Bible Study | December 22, 2021

Justice and kindness

Hebrew word "Hesed"
Hebrew word "hesed"

2 Samuel 9:1-7, 9-12

Today’s text may seem like an odd intrusion into stories of David’s military defeat of the kingdom’s enemies (2 Samuel 8–10). In fact, 2 Samuel 9 functions as the concluding chapter of the long narrative about David and Saul, as well as the opening chapter about David’s reign and the succession of Solomon.

Samuel—prophet, priest, and judge—anointed Saul as the God ordained leader and king of Israel (1 Samuel 10). After a disappointing series of events, Samuel declared God’s rejection of Saul as king (13:13-14) and subsequently anointed David (16:13).

It is vital to recognize the critical importance of being anointed. Anointing did not mean Samuel chose Saul, but that God chose Saul. Anointing marks the divine choice of a person for a specific task. In the ongoing narrative of the conflict between Saul and David, twice David had a chance to assassinate Saul. Twice he did not kill God’s anointed (1 Samuel 24 and 26).

The relationship between David and Jonathan, Saul’s son, also played into 2 Samuel 9. These two men became what we now call best friends forever. The narrator says Jonathan loved David as much as he loved himself (1 Samuel 18:3; 20:17). When David was informed of Jonathan’s death, he said: “I weep for you, my brother Jonathan. You were so loved by me” (2 Samuel 1:26, writer’s translation).

David and Mephibosheth

The narrative begins with a question: “David asked, ‘Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?’” (2 Samuel 9:1). Phrased this way, the question brings together several components that affected the beginning of David’s reign.

Clearly, love for his friend influenced David’s action toward Jonathan’s disabled son, Mephibosheth. But there was more involved. Several times the narrative reminds us that Jonathan and David’s relationship included a covenant and an obligation, not only related to each other but also concerning their descendants (1 Samuel 20:14-17, 23, 42). It is important to remember that in ancient Israel such a covenant involved God. David and Jonathan made this covenant in God’s presence. It is similar to this phrase often spoken in the covenant of marriage: “In the presence of God and these witnesses, I pledge my love to you.”

Politics also played a role. David came from the south, Judah. Saul was from the north, Israel. At Hebron, in the south, the people anointed David as king of Judah (2 Samuel 2:4). Saul’s son, Ishbosheth (Ishbaal), was made king in Israel (2 Samuel 2:8ff.).

Saul’s popularity in Israel did not die with his death. That allegiance did not die even with the assassination of his son, Ishbosheth. There remained groups in the north that were not happy about being ruled by an adversary from Judah (2 Samuel 19). David, the southerner who was now king of Judah and Israel, wisely chose to be careful about the way he treated the family of Saul.

Personal love and compassion, obligatory covenantal promise, and political considerations merged when David sent for Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son and Saul’s grandson. Mephibosheth had been accidentally dropped by his nurse when they were fleeing from a Philistine attack (2 Samuel 4:4). The injury to his legs left him disabled.

David made two decisions. He ordered all the royal land of Saul to be returned to Mephibosheth. David chose the family of Ziba, one of Saul’s servants, to administer this land. This provided Mephibosheth with a source of financial security. Secondly, and perhaps most surprisingly, David declared that Mephibosheth would sit at the king’s table, elevating him to equality with David’s own sons (2 Samuel 9:11b). It is fair to assume that most, if not all, northerners responded favorably to David’s treatment of their royal family.

We notice that Mephibosheth responds submissively. Falling on his face and bowing in respect, he says, “I am your servant” (v. 6). Mephibosheth understood power (v. 8). David’s military had erased most of Saul’s friends and family (2 Samuel 3:1).


The story itself narrates David’s actions on behalf of Mephibosheth—with no mention of his love for Jonathan or political expediency. Three times the narrative uses the word ḥesed (vv. 1, 3, 7). We have no word in English that adequately translates this Hebrew noun. Ḥesed includes elements of loyalty, faithfulness, covenantal commitment, and compassion. It quite often describes an action taken on behalf of another which exceeds the expectation of custom, promise, or responsibility.

Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan provides a good example of ḥesed (Luke 10:30ff.). No one expected that a Samaritan would stop to help an injured Jew, let alone pay for his care. Indeed, intense animosity existed between Samaritan and Jewish communities. It is doubtful that either group would have welcomed the help of the other, let alone expected it.

Brethren have often pointed to John Kline of Virginia as an example of one who lived out ḥesed. During the Civil War he appeared willing to help the wounded from both sides. Even though southern bred, Kline was known to oppose slavery. Distrust of him resulted in his brief arrest in 1862. Two years later, Kline was assassinated as he was returning home.

Person, promise, politics

It might be unusual for us to act on behalf of another to the degree exhibited by the Samaritan in Jesus’ story or John Kline during the Civil War. However, we do act to aid those who need help. Especially in emergencies like the pandemic as well as floods and tornadoes, we see and participate in countless acts of care, kindness, and compassion. Usually, we don’t choose to help based on the color of someone’s skin, where they worship, or the cost of their clothes. So, what does prompt us to help?

We often see pictures of individuals who are running for office working at food banks, visiting children’s hospitals, and the like. Do they care about the homeless and those who are ill, or is it a matter of political expediency? We see entertainment or sports figures put their name on fundraising events for medical and other charities. Wealthy leaders in the community give money for libraries, museums, and educational buildings. Do they care, or is it just good public relations?

We can’t know for sure what motivates charitable acts. Perhaps those involved don’t know for sure themselves. Often, maybe most of the time, our motives are mixed. We help because we feel obligated as Christ’s disciples or because we care about those causes and institutions. Sometimes we act just because we see someone who needs help. We just do it! Ḥesed is alive and practiced in our time as it was in the time of David.

Why did David act so benevolently toward the disabled grandson of his political rival? Was it his love for the young man’s father? Was it obligation as promised? Was it on behalf of David’s relationship with the northern half of his kingdom?

One, two, or all the above? The narrative allows us to decide. If his motives were mixed, would we say that David acted with integrity?

  • Think about unexpected or unusual acts of kindness, given the social, economic, and political tensions that characterize our time. What motivates these surprising actions?
  • As Christians, we value integrity. Can we serve others if our motives are to some degree self-serving or obligatory? In your mind, what counts as acting with integrity?
  • How does it feel to be on the receiving end of benevolent giving? How does it affect one’s relationship with the giver and one’s sense of self?

Gene Roop is Wieand Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Bethany Theological Seminary. This Bible study comes from A Guide for Biblical Studies, the adult Sunday school quarterly published by Brethren Press, in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the Uniform Lesson Series.