Our ways of lifeare so varied, our problems and anxieties so diverse, and yet, in this table lies the strength for every need, and the courage to face every difficulty.
“And Jonathan Saul’s son arose, and went to David into the wood, and strengthened his hand in God” (1 Sam. 23:16).
That is practical exhortation. As the NEB puts it: “He gave him fresh courage in God’s name.” Or the NIV: “He helped him to find strength in God.” We have been there, in “the wood”, for there were men there in two very different conditions — and these are two conditions into which we all fall at some time in our lives. There are the days of sunshine when, like Jonathan the strong, we are able to arise and go, and give. Then there are the days of darkness when, like David the desperate, we are in the wood, oppressed by loneliness, and we need to find fresh courage in God’s name. In this feast of remembrance, the Master has provided the means of strengthening our hand in God.
I think that one of the most wonderful things about the Scriptures is that we see its characters in contrasting circumstances — in strength and weakness, in boldness and fear, in hope and despair, in joy and sadness. And we can identify with them, and in that very identification, find strength in God.
Just when needed
Just at the time when David most needed it, Jonathan arose and went to him. “And he said to him, ‘Fear not: for the hand of Saul my father shall not find thee, and thou shalt be king over Israel, and I shall be next unto thee, and that also Saul my father knoweth’” (1 Sam. 23:17). The popular, handsome, courageous heir-apparent to the throne of Israel was befriending a man who was being hunted from one refuge to another like a wild beast.
Their friendship, of course, had begun when circumstances were altogether different. David had been returning from his victory over Goliath amidst the wild enthusiasm of the people. It was on one of those great ‘red letter’ days in David’s life, when he sprang suddenly from obscurity to be a national hero. Perhaps it doesn’t seem so surprising then that we read that in this day “the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David” (1 Sam. 18:1). It took no great effort to love him then, no great courage to be his friend.
But Jonathan still loved him even when the sun of his popularity had gone into eclipse. “He arose and went” — Jonathan showed his loyalty by demonstrating that he had not wavered in his allegiance. He assured David that when he (David) assumed power, he could still count on Jonathan’s support.
Jonathan showed David not only loyalty, but also sympathy. Furthermore, his feelings were not expressed at a distance, but personally. He might have remained at home and sent word to David that if he needed anything, he should just let him know. He might have sent a servant to comfort him. No, Jonathan went to walk with him on the road because he knew David required his personal support. And because he went, he helped. David was a stronger, braver man for the visit.
“Oh that I had wings like a dove!”
The years pass. It is almost the end of the saga of David’s life, and again he is depressed. It is hard to be hopeful when tired; it is impossible to be realistic when one’s nerves are on edge. He is pacing back and forth on his palace roof whilst below is the noise of tumult and commotion caused by rebellion. He is face to face with a situation with which he could not cope. The weight of years was upon him. He felt abandoned and he wanted to get away from it all. Suddenly a dove alights on the roof and begins to coo to the sunset. David approaches and she flies away into the far vault of blue, and he says, “Oh that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away and be at rest” (Psa. 55:6). There was no Jonathan to come to him now. Where was his strength to be found? He knew the answer: “I will call upon God, and the Lord shall save me” (Psa. 55:16). He was to think upon Him who was his “Rock”, his “Fortress”, and his “Deliverer”, and when he did that he soon realized that the Lord will sustain those who cast their burden upon Him, and that “he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved” (Psa. 55:22). David had come to know that God will speak, but man must listen, and the one who had come to know the Lord through days of experience could turn to his own son and exhort him to be strong and “keep the charge of the Lord… keep his statutes and his commandments and his judgments and his testimonies, that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest and whithersoever thou turnest” (1 Kings 2:3).
It is only when, like David, we have felt insecure, in “the wood”, uncertain, unequal to the task ahead, tired, totally inadequate and abandoned, that we appreciate how some of our brothers and sisters feel. And that is what the table of the Lord is about. It tells us of One who felt abandoned in his hour of greatest need: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) — so that he can empathize with us and feel with us in our times of despondency and desperation.
“I sat where they sat”
Whether we have those experiences or not, we can still act like Jonathan. This is the lesson from Ezekiel, the prophet whose congregation was the fragments of a shattered nation, people who had suffered grievously, who had lost all. He realized that he needed special preparation for the task and we find the answer in Ezekiel 3:15: “I sat where they sat.” He looked out on the world through their eyes. He wept in their tears. He bled through their wounds.
If only we could sit where they sit! How we might be able to give them fresh courage in God’s name! What does it feel like to be alone? To be bereaved? In the wood? In fear and despair? How does the world look from the windows of a sickroom? How does it seem to those whose every breath is one of pain? To those who know that never again will they be able to go beyond its precincts? What does life look like to the prodigal? To the one who has become an outcast? “And I sat where they sat!”
How does it feel to be young? Perhaps as we get older, we get out of touch with youth. And yet, how helpful it can be to sit where they sit and look at things through their eyes. Conversely, youth needs to sit in the seat of the aged. How does it feel to be old? When we are no longer buckling on the armour but putting it off from a body that bears many a scar? If only we could sit where they sit, we might show a little more thought and consideration for our elderly brothers and sisters and might appreciate a little more fully the heritage that is ours.
“He sat where they sat!” That is just what Jonathan did. If we can only do the same, we will have a greater sympathy, a larger knowledge, and a deeper love. But Jonathan showed more than loyalty and sympathy. He showed self-forgetfulness. He might have reasoned with himself: ‘If David loses his faith, he loses his chance, and the throne will be mine.’ That is human attitude, and we don’t know how many nights Jonathan spent in prayer to be delivered from selfishness. But he was delivered! He might have remained in his palace, and waited to see what would happen; yet he went out for the deliberate purpose of taking the crown from his own head and putting it on another: to empty himself for his friend.
The emblems remind us of One who did just that for us. Of One who came to us when we were in an infinitely worse plight than was David. Of One who was a prince, the Son of God, the heir of the world, but who became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross, and can now call us his friends (John 15:13)!
“Be strong, therefore, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord!” (Psa. 31:24).
James Crossley, Leamington Spa, UK