I Samuel 18:1-11
The friendship between Jonathan and David has attained legendary status. Almost everyone knows about this famous friendship, and much has been written about it, some of it very complimentary and some of it not so complimentary. In spite of the legendary status of this famous friendship though, most of us here this morning would be hard pressed to say anything substantive about it. “Eh, well, of course you know that they were ah, great friends, Er, they did all kinds of things together; they had barbeques, they ah, raised their families side by side.” Think about it for a moment. What do we know about the friendship between Jonathan and David? “Well, it is a legendary friendship, and it is famous, throughout the whole Bible. Everyone knows that.” Ok…the truth of the matter is that we know very little about the friendship that Jonathan and David enjoyed. Most of the substance of it is contained here in our passage this morning. The rest of it can be summed up in a few sentences. In a bit, things will go sour between David and king Saul, and king Saul will make several attempts to kill David. One of those attempts will be thwarted when David convinces Jonathan to spin an elaborate lie to his father about David’s whereabouts. That’s friendship: convincing your friends to lie to their parents about you. I like that. And the other thing that we know about this legendary friendship is that Jonathan died way to young in battle. David grieved deeply over Jonathan’s death, and even wrote a psalm about it. It was to be sung to the tune of “The Song of the Bow” and it was written down in the Book of Jasher. Fortunately the writer of Second Samuel was sufficiently taken with the Psalm that he copied it into his own book, and it is available to us today. Nobody knows what became of the Book of Jasher. So that’s about it. Except, of course, for what we have here in our passage this morning.
In chapter seventeen, David is the hero. He’s the young shepherd boy who came out on to the battle field with his slingshot and popped Goliath the giant into Philistine hell. The Philistine army fled, the army of the living God put chase to them, and we can assume that Philistine casualties were high.
But in the early verses of chapter eighteen, Jonathan seems to be the main character. Verse one of chapter 18 doesn’t make any sense in any language, Hebrew or English, but it must have made sense to the writer.
The best that we can make of it is to say something like, “after all of this happened, Jonathan and David became great friends”. And the sense is that this was no ordinary friendship. These guys weren’t pals, they didn’t share a common hobby, they weren’t drinking buddies. Something happened, over time, that joined these two guys’ souls. For those later writers of monograms and commentaries who feel the need to elaborate, some have said that Jonathan’s love for David was akin to Christ’s love for us. And that may be true, but it can’t be substantiated from this passage, or any other for that matter.
But as the writer tells the story of Jonathan and David’s relationship, it is clear that the focus is primarily on Jonathan. Which may be a bit surprising to us, especially in the context. David is clearly the hero of chapter 17. The focus is on him and on his heroic act. And when we consider the rest of the Scriptures, David certainly has a starring role. And Jonathan, sadly, has but a brief appearance; merely a bit part.
But in our passage this morning, Jonathan has the lead role, and that is because he is the son of the king and David is merely a shepherd boy. But at some point, in this extraordinary friendship, Jonathan does something absolutely amazing and prophetically stunning. Jonathan initiates a covenant with David. And this is a very interesting and deeply profound covenant that integrates perfectly with the deep and profound relationship that Jonathan and David share. In most biblical covenants, the covenant is initiated by the stronger and most influential partner. In most cases, that partner is God. In the New Testament, covenants tend to be more mutual, but they are always undertaken in the presence of God. The covenant in our passage this morning is initiated by Jonathan, because Jonathan is the son of the king. It is also natural for us to assume that Jonathan is the heir apparent to the throne. That is the way that things normally work. The son of the king becomes the king.
But in the covenant that Jonathan makes with David, that concept goes bottom side up. Jonathan apparently knows something that we do not, and it is impossible for us to know exactly what Jonathan knew. Did Jonathan know that he would never be king because he would die an untimely and early death? I don’t know. All we can know is that somehow, God revealed to Jonathan that he would not ascend to the throne, and that David would take his place instead. And so as part of this covenant with David, and with God, Jonathan symbolically removes his clothes and gives them to David. This is no mere swapping of outfits by third grade girls in the school bathroom. This is nothing less than the bestowing of the royal garments on another. The presumed king is crowning his replacement. This is a solemn ceremony, conducted in the presence of God, albeit far from the suspicious eyes of Jonathan’s father. Some have compared this moment of profound and prophetic intimacy with John the Baptist’s words when he said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” In both cases, it is nothing less than a covenant of love, and a covenant of obedience to God’s will.
Verse six and following is a bit of a flash back that brings about a sad conclusion to the opening verses. The rest of the passage stands in stark contrast to verses 1-5. We’ve gone backwards in time to the time when David undid Goliath; perhaps quite sometime before the covenant that Jonathan established with David. And there’s a parade. There’s always a parade when there’s been a big victory. And there’s music and singing and dancing because it is a celebration of a great victory. The army of the living God has triumphed over the Philistine giant. And there’s a little ditty that the women are singing. “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” And Saul heard this little ditty, and it did not encourage him. In fact, it made him very angry and very jealous of David.
And so Saul made himself an evil vow. This is a vow that excludes everyone but himself, including God. It is not a vow of faithfulness to anyone but Saul himself. It was a vow of destruction motivated by jealousy and fear. It is the opposite of a covenant. In his own words, we hear Saul say, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; what more can he have but the kingdom?” Those who have high positions live in constant fear of losing them. The Bible is riddled with examples of this, and so is our culture today.
I think it is interesting that even though Saul knows nothing of the covenant that his son will eventually make with David, that Saul is already living in fear that David will usurp the throne. The vow that Saul makes with himself is that he will kill David, and the very next day Saul has the opportunity to do it. Twice. And both times, David eludes him. Two easy shots that result in two complete failures. It seems that Saul cannot be so easily done with the one he fears will take his throne.
A sane man would have given that some thought. A sane man would have considered that the shepherd boy who fearlessly took out the giant, might not so easily be taken out himself. A sane man might have seen God at work in the two failures to kill David that should have succeded both times. A sane man would have considered his own life and his own responsibilities before the living God. But Saul was not a sane man, and he clung desperately to a position that he knew that he could never keep. But
he was also stubborn, very stubborn, and until the day he died in battle, side by side with his beloved son, Saul never gave up trying to kill David. It was an obsession with him.
The troublesome irony is that both Jonathan and Saul knew in their hearts that one day Daivd would be King. Jonathan celebrated that knowledge by loving David and by entering into a covenant of sacredness and solemnity, whereby Jonathan handed over the royal position to David in an act of joyful obedience to the will of God. Saul, on the other hand did no such thing. Saul did not listen for God’s voice. His vow was to never submit to the will of God, never understanding that God’s will will be accomplished even among those who are unwilling or unwitting. Jonathan died with joy in his heart. Saul died miserable and insane, vowing never to give up his high position.
Jesus had this to say to those who would stubbornly hold fast to that which can never be held: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” Both Saul and Jonathan can give good answer to these questions of Jesus. What is our answer?