1 Samuel 20: Lessons from David and Jonathan Regarding the Agape Love that Believers Should Show One Another

Introduction: David had experienced multiple attacks from his jealous and at times demon-possessed father-in-law Saul. His need to stay clear of Saul might have seemed clear. But fleeing would mean abandoning his wife, his friends, his court privileges, and his freedoms. David needed to know if Saul’s most recent attack and arrest attempts represented a temporary demonic possession or a permanent change in attitude toward him. Jonathan was David’s closest friend and Saul’s son. He was uniquely suited in determining whether David could return or whether he needed to flee. From Jonathan’s help for David, God reveals seven things that a believer filled with the agape love of the Spirit should offer to other believers. These include: (1) refuge, (2) support, (3) protection, (4) loyalty, (5) self-sacrifice, (6) faithfulness, and (7) comfort.

First, David first found refuge from Saul with Samuel and the prophets. He then found it with his brother-in-faith Jonathan. From this, God reveals that agape-filled believers should offer refuge to other believers. Second, Jonathan did not know of his father’s recent attempts to kill and arrest David. But he offered David unconditional support. From this, God reveals that agape-filled believers should offer support to each other. Third, Jonathan agreed to protect David from harm by testing his father to determine his true intentions towards David. From this, God reveals that agape-filled believers should find protection with other believers. Fourth, out of Spirit-led love, Jonathan and David formed a covenant of loyalty between them and their future generations that would apply even if their family interests were in conflict. From this, God reveals that agape-filled believers should be loyal to each other. Fifth, Jonathan then tested his father at great risk to himself and exposed his plans to kill David. From this, God reveals that agape-filled believers should sacrifice for other believers. Sixth, even after his father attempted to kill Jonathan for helping David, Jonathan remained faithful to his vow and alerted David to his father’s plans. From this, God reveals that agape-filled believers should be faithful to each other. Finally, Jonathan’s love for David was not limited to protection. Once David realized that he would need to abandon everything he knew to live as a fugitive, Jonathan offered him comfort. From this, God reveals that agape-filled believers should offer comfort to other believers.

1. Refuge: Agape-Filled Believers Find Refuge with Other Believers. 1 Sam. 20:1.

  • David flees to Jonathan to find refuge. After having found protection from Saul with Samuel and the prophets, David fled back to the palace grounds to plead with Jonathan for help in understanding why his father had tried to kill and then arrest him: “Then David fled from Naioth in Ramah, and came and said to Jonathan, ‘What have I done? What is my iniquity? And what is my sin before your father, that he is seeking my life?’” (1 Sam. 20:1). Samuel had twice warned Saul that God had taken away his kingdom because of his sins (1 Sam. 15:28). Saul also knew that his successor would be a godly man (1 Sam. 13:14). As a former prophet, Saul knew that David was his God-appointed heir when women prophetically sang of David killing more Philistines than Saul (1 Sa. 18:8), something that had not yet happened. From that point forward, Saul did everything possible to thwart God’s prophecy to no avail. David, however, did not understand the role he played in this prophecy. Thus, he could not understand Saul’s attacks. In David’s eyes, he posed no possible threat to Saul. Instead, he saw himself as a loyal soldier and as a loyal friend who could help Saul with worship music during Saul’s many struggles with demonic possession (1 Sam. 16:23; 18:10). David assumed that Jonathan could make sense of Saul’s erratic behavior and reveal if David had sinned.

  • Filled with God’s love, Jonathan offered David refuge from his trials. “Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.” (1 Sam. 18:3). This love was the agape love that comes from the Holy Spirit. As one commentator observes: “One word sums up what this chapter is all about, and that word is covenant. David flees to Jonathan, at a very desperate moment in his life, because they have a covenant relationship which assures David of Jonathan’s love and support.” (Robert L. (Bob) Deffinbaugh, 17. “When Saul Slings His Spear, Jonathan Gets the Point” (1 Samuel 20:1-42)) (italics original).1 This is the love that believers should offer to each other.

  • Offer refuge to others in need the way that Jesus does for you. It is in Jesus that we “have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us.” (Heb. 6:18). “The Lord also will be a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble;” (Ps. 9:9). “Each will be like a refuge from the wind and a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry country, like the shade of a huge rock in a parched land.” (Is. 32:2). No one can replace the refuge that Jesus offers. But He frequently uses His believers as the instruments of His refuge. If His love is in you, He wants you to be a refuge to those in need: ‘“naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’” (Matt. 25:36). Jesus asks us: “And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt. 5:47). Have you made yourself available like Samuel or Jonathan to a person in need like David?

