Harry Truman once said that if you want to find loyalty in Washington, then you should get a dog. In this chapter we see the reasons for thinking this way—the thin loyalty of Keilah and Ziph. But there is also an exception to this way of the world, and it is the staggering loyalty, the against-all-odds loyalty, of Jonathan.
“Then they told David, saying, Behold, the Philistines fight against Keilah, and they rob the threshing floors . . .” (1 Sam. 23:1-29).
Summary of the Text
David heard that the Israelite city of Keilah was afflicted by the Philistines (v. 1). David inquired of the Lord, and was told to save Keilah (v. 2). David’s men said, “are you serious?” (v. 3). So David inquired again and received a positive answer again (v. 4). So they went and defeated the Philistines decisively (v. 5). It was at this point that Abiathar joined David, bringing the ephod with him (v. 6). Saul heard where David was, and assumed wrongly that God was being kind to him (v. 7). Saul gathered his troops to besiege Keilah (v. 8). David knew what was up and called for Abiathar (v. 9). David asks the Lord two questions—will Saul come down, and will Keilah give David up? The Lord answers yes to both questions (vv. 10-12). So David abandoned Keilah (v. 13).
David took refuge in the wilderness of Ziph, and Saul hunted him (vv. 14-15). Jonathan hunted David down in a way quite different than his father was doing (v. 16). Jonathan encouraged David greatly, telling David what he and Saul both knew (v. 17). The two men made another covenant (v. 18). It was after this that the Ziphites betrayed David (vv. 19-20). Saul is glad that someone has finally identified the true object of compassion around here (v. 21). Saul tells them that David is really sneaky (v. 22), and to spy out his movements (v. 23). They went ahead of Saul, but David had moved (v. 24). Saul came down with his men (v. 25), and got really close (v. 26). Just then Saul heard of a Philistine invasion (v. 27), and had to pull away from his pursuit (v. 28). And so David went to Engedi (v. 29).
A Stark Contrast
The contrasts between the kingly David and the tyrant Saul just continue to grow. The fact that Abiathar reaches David after the defeat of the Philistines (v. 6) means that the fall of Keilah and the destruction of Nob are happening at around the same time. David is attacking Philistines, as a Israelite king ought to, while the Israelite king is using an Edomite to wipe out an Israelite city. On top of that, Saul didn’t mobilize against Keilah when Philistines were there—but he did when he heard that David was there.
Saul the Self-Absorbed
When Saul is told that David was in Keilah, his conclusion was that God is favoring him (v. 7). But he is reading the story through the lens of his own desires, instead of reading his desires through the lens of the story. When the Ziphites come to him with their betrayal of David, what Saul says is unbelievable—“Blessed be ye of the Lord.” He honors them for having compassion on poor Saul (v. 21). Saul’s world is by this point a photo-negative of the world as God made it.
When evaluating the characters in stories (and you are a character in a story, are you not?), those characters can be divided into two categories. The Lord is with them, or the Lord is not with them. Those are the options. But both kinds of characters believe “the Lord” is with them. Both kinds of characters think what they think. Psalm 54 records David’s assessment of the Ziphites—“they have not set God before them” (Ps. 54:3). But would they be utterly without arguments? Could they not say, “Hey, we are just being loyal to the anointed king.” No, there were two kings anointed with oil, and only one king anointed with the Spirit.
Jonathan had far greater external reasons to act like the Ziphites. He was heir to the throne. He had filial duties toward his father. But he is loyal in just the way he ought to have been loyal. The fact that his father regarded him as a treacherous idiot did not overthrow his glorious loyalty. He died alongside his father in battle—which is loyalty enough—but he owed no loyalty whatever to the evil spirit from the Lord that afflicted his father. He was loyal to the work of the Spirit of God, and loyal to the covenants he had made with David.
Encouragement in God
Saul was pursuing David while he was in the wood (v. 15). At that very moment of crisis, Jonathan also pursued David in the wood, but did so in order to bring encouragement to him (v. 16). It says that he “strengthened his hand in God.” God brings encouragement through actions like this one. God didn’t send spiritual happy vibes into the wood, He sent Jonathan.
Jonathan encouraged David with his convictions of faith (v. 17). He said first that Saul would not find David. Secondly, he said that David was going to be the next king of Israel. In the third place, he said that he (Jonathan) would be second to David, a prince honored. And last, he said that this was something that Saul knew as well as Jonathan did. But Saul responded to this knowledge of his by rebelling against it.
The fact that Jonathan encouraged David means that David was (not surprisingly) in great need of it. In Psalm 54, we can see that the trouble was very real. David was a man of faith, but men of faith can have their faith assailed. We can see that David does not fight Keilah, but leaves to keep peace. He does not fight Saul, but flees to keep peace. At some point, might this not get old? In the next chapter, we will see that David has a clean opportunity to take Saul’s life, which he does not use. At the very least we can say that Jonathan encouraged David in all his good deeds—and the very next good deed in David’s hand was the sparing of Saul’s life. We should not be surprised if Jonathan was an unrecognized blessing to his father in this.