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Jonathan's Fatal Mistake

David and Jonathan

by Dennis Pollock

The relationship between David and Jonathan is unique in the Scriptures. These two men were truly best friends and had a bond which far surpasses most friendships. This is all the more amazing when you consider that during part of the time of their friendship Jonathan’s dad, King Saul, was eagerly attempting to find and kill David. When Jonathan was killed in battle, David wrote a poem to celebrate the lives of Jonathan and Saul. In the poem he diplomatically ignored Saul’s insecurity, jealousy, murderous rage, and many weaknesses, and wrote about the pathetic king:

“How the mighty have fallen…Saul and Jonathan were beloved and pleasant in their lives…”

This was a highly “sanitized” description of King Saul, but it certainly reflected David’s love for his friend, Jonathan. He writes specifically about Jonathan:

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
You have been very pleasant to me;
Your love to me was wonderful,
Surpassing the love of women… (2 Samuel 1:26)

Kindred Spirits

You get the impression that David truly meant this. He and Jonathan enjoyed a bond of friendship which was exceedingly rare. It would appear that they were nearly the same age. They were both men of courage, proving themselves daring and successful in battle. And they both had likeable, winsome personalities. They could easily have been brothers, even though they had come from quite different fathers, families, and backgrounds. Somehow, they just clicked.

Both served Saul well as generals in his army and were major players in bringing victory to Israel in its many wars and conflicts. Throughout their time in military service they worked together, fought together, and came to highly respect each other’s abilities. Saul truly had a “dynamic duo” in these two brave, skillful, personable military leaders, and if he had had more sense he would have been thrilled to employ their service all of his days.

A seed of jealousy entered Saul’s heart and changed everything. David soon became more popular than Jonathan, and ultimately more popular than Saul himself. When the insecure king heard some of the local ladies chanting, “Saul has slain his thousands and David, his tens of thousands,” it was too much to bear. The Bible tells us, “So Saul eyed David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 18:9). By this point God had rejected Saul for disobedience and had withdrawn His Holy Spirit from him. No longer anointed and filled with God, the jealous, angry, insecure king became an easy prey for evil spirits. At times he was filled with such rage he became completely irrational. Twice he threw a spear at David, attempting to pin him to the wall. In both cases God directed the spear wide of its mark and David escaped. Once he even tried to kill his own son, Jonathan.

Years on the Run

When Saul sent men to David’s house to kill him, David knew it was time for him to leave Saul and put as many miles as possible between them. Before leaving, he met with Jonathan and the two sealed their friendship with a solemn covenant. Jonathan, amazing man that he was, recognized that David was God’s choice to succeed his father as king, and asked David to show kindness to his family when that happened.

David began the next chapter of his life as a fugitive, a man constantly on the run. Being the charismatic leader that he was, men from Israel came out to him and joined him. He soon found himself the ruler of a little 600-man army, and never stayed in the same place too long. Saul came looking for him several times with his soldiers, but God watched over David and he was never captured.

As far as we know from the Scriptures, David and Jonathan only saw each other one time after David’s exile. The exchange that occurred between the two close friends at that time is as poignant as it is remarkable. I marvel every time I read it and consider this passage to contain a powerful life-lesson which every follower of Jesus Christ needs to know and frequently contemplate.

Final Meeting

The Bible tells us that David and his men were in the Wilderness of Ziph in a forest. Jonathan apparently had an itch to go and visit with his friend and somehow discovered where they were. The Bible says, “Then Jonathan, Saul’s son, arose and went to David in the woods and strengthened his hand in God.” In our vernacular, Jonathan went to visit his friend and encourage him. Once again, he made it clear that he knew full well David was ordained by God to be the next king, telling David:

Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Even my father Saul knows that (1 Samuel 23:17).

Not only does Jonathan see David as Israel’s next king, he sees himself serving in David’s administration as his right-hand man. “I shall be next to you.” It never happened that way, but it is a tantalizing thought. Jonathan, possessing tremendous character and courage, would have been the perfect number two man for David – a million times better than Joab, who eventually took that role. Jonathan seems to have things figured out: David will become king, I will be his VP. He would have been happy and entirely contented to serve his best friend in that role. As the king’s son, Jonathan had the right to succeed his father. The fact that he was willing to forsake that right without ever being asked speaks volumes about the character of this wonderful man. Courageous, charismatic, humble… Jonathan seemed to be about as close to perfect as men ever get in this world.

But Jonathan’s plan to serve as David’s right-hand man never happened. And we find the reason that it never happened in this very story of the two men’s clandestine meeting in the forest. After reaffirming their covenant of friendship, the Bible says:

And David stayed in the woods, and Jonathan went to his own house” (1 Samuel 23:18).

