When abusers are nice to you does that mean they aren’t abusing others?
In our last article, we looked at Jonathan’s grave error in thinking he could just talk to Saul and that would make David safe. Instead, all he achieved was to put David at greater risk by convincing him to return to Saul.
That all took place around 1014 BCE.1 Only a year or so later, David was on the run for his life again.
David went to Jonathan, hoping for help, and told him his story. Jonathan’s response would be frustratingly familiar to countless victims of abuse. He simply didn’t believe David.
“Never!” Jonathan replied. “You are not going to die! Look, my father doesn’t do anything, great or small, without letting me know. Why would he hide this from me? It isn’t so!”2
Saul had won Jonathan over before with promises and spiritual words. But when abusers are nice to you that doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting others. Despite Jonathan’s confidence, Saul’s murderous intent was not exactly a secret. So let’s start by looking through 1 Samuel 19. Who knew for certain Saul was trying to kill David?When abusers are nice to you that doesn't mean they aren't hurting others Click To Tweet
Who knew Saul was trying to kill David?
Did Saul know what he was doing? More generally, can we tell if abusers are aware of their behaviour? We’ve raised this question before in looking at Peninnah’s abuse of Hannah.
What about David, the victim? Was he really seeing things clearly? Or was he imagining or exaggerating the danger?
Sadly, so many victims of abuse have faced disbelief when they seek help or try to tell their stories. So let’s try and reflect on David’s experience so we can do better.
The abuser: Saul knew
There are four points in this story where we can see Saul’s clear murderous intent stand out.
1. Saul tried to kill David with a spear
But an evil spirit from the LORD came on Saul as he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand. While David was playing the lyre, Saul tried to pin him to the wall with his spear, but David eluded him as Saul drove the spear into the wall. That night David made good his escape.3
We can’t say Saul abused David accidentally, as if he didn’t realise his behaviour was harmful. Saul was an experienced warrior who knew one end of the spear from another. He meant to kill.
There is some debate about the meaning of the “evil spirit from the LORD”. What’s going on here? Does it mean God made Saul try to kill David? Or something else?
Because the meaning is unclear it seems wise to stay open to different possibilities. However, Keil and Delitzsch explain it this way:
The thought expressed is, that the growth of Saul’s melancholy was a sign of the hardness of heart to which Jehovah had given him up on account of his impenitence.4
That is, Saul’s continued lack of repentance led to this moment.
2. Saul sent men with orders to kill David
Saul’s anger lasted more than just a moment. He followed up and pursued David to his home.
Saul sent men to David’s house to watch it and to kill him in the morning.5
3. Saul told his men he wanted to kill David
Saul verbalised his motives and pushed through blockages to achieving his goal.
Then Saul sent the men back to see David and told them, “Bring him up to me in his bed so that I may kill him.” But when the men entered, there was the idol in the bed, and at the head was some goats’ hair.6
4. Saul expressed his frustration to Michal
When Michal blocked his plans to kill David, Saul stayed committed to his course.
Saul said to Michal, “Why did you deceive me like this and send my enemy away so that he escaped?”7
Based on this narrative, it is very difficult to argue that Saul didn’t know what he was doing, or wasn’t intentional. He knew. He was dedicated to reaching his goal. It was intentional.
The victim: David knew
How do we know that?
1. David was present when Saul tried to pin him to the wall
David wasn’t just exaggerating a real or imagined slight. He wasn’t basing his fears on rumours. He had first-hand experience of the facts. Saul tried to kill him.
But an evil spirit from the Lord came on Saul as he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand. While David was playing the lyre, Saul tried to pin him to the wall with his spear, but David eluded him as Saul drove the spear into the wall. That night David made good his escape.8
2. Michal warned him of the danger
Saul’s daughter knew of his persistence in wanting to kill David and told David about it.
But Michal, David’s wife, warned him, “If you don’t run for your life tonight, tomorrow you’ll be killed.” So Michal let David down through a window, and he fled and escaped. Then Michal took an idol and laid it on the bed, covering it with a garment and putting some goats’ hair at the head.
When Saul sent the men to capture David, Michal said, “He is ill.”9
3. He was at Ramah with Samuel when Saul pursued him
Three times Saul sent his men, before going himself to capture David.
