Commentary on 1 Samuel 17:57—18:5, 10-16
[Note this semi-continuous first reading is one of two options for this lectionary date. Find past commentaries on 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49.]
“And Saul feared David” (1 Samuel 18:12): Witnessing the tragedy of a ruler unfolding
The tragedy of the failing ruler Saul is the centerpiece of this pericope. Clinging to power, Saul finds himself threatened by the success of this new rising star, his young courtier. God’s selection and the subsequent success shape the scenes at Saul’s court. The tragic main scene offers an intimate insight into the isolated ruler’s troubled soul (1 Samuel 18:10-12). The young courtier’s introduction at the court, the warm bonds between him and Jonathan, and his soothing, therapeutic presence shape counter-images.
“David was successful … and God was with him” (1 Samuel 18:14)
God’s freedom to choose David to be the rising star in Judah shapes this storyline and it invites us foremost to rejoice together with David. The gruesome war trophy of the giant’s head, dripping with blood, gives an unknown lad from Bethlehem access to the royal court where he is capable to succeed and come to honor, but also to encounter how the dynamics at the court of the luckless ruler turn against him. His ongoing success (1 Samuel 18:5) secures his standing at the court and exemplifies God’s freedom of election. The pericope closes with this theme of David’s success as a faithful leader to whom God bestows even more success, beyond the fights he won. The more tasks he takes on, the more help and reassurance he receives. Our pericope characterizes the hero as a pious and faithful king and is a prequel to David’s forthcoming, more thoroughly successful warfare against the Philistines (see also 2 Samuel 5:17-21).
A tragic destiny that seduces to drawing sinful consequences
As the pericope describes the ruler’s increasing isolation as well as his misery and depression, it also illustrates his failure on a personal level by way of viciously planning revenge. The story details how Saul, far from a villain, first can cope with defeat and rejection. However, it also points out how his tragic destiny gets the best of him; Saul’s despair finally misleads him to channel his anger in sinful ways. Once he draws the spear against David (1 Samuel 18:11), Saul becomes guilty of intentionally attempting murder (Exodus 21:14; Deuteronomy 19:1-12). God’s election of David as future ruler leaves Saul fearful. We witness both the tragedy of Saul and his entanglement in vicious acts. The stories between Saul and David present a variation of Saul’s drastic attempt to kill David (1 Samuel 19-26).
Our pericope and the varying storylines in the same vein invite us not to whole-heartedly dismiss Saul as a classical villain. Rather, our pericope in particular seeks to gain compassion for Saul as an example of a ruler living in the shadow of God’s rejection. It presents the anxiety of an anxious soul eaten up by David’s success. Yet beyond this, it also presents Saul as an example for making bad, misguided decisions, so much that he finally sets up a dangerous quest for David. Saul seeks to dispatch him as a commander in war (1 Samuel 18:13) in the hope that he might die. This is yet another form in which Saul tries to harm David, who yet succeeds and whose accomplishments are grounded in Yahweh’s help and trust in Yahweh.
Saul’s character may sharpen our view of the ways we might be living with our own destiny in light of God’s blessings of others. Saul’s challenge of the spirit-gifted David invites us to think whether and how we may be taking revenge on others in light of our own destiny and whether by doing so we in fact may betray our faith’s principles. The stories of Saul’s pursuit of David in 1 Samuel 16-26 are examples that express the same theme of hatred that causes Saul to throw the spear against his opponent.
Reassurance and rejection even through a viciously expanded quest (1 Samuel 18:13-15)
Historically, these narratives at the court are embedded in Israel’s and Judah’s rivalry. David’s dynastic legacy and Saul’s incapability of establishing his house serve as the storyline’s backbone. God’s free election of a ruler unfolds as David’s ongoing success.
David’s therapeutic efforts against an evil spirit
When David plays before Saul, he is able to soothe the desperate ruler from the ecstatic rave that the evil spirit causes as it haunts the king (1 Samuel 18:10). David’s calming presence is a token of the one-sided relationship between both Saul and David. God’s election and Saul’s rejection must be lived out separately. The spirit symbolizes God’s presence in David’s life and the election of God. It poses the question of whether Saul can indeed be fully held responsible for his attempts at taking revenge on David. Another interpretive question is whether David’s therapy for the depressed king presents the image of the pious, singing courtier, to which the headings of the David-Psalms (Psalm 3-41, 51-72) allude. David’s beneficial presence at the court leads to his achievements as a military leader and, taken altogether, it paints the image of a rounded, successful, and heroic life.
“…and Jonathan loved him like his own soul” (18:1, 3): Male friendship or romantic love?
Our pericope briefly and clearly describes how Jonathan is drawn to David (1 Samuel 18:1). It rejoices in the affection between the two men, describing their friendship as carefree. When it adds the official covenant and the symbolic exchange of the royal rope and armor (1 Samuel 18:3-4), it reckons with the serious social space of the court, in particular, that Jonathan is a representative of the king. David later responds to this jaunty description of the same-gender affection of Jonathan in his love song for the deceased friend: “your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26.) We can easily imagine that priestly circles in Israel may have taken issue with same-gendered love (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), yet 1 Samuel 18:1-5 openly celebrates the affection between David and Jonathan as one joyful aspect of the life of the successful, chosen, young King David.