Judges and Kings: An Unlikely Friendship

Scripture: 1 Samuel 18:1-5

Previously, on Judges and Kings:

The people of Israel, now ruled by the Philistines on the outside and corrupt local leaders on the inside, have demanded that the prophet Samuel give them a king.  Samuel is not a huge fan of the idea, but God ultimately tells him to go ahead. So Samuel anoints Israel’s first king, a tall, strong, handsome young man from a wealthy family, named Saul.

It isn’t long before things start to go downhill, and we see Saul begin to rely more and more on his own questionable wisdom rather than God’s.  So God, through the prophet Samuel, tells Saul that he’s been rejected as king.

This does not mean Saul automatically stops being king of Israel.  It does mean that the days of his kingship and would-be dynasty are limited.

Meanwhile, God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint a new king.  This king is also handsome, we’re told, but he’s also young and kind of forgettable, the one son his father didn’t think to introduce to Samuel.  Yet it is David who is God’s chosen, not only to lead Israel but to become the enduring symbol of its hope.

This does not mean David automatically starts being king of Israel.  It does mean Israel’s future is promised to him, and not to Saul.

As I said last week, when you have a new king and the old king is still around, it generally means civil war.

And that’s – almost – where we are today.

The start of the conflict between David and Saul isn’t really a clear one.  At the end of chapter 16, right after David is anointed, we read that “the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.”  One of Saul’s servants suggests he find a good musician who can play the lyre to help calm him down.  As it just so happens, David is not only a shepherd, but he also plays a mean lyre.  And so David comes to work in the court of Saul. Saul knows nothing, yet, about David or any pretensions to the throne he might have.  It’s not long, though, before he starts to get both jealous and suspicious of this promising young musician – who turns out to be a pretty decent warrior, too, when a Philistine named Goliath enters the picture.

But here the story pauses for a moment.  Because it is there, serving in the court of King Saul, that David meets Saul’s son Jonathan.

Jonathan is a leader in Saul’s army, fighting for his father against the Philistines.  He is also – we surmise, though we are never told – the crown prince of Israel.  But everything’s about to change when he meets the new musician in his father’s court.


[1 Samuel 18:1-5]


“The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David,” we read.  Or, depending on the translation, “Jonathan’s life became bound up with David’s life.”  That’s beautiful, isn’t it?  What do you think that means, for your life or soul to be bound up with someone else’s?  Maybe that you can’t live without someone; that you are meant to be; maybe that you know someone will always have a tangible presence in your life whether you are together or separated by circumstance, distance, or death.  Or maybe it means that your fates are intertwined, somehow.  It’s the kind of phrase I might be tempted to use in a wedding liturgy, but the idea goes beyond romance.  This story is a testament to the power and beauty of friendship.

But it’s an unlikely friendship.  Maybe even a star-crossed friendship, between the crown prince and his rival for the throne.

At this point in the story I’m not sure how much, exactly, Jonathan knows.  The notes in one of my study Bibles say that when Jonathan makes a covenant with David and hands over his robe and armor and sword, he’s effectively handing over his right to the throne.[1]  But David has only just appeared on the scene, and maybe Jonathan doesn’t yet understand what their friendship will ultimately mean for him.

Or maybe, somehow, intuitively, he does, and friendship blooms anyway.

In 2016 when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, there was a lot of talk about his longstanding friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The two justices had fundamentally different views on how to apply the Constitution to the questions the US faces today.  They voted differently on almost everything: women’s rights, gay rights, voting rights.  None of those are mere philosophical differences of opinion, either.  They were real issues that deeply affected the lives of real people.[2]

But they also both came from New York City, and were fans of the opera.  They worked together and laughed together.  They went souvenir shopping together on trips.  They rode an elephant together in India.  Their families spent holidays together.  When Ginsburg’s husband died, Scalia cried on the bench.  You might say it was as if their lives were bound up with each other.

In (quote) “these divided times” (unquote), a lot of people found the story of this friendship charming.  It felt like proof that we can, perhaps, transcend our differences and come together after all.

There were also those who did not find anything about this friendship charming.  Because, after all, the things we value, the things we stand up for, say something important about who we are as people.  We can’t just put those things aside.

I can understand both views.  But I do see the Bible making room for this kind of unlikely friendship in the story of Jonathan and David.  They had both personal and political reasons to not like each other, but instead, they found their lives and souls bound up with each other.

It does feel, at least to me, that if we are talking about unlikely friendships across enemy lines, there’s no more obvious enemy lines than those that divide us politically as a country these days.  Maybe you don’t like thinking of political divisions as “enemy lines.”  But the metaphor does seem apt sometimes, doesn’t it?  Polls have shown that most Republicans and Democrats today have few or no friends of the opposite affiliation.[3]  (Again, you can think what you want about that.)  We vilify each other constantly and publicly.

I’ve thought of the friendship of David and Jonathan as I’ve followed the news lately, and especially as we’ve been talking about things like members of a certain administration getting heckled at dinner or asked to leave restaurants due to their involvement policies such as separating migrant families at our border.  These incidents are followed by cries for “civility,” which are then followed by cries that what’s at stake here is much more than civility.

To be honest, I’ve been torn on what a good, faithful, Christian response should be.  Should Christians be the hecklers here, ready to make it personal for a good cause – whatever you think that cause might be – or should we be the ones calling for civility, saying we should put aside our differences and just be friends?

