Why didn’t Jonathan believe David, his trusted friend who came to him for help?
In our series on apologies, we’ve been looking at Saul and Jonathan as a way of exploring the difference between authentic apologies and non-apologies.
David and Jonathan were best friends. But when David came to him, afraid for his life, Jonathan didn’t believe his story.
That problem – when we don’t believe victims – is tragically common, and dangerous.
Thankfully in this story, despite his initial, confident dismissal of David’s fears, Jonathan went on to show the same integrity of heart that is clear in the rest of his life. He tested his facts and admitted he was wrong.
David deserved to be believed
Imagine what that experience must have been like for David! David knew what he was talking about. He was right there when Saul tried to kill him. Multiple times. He ducked Saul’s spears and avoided Saul’s army. He fled for his life. David wasn’t making things up. He wasn’t seeing things in some distorted way. The threat to his life was real, and Jonathan was confidently and dangerously wrong to not believe him.
Imagine going through the trauma of abuse only to find even your inner circle won’t believe you.
Yet in contrast to Saul’s habit of making non-apologies, it seems like Jonathan had no investment in protecting his ego. And while we will see his apology is not verbal, it’s clear he changed his behaviour and attitude, and his friendship with David was back on solid ground. It’s clear Jonathan was worthy of being trusted again.
Let’s look at the story from when Jonathan first appears on the scene1 to Saul’s pursuit of David, and Saul’s second attempt to kill Jonathan.2
Saul tried to kill his son
We have a puzzle, and a familiar one. Why didn’t Jonathan believe David? This story raises some patterns in abusive relationships that haven’t changed in the three thousand years since these events took place.
Saul’s abusive behaviour created danger, mess, and confusion in the relationships and communication around him. We can see that throughout his reign, but even when we focus on just this part of the story. Saul leaves chaos and confusion everywhere.
Back around 1041 BCE, Saul tried to kill Jonathan for eating some honey. We know that Jonathan only stayed alive because Saul’s army protected him.
Then Saul said to Jonathan, “Tell me what you have done.”
So Jonathan told him, “I tasted a little honey with the end of my staff. And now I must die!”
Saul said, “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan.”
But the men said to Saul, “Should Jonathan die—he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the LORD lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help.”
So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death.3
This is such a stark example of the danger some abuse victims live with. Thankfully for Jonathan, Saul’s men stepped in. But so tragically often abuse victims are left to fend for themselves.
Why didn’t Jonathan believe David was at risk of the same?
Around 28 years later David came to Jonathan, afraid for his life. Yet from Jonathan, whom we might expect to be the first to believe David, he met only firm disbelief.
As readers, we get to see some events that Jonathan wasn’t aware of over those years. We don’t know if Jonathan knew Saul’s secret plans to use Merab4 and Michal5 to lead David to his death. For other events, Jonathan was clearly out of the picture.
But why didn’t Jonathan’s own experience of abuse at Saul’s hands appear to help him believe David?
Saul abused Jonathan for years
In between Saul’s first attempt to kill Jonathan in 1041 BCE, and his second attempt in 1013 BCE,6 we have years of their relationship that the Bible is mostly silent on. But we can see that Saul is consistently abusive to those around him. Meanwhile, every time we have a window into the interactions between Saul and Jonathan, we see Saul abusing him or involving him in the abuse of others. That’s every single time we see them interact from when we meet Jonathan in 1 Samuel 13 to Saul and Jonathan’s deaths 31 years later in 1 Samuel 35 (1010 BCE).
Murder was in the air several times. Saul tried to kill Johnathan for eating the honey.7 Saul told him to kill David,8 and Saul tried to kill him again.9
The only interaction that looks more positive is when Jonathan appeared to change Saul’s mind about killing David.10 And yet we know that apparent change of mind was momentary. It’s possible it was just a ploy, and the value of Saul’s oath is clear. False remorse and broken promises like that are entirely consistent with abusive behaviour. And remember, this is not a broken promise to take out the garbage – it’s a broken promise not to try and kill someone.
So it seems reasonable to assume that Saul’s standard way of relating to others was abuse and that Jonathan would have experienced that behaviour throughout his life. Yet we know that Jonathan confidently refused to believe David was in any danger, despite the evidence of both his and David’s experience of Saul.
Yet Jonathan persisted in false beliefs about Saul
Jonathan seemed hesitant to believe Saul was dangerous, despite Saul’s serious verbal and physical violence.
1. As we know, Jonathan was only alive because the army stopped Saul from killing him.
So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death.11
2. Saul commanded Jonathan and others to kill David
Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David.12
3. Saul angrily insulted and attacked Jonathan
Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him,
“You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don’t I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you? As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Now send someone to bring him to me, for he must die!”13
4. Saul escalated that with another attempt on Jonathan’s life
“Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” Jonathan asked his father.
But Saul hurled his spear at him to kill him. Then Jonathan knew that his father intended to kill David.14
Despite all these events, Jonathan persisted in some false beliefs about Saul.
Why didn’t Jonathan believe David? Because Saul’s tactics were effective
Jonathan discounted Saul’s earlier attempt to kill him, and Saul’s clear orders to Jonathan and others to kill David. He thought he could talk sense into him, and believed Saul’s promise not to kill David.
As spectators, we appear to have more information about Saul than Jonathan did, thanks to the narrator. However, Saul has every appearance of being a dedicated abuser – what the Gottman Institute would call “characterological” abuse. Key symptoms are the pattern of his refusal to take responsibility for his actions and his non-apologies. So it’s reasonable to believe that what we see recorded in Saul’s abuse of Jonathan and others is just the tip of the iceberg.
