The battle was over, and quiet descended over the Valley of Elah. As the tents of the army encampment rustled in the afternoon breeze, King Saul held an audience. His eldest son, Jonathan, was in attendance, and a youthful shepherd was excitedly recounting his tale. The youth was David, and he was full of zeal and enthusiasm. Saul listened with rapt attention, hanging on to David’s every word. How, though, did Jonathan feel? He had won victories in his long career of serving in Jehovah’s army. But today’s victory did not belong to Jonathan; it belonged to this youth. David had killed the giant Goliath! Was Jonathan jealous of the glory being heaped on David?
Jonathan’s reaction might surprise you. We read: “As soon as David had finished speaking to Saul, Jonathan and David became bound together in close friendship, and Jonathan began to love him as himself.” Jonathan gave David his own fighting gear, including his bow—quite a gift, for Jonathan was a renowned archer. What is more, Jonathan and David made a covenant, a solemn agreement, that bound them together as friends who would support each other.—1 Samuel 18:1-5.
Thus began one of the greatest friendships described in the Bible. Friendship is important to people of faith. If we choose friends wisely and become a supportive, loyal friend, we can strengthen our faith during these unloving times. (Proverbs 27:17) So let us see what we can learn about friendship from Jonathan.
The Foundation of Friendship
How could such a friendship form so quickly? The answer has to do with the basis for that friendship. Consider some background. Jonathan was living through a difficult time. His father, King Saul, had been changing over the years, and ever for the worse. Once a humble, obedient man of faith, Saul had become an arrogant, disobedient king.—1 Samuel 15:17-19, 26.
The changes in Saul must have troubled Jonathan deeply, for he was close to his father. (1 Samuel 20:2) Jonathan likely wondered what harm Saul could bring on Jehovah’s chosen nation. Might the king’s disobedience lead his subjects astray and cost them Jehovah’s favor? Without a doubt, those were hard times for a man of faith like Jonathan.
That background may help us to understand what drew Jonathan to young David. Jonathan saw David’s great faith. Remember, unlike those in Saul’s army, David was undaunted by Goliath’s colossal size. He reasoned that going into battle bearing Jehovah’s name made him more powerful than Goliath with all his weaponry.—1 Samuel 17:45-47.
Years earlier, Jonathan had reasoned similarly. He was sure that two men—he and his armor-bearer—could attack and defeat an entire garrison of armed soldiers. Why? “Nothing can hinder Jehovah,” Jonathan said. (1 Samuel 14:6) So Jonathan and David had much in common: strong faith in Jehovah and deep love for him. That was the ideal basis for friendship between the two men. Even though Jonathan was a mighty prince and nearing 50 years of age, while David was a humble shepherd and likely not yet 20 years old, those differences between them did not matter.a
The covenant they made was a real protection for their friendship. How so? You see, David knew what Jehovah had in store for him: He was to become the next king of Israel! Did he withhold that knowledge from Jonathan? Hardly! A good friendship such as theirs thrives on open communication, not on secrets and lies. How might learning of David’s prospects have affected Jonathan? What if Jonathan had cherished a hope of becoming king one day and righting his father’s wrongs? The Bible tells us nothing about any internal struggle Jonathan may have had; it tells only of what truly matters, Jonathan’s loyalty and his faith. He could see that Jehovah’s spirit was with David. (1 Samuel 16:1, 11-13) So Jonathan fulfilled his oath and continued to view David, not as his rival, but as his friend. Jonathan wanted to see Jehovah’s will done.
Jonathan and David had in common their strong faith in Jehovah and their deep love for him
That friendship turned out to be a great blessing. What can we learn from Jonathan’s faith? Any servant of God does well to see the value of friendship. Our friends need not match our age or background, but they can do us enormous good if they have genuine faith. Jonathan and David were able to strengthen and encourage each other many times. And they would both need such help, for their friendship was about to face even greater tests.
