In the remarkable turning of the heart of Saul—so full when he set out of fell, and probably bloody, purposes, and the long enhancement in which he lay, several objects may be discerned—first, to magnify the power of the Lord over the hearts of men; then, to protect Samuel and his college from the king’s wrath, for we must not reckon too much upon his forbearance even towards the aged prophet, when we consider what was afterwards done to the priests at Nob for the shelter they gave to David; and, lastly, it was designed to frustrate all the king’s objects, and to give the son of Jesse an opportunity of escaping to a safe distance before he became himself again.
David now saw clearly that his life at Saul’s court was ended, and that it only remained for him, thenceforth, to keep himself beyond the reach of Saul, and await in patience the progress of events. This was probably also the purport of the advice that he received from Samuel.
Yet he took advantage of Saul’s state to return to Gibeah, wasting, as some may deem, the precious time which might have served him well for his escape. But every generous heart will appreciate his motive in subjecting himself to this risk—it was to see once more his beloved Jonathan, the friend and brother of his soul, and to obtain his sanction to the step be was about to take. The interview between these two generous and high-minded young men, is deeply interesting; and although there are longer speeches in the historical Scriptures, there is no conversation—with the natural changes of interlocution—reported at equal length. The object of David was to convince his friend of the reality of the danger he was in, and the necessity for his departure. This was opposed by Jonathan, partly from the love he bore to David, and the pain he would feel in being for a long indefinite period separated from him, and partly from the charity that thinketh no evil, rendering him reluctant to judge harshly of his father. He could not bring himself to believe that, after the oath which Saul had taken to make no attempt against David’s life, he had any real intention to destroy him. He urged, that he was in his father’s confidence, and would surely have known had any such intention existed. The reader will do well to note the admirable delicacy of David’s reply to this—“Thy father certainly knoweth that I have found grace in thine eyes, and he saith, Let not Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved; but truly, as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is but one step between me and death.” To avoid giving pain to Jonathan, he avoids implying or expressing that his father had any mistrust of him, and gives it quite another turn, as if Saul concealed his designs upon David from his son only to spare his feelings.
Jonathan could not, however; be satisfied without further proof of his father’s present state of feeling towards David. He probably hoped, from David’s account, that whatever had been his intentions, a more effectual change had been wrought in him at Ramah, than his friend supposed. To satisfy him, David agreed to defer his flight. It was arranged that he should visit his family at Bethlehem, and return in three days to his former place of concealment, near the stone of Ezel, where, by a concerted signal, Jonathan was to apprize him of the result, it being uncertain but that he might be so watched, as to render another interview unsafe. The next day was the feast of the new moon, when the king was wont to entertain the high officers of his court; and David, as his son-in-law, and a high military officer, had a seat at his table. Saul knew that David had been seen at Gibeah, and concluded that the change which he had seen come over himself at Naioth, had led him to think that there was nothing more to fear. He therefore expected he would appear in his place at the feast; but his place remained empty. The king made no remark then, supposing that some accident prevented his attendance, and that he would doubtless be present the following day; for that day also was a feast for the new moon being proclaimed, according to its actual appearing; and the appearance being uncertain, sometimes in the evening, at noon, or at midnight, two days were observed as a feast ill honor of the occasion. Still David was absent, and Saul asked Jonathan, with all the indifference he could assume—“Wherefore came not the son of Jesse to meat, neither yesterday nor today?” Jonathan answered, that he had asked for, and obtained, his permission to attend a family celebration at Bethlehem. On hearing this, the king could restrain himself no longer. Looking upon his son as one who was infatuated by his love for David, into madly throwing away his own prospects and those of his house, he broke forth into violent and insulting abuse of him. To any oriental, nothing is so grievously insulting as a reproach cast upon his mother—so Saul, to sting his son to the uttermost, spoke contemptuously of his mother, regardless of the fact, that Jonathan’s mother was his own wife—“Thou son of the perverse, rebellious woman,” etc. There are some traces of this form of abuse, in principle, among the least refined portion of our own population; but in the East, no man is too high or too refined to be above it. Even a son will abuse his brother by casting contumely upon his mother, regardless of the fact that she is also his own mother, and whom, as such, he venerates and loves. Note: So Antar to his uterine brother: “Thou base-born! thou son of a foul mother! thou didst instigate my master to beat me.”—Journal of Sacred Literature, v. 25. The mother herself is not held to be affronted in such cases, but the son who hears such words applied to her is insulted, and is meant to be insulted, beyond expiation. Jonathan, however, remembered that the man who spoke was his father, and that the lot of his friend was in the balance; so he restrained himself, and the king went on to tell him that while the son of Jesse lived, the prospect of his own inheritance of the crown was nothing worth. This is the first time Saul had expressed that conviction, showing that the previous flight of David to Samuel had turned into certainty the suspicions he had before entertained. Even this did not move the firm friendship of Jonathan, who seems to have himself, before this, reached the conviction that David was indeed the man chosen of God to reign—according to the announcement of Samuel, which must have been known to him—and to have brought his mind to acquiesce in it, seeing that the man so chosen was one whom he loved as his own soul. It was in the recollection of this, among the other manifestations of his deep and self-sacrificing affection, that David, in a later day, characterized Jonathan’s regard for him in the memorable words, “Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of woman.” So now, in this trying moment, Jonathan ventured to speak for his friend, urging justly that a man was to be judged by his acts and intentions, and those of David were laudable and pure. “Wherefore,” he asked, “shall he be slain? What hath he done?” The answer was from the javelin of the infuriated king, which this time he cast at his own son. He missed; and his son, regardless of the insult and danger to himself, but seeing from this that his father was determined to slay David, arose from the table and went out “in fierce anger,” leaving his food untasted.
Early the next morning he went out with his bow into the field, where David was concealed, attended by a boy, the words used to whom, in directing him to find the arrows, which his master shot, as if at a mark, formed the signal previously agreed upon. The signal was that of danger. But the lad having been sent back to the town with the arrows, and there being no one in sight, the two friends could not refuse themselves the satisfaction of one more farewell interview. It is, and was, the custom, in approaching a sovereign or prince, to pause, and bow at regulated intervals. Xenophon ascribes the origin of the practice to Cyrus, Note: Cyropœdia, 1. viii. c. 23. but it was of earlier date, although he may have first introduced it among the Persians. David thus testified the respect due to Jonathan’s high station, in advancing to meet him; but when they came near, everything but their heart-brotherhood was forgotten: “They kissed one another, and wept one with another until David exceeded.” But time was precious, and delay dangerous, so bidding each other hastily farewell, they separated, to have but one more stolen interview in life.