The story of Jonathan and David from 1 Samuel 18-20 is often preached as if Michael W. Smith’s “Friends are Friends Forever” would be the theme song of the movie. Preachers mine out principles for “How to be a good friend.” This kind of message resonates with many because people are looking for friendship (just look at websites like friendfinder.com). But, is this type of application accurate to the text? Are these sections of 1 Samuel 18-20 meant to teach us about friendship?
I would argue yes. The story of Jonathan and David does teach us true friendship. Yet, most who preach this story miss that one little word “true” friendship. Friendship is not some poem on a greeting card or sappy sentimentality. Friendship is not just someone you hang out with because of common interests. True friendship is deeper than that. True friendship is about covenant commitment. What the story of Jonathan and David teaches us is that true friendship means the cost of discipleship in siding with God’s man! True friendship is about the gospel.
1. True friendship is about covenant commitment.
Jonathan demonstrates true friendship by siding with the anointed one of God. Saul has faltered as king because of his disobedience toward God. As a result, Samuel tells him that the kingdom has been “torn” away from him. In Saul’s place, Samuel anoints a little teenage shepherd to be king. Then, the Philistine champion (“hero”) Goliath challenges the Israelites, but the brave soldiers cower in fear as the Giant taunts them and their God. Only the anointed king will face down the Giant. He does, and he takes his head. David and Jonathan meet for the first time right after this match. Jonathan and his father Saul see before them a young man standing like Perseus in “Clash of the Titans” holding the enemy’s severed head in his hand while blood drips to the floor (Gen. 3:15). Jonathan sees the man who has delivered Israel and replaced him as heir to the throne covered in the blood of his enemy. Instead of jealousy, fear, or anger, the Bible says that at seeing the anointed one of God “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18:1). So, Jonathan makes a covenant with David, and he takes off his robe, armor, and sword and he gives them to David. Modern critical scholars try to speak of possible homoerotic overtones to this friendship, but that says more about our modern mindset than it does about the biblical situation. They are merely reading back their biases into the text. The giving of the robe is Jonathan’s handing of the kingdom over to David. The robe symbolized kingly authority. That’s why when Saul grabs Samuel’s robe after hearing that he will not be Israel’s king, and Samuel’s robe tears, Samuel says “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today…” (1 Sam. 15:28). When Jonathan hands over the robe it is an act of faith where Jonathan humbly follows the anointed one of God. This would be like Michelle Obama joining John McCain’s campaign, though it is greater than that because Jonathan has just given away his inheritance! He sides with God’s anointed king against his dad.
2. True Friendship is a picture of the Gospel.
Jonathan makes a covenant with David where he makes David promise, “you shall not only show me the kindness of the Lord while I still live, that I may not die; but you shall not cut off your kindness from my house forever, no, not when the Lord has cut off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth” (1 Sam. 20:14-15). David makes this covenant with Jonathan even though Jonathan’s dad (family) is trying to kill him. There are at least four episodes leading up to this covenant where Saul tries to kill David or have him killed, and yet David promises to show kindness to Jonathan’s family! Again, we see an act of faith for Jonathan who knows that God will cut off the enemies of the anointed one. It looks foolish for Jonathan to believe this when powerful king Saul with an army at his disposal is seeking the life of a “flea.” He sides with the flea because he knows the power of God is on his life. There is a similar scene when a thief is dying on a cross beside another “criminal” who is gasping for breath. This thief looks at the criminal next to him and says, “Jesus, will you remember me when you enter your kingdom?” How in the world can he expect this executed criminal to bring him into a kingdom? This is an act of faith. And Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Jonathan recognizes the anointed one, even when it seems that the promises are not coming true, and that faith is rewarded. After the death of Jonathan, Jonathan’s lame son, Mephibosheth, is brought into the family of David to eat at his table! When David does this it is not the Godfather’s “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” This is grace! This is covenant love. This is the reconciliation of an enemy who becomes a friend, a brother. This is the gospel! This is the picture of the Lord’s Table where those who were once enemies have become friends and the family of God.
3. True Friendship means the cost of discipleship.
This is exactly what the proverbs say about friendship. Proverbs 17:17 says “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, So a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.” Saul wants to kill David, and David knows it, but Jonathan does not think that Saul has anything against David. So, David and Jonathan make a deal that Jonathan will find out if the king is angry or not, and then he will let David know. Jonathan goes in to see his dad. What is Jonathan thinking here? Does it ever cross his mind that “all I have to do is tell David that Dad is not mad at him, have him come back to the house, then my dad will kill him, and I will be king over Israel”? All Jonathan has to do is side with his family, and he will have a great reward! But, Jonathan does not do that. He finds out his dad is really angry with David, and as a result his dad does to Jonathan exactly what he tried to do to David, he throws a spear at him and tries to kill his son. Jonathan’s friendship with David does not just cost him his inheritance. Jonathan’s friendship with David costs him his family (which is exactly what Jesus said about discipleship, cf. Matt. 10), and it nearly costs him his life! But isn’t that exactly what the Bible says about friendship and discipleship? It will cost you. James 4:4 says, “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Jonathan is a true friend because he sacrifices himself and his own comfort for David his friend.
Isn’t that what the Bible says about true friendship? John 15: 13 “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. 14 “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. 15 “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. 16 “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. 17 “These things I command you, that you love one another. 18 ” If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. 19 “If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
What Jesus says about his friendship with the disciples and the cost of discipleship is what happens to Jonathan. Because he sides with God’s anointed, the world (i.e. Saul) does to him exactly what it did to David. Jonathan keeps his loyal friendship with David, even when his life and livelihood are on the line. That is the call of discipleship for the friend of God’s anointed, Jesus Christ. We are called to follow him and love him, even when opposition comes from this age! We are called to befriend, love, and bear up his body.
Jonathan shows a great act of friendship by laying his life on the line for David. But the greatest act of friendship was the One who did lay his life down for his friends in order to reconcile those who were enemies of God! That’s why Solomon, David’s son, tells us about this One, “…there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”