2. Support: Agape-Filled Believers Find Support with Other Believers. 1 Sam. 20:2-4.

  • Jonathan’s offer of unconditional support for David. Jonathan did not know of his father’s final attempts to kill and arrest David. Yet, as a brother in the faith, Jonathan offered his unconditional support in helping David find his answers: “He said to him, ‘Far from it, you shall not die. Behold, my father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me. So why should my father hide this thing from me? It is not so!’ Yet David vowed again, saying, ‘Your father knows well that I have found favor in your sight, and he has said, ‘Do not let Jonathan know this, or he will be grieved.’ But truly as the Lord lives and as your soul lives, there is hardly a step between me and death.’ Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Whatever you say, I will do for you.’” (1 Sam. 20:2-4). Saul previously confided in Jonathan about his plans to kill David (1 Sam. 19:1). Jonathan then convinced Saul not to harm David, and Saul vowed before God not to harm David. “Saul listened to the voice of Jonathan, and Saul vowed, ‘As the LORD lives, he shall not be put to death.”’ (1 Sam. 19:6). Saul did not share his most recent attempts to kill David or arrest him with Jonathan. Thus, Jonathan did not initially believe that his father would conceal things from him. Yet, even though he did not understand what David was saying, he offered David his unconditional support.

Jonathan offered his comfort and support for David2

  • Offer support to those in need. In addition to being a refuge, God wants you to be His instrument of support for the poor, the disadvantaged, and others fighting social injustice (Prov. 28:5; Jer. 22:3; Eze. 18:21; Micah 6:8; Zeck. 7:9; Matt. 23:23). On the Day of Judgment, Jesus will ask each person what they did for the poor and the needy: “I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matt. 25:40). In James 1:27, you are also told that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Likewise, in Micah 6:8, you are told that God expects you to: “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” In Isaiah 1:17, you are further told to “learn to do good, seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, [and] plead for the widow.” How will you answer Jesus when asked what you have done with your talents to help the poor, the oppressed, and the disadvantaged?

3. Protection: Agape-Filled Believers Find Protection with Other Believers. 1 Sam. 20:5-11.

  • Jonathan agrees to test Saul to protect David from potential harm. At risk to himself, Jonathan agreed to protect David from his father Saul by testing Saul to determine if he still intended to kill David: “So David said to Jonathan, ‘Behold, tomorrow is the new moon, and I ought to sit down to eat with the king. But let me go, that I may hide myself in the field until the third evening. If your father misses me at all, then say, ‘David earnestly asked leave of me to run to Bethlehem his city, because it is the yearly sacrifice there for the whole family.’ If he says, ‘It is good,’ your servant will be safe; but if he is very angry, know that he has decided on evil. Therefore deal kindly with your servant, for you have brought your servant into a covenant of the Lord with you. But if there is iniquity in me, put me to death yourself; for why then should you bring me to your father?’ Jonathan said, ‘Far be it from you! For if I should indeed learn that evil has been decided by my father to come upon you, then would I not tell you about it?’ 10 Then David said to Jonathan, ‘Who will tell me if your father answers you harshly?’ 11 Jonathan said to David, ‘Come, and let us go out into the field.” So both of them went out to the field.” (1 Sam. 20:5-11). The new moon festival symbolically allowed David to test whether Saul would grant him a new beginning in the court (Nu. 28:11-15). The Jewish calendar was based upon the cycles of the moon. The moon goes through cycles. On the first day of the Jewish month, the moon had a new beginning as a crescent moon. It then grows to a full moon in the middle of the month. It then wanes until it disappears on the last day of the month. The new moon symbolizes spiritual rebirth. “Just as the moon is born again, we are renewed in Messiah. It is the festival of being born again. Messiah Himself is our baptism.” (First Fruit of Zion, Torah Club, Numbers Vol. 2, (2014) p. 590-60). The Jewish nation also went in a similar cycle of growth and decline. Fifteen generations passed between Abraham and Solomon when Israel reached its full glory as a light to the nations. Fourteen generations of decline then passed until the last Jewish king Zedekiah (Id. at 591-2). Jesus, who gave us a new beginning, came 15 generations after Solomon (Matt. 1:17). Jesus said that we also must be “born again.” (Jo. 3:3). The Holy Spirit had departed from Saul (1 Sam. 16:14). Thus, David would soon discover that Saul was not born again of the Spirit. Instead, he lived by his flesh.

