1 Samuel 20:3
And David swore moreover, and said, Your father certainly knows that I have found grace in your eyes; and he said…
Brave men have their times of depression, and believing men have their fits of discouragement. Of David's courage there could be no question. He had faced death without flinching, both in defence of his flock from beasts of prey, and for the deliverance of Israel from the boastful Philistine. Yet he now recoiled, saying, "There is but a step between me and death." He felt as on the edge of a precipice. One push, and he was gone. We need not wonder at this; for it is one thing to meet an enemy in the open field, another thing to feel that one's steps are dogged by treacherous malice, and not know but one may be attacked in his sleep, or struck from behind, or entrapped by some cruel stratagem. Of David's faith in God there could be just as little question as of his bravery. All the successes he had gained had been triumphs of faith. But temperament goes for something too, and the son of Jesse had the sensitive nature which goes with poetic genius. He was capable of great exultation, but just as capable of sudden discouragement; and when he gave way to a foreboding, melancholy mood, his faith looked like unbelief. The young and healthy cannot, should not, wish to die. We can feel for Henry Kirke White, though his tone was too gloomy, when he wrote, deprecating his early fate -
"It is hard
To feel the hand of Death arrest one's steps
Throw a chill blight o'er all one's budding hopes,
And hurl one's soul untimely to the shades." Poets, both heathen and Christian, have often deplored the disease and violence which cast young lives headlong from the precipice. And we regard the youthful David's recoil from the cruel death which Saul designed for him as quite natural, and in no sense discreditable to his manhood. But there is more than this in his melancholy.
I. THE OLD TESTAMENT WAY OF REGARDING DEATH. In the days before Christ, dimness overhung the doctrine of a future existence. "Life and incorruption" had not been brought to light. It was therefore reckoned a blessing to live long in Palestine. It was a sore calamity to die in one's youth. The soldiers of Israel would encounter death in the excitement of battle; and such prophets as Elijah and Jonah could even wish for death in a hurt and discouraged mood of mind; but, as a rule, even the most devout Hebrews regarded death with sadness and reluctance. No wonder that David, brought up in the ideas of his own age, not of ours, should shrink from the cutting short of his days by violence, just when he had won distinction, and begun to be of service to his nation. The horror of it hung above him for many a day; for even after many wonderful escapes we hear him say, "I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul." This sadness or reluctance in view of death never left an Old Testament worthy like David except in the hour of battle, or under some such strong emotion as once made him cry, "Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!" At the end of his career he made express mention in his song of thanksgiving of his deliverance from the "sorrows" and the "snares of death" (2 Samuel 22.). And when we see him in old age, anxiously nursed that his days might be prolonged, we catch no sign of a spirit longing to be free and assured of being with the Lord, such as one expects to find in the latter days of almost any eminent Christian. "Now the days of David drew nigh that he should die, and he charged Solomon his son, saying, I go the way of all the earth." Compare the language in Psalm 13:3; Psalm 30:9; Psalm 88:11; and that of Hezekiah in Isaiah 38. Contrast with this the contempt of death which was admired and often exhibited by the heathen. But the Hebrew feeling on the subject was really the more exalted, as having a perception of the connection of death with sin, and a value for communion with the living God in the land which was his, and therefore theirs, of which the heathen mind knew nothing.
II. BRIGHTER VIEW OF DEATH IN THE NEW TESTAMENT.
1. Contrast with the case of David in youth that of Stephen at Jerusalem, evidently young, or in the prime of life. His powers were at the full, and a distinguished career of usefulness among the Hellenist Jews opened before him. Those who entered into controversy with him "were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake." Suddenly the enraged Jews seized him, and dragged him before the Sanhedrim on the capital charge of blasphemy. Well did Stephen know that there was but a step between him and death; but no melancholy fell upon his spirit. "All that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel."
2. Contrast with the case of David in old age that of "such an one as Paul the aged," and his feeling when he was "ready to be offered," and the time of his departure was at hand. He too was a man of sensitive temperament, and suffered keenly at times from dejection. He too was careful not to throw his life away. But when there seemed but a step between him and death, what an access of light, what an advance of consolation and hope, had the servant of God in the New Testament over the servant of God in the Old! David said, "I go the way of all the earth." But Paul, "We are confident, and willing rather to be absent from the body and present with the Lord." O happy ending of this troubled life! O welcome escape from fleshly impediment, weariness, temptation, insufficiency, and sorrow!
III. CHRIST'S CONTEMPLATION OF HIS OWN DECEASE. He who is the Son of David, and the Lord of Stephen and of Paul, saw in the very prime of youthful manhood that there was but a step between him and death, and that too a death of harsh violence such as his ancestor had feared. There was, however, this difference between "the Man Christ Jesus" and all other men - that he knew when, where, and how he should die. It was to be at Jerusalem, and at the time of the feast. He foretold the very day on which he should "be perfected," and indicated that it would be by crucifixion in saying that the Son of man would be "lifted up from the earth." From such knowledge it is well that we are exempt. To know the place, time, and manner of our death would tempt, perhaps, at first to carelessness; and then, as the date came near, would put a strain on our spirits very hard to be borne. Such a strain was upon Christ, and, as the bitter death approached, his spirit was "exceeding sorrowful." As David had his friend Jonathan to show him sympathy and endeavour to drive from his mind the presentiment of death, so Jesus Christ had his disciples, who, as lovers and friends, besought him not to think of dying; but he could not take comfort from them. The cup which his Father had given him to drink, should he not drink it? To him death was gain. He finished all his work and travail, then left the world and went to the Father. "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit." We have much to learn from David, more from Stephen and Paul, most of all from our Lord Jesus. What if there be but a step between us and death? It is a step which cannot be taken but as, and when, and where our Lord appoints. "Lord Jesus, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" "Absent from the body, present with the Lord." - F.
Parallel VersesKJV: And David sware moreover, and said, Thy father certainly knoweth that I have found grace in thine eyes; and he saith, Let not Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved: but truly as the LORD liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death.
WEB: David swore moreover, and said, "Your father knows well that I have found favor in your eyes; and he says, 'Don't let Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved:' but truly as Yahweh lives, and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death."