Friday, March 18, 2016

How Could Jonathan Love David?

There’s an old piece of literary advice that says to “write what you know.” And it’s good advice. After all, how are you really supposed to generate any passion or a sense of competence if you write on a topic you know nothing about? But I find there’s another level to it, too. A lot of times, I don’t just write what I know. I write what I know recently. You see, without being sent questions, which happens far too infrequently, I have to pick topics myself. Of course, the ideas for these articles do not just spring into my mind. They come to me from the things I have recently seen, heard, or read. That is the case again today.

I was reading the story of David’s early career from the biblical book of 1 Samuel. David comes up a lot in my articles. He was one of the great saints of the Bible, a man after God’s own heart, legendary warrior-king of the Israelites, author of most of the book of Psalms, and founder of the dynasty that culminated in Jesus Christ. He was also a polygamist, adulterer, murderer, and a terrible father. There are so many contrasts in his life that he can be used as an illustration for almost any point, positive or negative. We are not going to focus on David now, though, at least not directly. Instead, I want to take a closer look at a friend of his.

David, Saul, and Jonathan

David’s reign began 3,000 years ago, but Israel had one other king before him, named Saul. The start of Saul’s time as king began promisingly, but after a little while he proved himself to be faithless and wicked. God decided to replace him and his family from the royalty, and chose David to be king, instead.

It didn’t happen all in a moment, though. David was anointed as king when he was a young boy, but did not gain the throne until he was in his thirties. In most of the time in between, the majority of people in Israel would not have thought Saul and his reign were anything but secure. Not only was he the established king, reigning more than 40 years, but he also had a dynasty of his own to pass the crown down to. He had four sons, the most promising of whom was the eldest and heir to the throne, Jonathan.

Jonathan certainly cut a kingly figure. 1 Samuel 13 and 14 present him as a skilled and courageous soldier, just the type of leader others love to follow. 1 Samuel 14:6–10 also show that he was a man of great faith in the Lord. There is no way to be certain, of course, but my belief is that if Jonathan had been allowed to become king, he would have been a good one.

It was not to be, though. As I mentioned already, Saul disqualified himself and his heirs from the throne by refusing to obey God and taking rash oaths. And importantly, it was not just the sins themselves that cost him, but the attitude of faithlessness and unrepentance he had to the Lord. As a result, Jonathan would never be king, and he knew it.

We can be fairly certain Jonathan knew the Lord planned to keep him from the throne, since the prophet Samuel made proclamations to that effect (1 Samuel 15:22, 23). However, it is less clear when Jonathan knew David was to be his replacement. David’s selection as king was done somewhat in secret (1 Samuel 16:1–3). As David advanced, however, it most likely became clear that the Lord could have chosen no one else. Certainly, Saul thought so, given his numerous attempts to have David killed. In human terms, Jonathan would also have been justified in hating David as a rival.

Jonathan’s Love

Instead, Jonathan did one of the most surprising things in the Bible: he loved David “as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). After David killed Goliath, a very close bond developed between them. Jonathan was about 20 years older, and the Bible does not mention him having a child until late in life. It may be that he saw David as a son. Jonathan even defied his father for David’s sake on multiple occasions and helped the young man escape Saul’s wrath.

One story in particular stands out, from 1 Samuel 20. In it, David feared another attempt on his life by Saul and asked for Jonathan’s help. Jonathan knew nothing about it and thought David was being paranoid, but as it turned out Saul had hidden his plans from him. When Jonathan discovered the truth, he warned David to flee.

Before leaving, however, Jonathan had David swear a sacred oath to the Lord that he would always show kindness to Jonathan and his descendants. The key part to this oath is in 1 Samuel 20:15. There, Jonathan says their loyalty must continue even “when the Lord has cut off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.”

It takes a bit of inference, but I believe this is a powerful admission of David’s destiny to be king. After all, David had no greater enemy than Saul. Jonathan knew his father had forfeited the kingdom. He also knew why Saul hated David so much. Jonathan was essentially praying for his father’s—and therefore his own—destruction in favor of David.