  • Unlike Saul, live a life that is set apart by the Spirit. Each part of the New Moon festival symbolized something that David had and Saul did not. First, the sacrifice included two bulls (Nu. 28:11). The bull was the strongest and most expensive sacrifice. The priest then put his hands on the animal he was sacrificing and the person’s sins were cast onto the animal (Lev. 1:5; Ex. 29:10, 15, 19). This foreshadowed how Christ gave all His strength and His life for us (Mk. 14:24; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 2:24; Is. 53:4-5, 10, 12). Unlike Saul, a believer should sacrifice his own strength and let Jesus be your strength. David humbled himself and trusted God by putting his life in Jonathan’s hands. Second, the New Moon festival also included seven lambs (Nu. 28:11). Jesus was the lamb who was led to the slaughter (Isa. 53:7; Jo. 1:29; Heb. 10:12-14; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). He humbled Himself to the point of dying for your sins. The seven lambs symbolized the completeness of His work (Heb. 10:14). Unlike Saul, a believer should live in complete submission to God. David submitted himself to Jonathan by calling himself “your servant” three times (1 Sam. 20:7-8). Third, the New Moon festival also involved a ram sacrifice (Nu. 28:11). The trespass offering for sins against God was a ram (Lev. 8:18; 5:15). Abraham offered a ram as a substitute for Isaac (Gen. 22:8). Jesus became your trespass offering (Is. 53:10-11). If you confess your sins, God is faithful to forgive you (1 Jo. 1:9). Yet, to be forgiven, you must forgive others (Lk. 6:37; Matt. 6:14; Mk. 11:25). This in turn leads to spiritual renewal. Saul did not repent of his broken vow to God and his attempts to kill David. In contrast, David confessed that if there was sin in him he wanted Jonathan to put him to death: “But if there is iniquity in me, put me to death yourself;” (1 Sam. 20:8). He also held no anger toward Saul for his attacks. Fourth, the New Moon festival included fine flour with oil (Nu. 28:11). The fine flour symbolized the best that the person had to offer from his or her labors, motivated out of gratitude for being freed of sin (Lev. 2:1-16; Dt. 29:8-11). But the grain offering had to be accompanied by oil, a symbol of the Holy Spirit (1 Sam. 16:13). Some Jews tried to accomplish this by making the New Moon festival a time of teaching (2 Kgs. 4:23). Yet, for others, it became just an activity that they did once per month without reflection. For this reason, God once lamented: “I hate your new moon festivals and appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me, I am weary of bearing them.” (Is. 1:14; 47:13). Saul’s attendance at the New Moon festival was meaningless to God because his heart was not right. In contrast, while David lost his worldly things, God renewed his Spirit.

  • Be God’s instrument of protection for those in need. Sometimes, God protects us through His divine acts. On three occasions, He protected David from Saul’s spear attacks. He also protected David against Goliath’s attack with a giant spear (1 Sam. 17:7). He also protected David in his many battles against the Philistines. He promises to be a shield to all who submit to Him: “He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him.” (2 Sam. 22:31; Prov. 30:5). But He sometimes uses believers as His shield to protect other believers. For example, He used the faith of Rahab to protect Joshua’s two spies in Jericho when the Canaanite king tried to kill them (Josh. 2). Here, he used His faithful servant Jonathan to protect David. Will you protect those who are oppressed or in need?

