Friendships in the Bible II: David and Jonathan

The famous friendship of the Bible has to be that of David and Jonathan. The close, intense relationship between the shepherd boy turned warrior/anointed king-in-waiting and the reigning king’s son has inspired art and literature throughout history.

But on a careful reading, I think they should be known as Jonathan and David, because Jonathan did most of the initiating and maintaining of the friendship – at least in the beginning.

The Bible says that Jonathan took a real liking to David. He made a covenant with him. He loved him as himself. He gave him presents – a robe, weapons, clothing - and provided for him. He warned David about plots against him by his father, he spoke out for him to his father and he used his influence to keep him safe.

It’s not surprising that Jonathan was the main player in the relationship at first, because as the son of the king, he was the one with the power in this relationship. But it is a power that he used for the good of his friend – and at a cost to himself in the end. Every time he kept David safe or promoted his interests, he was destroying his own chances of inheriting his father’s throne. Jonathan’s friendship with David was at the cost of his own career and reputation!

(The intensity of the relationship between Jonathan and David described in 1 Samuel 18-20 has led some commentators to argue that it could have been a sexual relationship. However the text never uses the usual words for sexual intercourse. In Gen 44:30 Jacob’s soul is ‘bound’ to his brother Benjamin in the same words. I like the fact that the most intense friendship in the Bible is between two men. It goes against our stereotype of men only being able to relate over a beer or a game of footy.)

Jonathan was a friend with some pretty impressive qualities. His loyalty to David and courage in the face of political pressure, and an angry, murderous father was unquestioned. He had the humility to say openly that he would never be king. He followed up his commitments, he was generous and he did it all ‘before the Lord’. He showed genuine affection, loyalty and openness. He was the friend everyone would love to have!

But while Jonathan was the one with the power initially, David was not just a passive ‘taker’ in all of this either. As time went on their friendship grew so that by the end it was definitely a two-way relationship between equals. When the pair had to part, the story says that David ‘wept the most’. At Jonathan’s death, David showed immense grief.

One of the particularly beautiful aspects of this friendship was the way David and Jonathan covenanted to do good to each other’s family and descendents. They knew that as technical rivals to the same throne, it was more than likely that their families and heirs could grow to hate each other and try to eliminate their opponents. They took steps to stop the cycle of rivalry and hate – and as time went on, it worked!

Jonathan and David’s friendship has a lot to teach us about power, self-sacrifice and loyalty. Most of us today are unlikely to be in a situation where we become best friends with our greatest rivals.

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