LIMPING INTO THE KING'S PRESENCE
The story of David and Mephibosheth is one of the better known narratives from the life of David. It teaches generosity from the earliest Sunday school classes to the oldest. It is an event that translates well to believers from all time periods, since the themes of mercy and kindness are universal.
But as with much of the Bible, the story works on two different planes. The kindness shown to Mephibosheth, grandson of Saul, is a demonstration of King David’s gracious reign in the land of Israel, as he showers love onto those who did not expect his beneficence. But on a different level, David prefigures Jesus Christ.
David foreshadows the greatness of the Messiah. Throughout the gospels, and particularly in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is referred to as the “Son of David.” This indicates that, at least in the eyes of some, Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of the prophecy to David in 2 Samuel 7:12–16. Jesus refers to Himself as the “Root and offspring of David” in Revelation 22:16. But Jesus is not simply a descendent of David: He is nothing less than David’s Lord, as He says in Mark 12:35–37, referring to Psalm 110:1.
So, as we look at the life of David, there is much we can learn about his life and his rule, but we can additionally look forward through redemption history to see how superior Christ is; how He fulfills the promises made to David, and ultimately proves to be a worthier king.
Two events form the context for the narrative of 2 Samuel 9, and the first of these occurs in 1 Samuel 20. David, the anointed king, had come to the conclusion that, in the interest of self-preservation, he must flee from Saul. At their parting, Jonathan and David, who were the closest of friends, made a covenant with each other, with David promising that he would never cease showing love to Jonathan’s family. In verse 15, Jonathan asks David to “not cut off your kindness from my house forever, no, not when the Lord has cut off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.”
In 2 Samuel 4, the country of Israel was in turmoil. Saul and Jonathan had been slain, and following this devastating loss, the balance of power began shifting in David’s favour. The family of Saul, which included a five-year-old Mephibosheth, made a hasty retreat into hiding. The nurse carrying Mephibosheth tripped, dropping the child, and the injuries he sustained made him lame the rest of life.
It is unknown precisely how much time had elapsed between these events and 2 Samuel 9, but by Mephibosheth’s responses and apparent maturity, it is safe to assume that there have been at least a few intervening years.
As we look at the story of David and Mephibosheth, there are three aspects of David’s character in particular that we should consider in turn.
David Was Powerful
By the time the narrative of 2 Samuel enters chapter 9, David had been firmly installed as king over all Israel. His military victories ensured that there were no enemies, foreign or domestic which might possibly have posed a threat to his rule. David was solidly embedded in the throne of a unified Israel, and had subdued his enemies: Syria, Moab, Ammon, Philistia, Amalek, Zobah, and Edom (8:12–14). He was collecting tributes of gold and silver from all of these conquered nations. He had consolidated his power, and built for himself a new capital and a palace. It was not only the foreign threats he had neutralized, but also the domestic ones. Former king Saul and his power-hungry family were no longer a serious threat, and so the Lord had given him rest from his foes (cf. 1 Samuel 20:15). He had the divine promise of an eternal dynasty. David was, humanly speaking, at the top of his game.
It was then, when David had absolutely nothing political to gain from it, he sought to offer generosity to the crippled grandson of the man who had many times tried to kill him.
David was Faithful
David’s close friend and Mephibosheth’s father, Jonathan, was dead. No one but David and Jonathan would have known about David’s promise.
Nonetheless, David was a man of his word. He had covenanted with Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20, and he was going to carry out what he promised, even when there was no political benefit from it. In fulfillment of his promise, David showed love and kindness (here we have the Hebrew ḥesed) to Mephibosheth for the sake of Jonathan. On the basis of David’s love, he did good to his friend’s descendants. David was bound by his integrity and his obligations to Jonathan, and committed to protect his house from being cut off.
In other nations, this act certainly would not be seen as wise: helping a member of the former dynasty would have put his own into jeopardy. After all, Mephibosheth was a potential challenger for the crown of Israel. (see footnote 1)
David’s loyalty to Jonathan expresses the seriousness with which he views the content of their covenant. Even after Jonathan’s death, David’s word still stands. There are no apparent overtones that he was attempting to gain favour from the family of Saul. By providing this lame man with privilege, sustenance, and status, David demonstrates in sharp focus the nature of covenantal faithfulness. Far from ending the line of a political rival, as beneficial as that might be, David’s previous commitments prevented him from doing anything so rash.
David Was Gracious
It was well within the normal practices of the day for a new king from a different family line to destroy any and all associated or related to the old regime. As such, it was expedient for Mephibosheth and others of his family to make themselves scarce. He had been living for years in the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, in Lo Debar, which was far enough from Jerusalem to escape notice.
But David had not been busy hunting down the last remnants of Saul’s family, as other kings of that time were in the habit of doing. Saul’s estate was still in his own name, it was actively farmed by a steward (Ziba), and many of Saul’s family lived in relative peace. It would seem that they certainly tried to keep a low profile, but when it came time for some of them to be rounded up in 2 Samuel 21, it appears that finding them was no great difficulty.
So David began asking around his court about the family of Saul. He didn’t know he was going to end up with Jonathan’s son—he merely started looking for anyone who carried Saul’s pedigree. He did not specifically look for someone from Jonathan’s line; he cast his net wider to include descendents of his former antagonist, seeking for those to whom he could show kindness for Jonathan’s sake.
