It is not to be supposed that, while in the wilderness, the sole care of David was the protection of other people’s cattle. Such daring spirits as he commanded, were not to be restricted to such narrow bounds. His fell purpose against Nabal—every soul belonging to whom he intended to destroy for the churlish words of their master—shows that he assumed the right of dealing in a very summary manner with his personal enemies, or those by whom he conceived himself to be wronged; and it is likely that if Doeg, or other obnoxious persons, had been travelling their way, they would have been subjected to very rough treatment by this troop of outlaws.
Again, his expedition to the relief of Keilah when besieged by the Philistines, shows that he was ever ready to employ his force against the public enemies of Israel—thus at once rendering a service acceptable to the people, and obtaining supplies for the use of his troop. The necessity of keeping them employed, and of procuring them a maintenance, without doubt occasioned other expeditions which are not recorded—sudden forays when opportunity offered, into the territories of the various ancient enemies of Israel with whom there was no active war. This continually occurs under the like circumstances, and was the mode in which Jephthah in a former age employed his men, and acquired the reputation and experience which led to his being called to lead the armies of Israel. Of the expedition to relieve Keilah, which was the very first operation performed by David when his troop was organized, it may be remarked that it must have been of signal service to his character—for, involving as it did the defeat of a Philistine force, its effect must have been to rectify in public estimation, the error he had committed in going over to the Philistines.
The proceedings of David, and the position he had assumed, were regarded by Saul with alarm and unmitigated hatred. He probably thought that the present moderation of Jesse’s son, would last no longer than till his force should become strong enough to enable him to strike for the crown, by meeting the royal forces in arms. He might well judge that if his cause were suffered to gather strength by time, the issue of a contest might be doubtful. It would not be difficult for David to render his troop fully equal to that which the crown kept in constant service, and the rest would depend upon the result of a call upon the tribes, the success of which, for an expedition against a man so eminent and so popular is David, and whose cause was so strong in at least the great and powerful tribe of Judah, he might well have reason to doubt. The king, therefore, determined to hunt down and crush the son of Jesse with his household troops at once, without allowing him time to become more formidable.
From all that appears, David’s men were eager for the fray, and were with great difficulty kept by their leader within the bounds he had prescribed to himself. His policy was to avoid, by all the means in his power, an encounter. with the royal forces. For this, his position among the mountains, cliffs, narrow ravines, and caverns of the rocky wilderness west of the Dead Sea, offered peculiar advantages—and many a weary chase did he lead king Saul through this wild region. Yet Saul was, from time to time, supplied with good information respecting David’s movements; and once was, without knowing it, so close upon him, had in fact hemmed him in, that he must have been taken or driven into the armed conflict with the king, which he was so anxious to avoid, had not, most providentially, a messenger arrived at the moment to apprize Saul that the Philistines had invaded the land, which obliged him immediately to turn his steps to another quarter.
Jonathan was not present at any time with the force in pursuit of David. Under all the circumstances, it was best that he should be absent. His heart, however, yearned after his friend. This was not an age of epistolary communications; and letters, as well as messages, would have been dangerous. Having, therefore, heard that David was in the forest of Ziph, he resolved to pay him a secret visit—from his own home at Gibeah—seemingly before Saul had commenced his personal pursuit of David. This was the last time the two friends met in this world; and the interview was of deep interest to both. The object of the generous prince was to “strengthen his hand in God;” to encourage him in his faith and hope—and to prevent him by his friendly counsels from sinking into despair—“Fear not,” he said, “for the hand of Saul my father shall not find thee.” This was a faith as strong as David himself ever expressed—and stronger than even he was enabled always to maintain. More than this, he now avowed, without reserve, his clear knowledge that David was to be king; and—in his submission to what he knew to be the Divine appointment, and in his intense admiration of his friend’s high qualities—his most cheerful acquiescence in that arrangement. He even contemplated it with pleasure, looking forward to the many happy days they should spend together, when David should be king—and he next to him, his uncrowned equal. “Thou shalt be king over Israel, and I shall be next to thee; and that also Saul my father knoweth.” Alas, for him—it was not so to be: and perhaps, upon the whole, it was well that it was not; for looking at what afterwards took place in regard to Jonathan’s son—a son worthy of such a father, it may be feared that in the position which his imagination pictured as one of perfect happiness to his generous heart, difficulties which he saw not would have arisen, to mar that picture which we now possess of the most perfect friendship the world ever witnessed. Yet who can tell but the presence of such an influence as that of Jonathan—the possession of such a refreshment to his spirit, as the perfect love of such a friend would have supplied—might have had such salutary operation upon David’s temper, that his great name would have come down to us without spot.
Before they parted, “the two made a covenant before the Lord.” It was no doubt to the same purport as that previously taken, and which was thus confirmed—amounting to this, that David should, not only while Jonathan lived, “show him the kindness of the Lord,” but should do so by himself and his heirs to Jonathan’s descendants forever. This was not much for David to promise, to one who gave up all that men most prize for him. But we must not forget, that if in this beautiful friendship Jonathan shines more than David, this was the necessary result of the great difference in their position. Jonathan could make actual sacrifices such as few men have ever made; but Jesse’s son had nothing to give up that could be of any avail to Jonathan. Had their positions been reversed, there is no reason to suppose that David would have been less generous than the prince. But he could only promise; and promises seem but small coin to give in exchange for golden sacrifices.
These covenants of brotherhood are rather common in the East; they are for the most part, like this, contracted under a religious sanction, and are of a very binding nature. In China they are especially frequent; and that country, notwithstanding its remoteness, affords more materials for Scriptural illustration than is usually expected. We find repeated instances of such covenants in Chinese histories and fictions. Here is one from the Rambles of the Emperor Ching-Tih. “‘Your kindness,’ said Yung to To Gaon, ‘cannot be forgotten through the lapse of ages. I have ventured to form the desire to contract an alliance with you which death shall not be able to dissolve.’ To Gaon was delighted with the proposal; on which they inquired each other’s age. Gaon being twenty-eight, and Yung no more than twenty-three, the former received the honors due to the elder. After this they knelt, he on the left, and Yung on the right; and worshipped in the face of heaven, while the latter declared their engagement in the following terms: ‘I here, Chou-Yung, and my senior kin, engage by oath to be devoted brothers. Though our surnames be not the same, we shall be to one another as if we were children of one mother. Our friendship is for no purpose of wickedness, or for mutual aid in crime; but the resolute intention of us both is to delight in justice, and not to give way to feelings of unrighteousness. We will encourage each other in what is good, and warn each other of what is evil; thereafter, should we find our way to the court, we shall together become pillars of the empire, that we may leave a fragrant memorial for the historian, and our names be together magnified before the people. Should riches and honor hereafter fall to the lot of either of us, he shall share the glory with the other. If either be false to this agreement—may the gods mark him!’”