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20. A Friend Indeed (1 Samuel 23:15-29)


Of all the days of David before he became king over Israel, these must have been some of his darkest. It does not seem to read too much into the text to say that David’s spirits at this point in time are very low. David’s God-given courage and skill brings him great success, which in turn brings popularity. Saul’s joy and delight in David then turns to fear and suspicion, and eventually to attempted murder. David is now Israel’s most wanted man, guilty of nothing more than faithfully serving God and his king. David flees to Ahimelech, the high priest, who gives him some sacred bread, the sword of Goliath, and an inquiry of the Lord (21:1-9). This results in the wholesale slaughter of Ahimelech, the priests, and their families -- all due to Saul’s incorrect conclusion that Ahimelech and the priests have joined with David in a conspiracy (22:6-19).

From Ahimelech’s headquarters at Nob, David flees to Gath to seek sanctuary from the Philistine king, Achish. The king’s servants see David as a most dangerous threat. To save his life, David pretends to become insane so that he is driven out of Gath (21:10-15). From there, David finds a hiding place in the cave of Adullam where his family joins him, along with many of those who are not in good standing with Saul (22:1-2). David’s followers now number around 400 (22:2), and he leads them to Moab, seeking a sanctuary for his parents (22:3-4), while he and his men hide out in the stronghold nearby, but still in Moabite territory.

This is the point at which I am going to venture into a little speculation based upon the text. I must admit being troubled that David seeks sanctuary for his parents in Moab. I know that Ruth, the woman from whom David descended, is a Moabite, and this might give David a little bit of leverage with the king of Moab. But still, the Moabites are the enemies of Israel. Why does David leave his parents in Moab?

One possible explanation is found in Psalm 27, a Psalm of David, where we read of David’s trust in God at a time when evildoers are seeking his life. It may be the very period of time we are dealing with in our text in 1 Samuel 23. In verse 10 of this psalm we read,

10 For my father and my mother have forsaken me, But the Lord will take me up.

I take these words to be literal, so I must ask the question, “When did David’s father and mother forsake him?” It may be at this very point in David’s life.101 I wonder if David’s family were some of the last to recognize him as the king, like our Lord’s brothers and sisters who did not recognize Him as King of the Jews (see John 7:2-5). We know David’s older brother, Eliab, rebukes him for his actions on the front lines (1 Samuel 17:28). When his family comes to David at the cave of Adullam (22:1), it is most likely because they now understand the danger they are in as members of David’s family. If Saul does not spare the families of the priests, whom he suspects of conspiring with David, why would he spare David’s family?

I believe David’s family is virtually forced to go to David at the cave of Adullam, and that this is not really what they want. They may resent David and hold him responsible for their suffering. When it becomes apparent that staying with David means hiding out in the most remote, inaccessible places, his parents may reject him and demand that David find them a place of refuge which does not require staying with him. If such is the case, his parent’s rejection would be just one more blow to David’s spirit. It is one thing to be rejected by your enemies, like the Philistines, or even Saul. It is another to be rejected by your fellow-Israelites, or even closer, your fellow-Judahites. But to be rejected by your parents would be the final blow.

In addition, the arrival of Jonathan to the hideout of David falls in the very middle of chapter 23, a significant fact because of what lies at both ends of the chapter. The first part of chapter 23 is the account of David’s rescuing of the people of Keilah. David leaves the safety of the dense forest of Hereth to go down to the much more open country of Keilah. He chooses to come out of hiding from Saul to face the Philistines and perhaps Saul as well. In response to David’s selfless salvation of the city of Keilah, David learns that the people would have turned him over to Saul if he had come and besieged the city. In the final verses of chapter 23, we find that the Ziphites, with no threat from Saul, go to Saul and offer to betray David and help deliver him over to Saul.

At this point in his life, things must look mighty dark and foreboding to David. Here is a man with a price on his head who cannot be sure of anyone. At Nob, David has his doubts about Doeg, the Edomite; now he must doubt even his own kinsmen. His father and mother may have also distanced themselves from him. It seems there is no one to whom David can turn. There is Jonathan, of course, but he is some distance away and hardly able to be with David now. . . .

What a sight for sore eyes Jonathan must be, as he flings his arms around his beloved friend David there at David’s desolate hideout. Great men of God, like David, and Paul, and many others, including our Lord, experience times of discouragement, even depression. This appears to be one of those times for David. In His grace, God sends David a visitor, Jonathan, who greatly encourages him. In the midst of betrayal by the people of Keilah and those of Ziph, there is the loyal love and devotion of David’s closest friend, Jonathan. Not only does Jonathan have much encouragement to bring to David, he also has much to teach us about encouragement. Let us look to our text to learn of this most important aspect of ministry one to another.

