Contriving a test to probe whether a hardened heart has repented (Is it always sinful to tell an untruth? — Part 3)
If a person has demonstrated a pattern of maliciously endangering others — and perhaps time has now passed and the wicked person may have reformed — it is wise to probe and test that person’s heart before making oneself vulnerable to them. Is there any softening? Are there indications of genuine repentance? Can this person now be trusted? Have they somehow lost their interest or their ability to be dangerously malicious? Or are they just as dangerous as they were before? Or even more dangerous?
In the Bible there are several narratives where upright individuals set up contrived situations to probe whether a evil-hearted person had softened. This post will explore one example and further posts in this series will discuss the other examples.
Deceit and guile used in the service of justice and mercy
In setting up a contrived situation to see how someone will react, one is engaging in a kind of untruthfulness. It involves guile — sly cunning intelligence. But when it is done to test for repentance in a heart that has previously displayed a pattern of cruelty, it is deceit and guile used in the service of justice and mercy. You may remember that in Part 2 of this series, I proposed that the twin principles of justice and mercy can override and dispense with the duty to tell the truth.
When one sets up a contrived situation to test how a previously wicked person will respond, it’s like testing whether a bridge is sound enough to walk or drive over. Will the bridge hold the weight or will it collapse? If folk try to cross the bridge, will they end up falling into the water and being drowned? Should a big sign be put up: “UNSAFE BRIDGE — DO NOT CROSS RIVER USING THIS BRIDGE”?
Should the individual be deemed still on parole — under the scrutiny and within close reach of the sword of justice? Is this individual someone we ought to have clear boundaries against? And should we strictly limit our rules of engagement with them if we have to interact with them? Because in the interests of protection and mercy for the vulnerable, we need to know these things! That ‘need to know’ justifies the use of guile in setting up contrived situations to test for repentance.
To test whether there is a hole in a pneumatic tire, we blow it up, putting it under pressure, and then submerge it in water and watch to see if there are any air bubbles. The tire is witless and doesn’t mind us doing this! But an evil person doesn’t like being tested because it may reveal his wickedness. And he’s often suspicious of others. So we have to outwit him; we have to contrive a situation which will put him under pressure and reveal his true character without him realising that he is being tested.
Jonathan, at the request of David, lied to King Saul to reveal the level of risk David was under from Saul.
Preamble: 1 Sam 19:1-7
And Saul spoke to Jonathan his son and to all his servants, that they should kill David. But Jonathan, Saul’s son, delighted much in David. And Jonathan told David, “Saul my father seeks to kill you. Therefore be on your guard in the morning. Stay in a secret place and hide yourself. And I will go out and stand beside my father in the field where you are, and I will speak to my father about you. And if I learn anything I will tell you.” And Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father and said to him, “Let not the king sin against his servant David, because he has not sinned against you, and because his deeds have brought good to you. For he took his life in his hand and he struck down the Philistine, and the LORD worked a great salvation for all Israel. You saw it, and rejoiced. Why then will you sin against innocent blood by killing David without cause?” And Saul listened to the voice of Jonathan. Saul swore, “As the LORD lives, he shall not be put to death.” And Jonathan called David, and Jonathan reported to him all these things. And Jonathan brought David to Saul, and he was in his presence as before.
Saul announced his determination to get David killed, but Jonathan persuaded Saul to change his mind. However, Jonathan’s reasoning and wise counsel was like water poured on gravel — it drained out rapidly:
(19:8-12) And there was war again. And David went out and fought with the Philistines and struck them with a great blow, so that they fled before him. Then a harmful spirit from the LORD came upon Saul, as he sat in his house with his spear in his hand. And David was playing the lyre. And Saul sought to pin David to the wall with the spear, but he eluded Saul, so that he struck the spear into the wall. And David fled and escaped that night.
Saul sent messengers to David’s house to watch him, that he might kill him in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife, told him, “If you do not escape with your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed.” So Michal let David down through the window, and he fled away and escaped.
After David escaped, he went and told Samuel what Saul was doing. Saul sent out two lots of messengers to track David down, but as soon as they came into the vicinity of Samuel and his group of prophets, the messengers began to prophesy! Then Saul went himself to Samuel — and the same thing happened! (vv 18-24)
Side note: That episode is a little reminiscent of Balaam prophesying blessing on the Israelites, even though Balak had hired him to curse the Israelites.
But Jonathan still complacently believed that he had persuaded Saul to be peaceable towards David. He didn’t know about Saul’s switch from Jekyll back to Hyde. This is the error of so many pastors and Christian counselors when it comes to abusers!
1 Samuel 20
(1-2) Then David fled from Naioth in Ramah and came and said before Jonathan, “What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin before your father, that he seeks my life?” And he [Jonathan] said to him, “Far from it! You shall not die. Behold, my father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me. And why should my father hide this from me? It is not so.”
At this point David had two big problems. Saul was out to murder him; and Jonathan, his friend and supposedly staunch supporter, didn’t believe how much danger he was in!
(3-4) But David vowed again, saying, “Your father knows well that I have found favor in your eyes, and he thinks, ‘Do not let Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved.’ But truly, as the LORD lives and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death.”
Then Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you say, I will do for you.”
Jonathan’s offer was outstanding. Although he only had David’s word about the level of risk David was under, he offered to do whatever David asked. How many readers of this blog wish they had supporters like that!
David proposes a plan to expose Saul’s heart:
(5-7) David said to Jonathan, “Behold, tomorrow is the new moon, and I should not fail to sit at table with the king. But let me go, that I may hide myself in the field till the third day at evening. If your father misses me at all, then say, ‘David earnestly asked leave of me to run to Bethlehem his city, for there is a yearly sacrifice there for all the clan.’ If he says, ‘Good!’ it will be well with your servant, but if he is angry, then know that harm is determined by him.”