4. Loyalty: Agape-Filled Believers Should be Loyal to Each Other. 1 Sam. 20:12-23.

  • Jonathan and David form a covenant of loyalty for generations to come. Being filled with the agape love of the Holy Spirit, Jonathan and David formed a covenant where they promised to stay loyal to each other and their future descendants, even if their personal interests were in conflict: “12 Then Jonathan said to David, ‘The Lord, the God of Israel, be witness! When I have sounded out my father about this time tomorrow, or the third day, behold, if there is good feeling toward David, shall I not then send to you and make it known to you? 13 If it please my father to do you harm, may the Lord do so to Jonathan and more also, if I do not make it known to you and send you away, that you may go in safety. And may the Lord be with you as He has been with my father. 14 If I am still alive, will you not show me the lovingkindness of the Lord, that I may not die? 15 You shall not cut off your lovingkindness from my house forever, not even when the Lord cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.’ 16 So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, ‘May the Lord require it at the hands of David’s enemies.’ 17 Jonathan made David vow again because of his love for him, because he loved him as he loved his own life. 18 Then Jonathan said to him, ‘Tomorrow is the new moon, and you will be missed because your seat will be empty. 19 When you have stayed for three days, you shall go down quickly and come to the place where you hid yourself on that eventful day, and you shall remain by the stone Ezel. 20 I will shoot three arrows to the side, as though I shot at a target. 21 And behold, I will send the lad, saying, ‘Go, find the arrows.’ If I specifically say to the lad, ‘Behold, the arrows are on this side of you, get them,’ then come; for there is safety for you and no harm, as the Lord lives. 22 But if I say to the youth, ‘Behold, the arrows are beyond you,’ go, for the Lord has sent you away. 23 As for the agreement of which you and I have spoken, behold, the Lord is between you and me forever.’” (1 Sam. 20:12-23). Jonathan showed himself to be a mature believer who placed the needs of others before himself. First, he vowed that any anger that Saul might have toward David would fall on him instead: “If it please my father to do you harm, may the Lord do so to Jonathan . . .” (1 Sam. 20:13). Second, he submitted his future chance to be king to David. In exchange, he formed a covenant loyalty with David to protect his descendants from death (1 Sam. 20:15, 23).

Filled with God’s agape love, Jonathan and David made a covenant3

  • Love those in need and help to deliver them as you would want to be delivered. “Jonathan made David vow again because of his love for him, because he loved him as he loved his own life.” (1 Sam. 20:17). By doing this, Jonathan fulfilled Jesus’ second greatest Commandment: “The second is this, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mk. 12:31; Lk. 10:27; Matt. 19:19; 22:39; Ro. 13:9; Ja. 2:8; Lev. 19:18). “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’ (Gal. 5:14). “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (Jo. 13:34). “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” (Jo. 15:12). “This I command you, that you love one another.” (Jo. 15:17). “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another;” (1 Jo. 3:11). When others are in need of deliverance, do you show them the love that Jonathan showed to David?

  • Show God’s love through your loyalty to others. Out of loyalty, David and Jonathan agreed to care for each other and their descendants. When he became king, David fulfilled his vow by caring for Jonathan’s crippled son. “Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, came to David and fell on his face and prostrated himself. And David said, ‘Mephibosheth.’ And he said, ‘Here is your servant!’ David said to him, ‘Do not fear, for I will surely show kindness to you for the sake of your father Jonathan, and will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul; and you shall eat at my table regularly.”’ (2 Sam. 9:6-7). “But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the oath of the LORD which was between them, between David and Saul's son Jonathan.” (2 Sam. 21:7). Solomon wrote: “Many a man proclaims his own loyalty, but who can find a trustworthy man?” (Prov. 20:6). “A man of too many friends comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Prov. 18:24). Are you loyal to your spouse, your friends, your vows, and to God?

5. Self-Sacrifice: Agape-Filled Believers Should Sacrifice for Others. 1 Sam. 20:24-34.

  • Jonathan exposes himself to his father’s attempt to kill him to protect David. At great risk to himself, Jonathan tested his father and exposed his secret plans to kill David: “24 So David hid in the field; and when the new moon came, the king sat down to eat food. 25 The king sat on his seat as usual, the seat by the wall; then Jonathan rose up and Abner sat down by Saul’s side, but David’s place was empty. 26 Nevertheless Saul did not speak anything that day, for he thought, ‘It is an accident, he is not clean, surely he is not clean.’ 27 It came about the next day, the second day of the new moon, that David’s place was empty; so Saul said to Jonathan his son, ‘Why has the son of Jesse not come to the meal, either yesterday or today?’ 28 Jonathan then answered Saul, “David earnestly asked leave of me to go to Bethlehem, 29 for he said, ‘Please let me go, since our family has a sacrifice in the city, and my brother has commanded me to attend. And now, if I have found favor in your sight, please let me get away that I may see my brothers.’ For this reason he has not come to the king’s table.’ 30 Then Saul’s anger burned against Jonathan and he said to him, ‘You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you are choosing the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? 31 For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Therefore now, send and bring him to me, for he must surely die.’ 32 But Jonathan answered Saul his father and said to him, ‘Why should he be put to death? What has he done?’ 33 Then Saul hurled his spear at him to strike him down; so Jonathan knew that his father had decided to put David to death. 34 Then Jonathan arose from the table in fierce anger, and did not eat food on the second day of the new moon, for he was grieved over David because his father had dishonored him.” (1 Sam. 20:24-34). Saul initially concealed his rage from Jonathan when David missed the first day of the festival. Yet, when Jonathan later tried to cover for David, Saul was so filled with rage that he was willing to kill his own son with a spear (1 Sam. 20:33). Driven by the flesh, Saul could not understand why Jonathan would side with David if doing so would cost him the chance to be king (1 Sam. 20:31). But God had already taken Saul’s kingdom from him (1 Sam. 13:13-14; 15:22-23). Motivated by agape love for David, Jonathan sacrificed his own desires and his future kingdom for God’s will.

