Who’s your (Bible) hero? A devotional look at Jonathan

by Rich Robinson | June 23 2015

David Brickner wrote about John the Baptist as an unsung hero and a great role model in this month’s newsletter. John the Baptist had built quite a following during his ministry, but accepted the fact that he was destined to prepare the way for another. He was ready to “decrease” as Yeshua (Jesus) “increased.”

One of my favorite Bible heroes lived hundreds of years earlier but has much in common with John the Baptist, including his name. I’m talking about Jonathan, the son of King Saul, and dear friend of King David.

The name Jonathan means “The LORD gives,” or, as some might translate it, “the LORD has given.” (Note that LORD in all caps, denotes the unpronounceable name of God.) That was an apt name for the son of Saul. God had given Jonathan a generous portion of noble qualities, but Jonathan himself was also a gift from God to the people of Israel, and most particularly, to his friend David.

We are first introduced to Jonathan in 1 Samuel 13, where we see the trouble between Israel and the Philistines, which lasted throughout Saul’s reign. In verse three, we see that Jonathan attacked the garrison of Philistines. This was a bold move, highlighting Jonathan’s courage from the start. But the people of Israel feared a backlash from the Philistines, and so did King Saul. And because of that fear, Saul offered a burnt offering rather than waiting for Samuel to do it, as he’d been told to do. That was the beginning of the end of Israel’s first king. And it was at that very point that Saul gets the news that his line will not be established as Israel’s kingly line, but instead, God would choose a man “after His own heart” (verse 14).

Then we see in chapter 14 that Jonathan is incredibly brave, and walks into a nest of his enemies with only his armor bearer, because “Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6).

We see him commit an act of true courage, true faith, blessed by God’s intervention, not unlike David and Goliath. Later on, David said something similar: “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands (1 Samuel 17:47). Who knows? Perhaps Jonathan had even been David’s role model in this.

Jonathan was a true warrior, greatly loved by the people of Israel, who recognized that God was working in and through him. And that is why we see them coming to his rescue in chapter 14.

You are probably familiar with “Saul’s rash oath,” which was to force the people to fast in the midst of battle. Jonathan did not get the memo, so as he was passing by a dripping honeycomb, he took a taste. When the people told him that King Saul had forbade anyone from eating, Jonathan recognized his father’s foolish mistake. He understood and cared about the people’s needs far better than the king.

Nevertheless, Saul was as good as his word and was prepared to kill his own son for violating the foolish fast. And Jonathan would not have defended himself. Now we usually hear about Jonathan in relation to David, but in verse 45, we see he had a reputation in his own right. The people cared about him, as a good leader and a godly man. And they would not allow Saul to have him executed.

So like John the Baptist, Jonathan had quite a following. And like John the Baptist, he understood that he needed to step aside for someone greater.

That someone, David, had been chosen as king and anointed (before family only) prior to meeting King Saul and his family.

David quickly becomes indispensible to King Saul, first, as a musician whom God used to relieve Saul of a distressing spirit, and then as Israel’s champion to slay Goliath.

And how does Jonathan respond? Is he jealous of this young guy who is suddenly his father’s favorite? No, when David came back from slaughtering the Philistines and was called in for an interview with the king, “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (I Samuel 18:1).

This was the nature of Jonathan’s love; he took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, his sword, his bow and his belt.

It’s not as though David didn’t have any clothes. But Jonathan’s clothing represented his standing, his position as heir to the throne as well as his military leadership. And his sword? In chapter 13, verse 22, we see that there were only two swords in all of Israel. One belonged to Saul, and the other to Jonathan. And now Jonathan gives his sword to David. In essence Jonathan is giving everything to David. He realizes this man will be the next king of Israel. And he has no problem with that.

Jonathan not only initiated the friendship but he also sacrificed more for the relationship than David did. Jonathan demonstrates real friendship, real love.

Love is not an even exchange. It is a sacrifice. Even when love is mutual, as it was between Jonathan and David, one party normally ends up giving more than the other. It might be a little more or it might be a lot more. But the person who gives more isn’t keeping score.

We might mistake the one who gives more in a relationship as passive or weak, but those who decide how much they want to give and to whom regardless of what they receive back are anything but! Such people are strong and decisive, and what’s more, they are showing us how God loves. God gives what He wills to give and He doesn’t keep score. Jonathan is a great model of this.

Well, it wasn’t long before Saul’s approval of David turned to jealousy and fear. When Saul turned against David, it was ugly. His anger was a fearful thing—he had become a violent and unstable man and he still wielded a lot of power. Yet Jonathan refused to be intimidated. His loyalty to David provoked Saul further, but Jonathan defended his friend at the risk of his own life. Even more amazing, Jonathan was grieved by Saul’s behavior, why? Because he treated whom shamefully? He treated David shamefully (1 Samuel 20:30-34). How is that for loyalty?

Despite the strong tie that Jonathan and David shared, when it came to the welfare of his family, Jonathan did not presume upon his relationship with David to cover them, but he made the request. He didn’t just figure, “David owes me.” While Jonathan was capable of tremendous depth of feeling, his actions were practical and insightful (1 Samuel 20:15).

Jonathan could have become David’s right hand man, but he remained loyal to his father. Saul had certainly not given Jonathan reason to die with him in battle. Despite everything, he was willing to give his life in battle alongside his father against the Philistines. Jonathan was not a person who needed others to motivate him to do the right thing.

I hope you’ll agree that Jonathan was a real hero and a terrific role model. He didn’t have David’s starring role, but he played his supportive role to the hilt. He was a front line person who knew how to sit in the back seat. He didn’t ask, “When is it going to be my turn?” He didn’t ask, “Why David and not me?”

How could one as great as Jonathan be satisfied with a role in which his truly heroic life and death are often seen as a little twinkling light, outshined by the brilliant stardom of his best friend?

Jonathan, like all godly people, had a quality to help integrate and steer his many strengths. He was humble. Humility is a much misused word and misunderstood quality. It does not mean underestimating one’s true value, or being unaware of one’s gifts and strengths.

Remember what Jonathan’s name means? The LORD gives. That’s how Jonathan lived his life, with the understanding that everything he had had been given to him by the Lord. That’s why he could be so generous; that’s why he could step aside for the Lord’s anointed.

There is so much to emulate if we look at Jonathan as a role model. But the greatest thing about Jonathan, I think, is that he was willing to step aside to make room for the one who was greater, for David.

I love the symmetry of God’s salvation history. Do you think it’s any coincidence that another Jonathan, whom we call John the Baptist, was willing to step aside for the Messiah, the son of David?

And what about us? What kind of friends are we? And what do we do or not do, what do we give and what do we risk, to make way for God’s anointed?