When Mephibosheth was found and ushered into the royal courtroom, he must have experienced a certain amount of trepidation. Perhaps the king’s words had come to him promising kindness, but Mephibosheth would have known of the skulduggery and intrigue that occurred during the civil war between the two families. Upon meeting the king, however, all fears would have been set aside. David gave to him a tripartite privilege. First, Mephibosheth would come into possession of the land of Saul. The agricultural capacity of the son of Kish would be his. Second, Mephibosheth would eat at the king’s table—always. Never since he was five years old had this privilege been extended to him, and he would be restored to the luxury of the royal board. He would enjoy the same position as the king’s sons. Third, as Saul’s grandson, the servants of the former king would be his. Mephibosheth obviously couldn’t work his new land by himself, and so David set him above those stewards who were working it at the time.
In every interaction with David, Mephibosheth’s attitude and demeanor displayed nothing but gratitude and humility. He constantly referred to himself as “your servant” and even “a dead dog,” reminiscent of David’s own words to Saul in 1 Samuel 24:14. He addressed the king as “My lord the king” three times in 19:26–28, and even likened David to “the angel of God” in 19:27.
In chapter 16, Mephibosheth was cheated out of his land by his servant Ziba. When half of the land was restored back to him, he seemed to be almost ambivalent about it. This is because Mephibosheth had cast his lot with David, and did not really desire his land back. To dine with the king and to be in his presence was more than sufficient for him.
Far beyond being a wonderful story of kindness and loyalty (and it is certainly no less than this), the actions of David and Mephibosheth form a picture of the greater David’s love, faithfulness, grace, and generosity to His former enemies. These events really happened, and so while we may praise David for his actions, we also see in David a picture of Christ, who is “David’s greater son,” the one from David’s line who will reign on the throne of the universe eternally. At almost every turn in this story, we can see images of Christ.
Christ Is Powerful
It goes without saying that the Scriptures clearly teach the lordship of Christ. He is, and will always be, reigning on the throne of the universe. The earth is His footstool, and the nations—you and I—are like grasshoppers. He needs nothing from us. We cannot enrich Him, we cannot earn Him any political favours; we can add nothing to Him. He was not served in coming to earth; rather the opposite, Christ gave up much to serve us.
And yet, He reaches out to sinful humanity in His magnificence. We were not lovable, we were not beautiful, we were not desirable. He did not need to save us. His is the throne, and ours was eternal judgement. He did not have to lift a finger to ease our suffering. He would have been absolutely just in allowing history to take its course, leaving us to a perfectly fair condemnation for our rebellion.
Christ Is Faithful
Even though all of this is true, praise God that power is not Christ’s only attribute: He is also a faithful God! Just as David entered into a covenant with Jonathan, God entered into a covenant with us through Christ’s death on the cross, and we are blessed on His merits. We are not brought into the presence of the King of the Ages on our own standing, but because of what Jesus did through His life and death. He promised that all who would repent of their sins and come to Him would be saved from eternal death, and He is good to His word. He is a God of integrity, faithfulness, and loyalty, showing His love to all those who wait on Him—even when it doesn’t profit Him.
Just as David showed favour not because of Mephibosheth, but on the merits of Jonathan, so you and I are showed favour because of the merits of Christ. God showers His blessing on us not because of our desirability, but on the basis of His promises to us and our predecessors. If the Lord’s pleasure with us correlated with our obedience, our faithfulness, or our loyalty, we would be forever lost. He is a faithful God, proving Himself reliable time and again. He has promised salvation to all who believe, and He is a God of integrity. He who calls you is faithful, Who also will do it (1 Thess. 5:24)!
You and I limp into His presence, not because we deserve to be there, but only because we’ve been summoned by name to stand before Him. We enter His throne room and receive the warmth of His love, His benevolent favour, and manifold blessing. We receive these because of promises He has graciously made in the past.
Christ Is Gracious
The final point of comparison between David and Christ is the graciousness of Christ. Mephibosheth perhaps may have expected execution, but he receives grace. When you and I come to God’s throne, we certainly do not deserve mercy. You and I deserve nothing but justice, and terrible, swift justice at that. But if we come in humility, heeding His call to come, we find nothing but blessing in the heavenly realms. We enjoy the privilege of sons through His adoption. We are restored into a right relationship with our eternal King, at whose table we are invited to eat for all eternity.
Christ sought out His former enemies (cf. Ephesians 2) to redeem and reconcile to Himself. He did not come to those who were well, but those who were sick. Mephibosheth was not strong and handsome—he was crippled, disabled, socially undesirable and to be pitied in Hebrew society. You and I, in the same way were lost, impotent, and in the words of Paul, dead in our trespasses and sins. There was nothing we could do to pick ourselves up. But God is a God who demonstrates unmerited favour. He is a loving heavenly Father Who delights to give gifts to His spiritually crippled children. We are given what we do not deserve and can never pay back. He does this because He sees His Son in us, because we are in a covenant with Him, and because He is a gracious God.
Just like Mephibosheth, our place before our Lord the King must be one of humility and servitude. We ought to be His willing subjects. God did for us what we could not do, when we would not do it. He is a Lord who is foreshadowed for us in part by the loving attitude of David toward Mephibosheth, as shown by David’s power, faithfulness, and grace. Yet, the power, faithfulness, and grace of our King Jesus is on a higher plane and is universal. Praise our God that He has shown us favour not because of our own abilities or our good works, but because He is loyal to His son and seeks to do us good on His merits.
Daniel Morden is Managing Editor of the Gospel Witness. He and his wife, Ruth-Anne, have two children and are expecting their third.
(1) This charge, in fact, comes against him from the mouth of Ziba in 2 Sam. 16:1–5, although it is most likely false, given both Mephibosheth’s refutation in 19:24–39 and his physical disability.