Promises are asked of us from early in our childhood and perhaps due to that inexperience we sometimes make them without as much as thought or consideration as we should. Back then most of the promises are not of a major consequence although that is not always the case. Our difficulty in making and keeping them in our current day may relate as well to how much culture has changed.
My father was born in 1910 when a handshake on a commitment, a man’s word, was considered highly by both parties. That is rarely (if ever) the case now. If the agreement is related to something significant, we want attorneys involved with language that will compel someone to fulfill what they are promising. That is very sad to me even though in other times promises were broken as well, it suggests the decay of the trust we can consider giving one another. By now with more recent events, I am not certain if some of us would even feel a legal document is going to guarantee fulfillment of a commitment.
We may speak of character and integrity and yet find it very difficult to see evidence of it lived out on almost any level. So, when we read the story of David and his friendship with Jonathan in 1 Samuel, it’s important to not rush through it and consider the commitment as well as look for the evidence of its fulfillment especially as we look at the context of what was happening when it was agreed to.
This is more than a pinkie promise when Jonathan and David have proof of the plans of King Saul to murder David and he is forced to flee from the plots and snares laid out for him. In those last tender moments as the two friends are parting without any assurance that they will ever see each other again, they make a covenant together that extends their friendship and love beyond themselves to their descendants beyond them. As you consider your own friendships and commitments, how do they compare to the description of what takes place in 1 Samuel 20?
“Come outside,” said Jonathan. “Let’s go to the field.” When the two of them were out in the field, Jonathan said, “As God, the God of Israel, is my witness, by this time tomorrow I’ll get it out of my father how he feels about you. Then I’ll let you know what I learn. May God do his worst to me if I let you down! If my father still intends to kill you, I’ll tell you and get you out of here in one piece. And God be with you as he’s been with my father! If I make it through this alive, continue to be my covenant friend. And if I die, keep the covenant friendship with my family—forever. And when God finally rids the earth of David’s enemies, stay loyal to Jonathan!” Jonathan repeated his pledge of love and friendship for David. He loved David more than his own soul!”1 Samuel 20:14-15 (MSG)
As these two young men say goodbye to one another later in the chapter, you see the tenderness and trust in Jonathan’s words to his friend:
“Jonathan said, “Go in peace! The two of us have vowed friendship in God’s name, saying, ‘God will be the bond between me and you, and between my children and your children forever!’”1 Samuel 20:42 (MSG)
Neither knew what this might cost them or require one day but as the David story goes forward, we get to see whether the words spoken that day were true and faithful.
King Saul and Jonathan are both killed by the Philistines in battle on Mount Gilboa and panic spreads as the people know that this is a chance for David to fulfill his anointing as king. In those days, relatives of the deceased king would fear for their lives as they were certain to be killed so they would not try to retake the throne. And with those fears at the forefront, the young 5-year-old son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth, is picked up by his nurse and as they flee to hide, the child is injured in a fall that results in him being lame. There is no physician to tend to the child and who knows what he may even have understood as he was cared for in an obscure village with those who had been loyal to his grandfather, King Saul. But it doesn’t seem surprising when one day after David is securely king and strangers arrive seeking Mephibosheth that he would be afraid.
This son of Jonathan’s would not have known of the friendship and covenant between his father and King David as a backdrop to David now seeking any heirs. Nonetheless, he has been summoned to appear before the king and is placed on a donkey and taken to Jerusalem to appear before King David. He would likely have been trembling and expecting the worst.
“What Mephibosheth didn’t know when he was brought into David’s court, and could never have imagined in his wildest dreams, is that he is there to be loved. A few days earlier David had asked if there were any descendants of Saul around whom he could love in his friend Jonathan’s name. There had been wars to fight and borders to establish in securing his authority as king; now he was ready to do the work of king. He began with love.”Eugene Peterson
We see clear evidence of the promises made between Jonathan and David being kept by David as he gives Mephibosheth land and brings him into his own household to eat at his table and enjoy the benefits he had never known as he grew up. He demonstrates his character and integrity even though Jonathan isn’t there to see what happens. And it continues to play out in other scenes in a crisis in David’s life that we read in 2 Samuel 16-19.
David was not a perfect man, but he never sought to destroy King Saul despite opportunities to do so when he was being hunted as an enemy of the king. And he never forgot the love of Jonathan who provided evidence that he must flee to save his life. He demonstrated it in a powerful way through love toward Mephibosheth many years after Jonathan and King Saul were dead.
David loved without regard to the change in circumstances or the reality that only he and Jonathan and God were present when the promises were made.
What a model this story offers us of the grace of friendship lived out under extraordinary circumstances and yet without wavering.