Son of Jesse
By Anthony Casperson
For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading the book of 1 Samuel for my daily devotions (and to re-familiarize myself with 1 and 2 Samuel while I prepare to preach from them for the next sermon series). I’ve read the books before. And have even taught lessons through their content for a high school Sunday school class almost two decades ago.
However, during this current re-read, I noticed something I hadn’t before. It’s a small detail, but one that showcases the theme of God’s work despite the failures of prideful humanity. Through the author’s use of these words, we witness just how far into the rage of madness that Saul fell after he rebelled against God’s command. And how God uses a servant’s heart to bring forth salvation history.
As well, I think that we can learn something about how to study the bible from this moment.
Let me give the context of the story up to 1 Samuel 20, which is where the first example of this detail is found. The prophet Samuel had anointed Saul as king of Israel—even though the future king thought himself unworthy. Things had looked good for the kingship of Saul. But after a couple of failures where he disobeyed God’s commands, Samuel told him that the kingdom would be removed from him and given to another. And sometime after that, Saul began to suffer from a distressing spirit sent to him by God.
Meanwhile, God told Samuel to anoint David as the next king. Following that, in order to help alleviate Saul’s madness, David was called to play his lyre. Then there was the whole David and Goliath fight. And it is here that David stands in front of Saul and refers to himself as “the son of your servant Jesse.”
David’s star was on the rise as he slew more and more enemies of Israel. And the people began singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands.” And this enraged Saul greatly. It was that day when he began to view David as a threat to the throne—his “precious.”
Saul’s son, Jonathan—who was the closest of friends with David—warned his comrade that Saul meant to kill him. So, they decided to test that theory. And this is where we come to 1 Samuel 20.
The king waits and waits for David to show up to this feast—a javelin hidden within arms reach. But when he doesn’t show up, Saul asks his son why the “son of Jesse” hadn’t shown up yet. Jonathan explains that David (notice how Jonathan explicitly calls David by his name) had gone up to Bethlehem for a family feast.
Upon hearing this, Saul calls his own son the “son of a perverse, rebellious woman.” And proceeds to call out this conspiracy that Jonathan has with “the son of Jesse.”
Saul refuses to use David’s name when referring to him.
It’s as if he feels that he needs to continue to remind the younger man that he is still the son of a servant. By never giving David the dignity of using his name, Saul elevates himself as he clings to this reign that has slipped out of his grasp.
And that’s the thing about sinful rebellion that happens after God has given us a gracious gift. We think that we deserve what was given to us. And no one else should have what we once did. What we lost. We’ll fight tooth and nail to keep what we didn’t earn because our pride makes us believe that we deserved it all along.
This refusal to dignify his enemy with a proper name continues in chapter 22 when Saul wants to know where David ran off to. He complains about the people loving the son of Jesse more than him, asking if they’ll ever be as good off as they are under Saul’s reign. Surrounded by lackeys, Saul learns that the son of Jesse (notice how the miserable little underlings took to the same vocabulary) had gone to the home of Ahimelech, a priest.
When the Ahimelech arrives, Saul commands the “son of Ahitub” (notice a recurring theme, yet?) explain this supposed conspiracy the priest had with the son of Jesse. But when Ahimelech tells the king that he thought that David—yes, he uses the man’s name—had been on a mission for Saul and thus should not be held in contempt of conspiracy, Saul’s ire points at the priest.
Ahimelech and his family are condemned to death because their association with David. Here, we see Saul slip and properly name David because his madness was now pointed directly at the priests whom he (wrongfully) thought had betrayed him.
It was here that I realized just how much of a master of writing subtext that the author of the book was.
Subtext is a part of storytelling where underlying motivations are shown, not through the actual words that a person uses, but how they say them. Tone, facial tics, and even choice of vocabulary can explain things about a character’s inner feelings in a way that directly telling the audience would never be able to do.
But notice that we have to pay attention to these things in order to understand the subtext while we read the text. We can miss the depths of meaning if we zip past the details that seem small and insignificant. If we forget to look at what the author—and when it comes to the bible, God is co-author with the human one—wants to get across to the audience.
So, I guess, this overly long explanation is all to remind us to not just read the words of God with a casual disinterest. But to really take the time to dig deep into his meaning. That way, we might not come to fail God’s command like Saul did.