I don’t really have a good answer for you on this.  (Sometimes, as I like to say, I just stand up here and ask the questions.) I somewhat suspect, though, that the answer might be neither.  A faithful Christian response is not necessarily the Democratic position or the Republican position, but one that rises above both.

When I hear calls for us to be civil or polite to each other despite our differences, I think of the Hebrew prophets, who were ready to get out there and make some people uncomfortable when they did not see God’s call to justice for the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant being carried out.  I think of Jesus and how he was willing to get in the face of the religious leaders who made faith into a game of who’s in and who’s out.  I don’t believe we as Christians should ever stop advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable people in our society, among whom today would be children and families seeking asylum at our border, whether or not it makes people uncomfortable.

But when I hear that there’s no place for civility, I also think of Jesus healing the servant of a Roman soldier, at the soldier’s request.  That Roman soldier represented and helped carry out a truly oppressive system of government.  But Jesus treated him with love.  And I think of Jesus eating with tax collectors, who were the carpetbaggers who benefited from that same system.  He welcomed them when others were completely justified in not doing so.  In other words, Jesus didn’t have a problem crossing enemy lines once in a while to demonstrate that God’s love truly has no borders.

Mostly as I read the news I wonder how, as Christians, we can strive to do both: to be crystal clear in our call and work for justice for the poor and marginalized among us, and also to treat the people we see as our enemies and rivals with a love that has no borders.  Not civility, not politeness, not unity, but love.

I don’t think the story of David and Jonathan and their friendship magically answers the question, either.  I know there’s no perfect correlation here.  For one thing, the things that did or might have separated them were different.  For another, even though Jonathan was born onto one side of ancient Israel’s political divide, he seems to have effectively chosen the other.  He chose David over his father and over his right to the throne.  But Jonathan never really left his father’s side, either.  He ends up saving David’s life, but he never takes a clear and public stand to say David was the rightful king of Israel.  So I’d have to say it’s a little complicated: like most of our politics, like most of relationships.

But what I take from this story is that Jonathan and David could have written each other off from the beginning.  Jonathan, the crown prince of Israel, could have seen David as a threat just like Saul did.  David, God’s true anointed, could have seen Jonathan as standing on the wrong side of history, someone who was just in his way.

Instead, they saw their lives as bound up with each other.

My friend Amanda is a journalist who writes for the Washington Post.  She told me that not too long ago, she wrote a review of a play, and the play happened to be about abortion.  She wasn’t directly writing about abortion, she was just reviewing the play, which she liked.  But her review caught the eye of someone who wrote for a Catholic publication.  This writer did a little online research and found out that Amanda is also Catholic, so she wrote a scathing article all about how Amanda was a bad person and a bad Catholic for positively reviewing this play.

Amanda said she thought about writing her own scathing article about how this other writer was really the terrible person.  But she decided not to.  Instead she emailed the other writer, also a young woman, and asked if she could buy her coffee.  So they met, and they talked, and of course as it turns out neither one of them was really quite as bad a person as the other might have thought, even if they didn’t agree on everything.  They still meet for coffee once a month, as friends.

I know that stories like that don’t solve our problems.  They don’t magically create the justice we seek, and they may even seem to brush it aside.

But I wonder if they can be a reminder for us to not just write people off – to at least hold open room to let someone else surprise us.

So what does become of David and Jonathan? David continues to serve in Saul’s court and even marries Saul’s daughter.  Meanwhile Saul’s suspicion of David turns to paranoia, and paranoia turns to outbursts of violence.  He tries several times to kill David.  But when David tells Jonathan that Saul is trying to kill him, Jonathan doesn’t believe him.  So David makes him agree to a secret plan: David won’t come to dinner with Saul for the next few nights.  Instead he’ll hide out in a field.  Jonathan will make an excuse for him, and meanwhile he’ll feel out what his father is plotting, and on the third night he’ll send a servant out to the field and make one of two secret signs.  One sign will mean David is safe.  The other will mean he should run for his life.

You can guess which sign David sees.  And so he and Jonathan head their separate ways: Jonathan back to Saul, David to seek refuge elsewhere.  It is the last time the crown prince and would-be king will see  each other alive.  But their friendship will live on.

In the end, as I read the story, David and Jonathan were both changed by their unlikely friendship.  Jonathan gave up the future to which he was entitled in favor of a future he believed was God’s future.  David ended up sparing Saul’s life several times in armed conflict when he didn’t have to.  When Saul and Jonathan both died in battle with the Philistines, David wept for them both.  And Jonathan’s son, the one surviving member of Saul’s family, was promised a place at David’s table for the rest of his life.

Because likely or not, their lives were bound up with each other.

Let’s remember that our lives are bound up with each other: all our lives, left and right, red and blue, black and white and Latinx and Asian and native, north of the border and south, citizen and non, LGBTQ and non – not as Americans; not even as Christians; but as beloved children of God, all of us.

May we stand up for the vulnerable.  May we enact the justice God asks of us.  And may we love each other, and may we maybe even be changed by loving each other.



[1]     The Wesley Study Bible, note on 1 Samuel 18:4

[2]     https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/02/13/what-made-scalia-and-ginsburgs-friendship-work

[3]     https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/05/politics/friends-political-party/

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