Greater Love

“Unless a friendship is seasoned by a taste of trust in the One who is beyond the two of them, that friendship cannot be ‘wonderful.’”
— ~David Toshio Tsumura

Darkness surrounds two men at a dying campfire in Horesh. Coals glow under the crumbling logs they had gathered from a dead thicket and lit inside the ravine. David watches uneasily, raking out the embers with a stick and scratching at the warm red soil underneath whenever the fire gathers too much strength. With his usual half-reckless optimism, Jonathan had occasionally cracked a withered cypress limb over his knee and tossed the bushy pieces into the flames, watching the sparks whoosh up into the stars and above the cover of the oak trees. Now, he throws the last of the fuel all at once on top of the coals and cranes his head at the swirling, crackling contellations.

"Do you want your father to see?"

"He won't," Jonathan insists, not looking down."He's not coming for you today. Not tomorrow either. There's time."

David doesn't ask how Jonathan knows this but shakes his head. "So we wait and watch the sparks fly upward..."

Jonathan sighs. "Don't think about trouble. Don't think about man being born to trouble," he says, pointing at the sky. "Think about Abraham and YHWH. Think about how YHWH's hedged you in. Look at those stars!"

Eventually, the smoke shifts directions and the two friends circle to the other side of the fire. They face the opening where the woods run into the ravine and the rocks spill out into the badlands and where the night shines as the day and the darkness and the light seem somehow alike.

Flames illuminate Jonathan's unkempt face and the bruise forming along his knuckles. David's eyes are haggard but smiling, moved by Jonathan's persistence to find him by following the Ziphites' directions, climbing the crazily narrow goat path alone after sunset. He had arrived with a bag full of provisions on his back and blisters on his shoulders. David watches as Jonathan disappears into the woods to reemerge with that bag, holding what David thought was another log, only to discover that it's his lyre that he'd left behind in Saul's house. Squatting in the firelight, Jonathan plucks the strings with clumsy fingers and plays a song that David used to sing in court to ease Saul’s troubled mind. Their eyes meet and Jonathan loses all seriousness. He raises his voice to a tuneless falsetto and strums all the strings at once in a finale of mock emotion, drawing laughter from David for the first time that night.

“It's a miracle the lyre didn't kill you on that path,” David says. "How did you manage to not fall to your death carrying that on your back?"

"The hand of YHWH," Jonathan shrugs. "Brother, play. Sing a song that gives me courage to go back down that hill tomorrow."

So, David gladly accepts the instrument from Jonathan and stares up at the Pleiades, willing his fingers to remind him of all the truths he used to know.

I like to imagine that Jonathan played the lyre for David the last time they saw each other at Horesh in the wilderness of Ziph (1 Sam. 23). Not because he was any good, but simply to remind David of the calling and passion that he once had, and to reaffirm his gifts. There is something about this exchange as I imagine it, something about David’s expression as he reaches to reclaim his lyre from Jonathan (if only Rembrandt could capture it) that shows a little less of the outlaw and the vagabond, and a little more of the warrior and the anointed, future king of Israel.

1 Sam. 23:16 tells us that Jonathan went to David at Horesh and "strengthened his hand in God." Literally, the Hebrew phrase is used in reference to encouraging the fearful. David's spirit revived in the presence of his close friend. Certainly, David must have been fainthearted if, as some scholars believe, Psalm 25 is any indication of his spiritual state during that time. Ralph Klein refers to Jonathan's short speech here as an "Oracle of Salvation" (v. 17), an oracle that David might later repeat to himself even in Jonathan's absence. Jonathan told David to not be afraid, assuring him that Saul would not "lay a hand" on him and reminding him of God's sovereign power and David's anointing.

Whatever this exchange looked like exactly, I am sure that Jonathan encouraged David not just by his words but through his presence, and through the gift of his companionship and loyalty. I am equally sure that he urged David not to take his circumstances too seriously, reminding him (maybe with some laughter) that things would work out. His father’s tantrums and jealousies were not the end of the world. After all, David was lucky he didn’t have to live with Saul. Jonathan did.

Although this last meeting at Horesh is an obscure passage in the Bible, the overall story of Jonathan's friendship with David is the most well known biblical story of friendship. So well known that by the time we get to Colossians and read Paul's words about being knit together in Christ, we might think of the scene when Jonathan was "knit to" David, or bound to the soul of David, right after David kills Goliath. 1 Sam. 18:1 tells us that "the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and he loved him as his own soul."

