Jonathan and David
The Old Testament reading we heard this morning provides an example of what Jesus is talking about when He says love one another. David’s expression of grief at the death of his closest friend Jonathan and Jonathan’s father, Saul, arises from a relationship that I’d suggest is perhaps the best example in all of Scripture of Jesus’s point.
The key expression of David’s grief is found in vv 25 and 26: Jonathan lies slain… I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. Before I can say anything else about the love David and Jonathan had for each other, I need to say something about this verse, since some very bizarre explanations of it are occasionally made. What can trip us up here is translation; the Hebrew has been translated by the word ‘wonderful’ since the 16th century, so modern translators tend to go on using it, even though that English word has changed its meaning, at least in conversational use, over those five centuries. The word ‘wonderful’ actually doesn’t mean ‘very pleasant indeed’ or ‘really exciting’ or any of the things we use it for in casual speech; it means ‘surprising, unexpected’, something that makes you wonder. The Hebrew word it’s translating can even mean ‘difficult to understand’. ‘Astonishing’ would be a better translation today, I think. And Jonathan’s love for David was astonishing because, the verse goes on, it surpassed the love of women, at least the love women had for their husbands, although perhaps not the love that women had and have for their children. We’ll see how that is the case in a moment, but I just want it to be clear from the start that the verse is not saying that Jonathan’s love for David was astonishing because it was deeper or better than the love that David’s wife had for him or that Jonathan had for his own wife. Jonathan’s love for David was greater than his love for his own father, as well as greater than his love for his own life, and that’s how it surpassed the love of women.
In David and Jonathan’s day, the love of a woman for a husband took second place to her love for her father. If a woman began to feel love for a man and to think of marrying him, she asked her father about him. If the father said “No, that’s not the man you should marry,” the woman accepted that judgement and began to work at getting over her feelings for the man. And it was not the father’s patriarchal bullying but the daughter’s great love for and trust in her father that made that possible. Jonathan loved David even more than he loved his own father, and was ready to disobey his father for David’s sake; that was what David described as wonderful, in the original sense of the word.
Jonathan’s love of David is an illustration of Christian love from the first moment it is mentioned in the Old Testament. Jesus taught that the Old Testament verse, Leviticus 19.18, you shall love your neighbor as yourself, was one of the key verses in God’s word, and illustrated it with the parable of the Good Samaritan. But the parable of the Good Samaritan is not about how to love someone as you love yourself, it’s about who is your neighbor. If you want an illustration of someone loving someone as he loves himself, you turn to Jonathan. His love for David is first mentioned in I Sam 18.1: the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. The phrase as his own soul is repeated, twice, just to make sure we don’t miss it. It’s repeated almost immediately, in 18.3, and then again in 20.17, by which time Jonathan’s father hates David and is trying to kill him, but Jonathan assures David that this makes no difference to Jonathan’s commitment; he still love[s] him as his own soul. Jonathan’s love for David is the perfect example of the love Jesus commends to His followers.
When you look at the context, Jonathan’s love for David becomes even more astonishing. Because Jonathan was the son of King Saul, and therefore heir to the throne of Israel. You’ll remember, however, that Saul disobeyed God, and God told the prophet Samuel that Saul would not stay king for long after that, and that Saul’s descendants would not sit on the throne of Israel, and Samuel told this to Saul, and then anointed David as the next king, even though it would be a few more years before Saul’s kingship would come to an end. We’re not actually told that Jonathan knew this, but it seems likely, because after Jonathan made a covenant or alliance with David, David becomes one of Saul’s captains, and Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow, 18.4. To give David his armor and his weapons is a symbol of his acceptance of David’s leadership in battle, and perhaps even of his kingship, although David never became Jonathan’s king. But there is no trace in Jonathan of resentment because he is not to inherit the throne, only love for the one to whom God had given it, truly a love that in worldly terms is astonishing.
The covenant between them was Jonathan’s initiative. It wasn’t something that David sought, but something that Jonathan could see was God’s will. Jonathan was a few years older and wiser than David, and he could see that God had a special purpose for David, and he was going to set his own interests aside in order that God’s will would be done. He became an older brother to David after David’s own older brothers had become jealous of him. As time went on Jonathan protected David from the anger of his father, and warned David when his father was about to seize him so that David could escape. He was of course risking his own life in doing so; ancient kings and even so-called Christian kings like Constantine were not above putting their own sons to death if they looked a bit too eager to become king in their turn.
And the implication of Jonathan’s love for David being greater than his love for his own soul is that he is ready to die for David if necessary, and that is also the implication of 20.14f, should it please my father to do you harm, the Lord do so to [me], and more also, if I do not disclose it to you, and send you away, that you may go in safety… If I am still alive, show me the loyal love of the Lord. Jonathan’s death in battle was not a sacrifice of his life for David’s sake—David was still in a sort of exile at this point—but many people have seen Jonathan as a foreshadowing of Christ simply because of his willingness to risk death for David’s sake. And Jonathan’s love for David is certainly a fore-shadowing of Christ’s love for us; notice that Jonathan calls it the loyal love of the Lord.
Which is no doubt why the Old Testament text makes it clear that it is divine power that makes such love possible. When Jonathan says goodbye as David makes his escape, he tells David Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, for ever’. The Lord shall be between us. It is God’s love that is between them, that binds them together. We all know from our own experience that love like this is not possible unless the spirit of the Lord is at work. Jonathan began to love David as soon as it was clear that the Lord had chosen David. It was because Jonathan put God above his own family that he could love David in the face of the opposition of his own father. He is a good illustration of Jesus’s words, Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother… He who loves his own father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.
Jesus said, Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Jonathan’s love for David is the shining example of the kind of love Jesus was talking about. It’s not theoretical love we are to have for one another, but the real thing, the kind of love which enables us to make sacrifices. Jonathan’s love for David meant sacrificing any hope he may have had of being king one day—but he did so gladly. Jonathan loved his father’s enemy against the wishes of his earthly father in order to be a good son of his father in heaven. And in his obedience to God he found that his enemy was his godly friend.
David had this kind of love, too. It would be easy to dismiss David’s love for Jonathan as pure self-interest—by making his enemy’s son his friend he undermines his enemy. But David didn’t only love Jonathan, he loved Saul, too. David’s cry of grief in today’s reading is for Saul as well as Jonathan: Saul and Jonathan—in life they were loved and gracious, and in death they were not parted. They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep for Saul. David loved Saul even though Saul was his enemy, and David had behaved towards Saul in love, refusing to kill him when he had the perfect opportunity, even though Saul had behaved towards him with such hatred.
David and Jonathan are great examples of Christian love, but I’m not suggesting that we follow their example in that, because it would be impossible. I’m suggesting that we follow their example in loving God, because it was their love for God that made their love for each other, and David’s love for Saul, possible. We can’t love one another in our own power, but we can do it in God’s power, the power of the Holy Spirit. When we look around at each other we see fallible people, people making many mistakes, and sometimes we see people who don’t treat us the way we think they should. So when Jesus tells us to love them, we pretend we don’t hear Him. It’s only when we look at Jesus’s love for us that we can love the way Jesus calls us to.
And it’s only through a deepening love for Jesus Himself that our relationship with Him grows to the point that love for our fellow-Christians becomes possible. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, John 15.10. You are my friends if you do what I command you, 15.14. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, 15.15. We begin by obeying him out of duty, we grow by obeying Him out of love. May we all be helped to grow in that by the words of the Scripture we have heard today.