As I read the story of David and Jonathan, I am forced to stop, many times, and ponder on the quality and depth of genuine friendship that they shared. Let me, first, give a background of Jonathan and of David.
Who was Jonathan?
Jonathan was the son of King Saul. He was a brave fighter who killed the Philistine commander in Geba (1 Samuel 13:3a). In another scenario, 1 Samuel 14:1-16 tells of Jonathan and his armour bearer showing incredible bravery in taking on a large group of Philistine soldiers. Jonathan is heir to his father’s throne.
Who was David?
David, the youngest son of Jesse, is the one God has chosen to replace Saul as king. He was anointed by the prophet Samuel in the presence of his father and elder brothers. David killed the Philistine giant, Goliath, which made the women sing of him, publicly, saying, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands”. This singular victory shot David to prominence as a warrior. He was also successful in all the missions on which Saul sent him, so Saul made David commander of a thousand soldiers (1 Samuel 18:5, 13-14).
The wonder of Jonathan-David’s love is that it happened at first sight, instantly (1 Samuel 18:1). The Bible says, “Jonathan swore eternal friendship with David because of his deep affection for him. He took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, together with his armour and also his sword, bow and belt” (1 Samuel 18:3-4).
This happened as David was being presented, officially to Saul after killing Goliath. Here, we see Jonathan showing respect to David as a warrior, himself not short on courage. How easy it would have been for Jonathan to be filled with jealousy at David’s exploits. Instead, there is intense admiration from one warrior to another. A lesson here for us.
As the heir to his father’s throne, Jonathan could easily have seen David as a potential threat to his ascension, but he didn’t. Instead, he willingly put David up to become king and, rather, chose the place of a deputy to David. In his own words, Jonathan said, “My father Saul knows very well that you are the one who will be the king of Israel and that I will be next in rank to you” (1 Samuel 23:17). This goes to explain his removing his royal apparel and clothing David with it. For Jonathan, relationship seems to be of greater and higher value than personal success or power. This is, yet, another lesson for us.
Jonathan makes a covenant with David, although we are not told it’s exact terms. This agreement is based on Jonathan’s deep desire to affirm his loyalty to David, perhaps anticipating some sort of battle for the throne.
As the love and friendship of Jonathan and David provides us with useful examples to pattern our love for each other, it is pertinent to pause and address this question: could David and Jonathan’s relationship be regarded as homosexual in any way?
There are those who argue the case for acceptance of homosexual erotic relationships just as heterosexual ones, by claiming David and Jonathan are a powerful biblical example that God can both initiate and be pleased with same-sex erotic partnerships.
Without doubt, this story does speaks about the depth of same-gender partnerships, but to argue that David and Jonathan were engaged in homo-erotic activity is quite simply a misuse of the text. Scripture is silent as to any erotic activity between them, and it is always dangerous to read things into the silence of Scripture.
For me, the David and Jonathan story speaks boldly and loudly, even to our contemporary world, that people can cultivate and enjoy deep, sincere, and decent friendships.
We know that relationships can do damage. People who claim to be friends can betray us. Some relationships are downright unhealthy, based upon manipulation, gain and control. But over and against this, David and Jonathan’s story paints a better picture. In that picture, we see commitment, putting others first, risk for the other, acts of kindness, protection, thinking about the good and speaking well of another, long-term investment, loving people when they are absent as much as when they are present.
This seems to be a perfect explanation of the Scripture in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Concerning David and Jonathan, the Bible records this about their final meeting here on earth: ‘Saul’s son, Jonathan, went to David at Horesh and helped him to find strength in God. He went ahead to say David will be king some day’ (1 Samuel 23:16-17).
In the moment of deepest need, David finds strength in God through the encouragement of a friend. What have I done for my “friend” at his or her difficult moments?
Within the experience of following Christ, there is both need and space for such friendships that inspire, strengthen and encourage. It would be easy to read the story of David and Jonathan and feel a stirring desire to find a friendship of such extravagant quality. But, perhaps, we are looking through the google the wrong way. It is not so much a case of what I might have but more of a case of what I might be to another.
When I think of that story, my heart is stirred by a desire not only that I might have a Jonathan in my life – that is surely very wonderful, but very selfish – but also that I might find a David somewhere to whom I could be a Jonathan.