Down through the centuries, the human relation of friendship has been greatly valued and cherished. Many are the quotes from the secular and religious world that sing the praises of it. In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes the following about how highly those of old regarded friendship: “To the Ancients Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves, the crown of life and the school of virtue.” Helen Keller, a renowned person who was born blind, said concerning her experiences with friendship, “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking in the light.” And then there is the saying employed when pointing to examples of the epitome of friendship: “They are like David and Jonathan.”
The Spirit of God recounts for us in Holy Scripture the exemplary friendship between these two Old Testament believers. Starting out in I Samuel 18, the inspired writer describes how very close the bond of friendship between Jonathan and David was with the words, “. . .the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (v.1).
That this close friendship was to be a lasting one is clear. The two made a covenant in which they took a solemn oath to have a never-ending friendship. As a sign and pledge of his intended faithfulness to this friendship covenant, Jonathan (the son of King Saul) gave David (a faithful servant of the kingdom) his royal robe, shield, sword, bow, and belt (vv. 3-4).
Jonathan’s friendship with David was put to the test in a number of very difficult and trying situations that involved his family ties. The modern proverb, “blood is thicker than water,” suggests that the family bond is greater than friendship; but Jonathan showed that his friendship with David transcended the family tie. In this he bore out Solomon’s divinely wise saying about friendship, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).
When King Saul became unjustifiably jealous of and hateful toward David, as well as fearful that David would soon ascend the throne in Israel, he made it known by both word and deed that he wanted David killed. Because of this, the bond of friendship put Jonathan in an uncomfortable position between his kingly father and his friend. In response to the royal decree that Jonathan and the king’s servants were to hunt down David and kill him, Jonathan, moved by love for his friend, warned David of the impending danger. He then interceded on behalf of his friend before the king, pleading the case of an innocent and faithful servant who did nothing but good for the king and for Israel (1 Samuel 19:1-5). The world would say of this, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.”
As it became increasingly clear to Jonathan that David was the Lord’s anointed who was to succeed Saul on the throne and not himself, Jonathan showed an unselfish love for David and a humble, submissive spirit to the will of God. This demonstrates that true friendship involves putting a friend and his welfare before oneself. When Saul made it clear to his son that succession to the throne was at stake, in the spirit of loving friendship Jonathan was willing to incur the wrath of his father. He even put his life in jeopardy for the sake of David when Saul, in his fury, threw a spear at Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:30-33).
True friendship is, of course, a two-way street. With Jonathan acknowledging that David was to be the next king of Israel, David made a covenant with his friend that he would not follow the common practice of killing the king’s son or his family (1 Samuel 20:14-17). On this occasion, David showed true humility, as well as love for and devotion to Jonathan, by falling on his face to the ground and bowing down three times before him. And since this was one of the last times that they would see each other, the Bible records that “. . . they kissed one another; and they wept together, but David more so” (1 Samuel 20:41b).
Jonathan and David’s great love, devotion, and commitment to each other was indeed the epitome of friendship. And where is it that the two found the source of love to have such a friendship? It was to be found in their knowledge of and faith in God’s great redeeming love for them. The promised Christ, who would come many centuries later as their Savior, said, “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:12-13).
Mark Gullerud is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Bowdle, South Dakota, and Zion Lutheran Church in Ipswich, South Dakota.