Saul threatened Jonathan4

  • Jesus showed His love for God’s people by dying for them. Filled with agape love, Jesus gladly gave His life so that all might live: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” (Jo. 10:11). “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Ro. 5:8). “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (Jo. 3:16). How are you showing your thanks?

  • Show your love for others by sacrificing for them. Like Jonathan, when you are filled with the agape love of the Spirit you should be willing to sacrifice for others. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (Jo. 15:13). “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1 Jo. 3:16). Have you sacrificed out of love for those in need?

6. Faithfulness: Agape-Filled Believers Should be Faithful to Others. 1 Sam. 20:35-40.

  • At further risk to himself, Jonathan remains faithful to his vow to David. Jonathan remained faithful to his vow and alerted David to his father’s plans, even though he again placed himself in great danger by doing so: “35 Now it came about in the morning that Jonathan went out into the field for the appointment with David, and a little lad was with him. 36 He said to his lad, ‘Run, find now the arrows which I am about to shoot.’ As the lad was running, he shot an arrow past him. 37 When the lad reached the place of the arrow which Jonathan had shot, Jonathan called after the lad and said, ‘Is not the arrow beyond you?’ 38 And Jonathan called after the lad, ‘Hurry, be quick, do not stay!’ And Jonathan’s lad picked up the arrow and came to his master. 39 But the lad was not aware of anything; only Jonathan and David knew about the matter. 40 Then Jonathan gave his weapons to his lad and said to him, ‘Go, bring them to the city.’” (1 Sam. 20:35-40). Saul had just tried to kill Jonathan. He could have easily had Jonathan followed on suspicion of helping David. Jonathan had already made a vow of loyalty. Here, he was faithful to his vows by alerting David despite great danger to himself in doing so.

Jonathan alerted David to Saul’s plans to kill him5

  • Be faithful to others the way God is faith to you. Out of love for us, God is faithful even when we are not. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Tim. 2:13). His same agape love inside of you should also prompt you to be faithful to others, even when your flesh might tell you not to. “for we walk by faith, not by sight—” (2 Cor. 5:7). “A faithful man will abound with blessings, . . .” (Prov. 28:20(a)). “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” (1 Tim. 1:5). Like Jonathan, will you remain faithful to your vows to others?

7. Comfort: Agape-Filled Believers Should Offer Comfort to Others. 1 Sam. 20:41-42.

  • Jonathan offers David comfort in his time of sorrow and loss. Jonathan did more than fulfill his vows to protect David. He also comforted David once David learned that he would need to abandon everything he knew and loved in life to live as a fugitive: “41 When the lad was gone, David rose from the south side and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed three times. And they kissed each other and wept together, but David wept the more. 42 Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in safety, inasmuch as we have sworn to each other in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord will be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.’’ Then he rose and departed, while Jonathan went into the city.” (1 Sam. 20:41-42). David wept because he knew that his life would never be the same. He could not return to his wife, his friends, his fellow soldiers, or his palace life. Even his old home and family were now off limits. He would spend the next 20 years hiding as a fugitive from Saul’s jealous rage. Thus, he had every reason to cry. Jonathan could have fled because of the risks he faced in being seen with David. Yet, out of agape love, he ignored the risks to himself to comfort David.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669) “David’s Farewell to Jonathan” (1642)6

  • Comfort others the way God comforts you. Like Jonathan, God wants you to be a source of encouragement to others. “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb. 3:13). “But I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.” (Heb. 13:22). God is always there to comfort you when you turn to Him. Will you be available so that He can use the love inside you to comfort others?