David’s Danger

15 Now David became aware that Saul had come out to seek his life while David was in the wilderness of Ziph at Horesh.102

I believe verse 15 is intended to say much more than the bare fact that David learns Saul is after him. What is new about this news? Only that Saul has gotten close. But the expression “became aware that” is literally “saw.” David saw that Saul had come out to seek his life. The word for “saw” is so similar to the word for fear that some have even suggested the author must have meant to say that David was afraid. I would not favor changing the text without support, but the sense is just about the same. The full weight of Saul’s pursuit and its implications seems to bear down on him. Perhaps weary in both body and spirit, David is greatly distressed to hear that, once again, Saul is nearby, fully intent on killing him. There is ample evidence to show that if given the chance, Saul will do so. I am reminded of several proverbs, which may convey some of what the text is implying to us:

15 In the light of a king's face is life, And his favor is like a cloud with the spring rain (16:15).

12 The king's wrath is like the roaring of a lion, But his favor is like dew on the grass (19:12).

2 The terror of a king is like the growling of a lion; He who provokes him to anger forfeits his own life (20:2).

15 Like a roaring lion and a rushing bear Is a wicked ruler over a poor people (28:15).

Welcome Words from a Welcome Visitor

16 And Jonathan, Saul's son, arose and went to David at Horesh, and encouraged him in God. 17 Thus he said to him, “Do not be afraid, because the hand of Saul my father shall not find you, and you will be king over Israel and I will be next to you; and Saul my father knows that also.” 18 So the two of them made a covenant before the LORD; and David stayed at Horesh while Jonathan went to his house.

As I read these words, I am again reminded of some of the Proverbs:

11 Like apples of gold in settings of silver Is a word spoken in right circumstances (Proverbs 25:11).

25 Like cold water to a weary soul, So is good news from a distant land (Proverbs 25:25).

Saul may be looking for David, but it is Jonathan who finds David. Jonathan could not have appeared at a more opportune time, nor could his words have been any better chosen. The purpose of Jonathan’s visit is to encourage David in God. Jonathan’s encouragement is summed up in verse 17, with the following elements:

(1) Jonathan tells David not to be afraid. With all of Saul’s resources, it seems virtually impossible for David to escape his grasp. Saul has publicly ordered David to be detained and brought to him, or at least to reveal his place of hiding. Saul has the power and determination to retaliate against anyone who seems in any way to support David. The death toll in the city of Nob is testimony to this. Saul will also reward anyone who is loyal to him and assists him in doing away with David. David’s fears are not without reason; nevertheless, Jonathan tells David not to be afraid.

(2) Jonathan assures David that in spite of his father’s efforts to find him, he will not succeed.

(3) Jonathan’s assurance regarding David’s safety seems based upon his confidence in God’s designation of David as the next king. If David is God’s choice for Israel’s next king, then no one, including King Saul, will be able to kill him and thwart God’s purposes and promises. Jonathan’s assurance is rooted in the sovereignty of the God whom he and David serve, whom Saul seeks to resist.

(4) Jonathan seeks to encourage David by assuring him of his submission and loyal service to him as Israel’s future king. Jonathan knows that God will somehow remove his father from the throne and install David as the next king. Jonathan not only joyfully accepts this fact, but has purposed to be David’s most loyal servant and supporter. Not only will David escape from Saul’s hand and ascend to the throne, he will find Jonathan sitting beside him as his helper.

(5) Finally, Jonathan’s loyalty is not a secret. Jonathan’s father Saul is fully aware of his son’s loyalty to David, even though he does not like it. Jonathan has not kept his association with David a secret. Surely this might encourage others in the kingdom to support David as well.

Jonathan is the Barnabas of the Old Testament. What great encouragers both these men are. In the Book of Acts, Barnabas starts out as the prominent leader, and Saul (the apostle Paul) is but a man whom Barnabas takes under his wing. As time passes, it becomes clear that God has chosen Paul to assume the dominant role. When this becomes evident, Barnabas joyfully accepts this fact and becomes Paul’s most loyal supporter.

The same spirit is seen in Jonathan. He is the king apparent, the descendant of Saul whom all expect to rule in his father’s place in time to come. Because of Saul’s sins, God rejects him as king and designates David as the next king. Jonathan realizes this and, like Barnabas in New Testament times, becomes David’s most loyal friend and supporter. When David is in danger and his spirit seems to wane, Jonathan makes his way to and through the wilderness to seek out his friend to encourage him. This he obviously does.

