Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the LORD call David’s enemies to account.” And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself.
1 Samuel 20.16-17
A Love Story
Were Jonathan and David lovers? Many presume so, based on the passion 1 Samuel attributes to their relationship. Three different times, the writer points out Jonathan loved David “as he loved himself.” Erring on the side of caution, I read this as the hallmark of a friendship that merits attention, whether or not it involved physical intimacy. In our haste to find what we seek in their relationship—encouraged by modern assumptions about same-sex affection—we cheat ourselves from seeing what’s actually there. The tale of Jonathan and David overshadows any story the Bible offers as its most vivid depiction of friendship.
Viewed as a chaste bond or an impassioned affair, the account is nonetheless a love story. It gives us a sterling example of true friendship and exemplifies true romance, as genuine lovers are by nature best friends. At first, the two young men have little in common. Jonathan is King Saul’s heir, groomed and schooled in the finest traditions. David is a country boy. He meets Jonathan after his victory over Goliath and the Philistine army, and from the first, the king’s son is smitten with admiration. 1 Samuel 18 tells us Jonathan “becomes one” with David. He pledges his friendship and immediately remedies their inequalities by literally giving David the shirt off his back.
On the Down-Low
Saul’s jealousy of David—whose military conquests make him wildly famous—constrains Jonathan to keep their friendship on the down-low. The king knows they spend time together, but he’s oblivious to the intense loyalty they share. From the sound of it, paranoid depression plagues Saul. He descends into dark moods that, ironically, can only be alleviated by David’s music. So when Dad’s not feeling well, David and Jonathan are always together. Each time Saul recovers, though, he sends David back into war, hoping he’ll get killed. His strategy consistently backfires; David wins every battle and his acclaim soars. Taking a new tack, Saul offers his eldest daughter to David, hoping to have him murdered once he’s in the palace. David demurs, claiming he’s unworthy to be the king’s son-in-law. Saul offers his second daughter, who’s madly in love with David, on the provision he kills a thousand Philistines. The marriage has no appeal but the challenge does. He brings back proof he killed twice the number Saul asked and weds the princess.
Jonathan reenters the picture when David moves into the palace. Their love is stronger than ever, while Saul’s antipathy for David reaches manic heights. Without provocation, he hurls spears at David and conceals none of his determination to destroy him. Jonathan becomes David’s lifeline, taking great risks to protect his friend. He alerts him to Saul’s mood swings and repeatedly helps him escape. Meanwhile, he tries to persuade Saul to end his vendetta. The psychotic king will hear none of it. Jonathan and David’s last conversation occurs before David once again flees into hiding. They work out a system for Jonathan to signal if it’s safe for David to come home. Still, both men know as long as Saul lives, David will be on the run. As they stand together in a field, Jonathan makes an ominous prediction: “May the LORD call David’s enemies to account.” One last time, he asks David to pledge his love. Their final meeting happens when Jonathan signals it’s no longer safe for David to be in Saul’s house. David falls at Jonathan’s feet and scrambles off in silence.
There’s an epilogue. Saul’s madness throws Israel into chaos. The Philistines slaughter Jonathan and his brothers and Saul falls on his sword. David returns to claim Israel’s throne and leads the nation in mourning with a eulogy. It ends: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. How the mighty have fallen! The weapons of war have perished!” (2 Samuel 1.26-27)
It’s likely Solomon grows up hearing David speak of Jonathan, leading us to imagine he’s thinking of them when he writes, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” (Proverbs 17.17) It beautifully captures their commitment to one another. Whether they slept together amounts to minor curiosity. The true nature of their friendship comes to light in their parting words. It’s a heartbreaking, harrowing moment. Jonathan’s brotherly gesture of dressing David in his clothes established parity between them. Now, years later, they can’t deny Saul will never view David as his son and Jonathan’s equal. For his friend’s sake, Jonathan essentially falls on his sword, professing faith in God to avenge the crimes against David. There will be no happy ending. The House of Saul will not become a dynasty. Jonathan will not succeed his father to the throne. He accepts this in exchange for two things: David’s safety and pledge of love.
In John 15.13, Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” True friendship places everything one person possesses at the other’s disposal—not merely material things, but intangible traits and emotions. It’s important to have friends who love us. But it’s more important to love our friends. It’s comforting to have friends we can trust. But it’s better be a trusted a friend. We don’t measure friends by the number; popularity is no indicator of friendship. The masses adored David, but Jonathan was his friend. He looked out for David. He risked the rage of a madman to protect him. And in the end, he laid down his life, surrendering his throne so David could fulfill his destiny. A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.
True friends ignore inequities and risk sacrificing all for the other’s benefit. (Rembrandt: David Embracing Jonathan; 1642)
(Tomorrow: Gender Bias)