I wish I could say I understand why David “fled” from Ramah to find Jonathan at what must have been Saul’s palace (verse 1). In Ramah, David is with Samuel the prophet. In Ramah, Saul cannot lay a hand on David. When Saul sends the three parties of men to arrest David, they are all divinely prohibited by the miraculous work of the Spirit of God. This happens to Saul as well (19:18-24). Why then does David “flee” to the place where Saul and Jonathan live?
The only explanation that makes any sense to me is that this is where his beloved friend Jonathan can be found. David does not seem to be fleeing from Saul as much as he is fleeing to Jonathan, much like he fled to Ahimelech and Samuel earlier. Unless David is hypocritical in what he is saying to Jonathan, he is humbly taking the most praiseworthy position. He does not begin by accusing or attacking Saul. He begins by focusing on his own sin. Notice the two-fold reference to sin (“iniquity,” “sin”) in verse 1. David seems to be genuinely interested in knowing if he has done something wrong which has brought about the treatment Saul has been dishing out to him. Initially, Jonathan is a couple of steps behind David. He does not respond to David’s inquiry about iniquity, but instead challenges David’s assessment that he is in grave danger – from Saul! Jonathan challenges David’s statement that Saul is seeking his life rather than his question concerning his own sin. Jonathan is a little nave here, for he assures David that if his father is intent on killing him, he would surely tell him – his son – about it first. David strongly disagrees with Jonathan’s assessment of the situation. He takes a solemn vow to underscore just how serious he is about this. Let Jonathan not brush his concerns aside so quickly. Now that Saul knows David and Jonathan are friends, bound together by a covenant, why would he be so foolish as to reveal his plans to kill David to Jonathan? Saul has purposely kept his plans to kill David quiet so that Jonathan will not know what he is doing. David then affirms, in the strongest possible words, the fact that his life is in grave danger. He is but a hair’s length away from death. Jonathan now realizes how serious David is and how strongly he feels about this danger. He understands that David desperately wants him to take him seriously, and so Jonathan relents, assuring David that he will do whatever he wants. Jonathan may not yet be convinced of his father’s evil intentions, but he is convinced that David is both distressed and in fear of his life. Jonathan will take David at his word. In verses 5 and following, David proposes a plan that will demonstrate Saul’s intentions toward him. This seems to be as much for Jonathan’s benefit as for David’s. The plan is simple. The next day is the new moon, and thus a time for Saul to make a sacrifice and share a sacrificial meal. David is a part of Saul’s household and thus expected to be present. If Saul does intend to kill David, he will be very upset to find that David is not present at this meal. If Saul has no plans to kill David, his absence should not be a problem to Saul. And so David plans to be absent, and by his absence to test Saul’s intentions toward him. David’s absence will need to be explained in such a way that it appears reasonable for him to be absent. David has already worked out the explanation. Since Jonathan will be present at the celebration, he can make David’s excuse for him. If and when Saul asks about David’s absence, Jonathan can tell the king that David had asked him for permission to miss this celebration because he felt he should go to Bethlehem to be with his family for this celebration. It is a reasonable explanation, one that should not cause Saul any problems, unless indeed he is looking for an excuse himself – an excuse to kill David. But why would David’s absence be such a big deal to Saul? I take it that David has not eaten many meals at Saul’s table recently. Twice already, Saul has attempted to kill David with his spear while he was in his house. David fled from Saul’s household and even from his own house, ending up in Ramah with Samuel. For some period of time, David has been absent. This festive meal must be something like Christmas is for us, a family time when family members are expected to be present . It does not matter that David has his own family, and they might want him to be with them. Saul expects David to be with him, which provides him another opportunity to finish him off. If David does not attend this meal, Saul has no idea when his next opportunity to kill him might come. David’s absence is therefore to be a test of Saul’s intentions toward him. David appeals to Jonathan to carry out this plan to see whether still Saul really intends to kill him. The basis for his appeal is the love these two men have for each other and the covenant they have already made (see 18:1-4; 19:1). David speaks to Jonathan as to his master, as though he were the servant (20:8). In fact, this is true. Jonathan is, at that moment, the son of the king, and David is his subordinate. David appeals to the covenant the two have already made with each other and asks Jonathan to carry out the plan he has proposed. Rather than turn David over to Saul, David requests