When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armour, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him; as a result, Saul set him over the army. And all the people, even the servants of Saul, approved.
As they were coming home, when David returned from killing the Philistine, the women came out of all the towns of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments. And the women sang to one another as they made merry,
‘Saul has killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.’
Saul was very angry, for this saying displeased him. He said, ‘They have ascribed to David tens of thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; what more can he have but the kingdom?’ So Saul eyed David from that day on.
The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand; and Saul threw the spear, for he thought, ‘I will pin David to the wall.’ But David eluded him twice.
Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with him but had departed from Saul. So Saul removed him from his presence, and made him a commander of a thousand; and David marched out and came in, leading the army. David had success in all his undertakings; for the Lord was with him. When Saul saw that he had great success, he stood in awe of him. But all Israel and Judah loved David; for it was he who marched out and came in leading them.
In this story we see contrasting responses to David from Jonathan, Saul and the people of Israel. David has become part of Saul’s household, at his instigation, and the king has elevated him to be commander of the army. David’s success against the Philistines wins approval from the people who enjoy security; but their celebration of David accords him much greater honour than the king. Not surprisingly Saul feels threatened and fears that David might try to usurp the throne.
Much could be said about the nature of Jonathan’s love for David but here the significance is his total allegiance towards David, rather than towards his father, Saul. By giving David his robe and armour Jonathan is transferring the symbols of his own status as the king’s heir to David; he is implying an expectation that David will succeed Saul on the throne in due course.
The interlude in the narrative that depicts David playing the lyre to soothe Saul’s anxieties provides a context in which Saul tries to kill David, twice. It is important to note that David doesn’t retaliate but eludes the danger. His survival and all David’s success is attributed to God; and the text also states that God is no longer empowering Saul.
A question to ponder is whether everyone has turned against Saul, or towards David? From Saul’s perspective it feels as though it is the former; but recognizing abilities and potential in one person doesn’t necessarily mean the rejection of another.
Perhaps we need to be careful that we don’t undermine someone who has fulfilled a role for years by the way we encourage and nurture another whom we identify as a potential successor. The Church, like all institutions, needs new blood; but faithful servants deserve on-going support and an opportunity to retire gracefully.
Holy God we put our trust in you for our security and the unfolding of your purposes in our lives. Keep us faithful in all situations. If we feel vulnerable, save us from paranoia and remind us that we are your much loved children. If we feel called to a new role in your service, grant us grace towards whoever is currently fulfilling it and patience to await your timing.
The Revd Dr Janet E Tollington A retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge