Does Mephibosheth Betray David?

The Books of Samuel are compelling because they devote time to character motivations and development.  One of the most interesting of these is the tale of Mephibosheth, the crippled son of Jonathan.

Early in II Samuel, as David is wrapping up his war against the House of Saul, we are introduced to Mephibosheth.  His appearance is completely out of place in the story at that point, a “We interrupt this broadcast…” moment, and the information we get is pretty basic—when his father died on Mt. Gilboa at the end of I Samuel, Mephibosheth’s nurse dropped him while fleeing.  Because of this he was lame for the rest of his life.

That’s it!  No other details.  Quelle bizarre.

Four chapters later he becomes important to David’s story.  The war over and his power consolidated, David seeks a way to honor his oath to Saul and his friendship with Jonathan.  He learns that Mephibosheth is alive in exile and decides to restore him to his father’s house—indeed, to make him rule over the remnants of the house of Saul.

But again, weirdly and pointedly, the narrator reminds us that Mephibosheth is lame in both his feet.  It has a little more to do with the story at this point, since it explains why Mephibosheth is not already ruling over his father’s house, but the narrator repeats it throughout the chapter.

I force my students to note and track this odd narration as a lesson in foreshadowing.  This is the Old Testament equivalent to the horror movie in which, every time someone drives over the rickety country bridge, the camera zooms in and we see the bolts rattling loose.  You may not know exactly what will happen—playing with expectations is part of what movies do—but you know that something is going to happen to that bridge at a critical moment in the movie.  If not, it’s either a terrible movie or a meta-joke.

So we know that somehow Mephibosheth’s awkwardly-called-out lameness is going to factor into the story.  How?  Keep reading.

Now in the restoration of Mephibosheth, David is exceedingly generous.  He finds the House of Saul ruled by Saul’s steward, Ziba.  If you immediately think “Steward of Gondor” from LotR you will know exactly what’s about to happen.  Ziba as chief steward enjoys all the privileges of royal authority so long as the king is away—the idea of the post is that the king continues to govern his house even while he is off doing king-stuff—and Saul has been away for a long time.  He ain’t never coming back!  Ziba gets to be de facto ruler of the House of Saul.

Except King David makes clear his intention to find Mephibosheth and restore him to his place.  For Denethor Ziba and his sons, this is a painful demotion.  They return to their role as servants and Mephibosheth is invited to sup at the king’s table.  Not wanting to cross David but surely not thrilled about the change, Ziba and his family acquiesce.

That’s the setup.  Then come all of David’s sins and the curse of Nathan, as discussed previously.  After David flees the city from his rebel son, brought to the lowest time in his life but beginning to see the light and try to fight his way back up, he is greeted by a tearful Ziba.  Ziba has brought David supplies and aid for his escape and eventual return to power.  But Mephibosheth, relates Ziba, has betrayed David.  He has thrown in his lot with Absalom, seeing a chance to have his father’s house returned to glory.

It’s a devastating turn of events, even after all the other blows David has received.  Caring for Mephibosheth was the last noble thing David had done before the melt-down.  His betrayal is another nail in the coffin of the old life David used to live, and maybe the most painful.

Wait, wasn’t there something about Mephibosheth being lame and incapable of acting on his own that we needed to worry about?  Hmm…

David weeps over Ziba’s tale, thanks him, and moves off into exile.  Over the next few chapters David defeats the army of Absalom and regains the throne.  His son dies, he mourns openly at the city gates, and he pardons all who opposed him.  David emerges from the sad ordeal older, but certainly wiser and loving of peace.

And now Mephibosheth shows up riding a donkey.  A wreck blubbering with grief and relief, he throws himself at David’s feet and praises God for David’s victory.  When David challenges him on not coming to help with Ziba, Mephibosheth relates a very different tale than that of his steward.

It was Mephibosheth, not Ziba, who had gathered that aid for David, and he had fully intended to ride out to David himself with it.  But Ziba, seeing a chance to restore his own fortunes, rebelled against Mephibosheth, threw him to the ground, and rode off without him.  He executed a coup in the House of Saul even while Absalom was doing the same in the House of David!  Mephibosheth, since he was lame in both feet, couldn’t do anything about it until now, when he finally convinced a servant to help him saddle up and come here.

I love this story and I love teaching it every year.  Who are we supposed to believe?  Both stories make sense.  Both stories fit the theme of the book very nicely—either David really is betrayed, adding to his many sorrows, or there is a second overthrow of a rightful lord—and both Ziba and Mephibosheth are portrayed as sincere without any comment by the narrator.

Given the emphasis the narrator placed on the foreshadowing intrusions about Mephibosheth being lame, I think it’s pretty obvious that we should take Jonathan’s son at his word and punish Ziba for being a punk.  But David’s reaction to all this makes things even more interesting.  He has come a long, long way since the glory days of ten chapters ago—and in many ways, he’s better and wiser.

Perhaps David is not sure which story to believe, but it ends up not mattering.  David recognizes that this is partly his fault.  Maybe Ziba is a villain, maybe Mephibosheth and Ziba are equally locked in a feud, either way it traces back to David’s dramatic restructuring of the House of Saul.  David did what he could not to destroy that House, just as he had promised Saul before his death, but he had still brought it mighty low.  He had still conducted a war against that House; Abner died in that war; Ishbosheth was murdered in David’s name during that war.

In one of his more Christ-like moments, David at the end of his civil war with Absalom takes upon himself all the sorrows of his people, and all their guilt as well, and discharges the conflict in himself.  He is the peacemaker now, making peace at his own expense.  He splits the estate of Saul between the two men and restores Mephibosheth as a dinner companion at his royal table.