The outcome is yet another covenant between David and Jonathan. In fact, it is more likely a repetition of the same covenant they made earlier, perhaps with a few more details. The first covenant is in 18:1-4, where the words are not supplied, but the meaning is conveyed symbolically by Jonathan’s stripping off of his armor and giving it to David. In chapter 20, David asks for Jonathan’s help, based upon the covenant they have made (verse 8), and then Jonathan appeals to David that David spare his life and the lives of his descendants (verses 14-17).103 Again, in verses 41 and 42 of chapter 20, David and Jonathan renew their covenant, as one that will endure throughout their descendants. There seems to be little doubt as to what the nature of the covenant is in chapter 23.

Before moving on to the remainder of chapter 23, let us reflect on the nature of Jonathan’s ministry to David and how this illustrates the nature and practice of encouragement in every age, including our own.

First, encouragement comes at the right moment, and it picks the right words to say. Many are those who would have been one of Job’s friends at this moment in David’s life. They might have said, “What’s the matter with you David? Don’t you know it is a sin to be depressed? Read your Bible and pray.” The Book of Proverbs has a great deal to say to us on this point.

Second, encouragement addresses fear and promotes courage. This has become a very important element of my definition of encouragement. Through the years, I have heard a lot of people speak of the gift of encouragement, or the gift of exhortation, as though it gives one the right to meddle in the lives of others by giving them advice. Most commonly, I fear, is the assumption that encouragement is closely akin to flattery. A number of the “encouragers” I have seen make it a practice to compliment people on a job well done. I am not opposed to giving a word of praise to those who have done a good job, though we must be careful to be honest and not to flatter.104 At its root, encouragement is helping to instill courage upon those who are afraid.

Consider this passage in Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians:

14 And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men (1 Thessalonians 5:14, emphasis mine).

In our text, Jonathan encourages (literally, strengthened the hand of) David by telling him not to be afraid. Encouragement is the ability to sense fear or faintheartedness in others and to minister to them in a way that inspires courage.

Third, encouragement produces the courage to act. I have already said that encouragement addresses fear and instills courage. But the encouragement which Jonathan illustrates is more than this. True encouragement is not just ministering to people so they feel better. It is ministering to people so they have the courage to do the hard thing, the thing they are afraid to do. Encouragement “strengthens the hand” of the one encouraged. It is the “hand” which then works, performing the task God has given.105

Fourth, biblical encouragement gives discouraged men courage by turning their eyes toward God. Jonathan encourages David in the Lord. By all appearances David won’t live another week, let alone become Israel’s king. But God has anointed David by the hand of Samuel. It is God’s plan and purpose for David to reign over Israel, and if this is the case, God’s plans cannot be overturned. The only basis for courage is David’s faith in God, in His word, in His promises, in His power, and in His faithfulness to finish what He has begun. Jonathan turns David’s eyes Godward, from where courage comes. Throughout the Bible, the message is consistent: courage comes from God (Isaiah 35:4; 54:4; Jeremiah 30:10; Zechariah 9:9; John 12:15). Courage comes through the Holy Spirit (Micah 3:7-8; Haggai 2:3-5). Courage comes through our Lord (see Matthew 9:2, 22; 14:27; John 16:33; Acts 23:11).

Fifth, encouragement is more than mere words; it comes from people who exemplify courage, not just those who talk about it. It is hard to encourage another while your own knees are knocking. Courage is contagious, and so is fear. Saul is a man whose life is characterized by fear rather than faith. Is it any wonder that Saul’s army vaporizes when the “going gets tough”? Not at all! Saul’s fear permeates his army, and so his soldiers flee (see 1 Samuel 13:5-7; 17:11, 24, 32). Fearful men do not encourage others. It is men of courage who encourage others. If the writer of 2 Samuel tells us anything, it is that Jonathan, unlike his father, is a man of courage (see 1 Samuel 13:3; 14:1-14). It must take considerable courage for Jonathan to seek David out in the forest while his own father is nearby seeking to kill David.

When I find “encouragers” in the New Testament, I find men of courage. Barnabas is one of the great encouragers of the Book of Acts. We are introduced to Barnabas in Acts 4, where we are told by Luke that this man sells a tract of land and lays the proceeds at the apostles’ feet (4:36-37). I propose that Barnabas is not only a generous man, but a courageous man. Why do I not give more to others? If I am honest, it is because I am afraid, afraid that if I give to others, there won’t be enough left for me and my family. Is this not why Ananias and Sapphira lie about their gift, keeping back a portion of it for themselves for a “rainy day” perhaps (see Acts 5)?

