Mercy for the Mephibosheths

Reading Time: 7 mins

Mephibosheth’s story is a living parable of the gospel. It reeks of redemption, demonstrating precisely what Christ does for even the chiefest of sinners.

When you turn the physical page to 2 Samuel 9 in the Old Testament, there is, likewise, an epochal page that is turned as well, with David, son of Jesse, only recently coronated as the king of Israel. After receiving the prophet Samuel’s anointing as the next ruler of God’s chosen people at a young age, David spent the majority of his adolescence as a fugitive of the very kingdom he was ordained to rule. He was seemingly always on the run, always embroiled in some such conflict, mostly at the hands of then-scepter-wielding-and-spear-throwing King Saul, who had grown violently jealous of David’s success (1 Sam. 18:7–9). Years have passed, though, since those days, with the bulk of the rivals to David’s monarchy mostly out of the way and out of the picture. The concluding chapter of 1 Samuel recounts the devastating Battle of Gilboa, during which both Saul and Jonathan are killed by the Philistines (1 Sam. 31:1–2).

The way is cleared, then, for the true king of Israel to finally take the throne. As the beginning chapters of 2 Samuel demonstrate, however, that path wasn’t entirely without conflict. Indeed, the historian details a number of skirmishes that necessitated David’s attention before his reign could be truly established. Nevertheless, as chapter nine begins, we are given the scene of one of David’s first acts in office, which, as it happens, is not at all what anyone anticipated: “And David said, Is there yet any that is left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Sam. 9:1).

We are, perhaps, not as surprised or startled by this scene as we should be. But, in fact, what King David here purposes to do wasn’t merely uncommon or unusual, it was downright unheard of! Normally, when a new ruler assumed control of the throne, that, likewise, meant that the previous ruler was getting wiped out, along with his entire family. It was an assumed imperative that the incumbent king would clean house, solidifying his reign by eliminating any and all threats to his newfound seat of power. Winning the “game of thrones” as a new king meant clearing the board of the other players, even potential ones. There are, to be sure, countless examples of this throughout the annals of history, but Scripture abounds with this reality as well (for example, 1 Kings 15—16). By all accounts, it makes political sense. Effective leadership can’t happen when you’re perpetually looking over your shoulder out of fear of getting whacked.

David, however, makes an announcement that runs entirely counter to what was natural and expected. Rather than massacre every remaining member of “the house of Saul,” he intends to show them mercy. Three times, in fact, he explicitly iterates his intent to “show kindness,” or “faithful love,” to Saul’s descendants (2 Sam. 9:1, 3, 7). This, to be sure, has nothing to do with Saul and everything to do with Jonathan, Saul’s son and David’s closest friend. “I want to do this ‘for Jonathan’s sake,’” he declares (2 Sam. 9:1, 7). It is hard to put into words the shared affections David and Jonathan had for each other. They were more than mere compatriots. They were brothers. Jonathan was, truly, David’s “brother-from-another-mother.” Their bond is something to behold as it unfolds in the biblical texts, with Jonathan aiding Yahweh’s anointed at nearly every fork in the road.

As Saul’s rage intensified and his bloodlust worsened, Saul’s own son is seen confessing his loyalties to the very figure caught in Saul’s crosshairs (1 Sam. 20:12–17). The kindness and faithful love which anchored their relationship in the past is what David now purposes to return in kind in the present. “Years had not weakened his love,” comments Alexander Maclaren in his Expositions, “his sufferings at Saul’s hands had not embittered it.” (2:2.43) In this endeavor to show forth “the kindness of God,” David is not only living up to a promise he made to his late friend, he is, likewise, demonstrating what it looks like for the faithful love of Yahweh to abound in and through his children.

David, therefore, summons Ziba, who had been a loyal attendant in the service of King Saul throughout his reign (2 Sam. 9:2). Ziba proceeds to inform the king that there is yet a son “of the house of Saul” still alive (2 Sam. 9:3–4). He is not only the direct grandson of that malevolent monarch, he is also the offspring of the beloved Jonathan. What’s more, he is crippled, “lame on his feet,” after having suffered a terrible accident at the age of five (2 Sam. 9:3, 13; cf. 4:4). His current dwelling, Ziba informs, is a remote location across the Jordan, to which he surely fled out of fear that his head would be next on the chopping block. Just the same, David sends for this descendant to be brought before him, and he is quickly found and “fetched” and ushered into King David’s court (2 Sam. 9:5). This grandson of Saul, Mephibosheth is his name, was undoubtedly encompassed with dread at the news of this summons. For all he knew, this bidding to appear before the king was a death sentence. Such is why he conducts himself with such abject surrender and submission (2 Sam. 9:6), falling on his face, showing utmost reverence for the king’s authority, even calling himself the king’s servant. Mephibosheth knew all too well that his life was not his own in that moment. His next breath was in the hands of the ruler that stood over him.

