We have been learning how to deal with difficult people from the story of Saul and David. Today we come to the central theme of the whole story—a theme that points us to the very heart of the Christian faith.
For those of you who don't know the story, Saul was anointed the first king over God's people. Nevertheless, he was an absolute disaster. We've followed the story of how God told King Saul that the kingdom would be taken away from him and his family, but Saul did not accept this message. In the meantime, David, a teenager, was anointed to be the next king. , After quite a show of military might, Saul took David onto his staff at the palace. While serving there, David formed a deep bond of friendship with Saul's son, Jonathan.
Saul had never accepted the fact that his son was to never sit on the throne. There were probably many conversations in the palace between father and son that went something like this: Jonathan, you don't need to worry about that old prophet, Samuel. We're a strong family. You'll sit on the throne one day my son; don't you worry. I'll see to it.
But Jonathan was not so sure, because he had faith in God, and he knew what God had spoken.
As Jonathan and David became friends in the palace, I wish I could have heard their conversations about the future. I picture them out in the fields one day, and Jonathan says to his closest friend: You know David, I'm not sure I'm going to be king. What do you think?
There was probably a long silence.
Finally, David says: Jonathan, can I tell you something that I've never told anyone else in all of my life?
Yes, tell me. I'm your best friend. You can tell me anything.
So David continues: One day the prophet came privately to my house. He said that God had told him to anoint a new king. I was out in the fields when he arrived. He met all my brothers, and then he sent for me. I was absolutely astonished. When I arrived at the house, do you know what he did? He took a flask of oil and he poured it over my head and he said, 'God is anointing you to be the king over his people.' Jonathan, if your father finds out that I've been anointed to be the next king, he's going to kill me. What on earth are we going to do?
Suddenly, the two friends knew that their loyalty would be tested to the limit. Poor Jonathan—he was in an impossible position. His father would try to destroy his best friend. Jonathan was caught right in the middle of it all, and he had to choose which side to take. Either he would accept the word of God, give up his own claim to the throne, and side with his friend, or, he would resist the word of God, fight against it, pursue his claim to the throne, and take his stand with his father. Either way, Jonathan knew that he was right in the middle of a great conflict.
Jonathan pledges a covenant loyalty for David
Jonathan soon made his decision. If God had chosen David to be the next king of Israel, who was Jonathan to fight against it? Though Jonathan was the old king's son, he would give David his full loyalty.
In fact, we read that Jonathan made a covenant with David (1 Samuel 18:3). The important word to notice is "covenant." He "made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself." In other words, Jonathan says to his friend: Now look here, David, whatever the cost, whatever the future—whatever it takes—I want you to know that you can count on me.
This covenant loyalty is a special kind of love. The Hebrews had a particular word for covenant loyalty. They called it "hesed." Hesed simply means "steadfast love." It's a love that will last—a love that you can count on. It's sometimes translated in the Bible as "faithfulness," or you could simply call it "loyalty."
In First Samuel 20, while Jonathan is pledging covenant love to David, you will find that the word "hesed" is used twice—in verse 8 and 15. Both times it is translated "faithfulness." In verse 8, David says to Jonathan, "As for you, show hesed to your servant." Show faithful love to me!
David looks Jonathan in the eye and he says: Your father has thrown a spear at me. Things have really fallen apart; can I count on you? You made a covenant with me. Now please show me hesed. I need you to be the one person that I can count on. Will you be that person?
Jonathan pledges his allegiance. Then, in First Samuel 20:13, Jonathan asks for something in return. Because of the word of the Lord, Jonathan knows that one day David would be the king. He also knows that when a new king comes to the throne, the way in which he would consolidate his power is to wipe out all the descendants of the old king. That was simply how most kings of any culture consolidated power in those days. Understanding this, Jonathan says, "May the Lord be with you as he had been with my father. But show me unfailing kindness"—show me hesed—"like that of the Lord as long as I live, so that I may not be killed … Do not ever cut off your (hesed) from my family." In other words: Don't ever cut off your loyal love—your kindness—from my family, not even when the Lord has cut off every one of David's enemies from the face of the earth.David, you can count on my pledged loyalty. But can I count on yours?
In response, David "reaffirms his oath" In First Samuel 20:17. Then, in verse 23—as David and Jonathan part after this important conversation—Jonathan looks back and makes the point just one more time in case David should ever forget: "About the matter that you and I discussed—remember that the Lord is witness between you and me forever." We made each other a promise, and God was witness to that promise. He holds us accountable to fulfill that promise forever.
You don't find Jonathan saying: Well, I don't know, David. My father thinks there's a chance that I could become king, and so I'd like to keep my options open right now.
You don't find David saying: But you're asking me to keep a promise through the end of my life. That's asking a bit much.
No, Jonathan knows that loyalty to David will be the greatest and most costly choice of his life. David knows that the same is true of his covenant with Jonathan. This will be the most important thing, and they choose to seal it with a covenant.
