jonathan says, "May the Lord" as he prayerfully appealed to God about their oath that documented the seriousness of the situation. He prayed that God would be with David the same way that he'd been with Saul, namely, as Israel's king. These verses indicate clearly that Jonathan believed that David would one day be king and subdue his enemies, including Saul.

Jonathan secured a promise from David that during his reign he'd protect his family. Previously, David and Jonathan had made a covenant that Jonathan — King Saul's son and heir to the throne — would yield the throne to David and support him. Now he promised not to kill Jonathan's descendants when David became king. (Note: It was common in the ancient Near East for kings who began a new dynasty to kill all the descendants of the former king to keep them from rising up and trying to reclaim the throne subsequently.) This was the second vow that David had made after the one in which he personally pledged his love for Jonathan (v. 17).

David and Jonathan’s Collaborative Efforts (vv. 18–23)

At his royal feasts, Saul missed David's presence, not only because his seat would be vacant but because warriors normally expressed their support for their king by eating with him at important meals (v. 18). David's absence would have raised a question in Saul's mind regarding David's commitment to him.

In vv. 18–23, we see that Jonathan carefully spelled out a plan by which he'd convey the result of David’s test to him. David was to hide out for three days during the test. Then, Jonathan was to go to the field where they were standing presently. There, he'd signal to David the outcome of the test by shooting three arrows, as though aiming at a target, then sending a servant boy to retrieve them. If Jonathan directed the young lad to seek those arrows within easy reach of the area, then David should understand that Saul’s intentions toward him were favorable and he could come out of hiding. But if Jonathan directed the lad to seek the arrows that were beyond him, David was to understand that Saul intended to harm him, so he should flee.

One more time, the author mentions the covenant between David and Jonathan in connection with their plan. Jonathan assured David that he'd do all that he'd promised, based on their covenant. The use of the term "forever" in v. 23 indicates that this covenant was being viewed as one between Jonathan and his descendants and David and his descendants. This extended covenant was the basis for their mutual trust and kindness.

David Goes AWOL, Saul Becomes Angry (vv. 24–34)

Not seeing David at the king's dining table, Saul, sitting with his back to the wall, concluded at first that David hadn't come to the New Moon sacrificial meal because he was unclean (cf. Leviticus 7:20–21; 15:16). However, his absence on the second day required an explanation that Saul looked to his son to provide.

Jonathan gave Saul the rehearsed excuse, telling Saul: David has asked my permission to be absent so that he can celebrate the New Moon festival with his family in Bethlehem. David’s brother pressured him to attend so I accepted his request. That's it; no problem. 

But it definitely was a problem to Saul! He went into a rage, focusing his anger directly on Jonathan. He hated David so much that he couldn't bring himself to use his name (vv. 27, 31). His accusatory "You son of a ___" insulted Jonathan's mother (v. 30). All of Saul’s accusations were essentially true, based upon the covenant that Jonathan and David had made. Jonathan, Saul’s first-born, the heir to his throne, was throwing all that away by pledging his love and allegiance to David. If David lived, the throne would be given to him, not to Jonathan. Because of this, Saul commanded Jonathan to bring David to him to be killed. He set aside the fact that Samuel had already anointed David as Israel’s next king (16:13). To kill David would amount to killing God’s anointed. While David would never lay a hand on Saul, Saul most certainly intended to kill David.

It was evident to Saul that David had become a threat to his continuing dynasty, not just to his personal rule. Clearly, Saul had so rejected and opposed God's will that his reign and dynasty wouldn't endure. He said that he'd kill David to prevent him from doing what God had said he'd do.

Obviously, Jonathan's ambitions weren't the same as Saul's. Jonathan wanted God's plans to succeed more than he wanted to become Israel's king. He therefore interceded for David again (v. 32; cf. 19:4). Saul, exasperated by what he interpreted as Jonathan's selfless folly, tried to execute David's advocate, as he'd formerly tried to kill David (v. 33; cf. 18:11; 19:10). Saul was outraged! He picked up his always handy spear and hurled it this time at his own son Jonathan who "got the point," figuratively. He wasn't hit; fortunately, Saul hadn't gotten any better at hitting targets with his spear. There was no longer any doubt in Jonathan’s mind. Enduring his own brush with death finally convinced him that David had been right about Saul's intentions after all (cf. v. 3). It also convinced him to remove himself from the king's presence. As a result, there were two empty places at Saul's table: David’s and Jonathan’s. How appropriate.