The language used here to describe Jonathan's bond with David is most likely a deliberate reference to Leviticus 19:18 and a reflection of the love relationship between YHWH and his people: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Old Testament scholar Markus Zehnder compares the uses of the Hebrew word "love," (חבx), and concludes:

"...This shows that conceptually Lev. 19:18 and 1 Sam. 18:1, 3 are closely connected ... It rather depicts Jonathan as an ideal person who fulfills one of the central ordinances of the Yahwistic law in an exemplary manner."

Likewise, being knit together is about more than companionship; it is about becoming friends who find their source of strength in God—friends who embody the Torah. In the Greek as well as the Hebrew (in the New Testament as well as the Old), this type of bond conveys the notion of wholly identifying with and joining together in association and affection.

If we harbor any admiration towards Jonathan for taking his impromptu trip to see David one last time at Horesh, it's because his effort to strengthen David in God shows us three characteristics of a godly friend:

1) Selflessness

Jonathan pursued this friendship at his own expense. Two passages describe a meeting "in the field" before Jonathan's final meeting with David at Horesh. The words "in the field" sound hauntingly similar to the account of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4:8; only, in this scenario, rather than one brother killing the other out of rivalry, these two brothers (in-law) make a covenant to do whatever it takes to keep the other alive - including their children, until the end of time - "forever"! (An act of slaughter between rivals to the throne would have been considered reasonable according to Ancient Near Eastern practices of the day.) Previously in the first field scene (19:1-7), Jonathan interceded to prevent what would otherwise be certain death.

Humanly speaking, Jonathan would have every reason to harbor dark thoughts toward David, but he refused to go down that path, spiritually. An amazing (redemptive) reversal takes place in these two "field passages" in 1 Samuel. Whereas Cain succumbed to the temptation and sin "crouching at [his] door" in Genesis 4:7, Jonathan refused to buy into the lies of shame, guilt, and greed that Saul so ungraciously heaped upon him. He truly loved David as himself. As the Hebrew conveys in 1 Sam. 18:1 (Hb. niqserah), Jonathan was "inseparably devoted" to David to the point that their lives were "bound up" together - heart and mind.

2) Exhortation

We long for a friendship like David and Jonathan's because we intuitively recognize our need for exhortation.

What does it look like to use the gift of exhortation? A quick Google search provides this list:

  • coming to the side of those who are discouraged to strengthen and reassure them;

  • confronting, challenging, and encouraging those who have gotten off track in their faith or life;

  • helping others change their behavior by applying biblical truth;

  • uplifting people with a simple attitude, demeanor and down-to-earth advice;

  • emphasizing God’s promises and having confidence in the Lord’s will.

Exhortation is doing exactly what Jonathan did at Horesh: helping a man to find strength in God – reminding him that his troubles are temporary, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that he is not alone.

3) Loyalty (to God)

The tension between honoring his father and loving his friend (whom his father despised) required a delicate balancing act, but apparently Jonathan strived to parse the Torah well in his daily life, even when it brought him grief (1 Sam. 20:34). He finished his life by releasing his final breaths on Mount Gilboa next to a father whose policies frequently troubled him. David later wrote in a lament over Jonathan's death, "Saul and Jonathan - in life they were loved and admired, and in death they were not parted" (2 Sam. 1:23). David's poetic statement captured Jonathan's willingness to allow his life to be bound up with the life of another, and to not shrink from conflict.

In the midst of muddled loyalties, Jonathan refused to retreat from the confusion because of his allegiance to God. He didn’t let his own doubts prevent him from action, and he trusted God to vindicate his course. Jonathan died on the battlefield serving faithfully beside his father, a man whose leadership troubled him. And as if one futile or hopeless-looking cause wasn’t enough, he had also promoted David behind the scenes during a time when most other supporters and 'campaign managers' would be skeptical that the shepherd boy would ever actually have the nerve to establish his reign. Jonathan wasn’t afraid of affiliating himself with failure, or the image of failure, if it meant loyalty and obedience to God. His true allegiance was to God; therefore, the appearance of success, strong alliances and instantly productive outcomes had no hold over him. Ultimately, he was knit together with YHWH and it is this loyalty and Source of divine strength that made his friendship truly priceless.

”This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” - John 15:12-13

Photo (banner): Mount Gilboa, Israel, the site where Jonathan and Saul died during a battle with the Philistines (1 Sam. 31)

by Nicole Arnoldbik