Our own pledge of covenant loyalty
There are some things in life that are so important that we want to put them beyond the range of impulse—to protect them from our swinging moods and feelings.
This is why people get married. We count this relationship to be sacred. We know that honoring it at some point will prove very costly, but we don't want it to be open-ended. We don't want it to be just a private understanding between the two of us. We want to raise it to the level of a covenant that is sealed "with God as our witness" to hold us accountable. So we come, and we say to this person for whom God has given us the gift of love: You can count on me. You can count on me for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer. I pledge hesed to you. Whatever the cost, and whatever the future holds, I pledge a love that you can count on.
It's not just a piece of paper. It is a sacred covenant that gives direction and security to the whole of life. A loyal person is willing to make a covenant promise. Why would we do this? Because some things are so important that they're not to be left to chance. We want to consecrate ourselves to them, raising them to the level of a vow.
Do you know I've only ever made four vows in my life? I don't expect to ever make any others, but the four vows that I have made in my life are the navigating points—the pillars of life. They are foundational to who I am.
The first was a vow that was made on the day that I was baptized in water. God gives us baptism because some things are too important to be left open-ended. It gives us the opportunity to raise our commitment to Christ above the level of a private thought or prayer, to a public confession and publicly sealed vow in the presence of God. That's what baptism is all about. If a Christian says to me they're not interested in being baptized, I feel the same way as I do with a couple who say they're in love, but don't want to get married. "Why wouldn't you want to?"
I made a vow when I was baptized—a vow of hesed to Christ.
The second was when I was married—a vow of hesed to my wife.
The third vow was at a service of ordination; when I was charged with the responsibility of leading the church and preaching the Bible. I gave a vow of hesed to the church.
The fourth vow happened on two occasions—when our two boys were born. At a dedication service in London, my wife and I made vows of hesed as a mother and father.
These four covenants are the greatest privileges of my life. They're my highest calling and my most costly commitment. Not one of them is open-ended, because when one is loyal, one makes promises.
What are the covenants that God has placed in your life? They'll be different for those among us. Nonetheless, I want us to see three things about the covenants of our lives—these great commitments entrusted to us, defining who we are.
First, hesed loyalty will bring you great pain. It's always costly.
Turn to Second Samuel 1. David is still on the run from Saul. One day, as he's in his temporary home in a place called Ziklag, a messenger arrives with news from the battlefield: I've got news for you, David. Saul is dead.
Then comes the news that David never wanted to hear: And Jonathan is dead, too.
His best friend, the one person in life he trusted most, is dead.
David is absolutely heartbroken. He writes a lament that is recorded in Second Samuel 1:17-27. It's an outpouring of grief for the tragedy of Saul's life and the loss of his best friend, Jonathan.
Verse 19: "Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your heights. How have the mighty fallen!"
Verse 26: "I grieve for you, Jonathan, my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women."
See what David's saying: Jonathan, you showed a different kind of love to me. You showed me the kind of love that would lay aside your own interests in a crowd. You protected me when my life was on the line. You encouraged me when I was at the point of giving up. You gave me strength. You gave up your right to a throne, and you stood with me so that God's purpose would be fulfilled in my life.
What kind of love is that? That's hesed.
There's pain in hesed—always. Those who choose to really care for someone will find that caring makes you vulnerable to being hurt. Is there a mother who doesn't know this? To love deeply is to sometimes enter into the deepest of grief. Where there are hills, there are valleys. The two always go together. Covenant love will take you to the highest peaks, and it will bring you into the deepest valleys. If you choose this kind of love, it will be both your highest calling and the most costly commitment in all of your life. It will be both your greatest blessing and your deepest sorrow.
Think about Mary, the mother of our Lord. That was exactly how it was for her. The angel Gabriel comes and tells her that she will give birth to the Son of God. God's Son will take flesh from her. Could there be any higher privilege given to any woman in all of the world? That's the peak. And then she takes the infant Jesus to the temple. While there, Simeon—an old prophet—takes the infant Christ in his arms and both blesses and prophesies over the baby. Then he looks Mary straight in the eye and he says, "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many … and a sword will pierce your own soul too." I ask you, could any of the disciples have had a clue what was going on in her heart as the Son she bore was stretched out and crucified on a cross?
That's part of hesed. It's a reflection of the very heart of God. It's a costly thing, but it's a glorious thing. Loyalty brings you pain.
Hesed loyalty also brings great blessing.
Take a look at Second Samuel 9. The story has rolled forward several years. God's remarkable promise has been fulfilled, and David is indeed the king. Saul and Jonathan and all but one of Saul's sons have died on the battlefield. The other one ended up dying sometime later, and David's position as king is absolutely secure. His enemies have all been vanquished, but David has a question. He remembers the day when he was with Jonathan and pledged loyalty to him. Recall that Jonathan, in return, asked David for one thing: Please show your hesed to my family forever.
