Jonathan favors friendship over kingship

Published: November 12, 2011

This is the sixth column in a 13-part series

By Clifford M. Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study

For 200 years following the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites lived in the Promised Land (Canaan) in territories allotted to tribes named for the children of Jacob. Tribal chieftains, referred to as "judges," settled disputes and organized troops to battle the various enemies of the Israelites. The Book of Judges records this period as increasingly chaotic, with violence and mayhem ultimately undermining every aspect of religious and civil life, until Israel itself became its own worst enemy. "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own sight" (Judges 21:25).

Faced with their growing disarray, the tribal leaders approached the last of the great "judges" of Israel, the prophet Samuel, and asked him to provide a king who would unite all of them. Until this time, God was always regarded as Israel's king and the request to name a human king greatly disturbed Samuel. Nevertheless, God told Samuel to accede to their desires (1 Samuel 8:1-9).

God revealed to Samuel that Saul, a tall warrior from the tribe of Benjamin, was the man he was to anoint as king. Anointing was a coronation ceremony involving pouring oil over the head of the chosen one. Unfortunately, Saul proved to be both mentally unstable and unwilling to follow Samuel's extremely rigorous religious dictates. Before long, God had Samuel searching for a new king and he found him in the unlikely person of David, a young shepherd boy of the tribe of Judah, the eighth son of Jesse.

Saul's fall from favor and David's rise to prominence is told in vivid detail with carefully crafted suspense in 1 Samuel chapters 13–31. It is also interspersed with the story of someone else who would have seemed even more likely to succeed Saul, someone who had all the noble characteristics anyone could have desired in a king — Saul's son Jonathan.

When we first meet Jonathan, he has led an Israelite attack on a Philistine garrison within his and his father's tribal territory of Benjamin. The people give credit for his victory to Saul, but it leads to a massive reprisal from other Philistine forces. Saul, anxious to encourage his scattered and cowering forces, has been waiting for Samuel to offer a sacrifice to God that will bolster their spirits. But when Samuel is delayed, Saul offers the sacrifice himself. Moments later, Samuel arrives and assails Saul for his presumptuous sacrifice.

"You have acted foolishly!" Samuel excoriates him. "Had you kept the command the Lord your God gave you, the Lord would now establish your kingship in Israel forever; but now your kingship shall not endure. The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart to appoint as ruler over his people because you did not observe what the Lord commanded you" (1 Samuel 13:13-14).

Any possibility of Jonathan succeeding to his father's throne has been obliterated. All we know of Jonathan at this point is that he is a capable warrior. We might expect that as he discovers he is no longer an heir apparent that he would be more than a little resentful of the unnamed man Samuel warns will succeed his father. The opposite is true, however.
Samuel anoints David as the new king (1 Samuel 16:1-13), but his royal status only becomes evident to Israel through a succession of violent twists and turns in the plot. Jonathan, however, will discern it very early by witnessing David's character.

On meeting David, Jonathan recognizes him as a kindred spirit. He binds himself to David in a covenant of friendship which he signifies by removing his cloak and placing it on David (1 Samuel 18:4). Just as Elisha will succeed the prophet Elijah after receiving his mantle (2 Kings 2:9-14), David has become the heir apparent. Jonathan will actually state his recognition in 1 Samuel 23:16.

The "bond" between Jonathan and David is the same word as "conspiracy" in Hebrew, and Saul, in his madness, will suspect a conspiracy between the two to rob him of his throne. Jonathan will do anything to protect David from his father's insanity, but he will never be disloyal to his father, even though it means dying beside him in battle (1 Samuel 31:1-6).

A much more thorough interpretation of these biblical characters and events can be found in the commentary First and Second Samuel, by Walter Brueggemann (Interpretation series, John Knox Press).

Study Questions
  • Whose friendship has added a special dimension to your life?
  • Why did Israel find it necessary to have a king?
  • Jonathan attempted to be loyal both to his friend David and his father Saul. What difficulties have you faced in your life when faced with dual loyalties?
  • What influence, if any, should religion have in modern civic and political decision making?


This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Nov. 12, 2011. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.