After previous attacks from Saul in 1 Samuel 18-19, David was desperate to know of his status before the king (1 Sam 20:1-10). Perhaps most infuriating to David was the fact that he had done Saul no wrong (1 Sam 20:1). David was in such trepidation that he swore to Jonathan, “As surely as the LORD lives and as you yourself live, there is but a step between me and death” (1 Sam 20:3). The dialogue between David and Jonathan reveals that David was especially concerned to know for certain of Saul’s disposition toward him, which was eventually revealed when David was absent from the New Moon festival (1 Sam 20:3-10).
Despite what it might cost him personally, Jonathan planned to protect David from Saul’s rage (1 Sam 20:11-24). Since David planned to avoid Saul and the New Moon festival in the king’s court, he questioned Jonathan, “Who will tell me if your father answers you harshly?” (1 Sam 20:10). Jonathan replied in an extended monologue which demonstrated covenant loyalty for David (1 Sam 20:11-17). Jonathan’s pledge to David included calling God as a witness of his truthfulness regarding Saul’s reaction to his absence at the New Moon feast (1 Sam 20:11-13) and a request that David treat his family with fidelity even if Saul wished David dead, “because he loved him as he loved himself” (1 Sam 20:17). Jonathan set forth a specific plan for informing David of Saul’s reaction to his absence (1 Sam 20:18-24); the directions Jonathan gave to the archer’s assistant would inform David of Saul’s intentions.
On the day after the New Moon, Jonathan discovered Saul’s plan for David (1 Sam 20:25-34). The text is vivid: “Don’t I know that you are siding with Jesse’s son to your own shame and to the disgrace of your mother? Every day Jesse’s son lives on earth you and your kingship are not secure. Now send for him and bring him to me—he deserves to die” (1 Sam 20:30-31).
At this point in his life, Saul epitomized David’s description of the wicked in Psalm 36: “Even on his bed he makes malicious plans. He sets himself on a path that is not good and does not reject evil” (Ps 36:4). Saul’s schemes against David revealed that he was more concerned for his place on the throne than Jonathan’s royal status: “Saul threw his spear at Jonathan to kill him, so he knew that his father was determined to kill David” (1 Sam 20:33). Jonathan had his answer as to Saul’s reaction about David’s absence from the festival.
Jonathan informed David of Saul’s plans and the friends were forced to part ways (1 Sam 20:35-42). After sending the archer’s assistant away, Jonathan kissed David and they “wept with each other, though David wept more” (1 Sam 20:41). Calling God a witness to their covenant of family loyalty, Jonathan and David separated, with only one subsequent meeting recorded in Scripture (see 1 Sam 23:15-18). Perhaps while he was departing from Jonathan, David was inspired to write, “My spirit is weak within me; my heart is overcome with dismay” (Ps 143:4).
The friendship of Jonathan and David has been used to tutor many young people of the kind of devotion it takes to make a friendship work. Yet, one should not leave the Lord out of the picture. Jonathan and David’s friendship was grounded in a spiritual covenant. The depth of their loyalty is illustrative of what Jesus said later, showing His supremacy in the storyline of Scripture. Just after He washed His disciples’ feet, an act that would foreshadow His crucifixion, Jesus commanded His disciples: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).