Barzillai means "iron hearted", but he was soft and sensitive to the weak and needy, though tough and uncompromising to the wicked. He was an aged, venerable octogenarian and in the estimate of the world "past it", but not in Gods estimate - He still uses older saints in His service. What a wealth of experience this man must have had. He had lived through the times of Eli, Samuel, Saul and now David there was not much he had not seen. Saints of his age and experience deserve to be highly respected: "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man" (Lev 19.32; see also Prov 16.31). In this day of over familiarity and disrespect believers must bear this in mind.
He loved David and the people and was appalled at the treachery of Absalom. Barzillai could have remained neutral, not wanting to get involved, but he was a faithful friend and, in spite of the dangers, he chose to side with David. Are we as loyal to our David in His rejection?
He had heard that David and his men were hungry, thirsty and weary at Mahanaim. Barzillai with others risked their lives to bring welcome provisions to David. This was loyalty of a high order. Mahanaim was where the angels of God met Jacob (Gen 32.2); these men with their provisions must have seemed like "angels of God" to David in his extremity.
The provisions that Barzillai and his friends brought for David and his men were no meagre supply of victuals and goods (17.28-29). Barzillai was "a very great man", rich in property, and I judge rich in spirit, but it was love and loyalty to David that motivated him. It seems from 19.32 that Barzillai abode with David at Mahanaim to maintain him as long as possible: "A brother is born for adversity" (Prov 17.17). These supplies proved critical in the struggle with Absalom, and Barzillai would be high on Absaloms hit list if David was defeated. A kind and generous spirit should mark us, not meanness and selfishness: "And be ye kind one to another" (Eph 4.32).
On his return to Jerusalem Barzillai met David "to conduct him over Jordan" (19.31). He wanted to encourage David, ensure his safe passage, and at the same time bid him farewell. It is a very touching scene with the old man and the young man - a lasting link had been forged between the two. Barzillai showed fitting courtesy and consideration to his friend: "love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous" (1 Pet 3.8). Many of us, alas, need a refresher course in courtesy and consideration of others.
David was anxious to reward him for his loyalty, but Barzillai refused the tempting invitation to the palace and the court of the king. In 19.34-35 he effectively says that "I am this day (his birthday?) eighty, and have not long to live". He was a realist. Physically and mentally he knew he was deteriorating, his appetite was poor, his hearing was dull, and he did not want to be a burden to the king. Wisely, he realised that it was too late for him to indulge in the high life of the palace. "So teach us to number our days, that we might apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Ps 90.12).
Although a close friend, he referred to David as "the king" and to himself as "thy servant"; as such his presence in the palace would not be appropriate. He would return to his humble surroundings, die there, and be buried with his parents. He did not want a state funeral, a name or fame. However, he thought of his son Chimham and requested David to take him instead, which he was delighted to do. The king promised Barzillai, "Whatsoever thou shalt require of me, that will I do for thee". In a tender farewell David "kissed Barzillai, and blessed him" to seal their lasting friendship with enduring affection and benediction. In the Lord Jesus we have a forever friend who embraces and blesses us too. Barzillai was an old saint full of goodness and grace, a most loveable, kind and large hearted character we would do well to emulate. David never forgot his kindness and compassion; indeed he remembered him on his death bed and urged Solomon to "shew kindness unto the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite, and let them be of those that eat at thy table" (1 Kings 2.7).