James Dobson is a writer on marriage and the family. And in one book he quotes the letter written by his father to his mother, when they were engaged. It says:
I want you to understand and be fully aware of my feelings concerning the marriage covenant we are about to enter. I have been taught at my mother’s knee, and in conformity with the Word of God, that the marriage vows are inviolable, and by entering into them I am binding myself absolutely and for life. The idea of estrangement from you through divorce for any reason at all will never, at any time, be permitted to enter my thinking. I’m not naive in this. On the contrary, I’m fully aware of the possibility, unlikely as it now appears, that mutual incompatibility or other unforeseen circumstances could result in extreme mental suffering. If such becomes the case, I am resolved, for my part, to accept it as a consequence of the commitment I am now making and to bear it, if necessary, to the end of our lives together. (Straight Talk, James Dobson)
And given that attitude, it’s no surprise that they enjoyed a strong marriage. And summing up that attitude, I’d say it was: costly commitment out of commitment to God. Ie, commitment that says, ‘I’ll stay committed whatever the cost – and not just in order to be true to myself, but in order to be true to God.’
And costly commitment out of commitment to God is exactly what we see, to learn from, in tonight’s passage in our 1 Samuel series. Only not between a man and a woman in marriage, but between two men in friendship. So would you turn in the Bible to 1 Samuel chapter 18. And let me remind you what’s going on here.
There are three main human characters: Saul, David and Jonathan:
• Saul was the first king of Israel – but God has rejected him as king because of his disobedience.
• God has then sent the prophet Samuel to anoint David as next king in waiting. That was done privately – so at first, only Samuel and David knew that was the plan. But after David’s win over Goliath (in 1 Samuel 17), he joins Saul’s royal circle and it becomes increasingly and publicly clear that he’s king material. So Saul, thinking he can cling onto his kingdom, tries to kill David.
• And caught in the crossfire is Saul’s son Jonathan, who has become not just a committed friend to David; but committed to seeing David become king.
So let’s look at chapter 18 and v1 to remind ourselves where Jonathan’s commitment to David began:
As soon as [David] had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father's house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. (18.1-3)
Now some people who want to find Biblical approval for homosexual relationships have read homosexuality into that. In fact there’s a book entitled Jonathan loved David: Homosexuality in Bible Times. And it’s a sad example of twisting the Bible to say what you want it to say. Because, eg, look down to v16:
So they all loved David – not in any sexual way, but in the way that Man Utd fans love Sir Alex Ferguson. Or in the way that our celebrations of David’s 40 years here were an expression of our love for him. The problem today is that people can’t hear the word ‘love’ without thinking of sex. Whereas back then, it was often used of relationships which were the very opposite of sexual and intimate. Eg, one treaty written by the King of Assyria for people whose country he’d taken over says: (quote):
You must love him [ie, the King of Assyria] as yourself.
Ie, you must be a loyal ally: it’s the same ‘love’ word, but there’s nothing sexual about it.
So back to David and Jonathan. There’s nothing sexual in this language of love. They were certainly friends. But there’s a bigger dimension to it than friendship. Because look down to chapter 18, v4:
And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armour, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. (18.4)
Now as I said last time, the robe, etc, was the uniform of the crown prince, the Prince Charles of the day. And by doing what he did, Jonathan was saying, ‘I’m renouncing my claim to the throne, because I recognise David as the man who should be king.’ Maybe later David confided in Jonathan that Samuel had anointed him as next king. But at this stage, I guess Jonathan did what he did simply because he recognised David’s unique commitment to God, and how his leadership flowed from that, and how he was therefore the man for the job of king. So look back at v3:
Then Jonathan made a covenant with David (18.3)
Now a covenant is a relationship based on solemn promises – eg, marriage. And Jonathan isn’t simply promising, ‘I’ll be your best friend.’ This isn’t just school playground stuff. He’s saying, ‘I will be your ally and your subject. Because I recognise you as the next king, and am committed to seeing you become king.’
