3. Jonathan's Friendship, Saul's Jealousy (1 Samuel 18-20)

Audio (29:42)

James J. Tissot, detail of 'Friendship of David and Jonathan'(1896-1902) gouache on board, Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, detail of 'Friendship of David and Jonathan' (1896-1902) gouache on board, Jewish Museum, New York. David is on the left, Jonathan on the right. Larger image.

While still holding the dripping head of Goliath, David appears before Saul, who asks about his family. In the king's tent at that time is Saul's son and heir, Jonathan. He is probably a decade older than David, but there is an instant bond between the two.

David's Bond with Jonathan (18:1)

"After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself." (18:1)

What is the nature of this bond? The text uses two words to describe it.

"Became one" (NIV), "was bound" (NRSV), "was knit" (KJV) is qāshar. The root idea is "tie up, bind," metaphorically, "to be allied with." It can even carry the idea, "to conspire, form a conspiracy, make a plot," which characterizes Jonathan's and David's later plan to help David escape from King Saul.[58] The KJV translates the clause quite literally: "The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David," using the Hebrew noun nepesh, "life, soul, person," from the verb, nāpash, "breathe."[59] The breath or essence of David's life is bound to Jonathan.

"Loved" is ʾāhab, a general word that can describe a whole range of affection, from love between human beings to a love for food, love for God's commandments, or even a love for evil. The word can describe the love of a parent for a child, a husband for a wife, a woman for a man, Ruth for Naomi, etc. It is the word used in the classic text, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).[60] Later, in his eulogy at Jonathan's death, David says,

"I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love (ʾahabâ) for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women." (2 Samuel 1:26)

The modern homosexual movement has portrayed David and Jonathan as homosexual lovers, but there is no evidence whatsoever of a sexual element to their relationship. Clearly, David is heterosexual. This is just an example of people trying use the Bible to justify what the Bible clearly condemns.[61] In addition, this interpretation ignores deep bonds of masculine friendship in this culture that are quite non-sexual in nature.

Covenant with Jonathan (18:2-4)

From then on, David is attached to Saul's court.

"2 From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return to his father's house. 3 And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.
4 Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt." (18:2-4)

We see in this passage the idea of "covenant" -- the same word used to describe the covenant between Yahweh and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. While that covenant was like a suzerain-vassal treaty, "covenant" (berît) here is more personal, an "alliance of friendship" between individuals.[62] The word is used several times in these chapters (18:3; 20:8, 16, 18) where the nature of this covenant is developed further. This covenant underlies David's actions years later towards Jonathan's son Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9).

Notice that this covenant is sealed by gifts of a robe, tunic, sword, bow, and belt from Jonathan to David. We have the same idea in the use of a ring in our wedding service. The 1559 Book of Common Prayer reads:

"Forasmuch as (groom) and (bride) have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God, and this company, and thereto have given and pledged, their troth to other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of a ring, and by joining of hands, I pronounce that they be man and wife together."[63] 

The covenant is confirmed by receiving a gift in the same way that a small monetary deposit seals a business transaction in our day.

High Rank in the Army (18:5)

David's military prowess is not lost on Saul. He rises rapidly to leadership in Saul's army.

"Whatever Saul sent him to do, David did it so successfully that Saul gave him a high rank[64] in the army. This pleased all the people, and Saul's officers as well." (18:5)

I think it's fascinating to see that Saul's officers were pleased by David's advancement in rank. You'd expect officers to be jealous of David's rapid promotion and feel threatened. But they are not. They recognize that David has earned his position -- and they are pleased to see his achievement recognized. This is evidence of David's personal charisma that attracted people to him -- which we'll see when David begins to build his own army after fleeing from Saul (22:2).

David's Glory and Saul's Jealousy (18:6-9)

The narrator has fast-forwarded to David's rise in the army, but now he comes back to David's triumphant return after killing Goliath. David becomes very popular with the people -- especially the women!

"6 When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lutes. 7 As they danced, they sang:

   'Saul has slain his thousands,
   and David his tens of thousands.'

8 Saul was very angry; this refrain galled[65] him. 'They have credited David with tens of thousands,' he thought, 'but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?'9 And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David." (18:6-9)

Many people become jealous and paranoid when someone else's success puts them in a lesser light. This jealousy and fear -- and mental instability -- motivate many of Saul's later actions.

But the song of the women, "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands," had become part of the popular culture. Even the Philistine kings had heard of it (21:11; 29:5). It must have been a constant bitter reminder to Saul of his own failures and rejection as king.

Saul Tries to Kill David (18:10-12)

David returns to his former duty as court musician -- but this time Saul is well-aware of who he is -- and his huge popularity among the people.

"10 The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully[66] upon Saul. He was prophesying[67]  in his house, while David was playing the harp, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand 11 and he hurled it, saying to himself, 'I'll pin David to the wall.'But David eluded him twice. 12 Saul was afraid of David, because the LORD was with David but had left Saul." (18:10-12)

During a particularly violent episode, Saul throws a spear at David -- not once, but twice! Note the dual motives in verse 12: (1) fear and (2) jealousy. Saul is out of control!

Saul's Plan for David to Fall in Battle (18:13-16 )

Saul can't stand to have David around, so he promotes him to be a general and sends him away.

"So he sent David away from him and gave him command over a thousand men, and David led the troops in their campaigns." (18:13)

Apparently, Saul's intentions are two-fold: (1) to get David away from him and out of his court, and (2) to put him in a dangerous place so that he will be killed, as we'll see in verses 17b and 21. But Saul's plan backfires.

"14 In everything he did he had great success, because the LORD was with him. 15 When Saul saw how successful he was, he was afraid of him. 16 But all Israel and Judah loved David, because he led them in their campaigns." (18:14-16)

Rather than being killed in battle, David proves to be both a powerful warrior and a leader of men. The ability to have others follow you when their lives are at risk is not just a matter of authority. Men won't long follow someone they believe to be a stupid leader who will get them killed. But the men find that they trust David. He leads them to victory. He has consistent success,[68] which brings him even greater publicity and adulation among the people. Notice the reason for David's success: "because the LORD was with him" (18:14).

Q1. (1 Samuel 18:13-16). Why does Saul send David into battle? What is the result? To what does the narrator attribute David's success?

Saul's Older Daughter, Merab (18:17-18)

But Saul doesn't give up trying to kill David.

"Saul said to David, 'Here is my older daughter Merab. I will give her to you in marriage; only serve me bravely and fight the battles of the LORD.'For Saul said to himself, 'I will not raise a hand against him. Let the Philistines do that!'" (18:17)

Saul is shrewd and deceitful. Notice that Saul's current offer of his daughter in marriage is not the reward promised to the one who slew Goliath (17:25), but rather has strings attached. David must continue fighting, and thus increase the chances that he will be killed in battle. David's answer shows wisdom, humility, and realism. "My family isn't worthy of such an honor," he replies. He can't afford a bridal gift fit for the king's daughter, so Saul marries his older daughter to someone else.

Saul's Treachery Regarding His Daughter Michal (18:20-22)

When Saul hears that his younger daughter is in love (ʾāhab) with David, he sees another opportunity to get David killed.

"'I will give her to him,'he thought, 'so that she may be a snare to him and so that the hand of the Philistines may be against him.'" (18:21a)

Saul appeals to both David's macho pride and his military prowess -- and succeeds. He passes the word that the bride price is not financial, but military success.  Saul says to David, "Now you have a second opportunity to become my son-in-law."

"'Say to David, 'The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins, to take revenge on his enemies.'Saul's plan was to have David fall by the hands of the Philistines." (18:25)

Saul is more subtle now, and conveys his words and motivations through his attendants rather than directly.

The opportunity to marry the king's daughter -- especially if he is able to pay the bride price by his own efforts -- pleases David who takes him up on his offer. Instead of 100 Philistines, David and his men double the amount. They kill 200 Philistines, circumcise the corpses, and deliver the foreskins to Saul. By marrying Michal, David is now son-in-law to the king.

Q2. (1 Samuel 18:18-22) Which of the following is David's chief motive for marrying Michal, in your opinion? Argue for the motivation that makes the most sense to you: (1) pride in his military prowess, (2) obedience to Saul's desires, (3) love or desire for Michal, or (4) enjoyment in killing Philistines.

In spite of the fact that David is fighting successful battles for Israel and securing the kingdom for Saul, the king is intensely jealous of David.

"When Saul realized that the LORD was with David ...  Saul became still more afraid of him, and he remained his enemy the rest of his days." (18:28-29)

This is sad, because David is Saul's most loyal subject. Even later, when he gets two perfect opportunities to kill Saul, David refuses to take his life (24:7; 26:9-11).

Saul Tries to Kill David (19:1-17)

Now Saul becomes open about his desire to get rid of David.

James J. Tissot, 'David Makes His Escape'(1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'David Makes His Escape' (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York. Larger image.

"Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David. But Jonathan was very fond[69] of David" (19:1).

Jonathan warns David, and then succeeds in talking his father out of this madness.

"Let not the king do wrong to his servant David; he has not wronged you, and what he has done has benefited you greatly.... Why then would you do wrong to an innocent man like David by killing him for no reason?" (19:4-5)

Saul is convinced and swears an oath:

"As surely as the LORD lives, David will not be put to death" (19:6).

This is not his last oath to spare David. He vows this twice more -- and again reneges on his promise (24:16-20; 26:21). One of the character flaws that makes Saul unworthy to be king is his unwillingness to honor his own solemn promises.

Soon we see a repeat of Saul throwing his spear to try to kill David while he plays the harp (17:9-10). This time David realizes that Saul will not be deterred from killing him, so he flees the palace.

That night at home, David's wife Michal encourages David to leave in the middle of the night by escaping out a window. As a ruse, Michal says that David is ill and puts a life size object[70] in David's bed to deceive the men sent to kill David. Then she claims that David had threatened her if she didn't aid his escape.

At this point Michal seems to be on David's side, as her future in the kingdom is tied up with David's. She lies about David threatening her in order to protect herself. Her loyalty isn't really to David, it appears, but to her own best interests.

David Flees to Samuel (19:18-24)

Looking for a place of refuge, David flees to elderly Samuel in Ramah, about an hour's walk from Saul's capital in Gibeah. Baldwin observes, "Far from being a lone figure, Samuel presided over a center where prophets engaged in worship."[71] But even there, Saul sends men to capture David. What happens to these men -- and what later happens to Saul himself -- is amusing.

"20 But when they saw a group of prophets prophesying, with Samuel standing there as their leader, the Spirit of God came upon Saul's men and they also prophesied. 21 Saul was told about it, and he sent more men, and they prophesied too. Saul sent men a third time, and they also prophesied.... Saul went to Naioth[72] at Ramah. But the Spirit of God came even upon him, and he walked along prophesying until he came to Naioth. 24 He stripped off his robes and also prophesied in Samuel's presence. He lay that way all that day and night. This is why people say, 'Is Saul also among the prophets?'" (1 Samuel 19:20-21, 23-24)

Something similar had happened to Saul when he had first been anointed king (10:10).

It's not useful -- or faithful to the text -- to understand this in Freudian terms as some kind of mass hysteria. Clearly, this is some kind of involuntary possession by the Holy Spirit that moves people from their intent to kill David to speaking the things of God. Occasionally, we see this today when people are "slain" by the Spirit and for a few minutes seem to lose their connection with their normal state. Elsewhere, we see the Holy Spirit coming upon Moses' elders (Numbers 11:25-26) and the disciples on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), resulting in prophecy. You don't have to "understand" everything the Holy Spirit does so you can label it. Jesus described the activity of the Spirit as mysterious: "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going" (John 3:8). The Holy Spirit is not under our control; we are under His.

It's sad to realize that for Saul, nothing is sacred -- that's the implication of Saul seeking to kill David in the very sanctuary of Israel's prophet Samuel. Saul's fear and need to control have pushed him to total rebellion against God, even though he realizes that God has anointed David to be king.

Q3. (1 Samuel 19:18-24) What does it tell us about Saul's faith that he pursues David even when he has sought the sanctuary of the prophet Samuel? Why do people prophesy when the Holy Spirit comes upon them? What is the relationship between this incident and the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2)?

David and Jonathan (20:1-23)

David concludes that he isn't safe even with the prophet Samuel. He arranges a secret meeting with Saul's son, Jonathan. Consider how much trust this must have taken on David's part. If Jonathan betrays David to his father Saul, he can become king himself. Still, Jonathan has made a covenant with David and keeps it.

David decides to test Saul's intentions. When David fails to appear at the monthly New Moon festival (Numbers 10:10) when he customarily dined at the king's table, Jonathan will make excuses for David and then judge Saul's reaction. "If he loses his temper, you can be sure that he is determined to harm me" (20:7b).

You can see language indicating binding oaths several times in this passage:

"You have brought him into a covenant with you before the LORD" (20:8a)

"By the LORD, the God of Israel...." (20:12a)

"May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely...." (20:13a)

"So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, 'May the LORD call David's enemies to account.'And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself." (20:16-17)

Jonathan and David need to be able to trust one another. David must trust that Jonathan won't betray him to Saul. Jonathan must trust David that his family will not be killed when David eventually assumes the throne. Upon ascending the throne, a king would usually kill all his potential rivals in order to secure his kingship. David promises not to do this with regard to Jonathan or to his descendants.

Finally, they develop a plan so that Jonathan can communicate Saul's intentions to David secretly -- a taste of spy-craft from 1000 BC. If Jonathan tells his archery assistant to look for arrows in one area, it means that there is no danger from Saul, but if he tells him the arrows are farther away, it means that David must flee.

David Is Absent from the New Moon Festival (20:24-34)

At the New Moon festival, Saul ignores David's absence the first day, but on the second day, he questions it and, as planned, Jonathan makes excuses for David. This triggers Saul's anger, and he calls Jonathan the "son of a perverse and rebellious woman," an insult meaning, "perverse rebel."[73] Again, Saul explains to Jonathan that David is a threat to his throne.

When Jonathan defends David, Saul hurls the nearby spear at his own son! The man is out of control, willing to kill his own son for associating with David. At least Saul's intentions are clear: "Jonathan knew that his father intended to kill David" (20:33b).

Jonathan and David Weep Together (20:35-42)

The next morning, as planned, Jonathan gives David the signal that Saul indeed intends to kill him. Then Jonathan sends his young assistant back to the palace and David comes out of hiding. He formally honors Jonathan, the king's son, by prostrating himself before him three times.

"Then they kissed each other and wept together -- but David wept the most. Jonathan said to David, 'Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the LORD, saying, "The LORD is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever."'" (20:41-42)

David is risking his life by trusting Jonathan, who is his rival for the throne. Jonathan is risking his life by helping his father's chief enemy escape, knowing that it may keep him from becoming king. They make an enduring covenant between the "house of David" and the "house of Jonathan" that will affect their descendants also.

"Then Jonathan said to David, 'Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the LORD, saying, 'The LORD shall be between[74] me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.'" (20:42, NRSV)

"Sworn" means that they have taken solemn oaths before the Lord. "Peace" recalls that they have sworn not to cause harm to each other. Notice the phrase using the word "between" in verse 23:

"And about the matter you and I discussed -- remember, the LORD is [witness] between you and me forever." (20:23)

This recalls the familiar Mizpah saying 800 years earlier on the occasion of Jacob's parting from his uncle Laban:

"May the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.
If you mistreat my daughters or if you take any wives besides my daughters, even though no one is with us, remember that God is a witness between you and me." (Genesis 31:49-50)

You will recall that there was no longer any trust between Jacob and Laban. Yet they parted with the assurance that the Lord was a witness to their agreement with each other. Of course, when David and Jonathan part, there is great trust between them -- and great risk for both of them. Their last words recall that the Lord will be watching that each of them fulfills his part of the covenant.

Q4. (1 Samuel 20:35-42) What is the nature of the covenant between David and Jonathan? What does David receive? What does Jonathan receive? Who benefits the most from this covenant? Is it self-serving -- or not? What is the significance that God is witness to the covenant?

It's touching to imagine their parting. The NIV translates verse 41, "Then they kissed each other and wept together -- but David wept the most," suggesting that they were in competition with each other, but that doesn't make sense. The Message captures the scene better:[75]

"They kissed one another and wept, friend over friend, David weeping especially hard." (20:41, The Message)

David is leaving the honor and relative stability of the king's palace and his own military command. What faces him now is the life of a fugitive, always looking over his shoulder, pursued relentlessly by the most powerful man in the kingdom, intent on his death. And David is leaving his closest, dearest friend, Jonathan, who is risking his own future by being loyal to David. It is almost too much to bear. One chapter of his life is closing forever and another chapter -- a dark and foreboding chapter -- is opening. David is weeping as Jonathan turns to go back to the city while David walks into exile alone.

Disciple Lessons

Life of David, Discipleship Lessons in 1 and 2 Samuel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

What are the lessons for disciples here? The text contrasts the evil, conniving, fear-filled jealousy of Saul with the purity of selfless love. I think we can learn several things:

  1. Male friendships. There can be deep, tender friendships between men without a hint of sexual attraction. This is a lesson that needs to be heard by our culture. Men don't need to be afraid of or apologetic for their love for other men.
  2. Fear and jealousy, if we let them have a place in our lives, are evil and can be extremely destructive to those around us.
  3. Covenants or promises between people can endure. God, who is witness to our promises, calls us to a high standard in keeping them.
  4. Enemies. Living a righteous life doesn't make us immune to others seeing themselves as our enemies. We are responsible for our own lives, but we can't be responsible for others'reactions to us. Our motives may be pure, but that doesn't keep others from hating us. It happens to the best of us -- perhaps especially to the best.


Father, it's sad for us to see Saul's hatred and jealousy. Some of us have felt great pain in our relationships, and have had to flee because of the dysfunction in our families. O Lord, help us not to allow our pain to turn us into bitter people ourselves. By your grace, give us friends with whom we can experience the kind of covenant of trust that David and Jonathan experienced. When we don't have best friends like this, we certainly miss them. Lord, in all of our conflicts and struggles, we trust in you -- that you are working out our lives according to your own purposes. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself." (1 Samuel 18:1)

"When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lutes. As they danced, they sang: 'Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.'" (1 Samuel 18:6-7)

"Saul was afraid of David, because the LORD was with David but had left Saul." (1 Samuel 18:12)

"Jonathan said to David, 'Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the LORD, saying, "The LORD is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever."'" (1 Samuel 20:42)

[58] Qāshar, Holladay, 327; "bind, league together, conspire" (BDB 905).

[59] Bruce K. Waltke, nāpash, TWOT #1395a. "In numerous passages reference is made to the inclination or disinclination of the soul. It is frequently used in connection with 'love.'"

[60] Robert L. Alden, ʾāhab, TWOT #29.

[61] Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:8-10; Genesis 19; Jude 7. Though the Bible condemns the sin, we are called to love people who struggle with same-sex attractions. The ministry of Exodus International (www.exodusinternational.org) helps homosexuals work through some of these issues.

[62] Elmer B. Smick, berît, TWOT #282a.

[63] "The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony," The Book of Common Prayer (1559). I modernized the spelling.

[64] "Gave him a high rank" (NIV), "set him over" (NRSV, KJV) is śûm, "put, place, set, appoint, make," here, "the placing is into an authority position" (Gary G. Cohen, śûm, TWOT #2243).

[65] "Galled" (NIV), "was angry" (NRSV), "was wroth" (KJV) is ḥārâ, "burn, be kindled," of anger (BDB 354, 1a).

[66] The phrase "came forcefully upon" (NIV), "rushed upon" (NRSV), "came upon" (KJV) is ṣālaḥ, which is used to describe the Holy Spirit coming upon David in Lesson 1.

[67] The text says that Saul was "prophesying" (NIV, KJV) or "raved" (NRSV) under the influence of an evil spirit. Usually prophecy is viewed positively in the Bible, but it is not uncommon for people to prophesy under the power of an evil spirit (1 Kings 18:29; 22:19; Zechariah 13:2-4; Matthew 7:15-16, 22; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 John 4:2-3; Acts 16:16.). That is what was happening to Saul.

[68] "Have success" (NIV, NRSV), "behave wisely" (KJV) in verses 14 and 15 is śākal, which can mean both "to be wise, understand," and "to prosper, have success" (Louis Goldberg, TWOT #2263; Holladay 352, 4). It has this meaning elsewhere also (1 Kings 2:3; Jeremiah 10:21; 2 Kings 18:7).

[69] "Was fond of" (NIV), "took great delight in" (NRSV, cf. KJV) is ḥāpēṣ, "to experience emotional delight." The basic meaning is to feel great favor towards something. Leon J. Wood, TWOT #712.

[70]  "Idol" (NIV, NRSV), "image" (KJV) is terāphîm, "idols, images," here, "a large, anthropomorphic idol."[70]Here it must have been something in the shape of a man under the covers to simulate David's presence in the bed. Or is it possibly a scarecrow type of straw man covered with a blanket to deceive Saul's men? This would require teraphim to be used differently here than it is used elsewhere in the Old Testament. But what was Michal doing with a teraphim, an object of idol worship that had been condemned earlier by Samuel? "For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry (terāphîm)" (15:23a). Michal's access to a teraphim says something about her spiritual condition. Michal trusted in the teraphim; David trusted in the Lord.

[71] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 133.

[72] Naioth means literally, "dwellings/habitations," and may refer to a religious compound within Ramah (Bergen, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 210). Klein sees "camps" or "huts" as the best translation (1 Samuel, p. 198).

[73] Baldwin, p. 136.

[74] Bayin, preposition, "between" is used four times in the Hebrew text of this sentence.

[75] Tsumura (1 Samuel, p. 524) catches the sense better with, "until David cried louder," that is, until David's emotions overflowed completely, "until David made (his voice) great/magnified."


Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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