When David had fled and made his escape, he went to Samuel at Ramah and told him all that Saul had done to him. Then he and Samuel went to Naioth and stayed there. Word came to Saul: “David is in Naioth at Ramah”; so he sent men to capture him. But when they saw a group of prophets prophesying, with Samuel standing there as their leader, the Spirit of God came on Saul’s men, and they also prophesied.10
David knew Saul was trying to kill him. He knew the truth.
This was not a matter of perception
There’s no confusion in this tale. David and Saul both knew Saul was trying to kill him. Saul persisted despite many challenges in achieving his goal.
It is so easy to repeat popular phrases that might sound wise or insightful. Even easier when abusers are nice to you and the complaints of a victim don’t seem to fit. But it can be dangerous to tell a victim, “It’s just your perception”, “Only God knows the truth”, or “There are two sides to every story”. In this case a suitable paraphrase of Jonathan’s response might be:
“He would never do that. Or if he did, I would know.”
But Jonathan was wrong. He did not know. David was right. The danger was real.
Jonathan does not appear to have had an arrogant personality, and he had a deep friendship with David. The picture the Bible paints of him is warm and sincere. Yet in this situation, he was absolutely confident he knew everything about Saul’s plans. This is tragic! David’s life was in danger but his best friend, the son of his abuser, didn’t believe him.David's life was in danger but his best friend, the son of his abuser, didn't believe him. Click To Tweet
As readers, we know better. Looking over the timeline of these events11 we can see again and again that Jonathan was not present when Saul was abusing David, or abusing Jonathan’s sisters. Saul carried on his abuse and manipulation without letting Jonathan know. Despite what seems to be Jonathan’s persistent good character, he was dangerously overconfident in his assessment of the situation.
It gets worse
Despite Jonathan’s confidence, there were many people who knew the truth. Jonathan thought he was completely in touch with Saul’s intentions and that mistaken belief fueled his denial of the danger. His statement is so confident!
“Never!” Jonathan replied. “You are not going to die! Look, my father doesn’t do anything, great or small, without letting me know. Why would he hide this from me? It isn’t so!”12
Stunning. But let’s see who else knew what was going on.
1. Saul’s men knew
Saul sent men to David’s house to watch it and to kill him in the morning.13
Saul gave his men clear instructions to kill David in his home.14 That plan failed, but Saul had some kind of information network in place. When those people discovered David was at Ramah, Saul sent the same or other men to capture him there.15 When that failed he sent more men, and then a third group.16
We don’t know how many men that all adds up to. It sounds like a lot. Perhaps each group of men was only small, or Saul sent squads large enough to take on David and any protection David might have gathered together. We also don’t know how Saul was collecting information on David. How big was his information network? Was it formal or informal? It could be he had sent out instructions to many people, or it might be that just a few people were listening for news.
On the whole, it sounds like there were a lot of Saul’s men in the know and it might be reasonable to assume they told others what was happening.
2. Michal knew
But Michal, David’s wife, warned him, “If you don’t run for your life tonight, tomorrow you’ll be killed.”17
As we’ve already seen, Michal knew what was going on and warned David.18 The Bible isn’t clear on how she knew. Did someone tell her? Did she see the men lying in wait? Had she overheard conversations?
As the story unfolds however we can see she was present when the men went in to kill David, and she spoke to them.19 Then Saul complained to her directly that she had helped David escape.20 By this time at least, she had first-hand knowledge.
3. Samuel knew
When David had fled and made his escape, he went to Samuel at Ramah and told him all that Saul had done to him. Then he and Samuel went to Naioth and stayed there.21
We can guess that Samuel was not surprised to hear about Saul’s intended violence. He’d been afraid for his own life before.22 But Samuel was present when Saul’s men arrived to capture David.23 The narrator doesn’t specify but it seems likely Samuel was present when the second and third groups of men arrived also.24
Eventually, when Saul went himself, he prophesied in Samuel’s presence.25
4. The prophets knew
As with Samuel, the prophets were there to see Saul’s men arrive each time and, it appears, when Saul came himself.26
Jonathan was dangerously mistaken
Jonathan was so confident he knew everything his father was up to. And yet he was so wrong. Many people knew, but Jonathan was out of the loop.