So with that background, let’s turn on to chapter 20. Now last time, I said: the way to get at the point of an Old Testament (OT) narrative is to ask first, ‘What is God doing here?’ Because in the Bible, he’s always the main character. And we saw that in this bit of 1 Samuel, God is in the process of making David king and nothing can stop that – certainly Saul can’t. And we saw how God protected David from Saul – not least through Jonathan – and that theme carries on into chapter 20. But I want to come at this chapter with the second question to ask an OT narrative which is: ‘What can we learn from the believers here?’ And I think there are two main things we can learn about from them:
Firstly, UNUSUAL COMMITMENT OUT OF COMMITMENT TO GOD
At the end of chapter 19, David hides from Saul in a place called Naioth. But Saul finds out and comes after him, so chapter 19, v1:
Then David fled from Naioth in Ramah and came and said before Jonathan [who’s now the only ally who can help him], “What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin before your father, that he seeks my life?” And he said to him, “Far from it! You shall not die. Behold, my father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me. And why should my father hide this from me? It is not so.” (vv1-2)
Which is pretty naïve of Jonathan – whereas David is more head-screwed-on, v3:
But David vowed again, saying, “Your father knows well that I have found favour in your eyes, and he thinks, ‘Do not let Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved.’ But truly, as the LORD lives and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death.” Then Jonathan said to David, “Whatever you say, I will do for you.” (vv3-4)
So David hatches a plan which will show whether Saul might be reasoned with, or whether he’s intent on killing David. Verse 5:
David said to Jonathan, “Behold, tomorrow is the new moon [when he was required to be at a special feast], and I should not fail to sit at table with the king. But let me go, that I may hide myself in the field till the third day at evening. If your father misses me at all, then say, ‘David earnestly asked leave of me to run to Bethlehem his city, for there is a yearly sacrifice there for all the clan.’ If he says, ‘Good!’ it will be well with your servant, but if he is angry, then know that harm is determined by him. (vv5-7)
So that’s the plan – and then David says, v8:
Therefore deal kindly with your servant, for you have brought your servant into a covenant of the LORD with you. But if there is guilt in me, kill me yourself, for why should you bring me to your father?” (v8)
So David knows that, humanly speaking, Jonathan is his biggest threat. Because he’s confided in Jonathan. And Jonathan knows exactly where he is and could, humanly speaking, bring him in to his father and betray him at any moment. And, humanly speaking, that would be the usual thing for a crown prince to do to a rival to his throne. Because conventional wisdom said: look after no.1 and get rid of your rival. So David knows the score, humanly speaking. Which is why he appeals in v8 to the fact that:
you have brought your servant into a covenant of the LORD (v8)
Which means a covenant that’s been made consciously before God. If I can put it like this, on the ‘horizontal level’, it’s a commitment to another person. But over and above that, on the ‘vertical level’, it’s a commitment to God to keep that commitment to the other person.
It’s like the words in the marriage service:
The vows you are about to make are to b made in the presence of God, who is judge of all and who knows the secrets of all our hearts.
And then straight after the marriage has take place:
In the presence of God and of this congregation, Ken and Barbie [or whoever] have… made their marriage vows…
So David isn’t just appealing to Jonathan’s friendship in v8. Over and above that, he’s appealing to Jonathan’s faithfulness to God. He’s saying, ‘You’ve promised to be my ally and my subject and to see me become king. And you’ve promised that because you believe that’s God’s will. And you’ve promised that consciously before God. So I’m appealing to you to be faithful to me out of faithfulness to God. So v9:
And Jonathan said, “Far be it from you! [Ie, don’t even think I’d bring you in and betray you! Skip to v12:].