Jonathan was deeply grieved. However, his grief wasn't due to the humiliation his father had heaped upon him at the dinner table; instead it had to do with the way his father had dishonored David (v. 34) who'd been right all along, dead right. Saul was committed to killing David, as well as anyone who tried to stop him from doing so. Jonathan departed angrily because of Saul's attitude toward David and himself. Saul had said that David wouldn't allow Jonathan to rule, but Saul himself almost prevented that from happening by personally attacking the crown prince! Jonathan's departure from Saul's table symbolized and confirmed his departure from his father's fellowship.

Their Plan Gets Carried Out Completely (vv. 35–42)

It was time for Jonathan to carry out their plan. He had to convey to David that he'd been correct, that Saul intended to kill him. The next morning, as agreed, Jonathan secretly went out to the field where he knew David was hiding and watching. He sent his young servant out into the field to retrieve his arrows. After shooting his first arrow past the young lad, he called out to him that the arrow was "beyond you," which advised David that Saul definitely intended to kill him and he had to escape as quickly as possible. When the young lad brought the arrow back to him, Jonathan sent him back to the city.

Jonathan successfully and safely communicated Saul's intentions to David as planned. Jonathan informed David of Saul’s intentions and urged him to leave, but with a treaty of peace between them (v. 42). God permitted David and Jonathan to say their good-byes face to face. They'd anticipated that such a parting might have been impossible (cf. v. 22). Yet, David gave proper respect to Jonathan — the king's son — while being best friends (v. 41). Saul's rebellion against God's will had made their companionship impossible. They parted, reminding themselves of the covenant commitments they'd made to each other and their descendants (v. 42; cf. vv. 16, 23; 2 Samuel 9). For their mutual protection, David and Jonathan decided not to see each other again.

The covenant concept is critical to understand. In our previous summary of chapter 18, we discussed the items Jonathan gave to David in their covenant. Each party exchanged: (1) robes, symbolizing identity, one identity merging with the other; (2) armor and weapons, which spoke of mutual protection; (3) belts, “gear,” that represented support; and (4) a final act to “walk between the pieces,” wherein an animal was cut in two, and the men walked between the pieces — a blood covenant; this final act sealed the deal, each man saying, in effect, “May I die if I break this covenant with you.”

With these closing verses, we see the culmination of David and Jonathan’s shared covenant. Because it was too dangerous for them to be seen together, they parted company for their mutual protection, although they did meet one more time (see 23:15–18). After this scene in vv. 35–42, David lived in exile until Saul’s death (31:4). And so, with David out of hiding, he bid Jonathan a tearful farewell. The two kissed and wept; David more than Jonathan.

Concluding Considerations

Chapter 20 reveals that both Saul and Jonathan realized that David was the Lord's anointed one who'd eventually replace Saul. However, their responses to this inevitable situation were opposite because their desires were opposite. Saul wanted to see his own plans fulfilled while Jonathan wanted to see God's will done; he (and sister, Michal) chose David, Saul's natural rival, over Saul, his natural father. David later kept his covenant with Jonathan (2 Sam. 9:1), showing that he was a covenant-keeping man committed to following Yahweh. Clearly, David was a man after God's own heart (1 Sam. 13:14).

The main character in this dramatic play is Jonathan. His attitude to God's will contrasts positively with Saul's negative attitude. Rather than oppose God's will and his anointed — David — as Saul had done, Jonathan humbled himself to God's will by supporting the Lord's anointed. He faced a terrible tension since Saul's attitude divided Jonathan's loyalty. He solved this problem by putting God's will first, wisely choosing to submit to the domestic authority of his father and to the civil authority of his king by obeying Saul, except when obedience to him conflicted with obedience to God.

Some readers of chapters 18 through 20 might feel that they teach well the value of godly friendships. While they do that, realize that a more vital lesson is presented therein. The covenant between David and Jonathan wasn't merely a close, committed friendship. Jonathan, in his hearty act of humility, yielded the throne to David, who promised never to kill any of Jonathan’s descendants. He fulfilled that promise, as we'll see in 2 Samuel 9.

Intro Video: “The First Book of Samuel”

 Watch this introductory video clip created by The Bible Project on bibleproject.com.

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  Why was Saul so angry with Jonathan, according to v. 30? How did he show it?
  • Q. 2  How many times and why in chapter 20 did David bow before Jonathan?
  • Q. 3  What did Jonathan's promise to David signify?

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