We know from the text: Saul was a deft liar. We know he used gaslighting, blame-shifting, and other means of getting his way.
We’ve talked a little in previous articles about some of the ways Jonathan seemed remarkably resistant to Saul’s control. But when we come to the story of David’s flight from Saul,15 we can see some of the dangerous ways in which Jonathan was taken in by Saul’s deception.
Saul, like many abusers, had an arsenal of effective tactics. Those tactics helped him continue his abuses.
Jonathan didn’t believe his best friend
Jonathan and David had a very strong friendship. But despite the clear evidence of Saul’s murderous attempts and intent, and his other abusive behaviour, Jonathan was completely convinced David was not at risk, and that Jonathan knew the truth about Saul.
Let’s look at some of their conversation when David came to him for help:
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!”16
“Never!” Jonathan said. “If I had the least inkling that my father was determined to harm you, wouldn’t I tell you?”17
We have an advantage. The narrator has already clued us in. We know Saul’s intent. We know he twice tried to kill David with his spear, that he sent men to kill him. When Saul found out where David was hiding, he sent men again to capture him and ended up going himself.
But it appears Jonathan was unaware of these events and completely confident he would know if anything was wrong.
Abusers have public and private behaviour
Many victims of abuse will be able to relate at this point. When they experience the difference between an abuser’s public and private behaviour. When they have experienced harm at the abuser’s hands and are simply not believed by people who are taken in by the abuser’s lies. They know the truth and they can see how others are being fooled.
As onlookers, it can be far too easy to dismiss cries for help. The victim is invested: this is harm being done to them. We might not be. Life is harder for the victim if we don’t believe them, but it might well be easier for us.
Let’s guard against that kind of temptation. Love costs – but let’s dig in alongside those who are being harmed.Life is harder for the victim if we don’t believe them, but it might well be easier for us. Click To Tweet
Abusers might look like good people
Not all abusive tactics look like bad behaviour. For example, an abuser who uses smokescreens, lies, denials, blame-shifting, spiritual language, and other tactics to build a believable picture of themselves as a decent person. These tactics can be very effective, and we can see that in Jonathan’s case. Despite the testimony of his closest friend and his own previous experience of Saul’s dangerous behaviour, he strongly resisted the idea that David was in danger.
“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!”18
I don’t believe we see anything in what we have of Jonathan’s story that indicates he had an ill will. In these chapters, we see the story of a good man who was, nevertheless, victim to his father’s abuse. And in this part of the story, that’s harmful to David.
This dynamic is part of the problem with abuse in the Christian community, or in any community. Sometimes, the people abusers use to hurt others are willing participants. People who know they are doing harm and enjoy it, or at least choose it in preference to resisting. But these “flying monkeys” can also be innocent of heart: people who do not know they are being used to do harm. It can be much easier to believe a victim is lying or mistaken than to believe a person would commit the kind of serious harm involved in abuse. In Saul’s case, that includes serious intent to commit murder.
Why didn’t Jonathan believe David? Because it’s hard to believe anyone would do so much evil
It is so difficult to believe a person can appear so good, and Godly, in public, and yet be committing such evil in the background. Because what kind of person would do that??? It makes no sense. The more we would be revolted by the idea of behaving that way ourselves, the harder it is to comprehend anyone else doing it.
What seems most consistent with Jonathan’s tale is that he was innocent in his intent, but influenced by Saul’s lies and manipulation. Lies and manipulation that persisted for decades. Probably for his whole life, and we know that, tragically, Jonathan never broke entirely free from Saul. They died together.
What is wonderful about Jonathan though is he was willing enough to check his facts – as sure as he was. Even though he was convinced David was wrong, he:
- Was open to getting more data
- Let David devise the way that data would be collected
- Followed though
On the downside – it wasn’t until he experienced Saul’s rage, and Saul’s attempt to kill him too, that he believed David’s story. David deserved better. And what a risk to take! What if Saul had killed David while Jonathan was checking his facts?
The other wonderful thing we see in Jonathan is his humility. When he returns to David, we see no pride, denial, shifting of blame or other manipulation. We don’t know if words were exchanged while he and David were hugging and weeping, and we don’t see any words recorded like “I’m sorry.” But what we do see is Jonathan’s now wholehearted support of David, and perhaps the tears and Jonathan’s changed behaviour expressed what was needed in terms of an apology.
The spirit of a true apology
Words aren’t always needed. In a relationship where there is a strong history of trust and communication, nonverbal communication might be crystal clear. But what seems clear in Jonathan’s relationship with David is:
- There was restoration between them
- Jonathan now completely believed David
- Jonathan changed his behaviour from defending his father to supporting David
And we know that later, Jonathan went out to encourage David – but this time not with the promise that Saul wouldn’t try to kill him, but that he wouldn’t succeed.19
We can learn something from Jonathan about the spirit of a true apology. What’s required for an apology to be effective? What are the questions that need to be resolved? In this story, Jonathan repented. It was clear that just as he had been usually worthy of David’s trust in the past, he would be worthy of that trust in the future, and safe to continue as a friend and confidant.
There we have the vital spirit of a true apology: an answer to the question, “Can I trust this person?”
Steve WadeWe can learn something from Jonathan about the spirit of a true apology. (1 Samuel 20) Click To Tweet
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