When we want to indicate that a son has much in common with his father, sharing many of the same character traits and skills, we often call the son “a chip off the old block.” As we read the history of Saul and David, we find that we certainly cannot refer to Jonathan, Saul’s son, in such a manner. In contrast to Saul’s cowardice, selfishness, and madness, Jonathan stands out for his bravery, selflessness, and wisdom (1 Sam. 13–14). And when Saul sought to kill David, Jonathan opposed him, talking him out of his plans on at least one occasion (19:1–7).
Apparently, Jonathan thought Saul had changed his mind about David permanently. That would explain the interchange between David and Jonathan in today’s passage, wherein we read of Jonathan’s disbelief that Saul was still seeking David’s life (20:1–2). David knew better, for he pressed Jonathan to learn why Saul was after him. Jonathan and David then made a covenant, which built on the covenant the two men had made in 1 Samuel 18:1–5.
According to this newly established covenant, Jonathan was to find out if Saul still wanted David dead, and David was not to cut off his steadfast love from Jonathan’s house when all of David’s enemies were defeated (20:3–17). This covenant was necessary because of the circumstances of Jonathan and David’s relationship. As the son of Saul, Jonathan was expected to become king one day. Thus, he had incentive to lie to David about Saul’s threat, for it could bring David back to Saul’s court where he could be killed and eliminated as a rival to Israel’s throne. The covenant promise of Jonathan assured David that he was telling the truth and had no designs on the throne that God would give to David after Saul (16:1–13). In the ancient Near East, when a new king came to power, he would wipe out the family of the preceding monarch in order to get rid of anyone who might be a threat to his rule. David’s covenant promise assured Jonathan that his family would not be annihilated when David replaced Saul as king.
In the making of this covenant and the parties abiding by its terms (20:18–42), we see covenantal, loyal love on display. Phrases such as “steadfast love” and “deal kindly” in 20:1–17 all translate the Hebrew term for covenant love, hesed. As we have seen, this rich concept refers to enduring faithfulness and unwavering commitment. It is more than just a sentiment or feeling. Because of hesed, Jonathan and David sought good for one another.