That is friendship at its finest, with no less a sanction than that of Jesus Christ Himself. As He said in John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

Faithful to the End

David and Jonathan only met once more after the events of 1 Samuel 20. In 1 Samuel 23:17, Jonathan makes his first explicit statement of the fact that David would be king instead of him. It also appeared that he hoped to be David’s lieutenant, another excellent proof of Jonathan’s loyalty, humility, faith, and obedience to the Lord. Sadly, it did not happen that way. Sometime later, Jonathan, two of his brothers, and his father Saul were killed in battle against the Philistines (1 Samuel 31:1–6).

It seems a shame for things to have to happen this way, but it is certainly understandable. While a son of Saul lived, even one so devoted to David, there would be a division of loyalty in Israel. In fact, that is precisely what happened when Ishbosheth, Saul’s last son, fought a civil war against David for two years until he, too, was killed. Jonathan was a much more serious claimant and more accomplished fighter than his younger brother. If he had lived, things would likely have been much worse. It was in God’s providence for Jonathan to die at the hands of the Philistines, rather than conflict having to arise between him and David. To paraphrase Harvey Dent from The Dark Knight, he died a hero so he didn’t have to live to see himself become a villain.

It seems strange for death to be a grace, but sometimes, that is exactly what it is. I believe the story of Jonathan is one such case. It was the best thing that could have happened to him. It allowed him to be David’s truest friend both in life and beyond it, which points us to the greatest of Jonathan’s qualities.

Messianic Expectation

In the religion of the Old Testament that preceded Judaism and Christianity, a doctrine developed now known as “Messianic Expectation.” This was the belief that God would someday send a great leader for Israel who would bring peace to the entire world. It was not well developed by the time of Jonathan and David, though it was hinted at in places like Genesis 3:15, Genesis 12:3, Genesis 49:10, Numbers 24:17, and Deuteronomy 18:15. Clearer promises began to be made after David, with numerous prophecies acknowledging him as the ancestor of the Messiah (2 Samuel 7:12–16; Isaiah 9:6, 7; Isaiah 11; Jeremiah 23:5, 6).

I bring all this up because it has to do with the purity of Jonathan’s faith. It is difficult to believe he could have had the Messianic Expectation as it eventually came to be known. Certainly he could not have known how it would eventually be fulfilled in Jesus. But he trusted that God had made promises, and that He would fulfill them. In Jonathan’s case, it had to do with the promises the Lord made to David. But considering the eventual chain of causality, Jonathan’s faith was essentially in Christ.

One of the authors of the New Testament makes a similar point. Hebrews 11:39, 40, speaking of the Old Testament saints, says, “And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” In other words, those who followed God before Jesus came did so because they had hope. They did not get to see how it worked out, and they did not always know what the Lord intended. But they believed He would accomplish the salvation of the world, and they trusted Him because of it no matter what the circumstances might be in their own lifetimes. Their faith was in the promise of Jesus, while the faith of Christians is in the fulfillment. However, we both share in the perfection that comes through Him.

I cannot help but believe Jonathan is one such saint. He willingly accepted every downturn in his fortunes, even to death, for the sake of the Lord’s promises to David. He even loved David for them. Even in the Bible, his faith has few parallels. It should serve as an example to all of us.

Following Jonathan’s Example

In this life, we will face troubling times. We will never receive all we wish for here, and we will often experience pain that seems beyond bearing. It will feel, and be, unfair. But it is not what matters most. Beyond everything in this life, we must know there is a God, and He is watching over us. In spite of what happens, He is in control, and He can turn even the worst circumstances to the good. We may not always see how He is working it out, but we can know that He is.

Like Jonathan, we need to trust that the Lord will fulfill His word. And unlike Jonathan, we know how He has done so. The promised Messiah has come. Jesus has provided salvation that lasts beyond the confines of the world. Through faith in Him, we can know it is ours. In possessing it, we can love without fear. Jonathan did not know what it would all look like, but he knew enough to be secure, to even love the man he should by all rights have hated. We, who know better, should do at least the same.

All who have waited for Jesus, whether before or after He came, will be with Him. That means we will someday see Jonathan, and all the rest of the saints. I don’t know about you, but I look forward to it.

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