The Soul of Jonathan
Epiphany V; February 10, 2019
I Samuel 18:1-9
I'm going to tell you the story of the biblical character of Jonathan and I have struggled with the conclusion to draw from it. As usual, I prefer to tell the story and encourage you to draw your own conclusions. But I need to put it in context for us; that is, why this story and why now.
As I've said, your Session is considering the question of whether we as a Church should declare ourselves to be fully welcoming of LGBTQIA+ persons. If you pay attention to the news, you know that the public perception of Christians is that we think that gay and lesbian persons should not have full civil rights, should not be allowed to be married, should not be included in public life or the life of the Church just as they are. Right now the Nebraska legislature is considering a bill with respect to conversion therapy, and those who support conversion therapy are doing so as a question of religious liberty. Christians, they say, believe that gay and lesbian people are condemned by God, and therefore should be converted to straight people. So our Session is asking itself and asking you: should we say to the people of Omaha that there is another point of view? That many Christians affirm the lives of LGBTQIA+ persons just as they are? So that is one important point of context.
And so I tell you one of the Bible's most famous stories of an intense same-sex relationship, which I generally think of as an ideal of male friendship, just as the story of Ruth and Naomi is an ideal of female friendship. But many people claim that the relationship between Jonathan and David was sexual; personally I doubt it, given the strictures of the time and the very different understanding of sexuality, but I will simply tell you the Bible's story and let you draw your own conclusions. This much is clear: the relationship between these two young men was intense, and the only person who objected to it had serious emotional issues, including paranoia. Otherwise the relationship is celebrated. Now to the story.
Jonathan was the eldest son of King Saul. Saul was the great warrior and leader who united the fragmented tribes to create the kingdom of Israel; Jonathan was his heir. Jonathan was a great warrior, too; the Bible tells the story of one time that Israel was at war with the Philistines and Jonathan saw a chance for a solo attack. He approached some Philistine warriors and let them see him coming. They thought they would get him and said, "Come up here; we have something to show you." So Jonathan said to his armor-bearer, "The Lord has given them into our hand;" Jonathan and his armor-bearer climbed up to them, they attacked, and defeated twenty Philistine warriors (I Samuel 14:1-15). This caused a great panic in the Philistine camp, so that Saul then sent his army and gained a great victory.
So, two things to keep in mind: Jonathan was a soldier and was greatly admired by the people. And, as the King's heir, he was next in line to be King. This is important to the rest of the story.
Although Saul was a powerful figure, he also overstepped his bounds. He was not particularly careful to follow the Lord's commands to him, and if he got impatient, he would step in and take the place of the prophet instead of waiting for the prophet to arrive. So the Lord God decided it was time to get someone else to be King; that was when David came into the story. The Lord sent the Prophet Samuel to anoint this young shepherd, David, to be the next King of Israel.
David kept his head down; he knew to be patient and wait for his time to come. But an opportunity presented itself to show his bravery and his confidence in the power of God when he faced the giant Goliath. Wearing only his shepherd's clothes, no armor, and carrying only his sling and five smooth stones, he slew the giant and won a victory for the army of the Lord. Saul was thrilled and honored him.
That was when Jonathan met David and you heard how he reacted when I read you the Scripture: "the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." Jonathan and David became fast friends, deeply devoted to each other. I don't know what to make of the picture of Jonathan stripping off his clothes and armor and giving them to David, and interpreters over the centuries have thought a variety of things. What you should know is they loved each other deeply and were devoted to each other.
In thinking about their story, I am moved by the description of their feelings that I just referred to: the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. I have heard friendship described as the experience of one soul sharing two bodies. That's what Jonathan and David knew.
Now Saul put David in charge of his military campaigns and David was phenomenally successful. And Saul, rather than honoring David and being grateful for his success, became envious of David. He began to see his own popularity slipping as the people fell for David. And Saul started on repeated attempts to kill David. David would play the harp and sing for Saul, and Saul would throw his spear at him. Saul tried to ambush David in his house. When Jonathan saw his father's reaction, he intervened for his friend and for a while all was well.
But David knew it was only a matter of time and so he set up a test with Jonathan's help. A formal dinner was approaching and David should be at the head table with Saul; he figured that would be Saul's next attempt to kill him. So David skipped the dinner. Saul was annoyed, but figured David had a good excuse. So he didn't say anything. This party went on for a couple of days, though, so when David didn't show up the next night, the King asked Jonathan what had become of him. Jonathan said, "Oh, David's family is having a gathering in Bethlehem, and he asked leave of me to attend."
Saul was enraged and he railed at Jonathan. "You son of perversity! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse (that's how Saul referred to David, as the "son of Jesse") to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother's body? As long as he lives, you shall never be King. Bring him to me, that I may have him killed." And Jonathan answered, "Why? What has he done that he should be put to death?" And Saul threw his spear at Jonathan. Jonathan rose from the table and stormed out of the room and ate nothing; he was deeply grieved at what his father planned to do to David.
David and Jonathan had made an arrangement to meet in a deserted field the next day, so Jonathan could tell David the result of the test. Jonathan told him all that had happened, and that Saul did indeed plan to kill him. The two men kissed each other, and wept together. The Bible makes the point that David wept even more than Jonathan did (I Samuel 20:41). Jonathan reminded him of their vows to each other, and sent David on his way.
David spent the next few years in the field, gathering followers, even acquiring a wife (Abigail). He had opportunities to kill Saul, but always refrained. He said, "I shall not lift my hand against the Lord's anointed." As you know, after Saul died, David did become King, but one more thing first. While David and his men were camped in the field, Jonathan came to see him. They talked; they prayed together. Well, that's how I interpret the chronicler's words that Jonathan "strengthened his hand through the Lord." And Jonathan said, "I know that you shall be King after my father, and that I shall be your second." They renewed their vows to each other, and Jonathan went home (I Samuel 23:15-18).
What they clearly didn't know was that was the last time they ever saw each other. They thought David would become King and Jonathan would be his right-hand man. But Jonathan was killed in a battle against the Philistines, the same battle in which Saul was killed. When the news came to David, he wept. And he wrote a song, a lament for Saul and Jonathan. You knew, I hope, that David was a poet. I love to study the career of David: warrior, poet, politician, lover, a remarkable man. And a man who loved his friend. Let me read to you from David's lament, called "The Bow," and finish this story. You consider yourselves what this says about the love between David and Jonathan.
How the mighty have fallen
In the midst of the battle!
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
Greatly beloved were you to me;
Your love to me was wonderful,
Passing the love of women.
How the mighty have fallen,
And the weapons of war perished! (II Samuel 1:25-27)
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master