In this passage David finds himself fleeing from king Saul. The Spirit of the Lord had left Saul and had come upon David and as a result Saul was often tormented and David was often victorious in battle. Through all of this Saul was given to pride, suspicion and angry outbursts against David who had always been his loyal companion in both going out to war with the Philistines and in his coming in to celebrate the victory.
Throughout these chapters there are often things that are far outside of David's control. On the one hand, David cannot control the pride that motivates Saul's suspicions nor his relentless desire to somehow guarantee his line of kings in Israel. And on the other hand, David cannot control the peoples response as he went in our out to engage in the kings battles with their enemies. He cannot stop them from singing and chanting, "Saul has killed his thousands and David has killed his ten's of thousands!" Nor can David keep the Lord from placing upon Saul a tormenting spirit that would make Saul act in deceptive and destructive ways. All of this makes me appreciate the complexities of these types of situations. Some things we control and some times we do not. So what are we to do?
Well, In chapter 20 we find that Saul's son, Jonathan, meets with David to discuss the situation. David tells Jonathan, "There is but a step between me and death." (v.3) By these words David is telling Jonathan that Saul's heart is not for David but against him. He is telling Saul's son that his father intends to kill him. Jonathan objects and says that his father shares with him all things both the big and the small. Jonathan believes that if there is a plan to hurt David that he would know about it.
David, however, tells Jonathan of a plan to confirm what is truly in the heart of Saul. The New Moon is upon them and at that time Saul and all of his commanders come together and eat at the kings table. David would never not come to such a dinner but this time he tells Jonathan that he will not be there. If Saul misses David and approves of his absence then they will both know that Saul's heart is for him. If, however, Saul disapproves of his absence and becomes angry then they will know that his heart is bent towards David's demise.
David and Saul implement the plan and by the end of the chapter Saul's heart is revealed. But even here there is an important observation. On the first day of the feast we are told that Saul sits at the table in his customary place. He is joined by Abner and Jonathan, but David's seat is empty. On that first day Saul says nothing assuming that David must have been unclean. It is not till the second day that Saul asks his son why David is not there.
Let me make a couple observations. First, plots and intentions of the heart don't always quickly reveal themselves. These things take time to unearth. In this case, if David's and Jonathan's plan was a one day plan they would have misinterpreted everything. And in doing so David would have ended up being killed. It was on the second day that the heart of the king was revealed. And when it was it showed up in full force. Jonathan was berated by his father. Jonathan's mother was maligned when Saul said, "You son of a perverse, rebellious woman..." And then Saul hurled his spear at him to strike him. When Jonathan covenanted with David he became a target from the hand of Saul too.
Secondly, observe that this plan needed to be longer than a day because initially there can always be an explanation for what is happening. In this case, Saul assumed that David's absence was because he was somehow unclean. This says a lot about David. Saul often is found questioning David's motives but here Saul's response show that Saul actually knew of David's character despite what he often said and despite how he often acted.
I see this in the fact that when David did not appear, Saul's first response was not to say, "David, will make any excuse not to come and be here!" He does not immediately question David's intentions and motives but instead he figures that there must have been a pretty good reason for it. This must mean that David had lived with character and consistency and Saul defaulted to that when this occurred. As a result, even on the first day David's character was revealed and the fact that Saul reveals that he knew of it and was factoring that into his response and thinking.
On the second day, however, Saul's heart was revealed and it showed up in a very clear and decisive way. We are told that Jonathan did not eat any food on that second day of the month for he was grieved for David, because his father had disgraced him (34). Do you see the selflessness with which Jonathan loved David. The fact that Saul had hurled insults at him, his mom, and had tried to kill him was not on his mind as much as the fact that Saul had intended to kill David.
It is here that we can read verse 18 with two things in mind. Verse 18 says, "Tomorrow is the new moon, and you will be missed, because your seat is empty." This was said in the planning stage between Jonathan and David. These words were spoken by Jonathan and he meant that when David did not show up for the feast that Saul would notice. In other words, he would be missed. But now we see that there is another side of the story. David would be missed by Saul but he would also be missed by Jonathan as well. One missed David in a deceitful and disastrous way; while Jonathan would miss David in a pure and loving way. And when David was gone from the table Jonathan became the target of Saul's anger. Saul forced David to flee from fellowship and no ones hearts grieved over this more than Jonathan and David. Jonathan would miss David being at the table.
You know, we often make a joke about how in the church we have our favorite seats. We know who will sit where in the rows at church. We talk about how church fights have occurred when someone else sits in a seat that has been claimed by another. These things can be issues in the church. But I wonder how quickly someone filled David's seat at the Saul's table? How quickly was he replaced? How quickly did Saul try to banish the thought of David from that place? May it never be in the church this way. If there is an empty seat at church let us find out why. If there is a vacancy let us miss the person who sat there. And if we have acted like a Saul let us repent and reconcile.
In any event, let us be like a Jonathan who will miss David when he is gone.