The set-up required Jonathan telling a lie to his father: that David had asked Jonathan’s permission to go to his home-town Bethlemen to attend a clan sacrifice. (It would be a lie because David would in fact be waiting in hiding nearby, as the text explains a little later on.)
David knew that Jonathan’s optimism about Saul was naive. He wanted Jonathan to grasp the seriousness of the situation, so he affirmed his integrity by staking his own life with his friend:
(8) “Therefore” [said David to Jonathan] “deal kindly with your servant, for you have brought your servant into a covenant of the LORD with you. But if there is guilt in me, kill me yourself, for why should you bring me to your father?”
Jonathan quickly reaffirmed his 100% commitment to David’s safety:
(9) And Jonathan said, “Far be it from you! If I knew that it was determined by my father that harm should come to you, would I not tell you?”
David then wanted them to work out how Jonathan would report back to him:
(10-11) Then David said to Jonathan, “Who will tell me if your father answers you roughly?”
And Jonathan said to David, “Come, let us go out into the field.” So they both went out into the field.
But before they figured out the rest of their plan, Jonathan wanted to elaborate his pledge to David; and he wanted to hear once more David’s affirmation of their bond and covenant. Jonathan sensed that God was going to greatly favor David, and destroy David’s enemies. While Jonathan’s love and loyalty to David was voluntary and unforced, he also intuitively knew that if he did not wholly align himself with David, God could turn His face from him.
True allies will support the victim because they believe and love the victim; but they also know they must take that position or they risk God’s disfavor. There is a measure of healthy self-interest in the wholehearted commitment of the true supporter! Although self-interest is not their chief motive, they appreciate what is at stake for themselves in their decision to support the victim.
(12-17) And Jonathan said to David, “The LORD, the God of Israel, be witness! When I have sounded out my father, about this time tomorrow, or the third day, behold, if he is well disposed toward David, shall I not then send and disclose it to you? But should it please my father to do you harm, the LORD do so to Jonathan and more also if I do not disclose it to you and send you away, that you may go in safety. May the LORD be with you, as he has been with my father. If I am still alive, show me the steadfast love of the LORD, that I may not die; and do not cut off your steadfast love from my house forever, when the LORD cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.”
And Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the LORD take vengeance on David’s enemies.”
And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him, for he loved him as he loved his own soul.
Now fully up to speed, Jonathan suggested a shrewd scheme for how he would report back to David in code, without raising suspicion:
(18-23) Then Jonathan said to him, “Tomorrow is the new moon, and you will be missed, because your seat will be empty. On the third day go down quickly to the place where you hid yourself when the matter was in hand, and remain beside the stone heap. And I will shoot three arrows to the side of it, as though I shot at a mark. And behold, I will send the boy, saying, ‘Go, find the arrows.’ If I say to the boy, ‘Look, the arrows are on this side of you, take them,’ then you are to come, for, as the LORD lives, it is safe for you and there is no danger. But if I say to the youth, ‘Look, the arrows are beyond you,’ then go, for the LORD has sent you away. And as for the matter of which you and I have spoken, behold, the LORD is between you and me forever.”
Jonathan carried out the plan. He lied to his father.
(24-29) So David hid himself in the field. And when the new moon came, the king sat down to eat food. The king sat on his seat, as at other times, on the seat by the wall. Jonathan sat opposite, and Abner sat by Saul’s side, but David’s place was empty.
Yet Saul did not say anything that day, for he thought, “Something has happened to him. He is not clean; surely he is not clean.”
But on the second day, the day after the new moon, David’s place was empty. And Saul said to Jonathan his son, “Why has not the son of Jesse come to the meal, either yesterday or today?”
Jonathan answered Saul, “David earnestly asked leave of me to go to Bethlehem. He said, ‘Let me go, for our clan holds a sacrifice in the city, and my brother has commanded me to be there. So now, if I have found favor in your eyes, let me get away and see my brothers.’ For this reason he has not come to the king’s table.”
The contrivance worked just as David had figured it would — Saul became enraged:
(30-34) Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Therefore send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.”
Then Jonathan answered Saul his father, “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?”
But Saul hurled his spear at him to strike him. So Jonathan knew that his father was determined to put David to death.
And Jonathan rose from the table in fierce anger and ate no food the second day of the month, for he was grieved for David, because his father had disgraced him.
Having received such strong proof that his father hated David and was highly likely to murder him if he got a chance, Jonathan made haste to inform his friend, by the pre-arranged signal, that he ought to flee for his life.
(35-40) In the morning Jonathan went out into the field to the appointment with David, and with him a little boy. And he said to his boy, “Run and find the arrows that I shoot.” As the boy ran, he shot an arrow beyond him. And when the boy came to the place of the arrow that Jonathan had shot, Jonathan called after the boy and said, “Is not the arrow beyond you?” And Jonathan called after the boy, “Hurry! Be quick! Do not stay!” So Jonathan’s boy gathered up the arrows and came to his master. But the boy knew nothing. Only Jonathan and David knew the matter. And Jonathan gave his weapons to his boy and said to him, “Go and carry them to the city.”
With the boy gone and no-one else observing them, it was safe for the two friends to express the emotions which they’d had to constrain. And notice that David, the primary victim, wept the most:
(41-42) And as soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times. And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most.
Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, because we have sworn both of us in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever.’” And he rose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city.
Part 1 of this series: Is it always sinful to tell an untruth?
Part 2 of this series: When is it okay to not tell the truth?