The Challenge of Conflicting Loyalties
At first, Saul was very fond of David and placed him in charge of his army. Before long, though, Saul fell victim to the very enemy that failed to conquer Jonathan—jealousy. David met with victory after victory against Israel’s enemies, the Philistines. David thus won praise and admiration. Some women of Israel even sang: “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Saul did not like that song. “From that day on,” we read, “Saul was always looking at David suspiciously.” (1 Samuel 18:7, 9) He feared that David would try to take the kingship away from him. That was foolish on Saul’s part. True, David knew that he was to succeed Saul, but he never even considered supplanting Jehovah’s anointed king while the man still reigned!
Saul schemed to get David killed in battle, but nothing worked. David kept winning battles and growing in the esteem of the people. Saul’s next move was to try to unite his household—all his servants and his eldest son—in a plot to kill David! Imagine how sick at heart Jonathan must have been to see his father act that way! (1 Samuel 18:25-30; 19:1) Jonathan was a loyal son, but he was also a loyal friend. Now that those two loyalties seemed to be in conflict, which one would win out?
Jonathan spoke up: “The king should not sin against his servant David, for he has not sinned against you and what he has done for you has benefited you. He risked his life to strike down the Philistine, so that Jehovah brought about a great victory for all Israel. You saw it, and you were overjoyed. So why should you sin against innocent blood in having David put to death for no reason?” In a rare moment of reasonableness, Saul listened to Jonathan and even swore not to harm David. But Saul was not a man of his word. After David had more successes, Saul was so full of jealous rage that he hurled a spear at him! (1 Samuel 19:4-6, 9, 10) But David escaped and fled Saul’s court.
Have you ever faced conflicting loyalties? It can be very painful. In such situations, some would advise you that family should always come first. But Jonathan knew better. How could he side with his father when David was a loyal, obedient servant of Jehovah? So Jonathan let his loyalty to Jehovah rule his decision. That was why he stood up for David. Still, although Jonathan’s loyalty to God came first, he proved loyal to his father by counseling him honestly instead of telling him what he wanted to hear. Each one of us would benefit by imitating the way Jonathan showed loyalty.
The Price of Loyalty
Jonathan tried again to reconcile Saul with David but he had even less success. David came to Jonathan in secret, revealing that he feared for his own life. “There is only a step between me and death!” he told his older friend. Jonathan agreed to test out his father’s feelings on the matter and to let David know where things stood. While David hid, Jonathan would signal him the news by using a bow and arrows. Jonathan asked only that David swear to this promise: “Never withdraw your loyal love from my household, even when Jehovah wipes out all the enemies of David from the face of the earth.” David agreed that he would always look out for those of Jonathan’s household.—1 Samuel 20:3, 13-27.
Jonathan tried to speak well of David to Saul, but the king became enraged! He called Jonathan a “son of a rebellious woman” and derided his loyalty to David as shameful to the family. He tried to appeal to Jonathan’s self-interest: “As long as the son of Jesse is alive on the earth, you and your kingship will not be firmly established.” Unmoved, Jonathan again pleaded with his father: “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” Saul exploded in violence! Though aged, Saul was still a mighty warrior. He hurled a spear at his son! Practiced though he may have been, he missed. Deeply hurt and humiliated, Jonathan left in anger.—1 Samuel 20:24-34.
Jonathan passed the test of self-interest
The next morning, Jonathan went out into the field near David’s hiding place. He fired off an arrow as agreed, letting David know that Saul was still intent on killing him. Then Jonathan sent his attendant back into the city. He and David were alone, so they had a fleeting chance to talk. Both men wept, and Jonathan sadly saw his young friend off as David started his new life as a refugee.—1 Samuel 20:35-42.
Jonathan’s loyalty passed the test of self-interest. Satan, the enemy of all faithful people, would surely have loved to see Jonathan follow in Saul’s steps and put his own ambitions for power or glory first. Remember, Satan loves to appeal to the selfish inclinations of humans. He succeeded with Adam and Eve, our first parents. (Genesis 3:1-6) Yet, he failed with Jonathan. How frustrated Satan must have been! Will you resist similar attempts? We live in times when selfishness is epidemic. (2 Timothy 3:1-5) Will we learn from Jonathan’s selfless, loyal spirit?