Then David fled from Naioth at Ramah and went to Jonathan and asked, “What have I done? What is my crime? How have I wronged your father, that he is trying to kill me?”
“Never!” Jonathan replied. “You are not going to die! Look, my father doesn’t do anything, great or small, without letting me know. Why would he hide this from me? It isn’t so!”27
It’s not like Jonathan had never seen Saul behaving abusively. Jonathan had experienced the threat of violence from Saul first-hand. Meanwhile, he consistently comes across as a sincere, trustworthy person who loved God and cared about people. But despite his good character, on these two occasions, he thought a simple conversation with Saul would make David safe, or that he should trust his own judgement rather than Saul’s victim.
Thankfully, Jonathan went on to collect more data. But for the moment this is a story of a decent person putting someone at grave risk.
When abusers are nice in public we need wisdom
The book of Proverbs tells us, “Get wisdom, get understanding.”28 But what does it mean to get wisdom, understanding, and good judgement when it comes to abuse?
To begin with, abuse is often well hidden. And for many people, it can be difficult to imagine why someone would hurt people on purpose. Such behaviour just makes no sense. But can you imagine what an effective tactic it would be to appear kind, trustworthy, and Godly to many, while secretly hurting others? If you then deny your abusive behaviour, the easiest person for others to believe is you, not your victims.
Apparent good behaviour does not prove abuse is not happening elsewhere. It can be just another tactic. Sadly, our hesitancy to take victims seriously can do incredible harm.
Few of us are experts. One way of expressing wisdom, if someone comes forward with complaints about bad behaviour or abuse, is to start by believing them, and seek expert help. There are so many stories in the media of victims who tried to get help but were not believed and came to a tragic end.
The danger is real
In 2020 the Australian National University published a working paper considering Faith-based communities’ responses to family and domestic violence. The researchers asked, “What if a person of sincere faith believes their faith requires them to stay in abuse?” They found that even though “secular” advice would be to leave,29 the person would be more likely to stay. Even though that decision might be based on misinformation about what their scriptures teach.
So, when a victim of abuse comes to someone like Jonathan: someone they respect, who perhaps has age, apparent wisdom, and Christian status on their side, that’s an important moment that could lead them away from danger, or back into it.
Jonathan’s response when Saul told him to kill David30 was dangerously dismissive. His response when David came to him for fear of his life was even worse. Jonathan dismissed and denied real danger. Likely with the best of intentions.
This story is one example of why it can pay for all of us to get better at recognising abuse and responding to it with wise, informed action. To get wisdom and understanding. Practically, the first step might be as simple as speaking to some experts. It is an act of wisdom to know our own limitations and seek competent help. In Australia, one good source is 1800RESPECT, and you can call them or chat online. If you aren’t sure whether a situation is abusive, they can help you work it out.
Let’s imagine a future where victims are taken seriously and connected with competent help that can lead to freedom and a new life. We won’t get to that future without making changes, but thankfully it’s a goal we can all play a part in reaching.
Steve WadeIf someone comes forward with complaints about bad behaviour or abuse, it is an act of wisdom to know our own limitations and seek competent help. Click To Tweet
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- Dates taken from Bible Hub’s timeline
- 1 Samuel 20:2
- 1 Samuel 19:9-10
- Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary
- 1 Samuel 19:11
- 1 Samuel 19:15-16
- 1 Samuel 19:17
- 1 Samuel 19:9-10
- 1 Samuel 19:11-14
- 1 Samuel 19:18-20
- These dates are taken from https://biblehub.com/timeline/
- 1 Samuel 20:2
- 1 Samuel 19:11
- 1 Samuel 19:11-16
- 1 Samuel 19:19-20
- 1 Samuel 19:21
- 1 Samuel 19:11
- 1 Samuel 19:11-17
- 1 Samuel 19:14
- 1 Samuel 19:17
- 1 Samuel 19:18
- 1 Samuel 16:2
- 1 Samuel 19:20
- 1 Samuel 19:21
- 1 Samuel 19:24
- 1 Samuel 19:19-24
- 1 Samuel 20:1-2
- Proverbs 4:7
- Generally, that is, after developing a plan to leave safely
- 1 Samuel 19:1