First read:  II Samuel 9:1-13

Mephibosheth

II Samuel 4:4    Jonathan, the son of Saul, had a son who was crippled in his feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel, and his nurse took him up and fled, and as she fled in her haste, he fell and became lame. And his name was Mephibosheth.

Over the past month or so, in these “Sunday Sermon” postings, I have introduced you to some of the “secondary” characters in the Bible – not the primary characters whose names we quickly recognize, but some lesser known, yet rather fascinating people whose lives and faith also have some important things to teach us.

Today we are going to focus on Mephibosheth.  There are actually two men in the Scripture named of Mephibosheth – one is the uncle and the other is the nephew.  The older of the two – the uncle – is also the less prominent of the two and was one of the sons of King Saul.  We hear about him in the 21st chapter of II Samuel when he is delivered over by King David to the Gibeonites who then execute him by hanging as retaliation for Saul’s earlier slaughter of a band of Gebeonites.  This was truly a case of the eye-for-an-eye kind of justice for which the Old Testament is famous.

This second Mephibosheth, whom we will be focusing on, is the grandson of King Saul – he was the son of Saul’s son Jonathan – who was the best friend of David – David who would become King instead of David’s father Saul.  It was all fairly complicated.

We first meet Mephibosheth when he was five years old – it is the day when his father, Jonathan and his grandfather, King Saul, die in battle with the Philistines.  Much was made by news commentators after the Presidential debate this past week about the tradition of the peaceful transition of power in the United States.  No such thing was true in Old Testament Israel.  Such occasions were often very chaotic – in this case there was a distinct possibility that the Philistines would attack the palace seeking to kill off the rest of Saul’s family – especially those who might be in line for the throne.  Panic set in as those in the palace were literally running for the hills.  Mephibosheth’s nurse grabbed hold of him in an effort to save the boy’s life – but in her haste, as she started to run off with him, she tripped and dropped him and the Scripture tells us that both his feet were crippled.  We don’t know exactly – medically speaking – what happened – but whatever the damage done to the boy’s feet – it was permanent.

As we move then to our reading from II Samuel chapter 9 – David is now King.  He has defeated the Philistines and has returned the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.  Chapter 8 tells us of David’s victory over the Moabites and over the Syrians and over Hadadezer, king of Zobah.  It tells us that the king of Hamath has heard of David’s victory over Hadadezer and he makes a treaty with David.  The Edomites and the Ammonites and the Amalakites were also defeated – and in II Samuel 8:14 the state of things is wrapped up in this simple statement: “…and the LORD gave David victory wherever he went.”

As II Samuel chapter nine opens, a bit out of the blue, with David asking a question – “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?”

David and Jonathan were special friends – there was a very deep bond between them and I Samuel 18:3 explains to us that they had made a covenant pact with each other.  They were still young men at the time and I expect that at that time they had no idea where the twists and turns of life would take them.   Jonathan’s father, King Saul, would become a raging lunatic because of his jealousy of David, of David’s relationship with God, and of God’s choice of David to be the royal line of Israel.  Jonathan stood by his father – but he never broke his covenant with David.  David also showed a deep respect for Saul – never betraying his King – and never asking of Jonathan that he do so either.

I say that David’s question comes “out of the blue” because after the death of Jonathan and Saul, David ended up at war for quite some time with the “house of Saul” as Saul’s sons plotted and schemed to stay in power.  One by one it was necessary for David to go to battle with them.    David was 30 years old when he became King – and at some point in the midst of the mess that was his kingdom at that time – in the midst of the battles and conquests over the enemies of Israel – he paused one day to remember the family of Jonathan – for though it was necessary that he do away with the house of Saul, still David sought to honor his covenant with Jonathan.

Within his royal household, Saul had had a servant named Ziba – but he had been more than just a servant – he had been the one who had managed much of the personal estate of Saul.  Ziba was still alive and members of David’s court knew where to find him – surely he would know if there were any remaining members of Jonathan’s family and where they might be found.  Ziba was brought before the King and told David that Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, the son who had been seriously crippled in the escape on the night of his father’s death, was still alive and he was living at the house of Machir, the son of Ammiel, in Lo-debar (9:4).  “Lo-debar” means “no pasture” – and the name Machir means “sold.”  Evidently it was a place of poverty – perhaps from the names it was also a place of servitude and despair.