“You Were Very Dear to Me”
Saul’s hatred for David grew into an obsession. Jonathan was helpless as he watched his father descend into a kind of madness, amassing his army and leading it around the country, seeking to destroy one innocent man. (1 Samuel 24:1, 2, 12-15; 26:20) Did Jonathan take part? Interestingly, the Scriptures never mention him in connection with any of those misguided campaigns. Jonathan’s loyalty to Jehovah, to David, and to his own oath of friendship made such a thing impossible.
His feelings for his young friend never changed. In time, he found a way to meet David again. It was in Horesh, which means “Wooded Place.” Horesh was in a wild, mountainous region likely a few miles southeast of Hebron. Why did Jonathan risk going out to see this fugitive? The Bible tells us that his motive was to help David “find strength in Jehovah.” (1 Samuel 23:16) How did Jonathan do so?
“Do not be afraid,” Jonathan told his young friend. He added this reassurance: “My father Saul will not find you.” On what was that reassurance based? On Jonathan’s deep faith that Jehovah’s purpose would succeed. He went on: “You will be king over Israel.” The prophet Samuel had been commissioned to say that years earlier, and Jonathan now reminded David that Jehovah’s word is always reliable. And how did Jonathan see his own future? “I will become second to you.” What priceless humility the man showed! He would be content to serve under the command of this man who was 30 years his junior, to serve as his supportive right hand! Jonathan concluded: “My father Saul also knows that.” (1 Samuel 23:17, 18) In his heart, Saul knew that he was doomed to lose his fight against the man Jehovah had chosen to be the next king!
In the years that followed, David surely looked back often and fondly on that meeting. It was their last. Sadly, Jonathan’s hope to become second to David was never realized.
Jonathan went to battle at his father’s side against the Philistines, avowed enemies of Israel. He could fight alongside his father in good conscience, for he did not let his father’s wrongs get in the way of his own service to Jehovah. He fought bravely and loyally as he always had, but the battle still went badly for Israel. Saul’s wickedness had extended even to spiritism, a capital offense under God’s Law, so Jehovah was no longer blessing Saul. Three of Saul’s sons, including Jonathan, were killed in battle. Saul was wounded and took his own life.—1 Samuel 28:6-14; 31:2-6.
“You will be king over Israel,” Jonathan said, “and I will become second to you.”—1 Samuel 23:17
David was stricken with grief. That bighearted man even grieved for Saul, who had caused him so much misery and hardship! David wrote a dirge over Saul and Jonathan. Perhaps the most touching words relate to David’s beloved mentor and friend: “I am distressed over you, my brother Jonathan; you were very dear to me. More wonderful was your love to me than the love of women.”—2 Samuel 1:26.
David never forgot his vow to Jonathan. Years later he sought out and took care of Jonathan’s disabled son, Mephibosheth. (2 Samuel 9:1-13) Clearly, David had learned much from Jonathan’s loyalty and honor and his willingness to stick loyally to a friend even when such loyalty came at a high price. Will we learn such lessons as well? Can we seek out friends like Jonathan? Can we show such friendship ourselves? If we help our friends to build and strengthen their faith in Jehovah, if we put our loyalty to God first, and if we remain loyal instead of seeking our own interests, we will be the kind of friend that Jonathan was. And we will imitate his faith.
a When Jonathan was first introduced in the Scriptural account, at the beginning of Saul’s reign, he was an army commander and so must have been at least 20 years old. (Numbers 1:3; 1 Samuel 13:2) Saul ruled for 40 years. Therefore, at the time of Saul’s death, Jonathan was about 60. David was 30 years old when Saul died. (1 Samuel 31:2; 2 Samuel 5:4) So Jonathan was evidently some 30 years older than David.