Cloud of Witnesses

Unravelling the Threads


Friends to the end

Tags: conflict courage integrity relationships

Jonathan is one of my favourite men of the Old Testament. If they made a film of his story I’m sure someone muscular and dashing would get the part! He’s a proper ‘boy’s own’ action hero, but he’s also a man who is often overshadowed by his great friend King David.  I’d like to paint a picture of him for you – and then encourage you to go and read his story which interweaves with the struggle between his father Saul and David. It stretches from 1 Samuel 13 through to 2 Samuel 1 (Over 40 chapters ) which sounds a lot, but will take you a fraction of the time it takes to watch a movie! It’ll make you cheer, get angry, even cry (maybe). It’s an epic sags that’s for sure!

1 Sam 13.2

In the beginning...

We first meet Jonathan as his father Saul is made King over Israel. He is the eldest of 5 siblings (3 boys, 2 girls) from the tribe of Benjamin, from a wealthy background and most significantly a highly skilled warrior. In our first encounter with him he is leading 1/3 of the nation’s army to a resounding victory over the Philistines, and although his father, as King, gets the glory we realise early on that Jonathan is a warrior, through and through!

1 Sam 14

Chapter 14 tells us of a crazy solo mission Jonathan spontaneously undertakes, climbing up a rock face with his armour bearer, facing down the philistine garrison – killing 20 men and setting off a panic in their camp that ends with the whole of Israel (who had been terrified) inspired to come out of their hiding places and enthusiastically rout their enemies!

1 Sam 14.6

His motive for the suicide mission is

It may be that the Lord will act for us; for nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few.

True enough, but Jonathan has more courage than the rest of the army, more faith than anyone else and a kind of kamikaze determination that God will be faithful.

1 Sam 14.24

Unbeknownst to him, his father Saul has not only already lost the throne for his descendants (i.e.; Jonathan will no longer ever become king!)  but also made a stupid vow that anyone who eats before the battle is over  will be put to death. (Motivational tactics are clearly not Saul’s great gift!) Ignorant of the vow Jonathan tastes some honey he has found and his ’eyes’ brighten’ (Bible speak for a sugar rush!) denouncing his father’s oath as ridiculous.

1 Sam 14.29

We see very early on that Jonathan has wisdom beyond his father, he has courage beyond his father, he has faith beyond his father – he’d have made a GREAT king – and yet was never going to get the chance.

1 Sam 14.43

We also see that the people know this. When the broken vow is exposed and he acknowledges that to honour a stupid vow he must die, (that’s honour for you!) and Saul fully intends to do it, the people step in. They refuse to let Saul execute their hero and save him from his own father; they also know Saul is a chump and Jonathan is to be honoured for another mighty victory, not condemned for breaking a rule he didn’t even know about!

1 Sam 15-16

Jonathan’s story continues several chapters later, after Saul has lost his throne and a shepherd boy has been anointed to be the future king.

1 Sam 17.45-7

When this young man fights and defeats Goliath saying

I come to you in the name of the LORD of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand... so that all the earth may know there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear ; for the battle is the LORD’s and he will give you into our hand.

Jonathan sees a soul mate; Another fearless (some would say reckless) warrior for God, who places little value on his own safety. But who loves God and his people and has faith in the LORD that goes way beyond everyone else’s.  1 Sam 18.1-5 Chapter 18 describes them as soul-mates; friends that connect in such a way that they make a covenant – and unbreakable promise – to each other. And Jonathan gives his possessions, his signs of status and honour to his new friend; the penniless shepherd.

This friendship is what defines Jonathan for the remainder of his life. He finds himself in a perpetual tug of loyalty between his increasingly irrational and deranged father, and the man he knows God has chosen to replace him as king. David’s gain is Jonathan’s loss – he will get what Jonathan never will now, and yet Jonathan’s loyalty to David and to God never wavers.

    1 Sam 19.2

  • He intercedes for David, defending his honour
  • He warns him of plans against his life
  • 1 Sam 20.1

  • He promises to defend a stricken and bewildered David, knowing his father has lost the plot.

1 Sam 20.3

By chapter 20 he promises David

Whatever you say, I will do for you!

  • He spies for David
  • 1 Sam 20.18

  • Passes secret messages
  • 1 Sam 20.30

  • Is horribly insulted and slandered by his father for his friendship and
  • 1 Sam 20.33

  • Declares himself willing to die for David - almost doing so at the end of his father’s spear!

1 Sam 20.40

Jonathan is a man of great honour and as such cannot bring himself to abandon his irrational and murderous father. He sticks with Saul until the (very) bitter end, but his final conversation with David is recorded. The two of them, knowing this is it; Saul will never relent until David is dead and so he must run for his life; cling to each other weeping and make a final covenant that there will always be friendship between them, and peace between their descendants.  It is such a moving scene – 2 young men, devoted to each other, with so much in common, who hoped to fight battles for God together, raise their families together, grow old together, are ripped apart by an old, jealous, sinful man. 

Neither of them will ever have a friend like this again.

1 Sam 21-30

The Bible tells us of David’s journey from here on, his adventures, tragedies, victories. All we hear of Jonathan is that years later he dies – unsurprisingly, in battle – alongside his brothers and father. 1 Sam 31 His body was mutilated and dishonoured by the Philistine victors but rescued by ‘valiant men of Jabesh-Gilead’ who buried him under a tamarisk tree.  Loyal to the end, heroic and fighting to the last; Jonathan dies a warrior.

2 Sam 1.11-12

We do know however, that despite everything, on hearing of his death David’s heart broke. He tore his clothes, wept and lamented Jonathan (& Saul!) in a song which he made the people of Judah learn; a memorial to his friend. 

2 Sam 1.22-7

2 Sam 1.22-7

From the blood of the slain,
from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.

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,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.

How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights.

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 Sam 2.4-7

David honours his promises too. He commends those who rescued Jonathan’s body and searches out his descendants – a disabled son – 2 Sam 9 Mephibosheth who he protects and provides for, for the rest of his life.

This is a friendship that lasted longer than life – it really was best friends forever.

Many people have struggled to get their heads around this friendship. Some scholars have argued that they must have been gay to have a connection like this; that their friendship was a sexual one. The Bible doesn’t say that, and actually just because genuine male friendship is so rare in our society, doesn’t mean men can never be such soul-mates. 

What always strikes me about this friendship is how much the guys I know could do with a friend like this!  The rates of depression and suicide amongst young men are so high, much higher than women – perhaps because women tend to talk to each other, share how they feel, they have a release valve; someone who they know cares. So few guys have a male friend like that, I can’t help wondering if a real mate; to talk and pray with, stand alongside and encourage, to protect, exhort, defend would change those statistics?

I don’t mean someone to just muck about with, to have a quick pint or kick a ball. I mean another man of God to walk through life with, to work out how to honour women, to be married and raise kids – or not, to have integrity and courage at work, to handle money,  to grow into mighty men of faith.

I appreciate I write this from a woman’s perspective, and there are (many) things I don’t get about men

  • but I wonder if David would have become the mighty King he became without Jonathan’s exhortation in his formative years?
  • I wonder if he’d have made the mistakes he did – with Bathsheba, with his kids, if Jonathan had still been with him? 
  • I wonder if he’d have felt secure enough to not count his armies and bring disaster on his people (2 Sam 24) if Jonathan had been at his shoulder advising him?

We can only speculate on that,  but perhaps we should really encourage the guys we know to build relationships with each other, like this one – I can’t help thinking that they, we and God’s Kingdom would be stronger for it!

Go have a read of these chapters and see what you think!

© Ruth Perrin 2010. Last revised on 16 December 2010