With all of that, and more, raging in Mephibosheth’s mind, he never could have imagined what David was about to do. “Fear not,” the king tenderly says, “for I will surely show thee kindness for Jonathan thy father's sake, and will restore thee all the land of Saul thy father; and thou shalt eat bread at my table continually” (2 Sam. 9:7). This verse, needless to say, is the crux of this entire story, with David definitively answering every doubt and absolving every need that was surely flooding Mephibosheth’s heart and soul. His fears are dispelled by the king’s first words, which assured him that there was no cause for dread in that moment. “My desire,” David says, “is to show kindness unto you ‘for Jonathan thy father’s sake.’” And more than just him “give his word,” David relays a detailed outline of his exact plans, showing how this kindness will be realized on his behalf.

Mephibosheth is assured that he will be completely taken care of — he will be protected, provided for, and given a position that comes with all the authority of the throne behind it. His grandfather’s estate will be “restored” unto him, with Ziba & Associates running the grounds and handling the operations for him, ensuring his livelihood and well-being from then on (2 Sam. 9:9–11). No longer will he have to grovel as the crippled descendant of a disgraced crown. He’s promised a seat at the king’s table in perpetuity. The grandson of the erstwhile King Saul is now regarded “as one of the king’s sons,” as one of David’s own, deserving of all the honor and favor due his bloodline.

This leaves Mephibosheth undone. This news seems too good. Could it really be true? “Who am I that you should be so kind to such a dead dog like me?” he cries (2 Sam. 9:8). In the eyes of anyone else, he’d have surely been discarded as a worthless waif of a wretched regime. Yet, in the eyes of the “man after God’s own heart,” he is dealt with abundant kindness. It is an unforeseen and entirely unexpected turn of events. Mephibosheth did not at all get what he deserved. He received just the opposite. That is, grace. And, to be sure, this grace from the king’s hands was not a “one time” deal. This was an ongoing arrangement. Twice we are told that Mephibosheth ate at the king’s table “continually” (2 Sam. 9:7, 13). Furthermore, the fact that he was “lame on both his feet” (2 Sam. 9:3, 13) suggests the need for unending care and support. There was no “finish line,” no termination date, for when this “kindness” would cease. The grace David showed to Mephibosheth was, indeed, “grace upon grace.” And such is what the Lord Jesus has done for everyone.

We, like Mephibosheth, are descendants of a line that has suffered an enormous fall from grace. We belong to a house that is, by all accounts, damned, especially now that the One True King is on the throne. We deserve nothing of this King’s mercy. No, not even the smallest shred of his kindness. And yet, like Mephibosheth, this King seeks us out. He comes in search of us. He “fetches” us from the remotest of places in order to bring us before his throne, not to revile us, but to “restore” us — not to cut us off, but to show us “kindness.” And like Mephibosheth, we are surprised to find this throne to be not one of guilt but one wholly of grace (Heb. 4:14–16). The place where we anticipated receiving our death sentence has become our sanctuary (Jer. 17:12).

Indeed, this entire story is a brilliant foreshadowing of what Christ does for every sinner (Eph. 2:2–9). We were the ones whom Christ found. We are the ones whom Christ “quickened,” made alive, and restored. We were the lame ones, the crippled ones, the ones caught “dead in trespasses and sins.” We belonged to the enemy. We “walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air.” Our heritage was one that was infinitely worse than belonging to “the house of Saul” — we belonged to “the house of Satan.” We were the “children of disobedience.”

“But God . . .”

But because of who God is, because he is “rich in mercy,” and because of the “great love wherewith he loved us,” we are spared. Actually, just like Mephibosheth, we are more than spared. We are flooded with kindness. “David doesn’t merely spare Mephibosheth’s life but heaps goodness on him,” notes Dale Ralph Davis. “He not only protects his life but restores his inheritance. He not only saves him from the shadow of death but prepares a table for him. David’s kindness goes beyond survival to sustenance. Mephibosheth is cared for by and with the king and will never face destitution.” (124) Likewise, even though we didn’t at all deserve it, God in Christ purposed to “quicken us,” to “raise us,” and give us a seat “in the heavenly places.” Even though we were the helpless enemies of the King, in an act of unforeseen kindness, we are treated “as one of the king’s sons” (2 Sam. 9:11), as “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). Why? So that “in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7).

It is grace all the way down, all the way through. And just like the kindness shown unto Mephibosheth was “continual” and unending, so, too, is God’s kindness for us in Christ “continual,” unending, eternal. The grace he lavishes on dead dogs like you and me is, indeed, “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). There’s no limit to it. There’s no measuring the kindness God has for us. And from now till the end of time, we will be singing praises to the Lamb for the kindness he bestowed upon us on the cross (Rev. 5:11–13).

Mephibosheth’s story is a living parable of the gospel. It reeks of redemption, demonstrating precisely what Christ does for even the chiefest of sinners. Those who are wholly undeserving are offered the choicest of the Father’s blessings. The nail-scared hands of the King ensure our protection, our provision, and our position in his house. By rights, it doesn’t make sense. But that’s sort of the beauty of grace: it rarely follows our logic. “The first principle for grappling with the marvel of God’s love,” Dale Ralph Davis continues, “is to realize that he has no business — in a sense — loving whom he loves. What I’m saying is that we are the Lord’s Mephibosheths, and there is absolutely no reason why we should be eating continually at the King’s table.” (126) And yet, we are invited to come and dine and eat and binge “continually” (Isa. 55:1–2). This is the good news of God, his divine welcome to a world full of sinners that ensures them that there is a seat at his table reserved for them.