Now that’s a covenant mediator.

15 thoughts on “Does Mephibosheth Betray David?

  1. Excellent reflection and great literary engagement with the text, esp. character development. I really liked the tie there and the end about David being a covenant mediator. Truly wonderful. Wish you had elaborated on that a little more. 🙂


    1. Enjoyed your perspective, but feel you have missed a key point to the narrative. You need to read on…2 Samuel 19:30 Mephibosheth says “let him (Ziba) take all”. This shows Mephibosheth’s heart, basically saying “I surrender all” to be with the King. Also Mephibosheth’s disheveled appearance upon David’s return leads one to believe that he was mourning and fasting.


      1. Thanks for your interest in this old post. I don’t think I’ve missed this; it is part of what we discuss when I teach it every year and I allude to it, perhaps too subtly, in the post itself. It’s very reasonable to think that the narrator wants us to think Mephibosheth is genuine, but it only requires so much cunning to feign the disheveled appearance and risk everything with a simulated surrender of everything. It is, after all, a very reasonable ploy for a traitor who knows that his time is up. As I write in the post, I think the correct literal reading is most likely that Mephibosheth is telling the truth…but if that were the main point of the narrative, then there would need to be some kind of narrative approval of Mephibosheth’s claim in how David responds to it. That’s conspicuously absent, which is why I conclude my commentary on the story the way that I do. The covenant mediator conclusion works regardless of which person is telling the truth, and explains the absence of commentary on who is doing so.


      2. Thank you for your response. I love the way the Word of God invites us to ask questions and think about what, how and why it is said. The Word is designed to make you think for yourself. While opening up your mind to the Lord’s perspective causing our perspective to change and adamantly becoming more like Christ.


  2. I don’t get that part where you mentioned that Ziba actually threw Mephibosheth off the ass to ride to meet King David. I will go and research that as soon as I drop this comment. I love that part where David restores Mephibosheth as a covenant mediator.


    1. It’s just a little poetic license. There’s got to be some way that Mephibosheth ended up being left behind with no one to help him after telling Ziba to assemble the aid for David. How melodramatic the scene was is unclear in the text.


  3. I have been studying the story of the duo – Mephibosheth and Ziba. I love your apt summary of the whole story chapters 9, 16 and of 2Samuel.
    My own contribution:
    Mephibosheth was a bit careless about the restoration of his status as benefactor of the inheritance. He should have known that Ziba might not be faithful to him more so he has been managing the estate since and didn’t bother to take care of him.
    I expected him to quickly cease the opportunity he had with the king to request for one or two loyal servants who would be attending to him. Mephibosheth put all his eggs in a basket and lost the opportunity – because he didn’t act fast.
    Most times we allow our weaknesses to rule us forgetting that God has said that His strength is made perfect in our weakness.
    We should look unto God for help when we are helpless and not allow our weaknesses to weigh us down.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent post Bosede Amoo! Yes, your point makes so much sense regarding Mephibosheth; he indeed should have asked for help….how eerily true for us – today – when we try to (pridefully) muscle our way through difficult circumstances without enlisting the help of God, and/or the help of a wise brother in the family of God. In view of II Samuel 19:24-30, it appears that Mephibosheth never really had a desire to humble himself, and to enter into that glorious – but challenging – submission required in order for Yahweh’s blessings to be fully experienced. The real issue at stake – I believe – is found in the reproof that David gave to Mephibosheth: “I have said [in times past], you and Ziba divide the land.” If Mephibosheth had busied himself in ruling over Saul’s inheritance – along with Ziba’s assistance – they would have experienced the power of God in their lives….and Mephibosheth wouldn’t be always talking about his own weaknesses !!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like the way this story inspires so much to study and meditate on in scriptures. I believe Mephibosheth was telling the truth. Remember Shimei in 2 Samuel 16:5 who was also of the family of Saul, he cursed David and threw stones at him. He really hoped Absalom would overtake David. After Absalom’s death and David was returning home, Shimei came down to meet David to ask David to forgive him for fear that David would kill him. 2 Samuel 19:16-17 says Ziba was standing along with Shimei. I believe this text gives us a clue as to whose side Ziba was really on since Ziba and Shimei were standing together.


  5. Just read your comment and the various responses with much interest, thank you! (I did so because none of my bookshelf commentaries do any digging as you have done!)

    Respectfully, I think you may be right…! Perhaps, however, the narrator is deliberately lea ving us is with just that: maybe. Both M and Z offer plausible versions of the truth. Both have equally strong motives for saying so. David’s “judgement” is quite Solomonesque, isn’t it? Cf. 1 Ki.3.25) and, perhaps, as in that case, the judgment provokes a response: 2 Sam.19.30. Is M’s response a caving-in, a de facto admission. Does he realise at this point that he’s had a very “lucky” reprieve? Arguably, Z is the winner. But, supremely, David is the winner. His judgement makes peace…so it would seem. Another delightful ambiguity!

    Overall, as I’ve been reading this account once more and wondering why it’s been left for us to ponder, I’m left with the conclusion that we’ve been treated to a timeless parable of the murky world of human motivations and manners, whether individual or national/global. Psalm119.9ff.

    Thank you, once again!


  6. All the comments were very insightful to me. I always thought that Mephibosheth was the trader, but you changed my mind. Ziba wanted to keep his position at any cost.


  7. If Ziba was only doing this to regain his previous position, why then didn’t he wait until after the conflict. When he brought the provisions to King David there was no guarantee that he would have returned as King to Jerusalem since Absalom had him on the run. It seems to me that with King David being dethroned it would have been easier for Ziba to regain his previous position by defaming Mephibosheth to Absalom who may not have had any affection towards him


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