And Jonathan said to David, “The LORD, the God of Israel, be witness! When I have sounded out my father, about this time tomorrow, or the third day, behold, if he is well disposed towards David, shall I not then send and disclose it to you? But should it please my father to do you harm, the LORD do so to Jonathan and more also if I do not disclose it to you and send you away, that you may go in safety.” (vv9, 12-13)
So he says he knows the LORD is both the witness of his promises and thejudge of how he keeps them (which is true for us, as well), and that he’s going to be committed to David out of commitment to God. Which would have looked very unusual in the eyes of the world. Because conventional wisdom would have said: look after no.1 and get rid of David. But Jonathan is so clear that it’s God’s will that David becomes king that he looks forward to when David is king and says, v14:
“If I am still alive, show me the steadfast [or covenant] love of the LORD, that I may not die. (v14)
Ie, ‘Show me the kind of covenant commitment that the LORD shows us and wants to see in us.’ Read on, v15:
and do not cut off your steadfast [or covenant] love from my house [ie, family] for ever, when the LORD cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.” And Jonathan made a covenant with the house [or, family] of David, saying, “May the LORD take vengeance on David's enemies.” And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him, for he loved him as he loved his own soul. (vv15-17)
So Jonathan knows that in the future, the boot will be on the other foot and, humanly speaking, David will be his biggest threat. Because in those days, the usual thing for a king from a new family to do was to kill all the members of the old royal family, to get rid of any potential rivals. So conventional wisdom would have said to David: look after no.1 and get rid of Jonathan. But David, also, is willing to promise commitment to Jonathan out of his commitment to God. And that would also have looked very unusual in the eyes of the world.
So the first thing to learn from David and Jonathan is their unusual commitment out of commitment to God. And thinking of the obvious covenant example of marriage, that’s what the Lord wants to see in our marriages – and wants the world to see in them, to his glory. And, sadly, the kind of commitment which James Dobson’s father wrote about in that letter is becoming more unusual in our culture. But that does give us the opportunity to stand out and glorify the Lord by what is, sadly, more and more unusual.
Let me quote a bit more of Dobson Snr’s letter to his fiancée:
I have loved you… as a sweetheart and will continue to love you as my wife. But over and above that, I love you with a Christian love… (Straight Talk, James Dobson)
Which means, ‘I’m going to love you above all because I know it’s the Lord Jesus Christ’s will that I love you.’ I remember talking to a Christian woman who didn’t like that thought. ‘I want to be loved for my own sake,’ she said. And I hope any husband would say he loved his wife for her own sake. But a Christian husband or wife should also say, ‘I’m going to love you above all out of my commitment to the Lord’ – and whatever the attraction and chemistry between husband and wife, whatever the commitment to be true to yourself in the promises you’ve made, that is what gives marriage its ultimate strength. Because what will strengthen our commitment when the other has become less lovely, or is behaving unlovably – so that you don’t feel like loving them – and conventional tit-for-tat wisdom would say, ‘Well, only love them as they’re loving you’? What if, at times like that, ‘being true to yourself’ isn’t strengthening enough? What if looking after no.1 – possibly even by getting out of the marriage – suddenly looks preferable? After all, I’ve heard people say they’ve left their spouses precisely in order to be ‘true to themselves’ – and maybe ‘true’ to some new love. That’s why it matters that a Christian husband or wife are saying, ‘I’m going to love you above all out of my commitment to the Lord.’
So, eg, during my engagement to Tess, I remember asking a wise old Christian, ‘How do you know it’s going to work?’ And he said, ‘Ultimately, Christ is the only hope for your marriage, as you and she commit yourselves to doing his will by his grace.’
But it’s not just in marriage that we should be showing unusual commitment out of commitment to God. I think of brothers and sisters here who’ve given up work to nurse elderly parents up to their death, out of commitment to the Lord’s will that we honour our father and mother. I think of brothers and sisters here who’ve adopted children – or all but adopted one of the elderly members of our church – out of commitment to the Lord’s concern for ‘the orphan and widow’, to use Bible speak. I think of all of you who run or belong to groups here, getting involved in a costly way with one another’s needs – especially at demanding or difficult times – out of commitment to the Lord’s command that we love one another as he loved us. And so on – all the kinds of commitment where the world and conventional wisdom would say, ‘Why do more? Why not just look after no.1?’, but when believers can show unusual commitment out of commitment to God.