In light of the fact that all of the sons of Saul had died on the battlefield before he ever became king, David asks himself: What can I do to fulfill that promise that I made to my best friend? Is there any descendant of Saul who's still around to whom I can show this kind of love?
David calls in a man by the name of Ziba, who had once been a servant of Saul's household. David asks (2 Samuel 9:3): Is there no one left from the house of Saul to whom I can show God's hesed?
David continues: God has shown unfailing love to me. God's blessing has been poured into my life. I'm looking for a way to reflect faithfulness to the covenant that I made all these years ago with Jonathan. What opportunity is there for me to show this kind of love?
Ziba tells David that Jonathan had a son, Mephibosheth, and that he is crippled in both feet. In fact, we're told the story of how this happened in Second Samuel 4. When Mephibosheth was just five years old, news of Saul and Jonathan's deaths came back to the little boy's nurse. With the enemies of Saul and Jonathan running rampant on the battle field, she realized that the best thing she could do to protect Mephibosheth was to take him away from his home and hide him as quickly as possible. She gathered the five-year-old in her arms and left the house. But in the process, she dropped the child. As a result of this accident, Mephibosheth was crippled for the rest of his life.
As David came to the throne, the nurse had continued to feel that it would be wise to raise the boy in seclusion. So he grew up in a place called Lo Debar (which means, "no pasture"). The name alone shows you what kind of place it was.
After hearing the story of Mephibosheth's life, David sent out the commander of his army to bring the crippled man to the palace.
Imagine what this must have been like for this man who's been hiding in a place called "no pasture." One day the commander of the king's army arrives at his door and says: The king wants to see you in the palace.
Mephibosheth must have been absolutely terrified. Remember—the new king is to wipe out the descendents of the old king, and this crippled lad has absolutely no defense. Even so, the young man comes to the palace, and he bows low in the new king's presence, wondering what will happen.
But in Second Samuel 9:7, David says: "Don't be afraid, for I will surely show you hesed for the sake of your father, Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table."
Mephibosheth must have wondered what on earth was going on. Picture the king's sons gathering around the banquet table. Think of Mephibosheth on his crutches, taking his place with them. He's got to be thinking to himself: What in the world am I doing here?
It must have been the talk of the nations: Have you heard about the king in Israel? He's got the enemy's grandkid at his table!
Loyalty brings great pain, to be sure. But loyalty also brings great blessing.
Here's the very last thing: Loyalty reflects the heart of God.
Notice again what David says in Second Samuel 9:3: "Is there no one still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show God's kindness?" David knows that God has shown hesed loyalty to him. When Jonathan asked David to make that promise, he used the same kind of phrase. He said: Will you show hesed like that of the Lord?
You can count on God's covenant love. Hesed is in his very nature. The Lord is gracious and compassionate. He's slow to anger. He's abounding in steadfast love (or hesed). The steadfast love, the hesed of God, never ceases. This is the God of the Bible, who made a covenant. That's the sort of thing that hesed does. He made a covenant that he would redeem men and women, whatever the cost. Loyalty to that covenant brought indescribable pain to the heart of God. That's what Jesus' leaving the throne of heaven, coming all the way to a cross, and laying down His own life so that we should be lifted up is all about. All of this, so that he could shower hesed on his people.
I think Mephibosheth's story gives us a beautiful picture of how God's blessing comes to all of us. Just think: Mephibosheth was in the wrong line, wasn't he? He was in the line marked for condemnation. He was the enemy's child. That's what the Bible says about the human race because of our sin. Even more, Mephibosheth was absolutely helpless and absolutely defenseless. But the king—from whom he's been hiding all these years—called him into his presence in order that he might experience the king's hesed. Then he finds himself dining at the king's table.
This is what God does for us in Jesus Christ as he draws us to faith in him. If you have been hiding from God, trying to get away from him, you will suddenly discover that he's the source of the greatest blessings. You will discover that he's not just going to spare your life, but he's going to bring you into his own family. He's going to make you his adopted son or daughter. He's going to make you like a king and a priest, sitting at his own table. That's why every Christian can say with David, "Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." I will feast at the table that "the Lord has spread for me."
ConclusionWhy would you not want to come to a love like that? Some of us have known love, but we've not known covenant or hesed love. Some of us have given love, but we weren't able to give hesed love. God abounds in hesed love, and in Jesus Christ he showers hesed on all who will come to receive. He says to each and every one of us: Whatever your background or however long you've been hiding from the blessing of God, you can come back. You will be received with a love that will never let you go. It's a love in which Jesus was ready to go all the way to a cross for you. He invites you now to receive the Spirit that will make you capable—having received hesed love—of giving hesed love.
Think about how that will change the world in which we live.
David was a great king of Israel. He did many things, and he won many battles. But what he did for a crippled boy named Mephibosheth was one of the greatest things he ever did in his life, because it reflected the heart of God.
Colin Smith is pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois.