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Grown-Up Bible Stories

A Man for an Impossible Situation

He was a legend in his own time. The first son of the nation’s first king, he stood to inherit the crown. He even showed promise of filling that crown better than his father did. A national hero, a man with great popular support, he had a lot going for him. Only, as the saying goes, "It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you work with a bunch of turkeys." In this case, it wasn’t a bunch of turkeys—it was his royal father.

Jonathan the son of Saul is one of those minor characters that linger in the background. Usually, we link his name with David, the man who succeeded Jonathan’s dad as king. We sometimes hear of "David and Jonathan," a phrase synonymous with friendship. That this is so is a major tribute to the man who had to lose so David could win. Jonathan deserves more attention than we usually give him. He was a giant of a man, the kind of man made for impossible situations.

Jonathan’s personal story starts out promisingly enough. Israel’s fledgling first dynasty was still struggling to define itself when Jonathan came on the scene. His father, Saul, had been crowned king by the last of the judges, the prophet Samuel. Saul was a popular choice. Unknown, but tall and good-looking, he had just the right sense of bashfulness to be charming. He was also a courageous man, willing to fight the enemies that kept their national economies strong by oppressing Israel. Saul seemed a man for the hour, and, initially, the hour was dark.

After an early victory over an oppressor nation, the new king seems to have settled part way back into obscurity. He sent most of the army home—not as shocking as it sounds as the army was composed almost entirely of reservists. He did keep three thousand soldiers on active duty. Two of the three thousand served under Saul’s personal command in a place called Michmash. Prince Jonathan commanded the other thousand from the king’s ancestral home of Gibeah.

In the meantime, the Philistines, Israel’s perpetual enemy, occupied territory in the Jewish homeland. The Philistines were so intent on keeping military superiority that they took arms control to an extreme. They refused to allow the Jews to have craftsmen capable of fashioning weapons. The same craftsmen who could make weapons also maintained farming tools. Israel’s economy was based on agriculture, so the lack of craftsmen was a significant hardship. The Philistines didn’t care. Convenient, practical, or otherwise, they controlled the sharpening of tools. In keeping with the plan, very few of Israel’s fighting men even owned swords.

Jonathan, however, did possess weapons. Beyond that, he had the courage to use them. He attacked the garrison the Philistines had put in the town of Geba. The Philistines, to say the least, were unhappy. They sent a huge force toward the border of Israel.

Jonathan’s patriotism didn’t play so well with his less committed countrymen. Even with the reserves called in, Israel stood ill equipped in the face of the great Philistine war machine. Soldiers deserted in droves. Those who stayed literally shook with fear. It was going to be a massacre, and the one person brave enough to stand for his nation was the crown prince.

As the Philistines prepared for battle, Jonathan made his next move. It wasn’t reckless, suicidal patriotism that drove him. Rather, it was faith in God. Recognizing that God could save his homeland as easily with a few men as with a gigantic army, he took his personal combat assistant (armor bearer in Biblical terminology) and went off to meet the Philistines. Jonathan and his willing helper let the Philistines know they were around. Taking the invitation to come up to the enemy’s hilltop position as the sign of a divine call to attack, the two crawled up on hands and knees. Reaching the enemy, they launched one of history’s bravest assaults. Jonathan and his armor bearer killed twenty soldiers in an area of about half an acre. The impact of this small effort was enormous. The enemy panicked. The panic turned into a route. Word got back to King Saul. He ordered a charge. The deserters rejoined the army. The fearful Jewish soldiers turned into spoilers. Israel was set free! Jonathan had depended on God and found miraculous results.

Jonathan’s heroism was, however, rewarded poorly. Saul, with more emotion than good sense, had decreed that no man eat until the enemy was beaten. Jonathan had been out attacking Philistines when this rather immature command was given. He didn’t know the brief taste of honey he allowed himself was forbidden until it was too late. Now, Saul determined to kill him for his disobedience.

The old kingdoms weren’t democracies. Yet, even under near-dictatorial conditions, the voice of the people carried great weight. When Saul pronounced the death sentence on his son, the army came to Jonathan’s rescue. There was no way that the man God had used to rid the nation of oppressors was going to die over a taste of honey. Public sentiment held sway, and the king backed down.

Sadly, Jonathan would spend the rest of his life struggling against the instability of his father. Every evidence suggests that Jonathan was a good and wise man, an ideal crown prince. His father proved emotionally disturbed and evil rather than good and wise. Jonathan had hard going as he waited his turn at the throne.

Ongoing events didn’t help Jonathan’s future. Saul repeatedly disobeyed the commandments of God. As a result, God’s prophet declared that God was taking the royal title from the house of Saul and giving it to a man after His own heart. Jonathan’s future went out the window, and it did so through no fault of his own. He was the good son of a disgusting father.

Within a matter of years, Saul and the armies of Israel faced the Philistines again. This time, a young civilian who’d come to visit his reservist brothers faced the enemy single-handedly and initiated another stunning victory. His name was David the son of Jesse. In the wake of the battle, Jonathan came to admire this courageous young man. In fact, he became one of David’s most devoted friends. He had no way of knowing, but he had befriended the man who would one day wear the crown he had once expected to wear himself.

Over the next few years, neither David nor Jonathan had it easy. Saul went into frequent black moods, something the Bible describes as being afflicted by an evil spirit from the LORD. David had already come to royal attention as a skilled harpist whose music could soothe the troubled monarch. After his military debut, he received popular acclaim. The admiring women who met the hero singing "Saul has killed his thousands and David his ten thousands" did their idol no favor. [Quotations are not necessarily exact unless accompanied by a Bible reference.] The king became jealous. David became a hunted man, and this situation wasn’t helped by the discovery that the prophet had secretly appointed him as Saul’s eventual replacement.

The story is long and tortuous. David became an army officer. He married Saul’s daughter at the king’s urging. Saul eventually annulled this marriage and arranged the princess’ marriage to another man. Saul chased David into hiding on numerous occasions. Eventually, a small army of debtors and malcontents joined the fugitive in the wilderness. A mixture of international intrigue and tragedy dogged the situation. David proved that he had no designs on Saul’s life and showed his deep respect for the office of king on more than one occasion. Saul went through the motions of reconciliation only to become insanely jealous and repeat the process. David finally wound up an exile in a foreign country.

Through it all, Jonathan, the ex-crown prince, played his delicate role with finesse. The king knew that his son retained his friendship with his rejected son-in-law. Yet, Saul couldn’t disown Jonathan. The juggling act that followed would have tried an uninvolved bystander. That the man who handled it so skillfully was losing everything in the process speaks of rare spiritual power.

It was Jonathan who reacted to one of the king’s early commands to kill David by sending David into hiding. Then, he spoke with his father a short distance from the hiding place. When Saul listened to reason and withdrew the death order, Jonathan relayed the news to his friend.

Later, Jonathan doubted the king’s continuing desire for murder. David wisely deduced that the king probably wouldn’t share his plans to kill his son’s friend with the son. Jonathan agreed to help him test the waters, and an elaborate plan was devised. The plan included a code by which he would inform David of the king’s response.

It was the time of the New Moon. New Moons held religious significance in old Israel, and the occasion called for a feast in Saul’s court. As a son-in-law and military officer, David’s presence was expected at the feast. Under a system where such everyday occurrences as touching the carcass of a dead insect or brushing against a sick person could render one temporarily "unclean" and ineligible to partake in religious ceremonies, people sometimes missed these feasts. Such "uncleanness" was what Saul assumed when David failed to show up the first day of the feast.

On the second day, Saul demanded to know why the son of Jesse wasn’t in his place. Jonathan rose to his predetermined role. "David’s family required his presence at a sacrifice, and he begged my permission to go." Since David had the crown prince’s permission and family duties were respected, the matter would normally be of no consequence. On the other hand, if the king still hated him, the innocent action would prove offensive.

Saul exploded. Not stopping at calling his son names, he called him the son of a perverse and rebellious woman—not exactly the language of a loving husband and father. When Jonathan stuck up for David, Saul threw his ever-present spear at him. He missed.

Jonathan left the banquet in anger.

At the appointed time, David hid in the rocky terrain while Jonathan feigned archery practice. He shot three arrows into the distance and sent a servant boy to fetch them. His call "Isn’t the arrow beyond you?" told David what he needed to know. David had been right. It was time for him to run.

Yet, Jonathan’s heart was too full to limit communication to the code. He sent the totally innocent servant back into town with his bow and arrows while he talked with his friend. They recalled their recently renewed vows of friendship. Then, David went into hiding.

One of the last recorded meetings between David and Jonathan happened secretly in the forest. Saul and an army were encamped nearby, intent on finding and destroying David. Jonathan snuck across the lines to encourage him. His words at that time: "Fear not: for the hand of Saul my father shall not find thee; and thou shalt be king over Israel, and I shall be next unto thee; and that also Saul my father knoweth." (1 Samuel 23:17) The fact that Jonathan could so calmly face the loss of his own future says more about the man than any thing we could add. God’s will and a friendship overrode one of history’s greatest disappointments.

It would be nice if we could tell how Jonathan went on to be David’s chief of staff or some such. But it didn’t happen. The man who had bravely faced conflicting loyalties, the man who had stood for what was right to the point of having his own father try to kill him was to gain a greater position of honor than cheerfully settling for number two. Ever the brave man, Jonathan was in the thick of battle when his time came. A troubled life ended in a blaze of glory as one of Israel’s true heroes gave his life for the country he could never rule. Jonathan fades from the record to the mournful strains of David’s harp as he sings a heart-felt lament.

A tragedy? Perhaps. Still, for those of us who believe in God, it isn’t quite that simple. There is a future beyond the grave, a future in which everyone will receive his or her full share, and no one will pay for another’s failure or fail so another can succeed. Under those conditions, you can expect to see Jonathan in a place of great honor.

For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister. (Hebrews 6:10)

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

. . .be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life. (from Revelation 2:10)

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