The other thing we can learn about from David and Jonathan is:
Second, ACCEPTING THE COST OF IDENTIFYING WITH GOD’S KINGDOM
Back to 1 Samuel 20. In vv5-7, David hatches a plan to show whether Saul’s intent on killing him. He’s going to miss this feast, so that Jonathan can see Saul’s reaction. And then in vv18-24, Jonathan hatches a plan for how to tell David what Saul’s reaction is. He tells David to hide in a field by a stone heap. Skip to v20:
And I will shoot three arrows to the side of [the stone heap], as though I shot at a mark. nd behold, I will send the boy [ie, his servant boy], saying, ‘Go, find the arrows.’ If I say to the boy, ‘Look, the arrows are on this side of you, take them,’ then you are to come, for, as the LORD lives, it is safe for you and there is no danger. But if I say to the youth, ‘Look, the arrows are beyond you’, then go, for the LORD has sent you away. (vv20-22)
So why this ‘cloak and dagger’ stuff? Well, because Jonathan’s now twigged that if his father is intent on killing David, and finds out that he’s helping David, then his life could be on the line, too. So the ‘cloak and dagger’ or rather ‘bow and arrow’ stuff is to get the message to David without anyone realising (and it does make the story far more interesting that it happened in the days before mobile phones).
So, this feast begins (vv24-26). David is missing. Saul says, ‘Where is he?’ (v28) And Jonathan says, ‘He asked to go home to Bethlehem and I gave him permission.’ (v29) And that really lights the blue touch paper under Saul, v30:
Then Saul's anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman [ie, you rebel], do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother's nakedness [ie, she now realises she gave birth to a traitor]? For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Therefore send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.” (vv30-31)
Ie, ‘Look you idiot, can’t you see that David’s got to be killed? Don’t you want the kingdom?’ To which Jonathan’s answers (inexplicable as they would sound to Saul) are ‘No’ and ‘No’. Because he recognises that David is God’s chosen king and that God’s kingdom is the only one with a future, the only one worth investing in. So he’s identified himself with God’s kingdom –and now faces the cost of that, v32:
Then Jonathan answered Saul his father, “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” But Saul hurled his spear at him to strike him. So Jonathan knew that his father was determined to put David to death. (vv32-33)
And he also now knew that identifying with David meant he was now in the firing line himself.
And in the Bible, remember King David and his kingdom foreshadows King Jesus and his kingdom. So this foreshadows the fact that if we identify with Jesus and his kingdom in a world that doesn’t want him to be king, we won’t necessarily be welcome, either – we will be in the line of fire. And maybe Jonathan was pretty naïve, to begin with, about how anti-David his father was (and could become). But I suspect most Christians are pretty naïve, to begin with, about the fact that as the Lord Jesus said,
“Whoever is not with me is against me.” (Matthew 12.30)
I guess Jonathan began to grasp that as this spear came his way. And we begin to grasp that as people are offended by the gospel, or antagonistic to Christian standards, or unsympathetic to conscientious stands in public life, and so on. Ad as with Jonathan, hardest of all, that can come from your own family.
So Jonathan goes out to where David is hiding. H does the bow and arrow routine to tell David to run. But maybe thinking it could be their last meeting, Jonathan sends his servant boy back to the city and risks talking face to face. Look down to v41:
And as soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times. And they kissed one another [which was culturally normal for men then – just like it is in France today] and wept with one another, David weeping the most. Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, because we have sworn both of us in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, for ever.’” And he rose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city. (vv41-42)
They did meet just once more – in 1 Samuel 23, where Jonathan met up with David when he was on the run to encourage him at a time when being seen to help David in any way was to risk one’s life, if discovered by Saul .But Jonathan didn’t live to see David become king. He died in battle at then end of 1 Samuel. And in 2 Samuel chapter 1, David writes this in a kind of obituary:
“I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan…
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women. (2 Samuel 1.25)
By which, again, he doesn’t mean there was anything sexual about it. He just means that, even compared to the typically far deeper commitment of the woman in any marriage, Jonathan’s commitment to him was even more remarkable. And that’s why you can’t help but see lessons for marriage in this chapter. But before that, it’s primarily a lesson in friendship. It’s a reminder that whether married (as David and Jonathan both were) or single, Christian men should be cultivating godly friendships with other Christian men, and Christian women should be cultivating godly friendships with other Christian women. Because – married or single – we need those kind of friendships.
And above all, this chapter is a reminder that you don’t have to have a sexual relationship – ie, be married – in order to have friendship and commitment. And in a culture where many are finding sex, but few are finding friendship and commitment, that’s something we need to believe and model and enable among us.