Jonathan's bow & arrows signalling to David




Old Testament, 1 Samuel 19-20, (King James Version)


The David and Jonathan signalling event occurred about 3000 years ago at the time when Saul was King and David was the King's General and son-in-law.  Jonathan, the King's son, and David were great friends.  At the time of a new moon it was customary for there to be three days of feasting with the King and his family, in which David was expected to take part.  David did not know if he would be received with friendliness by the King or with such hostility that David could well lose his life.  His fears for his life were very well founded.  Saul was jealous of the popularity of this shepherd boy who had become his General.

David arranged with Jonathan that he would remain, out of sight, in close proximity to the Court and then on the third day he would attend upon the King or not, depending on the King's disposition towards him.  David asked Jonathan to explain to the King that he was absent because he had gone to Bethlehem for the yearly sacrifice for all his family.

The question was how Jonathan would tell or communicate the disposition of Saul towards David.  Saul had used his servants in his campaign against David and it is almost certain than any member of the Court or of the King's household would report any sighting of David in the vicinity.

It was Jonathan who arranged the method of communicating indirectly.  He told David that on the third day he should hide near a particular stone landmark.  Jonathan would come with a lad (a kind of caddy) and would shoot arrows at the stone.  The message to David was wrapped up in what he called out to the lad about the position in which the arrows had fallen.

This was a very ingenious method.  The communication could not be by simple visual means for if David was to see a visual signal, he himself might be seen.  But sound would carry to David while he remained hidden and the sound was to be in the form of words addressed to a boy whose job was to pick up arrows shot by Jonathan.  The shooting of the arrows need not be accurate; the message was not in where the arrows fell but in what Jonathan called to the boy.

In the event, Jonathan was left in no doubt that Saul intended to kill David or have him killed, so Jonathan sent the appropriate p-arranged signal, which was to call out "Is not the arrow beyond thee?"

Jonathan then added something which had not been p-arranged - he "cried after the lad, Make speed, haste, stay not".  The episode concludes with a statement that, though much involved, the lad was completely unaware of what was really going on:-

"But the lad knew not any thing: only Jonathan and David knew the matter".


The signalling system arranged by Jonathan with David was very well matched to the security circumstances in which they found themselves.  The firing of arrows and the sending of the boy to pick them up was a cover to the calling out of the coded message.  It was designed to fool the casual or deliberate onlooker.  Moreover, the choice of a boy was well made - a more mature person might have realised there was a hidden agenda.  The lad was unaware of his role as a completely passive intermediary.

In part, the message to David was in accordance with a prearranged code but the impromptu addition of "Make speed, haste, stay not" added a note of urgency and indicated the intensity of Saul's enmity towards David.

Clearly the indirect communication, arranged by Jonathan, was devised at the highest echelon of society.  Was indirect communication a feature of the ruling class?

Another fascinating point is how the story of the arrow signalling became known to the writer of the Book of Samuel.  Indirect communication is by its nature hidden and usually remains so.  As is recorded "only Jonathan and David knew the matter" so how did it get into the public domain?