The chief story of this section is David’s ascendancy and Saul’s descent, with important lessons as to why David might be, in contrast to Saul, “a man after God’s own heart (I Sam. 13:14),” though neither of them are always exemplary paragons of moral virtue. Saul, in contrast to David, is a man after the gifts of God (e.g., the throne and its security), rather than God Himself. Unlike David, who will later serve as a model of repentance, Saul only knows regret, regret over losing the gifts of God, rather than losing God himself. That he shares with Esau (Heb. 12:17). Driven by regret, rather than repentance, Saul goes from bad to worse, reneging on his promises, seeking to kill his most helpful partners, insulting and driving away his family members, expecting his daughter Michal to aid him against her husband (in violation of Gen. 2:24), even killing priests, because he fears everyone and everything more than the thing he should fear most: “making shipwreck of his faith (I Timothy 1:19),” destroying his relationship with God. His power only accelerates the vicious cycle of moral, mental and emotional confusion he is in, thereby justifying the very warnings Samuel had given Israel about their rash desires for a king.
David, by contrast, proves willing to wait on the timing of God to receive the throne and his crown. The time he spends serving Saul loyally (even when he knows the crown will one day be his) will be his training in the arts of true leadership, thereby showing how God can use any delays, disadvantages and adversity for our strengthening and the advancement of God’s reign. David’s refusal to kill Saul, when Saul was easily in his reach (Chapters 24 and 26), shows not only humility but prudence as well: should David establish his throne by regicide, where would it stop? Yet David is not without flaws that will bear their toxic fruit later in his life and reign. Nabal, fool that he is in keeping with the sound of his name, may have been breath-takingly arrogant, stingy and inhospitable (in an era when generosity and hospitality were more supremely valued than they are now). But David’s rash, hot-headed anger and willingness to kill him and his workers will show up again during his reign, with disastrous results. With his conflicted polygamous family and his conquests in love (similar to his military conquests), David will serve as a poster child in reverse for monogamy. We have to be careful about what we take away from these chapters and characters by way of supreme moral lessons and examples. Again, we’re seeing how “God rides lame horses and whittles rotten wood” (Martin Luther)
Much is made today of the love between Jonathan and David, with some seeking to show that it must have been an actively homosexual relationship. Such an assertion ignores the strong Hebraic rejection of such actions (Lev. 18:22), and it reads into an ancient text more contemporary ideas about love, friendship and intimacy between people of the same sex. In today’s society, men have tended to lose the art of true, lifelong, loving, friendship, with its emotional and spiritual intimacy and connectedness, in part, for fear of being accused of, or falling into, sexual and physical intimacy. But in other, and ancient, societies, friendship, love and intimacy of men with men and women with women was highly valued, celebrated, encouraged and expected, with results that I believe are healthier than what men especially pass off as friendship today. Sexual intimacy was not only not a part of such intimate friendships, it would have been considered the death-knell of it.
The main lesson of Jonathan’s friendship with David emerges in contrast with his father’s paranoia and disloyalty toward David. Like John the Baptist in relationship to Jesus (the Son of David), Jonathan is willing to “decrease so that he [David] might increase,” the truest sign of intimate and loyal friendship.
This Psalm is ascribed to David, whom we met playing his lyre and singing to Saul in I Samuel 16 & 18. The first half of the Psalm has the elements of a Wisdom Psalm, that is, one that gives moral and spiritual instruction. But the second half breaks into something that sounds like a litany, perhaps for entry into worship to the Tabernacle, since the Temple had not been built during David’s reign. Or after Mt. Zion had been designated as “the Mount of the Lord,” but before the temple was built. The unity of these two parts resides in the Hebraic understanding of wisdom and virtue, as related to worship. “He who has clean hands, and a pure heart,” may ascend the Mount and stand before God in true worship. David’s and Saul’s examples demonstrate the necessity of repentance to having “clean hands and a pure heart.”