that Jonathan execute him himself, if indeed he is guilty of sin. Jonathan is appalled at such a suggestion. Does David really think he would betray his friend by turning him over to his father to be killed? If Jonathan were to learn of any plot against David by his father, does David suppose for a moment that his friend will not warn him rather than betray him? Jonathan makes it very clear that he will warn David of any plot against him. If his father really intends to kill David, he can be assured that Jonathan will warn him. There is, however, a possibility the plan will backfire. Suppose King Saul does intend to kill David, and that he kills Jonathan for trying to learn what his intentions toward David are? If Saul kills Jonathan for trying to help David, who will warn David then? What I have spelled out more bluntly, David says much more delicately: Who will tell me if your father answers harshly? At this point, Jonathan does something strange and quite unexpected. He says no more to him about this matter until they are standing out in the middle of the field (verse 12). This seems to be the field where Jonathan reasons with his father, as David looks on (19:1-6). I believe Jonathan is beginning to realize just how serious this situation has become. If Saul is insanely jealous, and scheming to put David to death, it is likely that someone overhearing the conversation between David and Jonathan might report it to Saul. The two of them are not going out into the field to get a breath of fresh air. They are going out into the field where curious eyes and finely tuned ears cannot discern what is being said between these two friends. Since this is also the place where Jonathan will communicate the outcome of the “test,” they are able to point to the places each person will take. If the test shows that Saul has changed his mind about David, and his intentions are favorable, then Jonathan will send to David to make this known (verse 12). But if Saul’s intentions toward David are still hostile, then Jonathan will convey this news to David so that he can make his getaway. If this is the case, and David has to flee (as Jonathan now seems to fear), then let David know that he goes with Jonathan’s blessing and love (verse 13). Now, if David must flee, Jonathan has a request of him, a request based upon the covenant these two have made with each other. If Jonathan survives this test, then let David spare his life, just as he has sought to protect David’s life. Jonathan knows that David will survive and that he will become Israel’s king. When David becomes the King of Israel, Jonathan asks that David spare his life. He knows all too well that when one king replaces another, the prevailing king kills off any rivals for the throne, including their heirs. Jonathan wants David’s assurance that he and his descendants will not be annihilated, as is normally the case. The two men refine and reaffirm their covenant with each other, as a manifestation of their love. There is a very critical difference between this clarified, refined covenant and the one made earlier. The former was a covenant between two men, David and Jonathan. This covenant is a covenant between two houses, two dynasties. This covenant between David’s descendants and Jonathan’s descendants. A subtle change has taken place which can be clearly seen in verses 18-23. Jonathan has taken the lead in this whole matter. At first, it was all David’s initiative. David fled from Ramah and sought out Jonathan. Jonathan is reluctant to believe what David is telling him about his father. Then, seeing how serious David is about this matter, he agrees to help him however David thinks is best. David proposes a plan that will reveal Saul’s plans with respect to David. Then, in verse 11, Jonathan takes David out into the open field where they continue their conversation. I would argue that from this point on in our text, Jonathan has taken charge. He is no longer a reluctant hearer or a compliant assistant to David; he is the leader. In verses 18-23, Jonathan carefully spells out a plan by which he will convey the outcome of David’s test to him. David is to hide out for three days while the test is being conducted. Then, at the end of this period, he is to come to the field where they are presently standing. There, Jonathan will signal the outcome of the test to him. Jonathan will shoot three arrows, as though aiming for a target. Then, Jonathan will send a servant boy to retrieve the arrows. If Jonathan directs the young lad to seek for the arrows in Jonathan’s direction, then David should understand that Saul’s intentions toward him are good, and thus he can come out of hiding. But if Jonathan directs the lad to seek the arrows beyond where the lad is, then David is to understand that Saul intends to harm him, and he should flee. Once again, the covenant between David and Jonathan is mentioned in connection with this whole plan. Jonathan assures David that he will do all that he has promised, because of their covenant. The use of the term forever in verse 23 indicates that this covenant is now viewed as being between Jonathan and his descendants, and David and his descendants. This extended covenant is the basis for their mutual trust and their mutual kindness.