It certainly is a brave thing for Barnabas to come to Paul’s aid in Acts 9. Here is this man, Saul, who arrests Christians and even has some put to death. Now he arrives in Jerusalem, claiming to have been converted to Christianity. Can you blame Christians for doubting his story and avoiding contact with him? But Barnabas is a man of faith and courage. He believes that God can save a man like Saul (most saints would agree with this), and he goes so far as to believe that God has saved Saul (this is where most of us would get off). Barnabas puts his life on the line (acting in courage), and thus he not only greatly encourages Saul (Paul), but greatly encourages the church to have courage and embrace this former enemy as a new creation in Christ. It takes courage to encourage.

I have long considered Barnabas a great encourager, but I am now forced to recognize how great an encourager Paul becomes (in part, thanks to Barnabas). Paul’s encouragement grows out of his own courage. In Philippians 1:14, Paul writes the Philippians that many “have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear” because of his own steadfastness in suffering for the sake of the gospel (see 1:12-13). Notice in the midst of an incredible storm at sea how Paul’s courage has a positive impact even on those who are not saved:

21 And when they had gone a long time without food, then Paul stood up in their midst and said, “Men, you ought to have followed my advice and not to have set sail from Crete, and incurred this damage and loss. 22 “And yet now I urge you to keep up your courage, for there shall be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. 23 “For this very night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me, 24 saying, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who are sailing with you.' 25 “Therefore, keep up your courage, men, for I believe God, that it will turn out exactly as I have been told. 26 “But we must run aground on a certain island”. . . . 33 And until the day was about to dawn, Paul was encouraging them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have been constantly watching and going without eating, having taken nothing. 34 “Therefore I encourage you to take some food, for this is for your preservation; for not a hair from the head of any of you shall perish.” 35 And having said this, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of all; and he broke it and began to eat. 36 And all of them were encouraged, and they themselves also took food. 37 And all of us in the ship were two hundred and seventy-six persons (Acts 27:21-26, 33-37).

It all comes down to this: those who encourage others do so first by being people of courage, and then instilling courage in others by pointing them to God, from whom holy courage comes. Jonathan is such a man, as were our Lord, Barnabas, and Paul. These men are models whom we should imitate.

Narrow Escape

19 Then Ziphites came up to Saul at Gibeah, saying, “Is David not hiding with us in the strongholds at Horesh, on the hill of Hachilah, which is on the south of Jeshimon? 20 “Now then, O king, come down according to all the desire of your soul to do so; and our part shall be to surrender him into the king's hand.” 21 And Saul said, “May you be blessed of the LORD; for you have had compassion on me. 22 “Go now, make more sure, and investigate and see his place where his haunt is, and who has seen him there; for I am told that he is very cunning. 23 “So look, and learn about all the hiding places where he hides himself, and return to me with certainty, and I will go with you; and it shall come about if he is in the land that I will search him out among all the thousands of Judah.” 24 Then they arose and went to Ziph before Saul. Now David and his men were in the wilderness of Maon, in the Arabah to the south of Jeshimon. 25 When Saul and his men went to seek him, they told David, and he came down to the rock and stayed in the wilderness of Maon. And when Saul heard it, he pursued David in the wilderness of Maon. 26 And Saul went on one side of the mountain, and David and his men on the other side of the mountain; and David was hurrying to get away from Saul, for Saul and his men were surrounding David and his men to seize them. 27 But a messenger came to Saul, saying, “Hurry and come, for the Philistines have made a raid on the land.” 28 So Saul returned from pursuing David, and went to meet the Philistines; therefore they called that place the Rock of Escape. 29 And David went up from there and stayed in the strongholds of Engedi.

Jonathan goes home while David remains in the strongholds of Horesh (verses 18-19). David’s circumstances have not changed, but we have good reason to assume his outlook changed significantly. The people of that area were known as the Ziphites, the people of Ziph (verse 19ff.). They are people of the tribe of Judah, like David. In spite of this, they go to Saul at Gibeah, offering him the location of David so he can be captured. They are eager to win Saul’s favor and likely just as eager to avoid his wrath. Thus they are willing to hand David over to him.

Saul’s language in verse 21 is tragic. It sounds so pious, yet his holy words are only a veil to cover the wickedness of his intended actions. “May you be blessed of the Lord. . . .” What could sound more spiritual than this? This use of God’s name is “vain,” common, profane. This is what God forbids – using His name in vain, in a common and degrading way (Deuteronomy 5:11). Saul dares not bless in the name of the Lord those who are acting in rebellion against him, and assisting Saul in his rebellion against God. It is not spiritual to bless those who would curse God’s anointed. It is not spiritual to betray one’s own kinsman. How ironic that the Ziphites would show compassion toward Saul, when Saul’s son, Jonathan, shows compassion toward David.