David sent for Mephibosheth.  We do not know how old he is at this point.  Some commentators speak of him as if he were still a child.  Others refer to him as a man.  No doubt tension filled the palace that day – II Samuel 9:6 tells us that Mephibosheth bowed down (“fell on his face”) to pay homage to David.  Was he filled with fear – believing that the ax was about to fall upon him as it had upon his uncles?  Was he defiant – bowing down out of respect for the King but unwilling to show fear before the one who now sat on his grandfather’s throne?

We really do not know – but perhaps David’s words to him are a hint – because the first thing David says is “Do not fear…”   David from time to time could be, like us all, a rather rash and foolish man, but he had a deep sense of loyalty, especially to his God, and he at times could be as filled with grace and generosity as any man you will find in the Scripture – next to Jesus Himself.

David turns to the young man and continues, “… for I will show you kindness” – the word translated as kindness is the Hebrew word “hesed” and it is the word used to describe the attitude of love, mercy, grace and kindness that is to be shown to those with whom you are enjoined in a covenant relationship – and it is especially used of the attitude and actions which God, in His grace, shows to us who are the people of His covenant.  It is not just any kindness – it is the loving and merciful and grace-filled kindness which God shows to His people.

“…for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan, and I will restore to you all the land of Saul your father, and you shall eat at my table always.”

Mephibosheth bows down once again and remarks – “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?”

David calls upon Ziba to once again serve the house of Saul — he and his family are to have oversight of all of the lands and property that once belonged to King Saul and which now have been declared to belong to his grandson – and as for the young man himself – from now on he is to eat at David’s table – meaning that he would live in the royal quarters and be a member of the royal court and he would eat at the King’s table – as if he were the King’s own son.  Such an act of mercy and grace.

I am reminded of an event in the life of Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City.  He had been mayor during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, and was called by adoring New Yorkers ‘the Little Flower’ because he was short (only five foot four) and he always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride on the New York City fire trucks, raid the speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.

Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread.  She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor.” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”

LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions–ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous hat saying: “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.” So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

There is more to the story of David, Mephibosheth and Ziba.  It is found in chapters 16 and 19 of II Samuel.  Ziba, it turns out was a rather sly one and some years later when there was a revolt against David, Ziba assisted the King and helped to keep him safe.  He also told the King that Mephibosheth had defected to the other side.  What motivated this lie was the hope that David would grant him not only his favor, but also all of Mephibosheth’s real estate as well, and that is exactly what David did.

However, later, after the revolt was successfully put down, Mephibosheth showed up and convinced David that Ziba had been lying and that he had been on the King’s side all along.  David desired to reward Ziba for his assistance during the revolt and he wished to continue to care for Jonathan’s son.  So he divided the property of the House of Saul between them.  By this time it was worth more than enough to take care of both families.  Mephibosheth responded by saying that he was so overjoyed that David had driven the rascals out and come through the battle safe – that in celebration Mephibosheth was prepared to let Ziba take all of it. It was a crazy and magnificent gesture to make, and although at this time David was grieving over the death of his own son, Absalon, perhaps he also realized on whose lap young Mephibosheth had learned such generosity and faithfulness – on the lap of his best friend Jonathan.

It intrigues me how much the story of David’s relationship with Mephibosheth parallels and illustrates the story of God’s covenant relationship – with all those whom He has called to be His own.

Consider Mephibosheth:

  • Was lost and under condemnation
  • Was unable to walk in a right way in this world
  • Was living at Lo-debar, the place of no pasture, a fitting description of this world which in and of itself cannot provide that which is needed for the soul to be nourished and satisfied
  • Would have perished without the intervention of the King who reached to him and provided for him.

So too the lost sinner is in a tragic situation:  he has fallen; he cannot walk to please God; he is separated from home; he is under condemnation; he cannot help himself.

Consider David who:

  • makes the first move, seeking Mephibosheth
  • acts in response to the covenant pact made years before with Jonathan
  • loves him with kindness
  • calls him by name
  • takes him into the palace that he might “eat at the royal table,” providing for him always

Likewise, God sent Christ to “seek and save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10); saving the lost  not because of merit, but “by the blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20), “through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33), showing “the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness” (Ephesians 2:7),  that they might “receive the abundance of grace” (Romans 5:17), and “adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will…” (Ephesians 1:5)

Finally we can see in Mephibosheth the attitude every believer ought to have concerning the “return of the King.” This exiled lame man lived for the day his king would return! He had no thought for his own comfort; rather, he waited and prayed for the return of the one who had loved him and rescued him from death. So overjoyed was Mephibosheth at the return of David that he was willing to give up whatever was his for the sake of his King.  He truly sought to live a life that was faithful to his king and that would bring glory to his God.

Soli Deo Gloria