Misplaced Loyalty

At first glance this doesn’t seem so significant: “David stayed in the woods and Jonathan went to his house.” But in truth this was a life-changing and destiny-changing act that was occurring. Jonathan, who was a major player in his dad’s administration could not bring himself to drop his association with the man whom God had rejected and cast his lot with David, a fugitive constantly on the run, living in the wilderness. The two words that come to my mind are “misplaced loyalty.” Jonathan was a good man, an honorable man, and he probably felt it would have been disloyal to have left his dad and followed David. But this decision to go back home and continue on as usual cost him his life and the opportunity to serve his friend David for many long decades. Within a few years Saul and the army of Israel would be engaged in a ferocious battle with the Philistines. Jonathan would fight by his father’s side and die by his father’s side. David would be elsewhere, under the protective hand of God, awaiting his time to become Israel’s next king. Had Jonathan remained with David he would have lived. By turning around and going back home he sealed his fate and died a young man.

Parental devotion or devotion to friends and family are wonderful, but they can be carried too far. Jesus declared, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26). Christ’s claim on His followers is always absolute. In most cases this will mean honoring your father and mother and being kind and easy-going with your friends and family. But there are a few special times in our lives when our decision to follow Christ and do the will of God for our lives may mean disappointing our family or even causing them emotional distress. On these rare occasions we must never allow misplaced loyalty to cause us to put loved ones ahead of the One who loves us more than all. It would have been a blow to Saul to find that his son had defected to his enemy, but it surely would have been the right thing to do.

“Wherever You Go…”

The point is this: wherever God is working, whoever God is anointing, whatever God is doing, that is where we want to be. God had rejected Saul and placed his anointing upon David. David represented God’s “new thing.” He had little to show for it at that point – just a band of 600 roughnecks who followed him around in the woods, but it was only a matter of time before God would exalt this godly young man to lead his people. Saul represented the old way, the carnal administration which had fallen into such disfavor that God had told Samuel to stop mourning for this reprobate.

Sometimes people who have attended dead, dry, ceremonial churches all their lives get born again and filled with the Holy Spirit. Often, after their conversion, they are reluctant to leave their church and join a livelier, Christ-honoring church. After all, this was the church of their momma, and their momma’s momma. This is all they have ever known. And so they sit through one dry sermon, steeped in unbelief, after another, never being challenged, never being taught the word of God, and never being able to associate with serious Christians, all the while thinking they are being true to their heritage. They probably will not come to an early death like Jonathan, but they may never achieve their full potential in Christ as a result of their spiritual inertia.

Sometimes God may call us to leave all that is familiar to us and step out in faith to a new place or a new job. We often rebel at the thought. We humans love our comfort zones, and when things are going well, the last thing we want is upheaval. But God is always the God of the new and at times He will insist that it is time for a change. The old situation or the old job or the old house or the old whatever may have been greatly blessed in the past, but now that blessing is lifting. God is ready for us to enter a new blessing and the cloud of His favor is moving. We can either stay put and miss all that God has for us or move with the cloud and enjoy incredible blessings and opportunities which lie in our future. Will it be scary? Of course it will. Will there be challenges? You’d better believe it! But in spite of the fears and in spite of the challenges Christ is saying to us, “Come, follow Me.” And wise is the man who drops all, cancels his busy schedule, and obediently follows the Savior.

“Get Out!”

This pattern is not some new thing God just started doing. He employed this with the man who was made the father of the Jews. God told Abraham:

Get out of your country,
From your family
And from your father’s house,
To a land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1)

God didn’t even tell Abraham the name of that land, or exactly where he would be going. Just “leave all, follow Me, and I’ll show you where to go.”

To believe on Jesus Christ is to receive the gift of eternal life, but it also involves becoming a follower of Jesus. When Jesus called His disciples, the word was always to follow Him. They did not choose their own way. They did not debate and discuss which city they would visit next. They just went wherever Jesus went. It was a very simple lifestyle: He led and they followed. He would travel to Capernaum and they would follow Him there. When He went to Jerusalem, they went to Jerusalem. Very simple; not too difficult.

It hasn’t really changed. We who are Christ’s are called to follow Him as He leads us by His Spirit throughout our lives. In Moses’ day God led Israel by a mysterious cloud: when the cloud moved, they must move. In our lives there is an invisible cloud of grace which tells us when to move and when to stay put. At times that cloud will remain for many long years and not much will change. But for most of us, there will be at least a few times in our lives when that mysterious cloud will make a sharp right turn, or even a U-turn. Like Jonathan we may be tempted to stay where things are comfortable. But we must never give in to this fleshly temptation. Wherever He goes; we will follow.


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