Saul is beginning to wise up. He does not immediately summon his troops to make another attempt to arrest David. After all, it seems as though he has just gotten back from his last abortive effort. This time he intends to be more cautious, because it wouldn’t look good to come back empty-handed. He tells the Ziphites to carefully watch David’s movements, to note his hiding places and routes of travel, and then notify him when they know precisely where he is located. Then Saul feels sure that he will capture his foe.

Verse 22 is noteworthy. Saul tells the Ziphites that he is told David is cunning. Why does he not say he has personally found him to be this way? It may be because much of Saul’s intelligence concerning David comes second hand by those whom Saul should not really trust, men like Doeg the Edomite. We will make more of this when we come to verse 9 of chapter 24. Second-hand information is virtual hearsay and should not be taken as though it were the essence of the truth.

The Ziphites return to their land, ready and willing to carry out Saul’s orders. In the meantime, David has moved on a few miles to the wilderness (or desert) of Maon (verse 25).106 Saul and his men appear once again in hot pursuit. What a place for a helicopter view of the chase! David is hurrying to get away from Saul and his men as he makes his way around the mountain. Behind, in pursuit, are Saul and his men. They continue to gain ground, or perhaps they are coming after David in the opposite direction so that they are just about to meet face to face. Perhaps Saul has troops pursuing David and his men from both directions. In one way or another, David and his men are in the process of being surrounded. It is only a matter of time before they are going to fall into Saul’s grasp. We can see Saul’s men getting closer and closer. We can also see that all means of escape are being sealed off. There is no way out. They are finished.

Suddenly, when Saul’s men are almost close enough to touch, a shout is heard. A messenger is calling out to Saul, informing him that Israel has come under attack by the Philistines. It must not be at Keilah, for Saul doesn’t seem to care about this city’s problems with the Philistines. Could it be much closer to Gibeah, Saul’s home? The situation is viewed as being so serious that Saul breaks off his pursuit, just seconds away from success. He orders his men to turn around and go back down the mountain to assemble to march out to confront the Philistine army.

The suspense is so intense, so thick, one could almost cut it with a knife. David and his men look like goners, but God spares them. The irony is that while Saul is David’s enemy, the Philistines are unwittingly his allies. Their attack is God’s means of delivering His anointed king, David, from the grasp of King Saul.


Who would ever believe it? Who would imagine that Saul could get so close to killing David, and then turn back at the last possible moment? Who would have believed a hostile attack against Israel would be God’s means for preserving the life of her next king? Those who know God believe it. In fact, we should almost expect it. God’s resources are so infinite, He is not forced to deliver His chosen ones in the same boring fashion, endlessly repeating one miracle over and over. God often saves when all human hope is gone, and then in ways we would never have predicted or expected. He does so because He is God, because His resources are unlimited, and because His way of doing things is beyond our wildest imaginations.

Not only does God deliver David in a most unusual way, He also encourages him in a unique way. God encourages David by an unexpected visit in a remote, hard-to-find spot. This is not on Jonathan’s way to somewhere else. It is a place where David intends not to be found, and yet he is. And the one whom God chooses to encourage David, hotly pursued by King Saul, is none other than the king’s son, Jonathan.

We must close this lesson with the words of Scripture which say it better than we ever could:

6 Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. 7 Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon. 8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. 9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts. 10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth, And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; 11 So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:6-11).

33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? 35 Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).

101 And since his father is already elderly, I would think it can’t be too much later (see 1 Samuel 17:12).

102 Scholars do not actually know the location of a place called “Horesh,” though there could have been such a place. The Hebrew word rendered “Horesh” in the NASB is a word meaning “forest,” and thus the NKJV renders it “forest”: “So David saw that Saul had come out to seek his life. And David was in the Wilderness of Ziph in a forest.”

103 This could be at the time David is seeking to protect himself from Saul, or after David becomes king. It was often the practice of newly installed kings to kill off all others who feel they have a claim to the throne.

104 All too often, people try to “encourage” someone who has done a bad job by telling them they did well. If someone attempts to sing a solo and they can’t even get on key, it is no favor to the would-be singer or the audience to falsely compliment them on their efforts. Some of the biggest lies I have heard have been prompted by an embarrassing failure.

105 See also 2 Chronicles 15:1-8; 32:1-8; Haggai 2:1-5.

106 The Ziphites are thus out of the picture until chapter 26, where they again appear in verse 1.