David and Jonathan is the biblical go-to story for closet homosexuality. This has reportedly come up again at Oasis’ Open Church event, but I’ve heard the passages on their relationship preached in a conservative evangelical church where it was made very clear that it wasn’t a text about closet homosexuality. So abundantly repeatedly clear that you felt the preacher did protest too much. (It didn’t help that he claimed the application of this non-sexual text was about marriage. ) Of course, that’s not what is happening in 1 Samuel 18, 1 Samuel 20, or 2 Samuel 1:26, the three texts people argue this from. David and Jonathan’s sexual desire for each other is less a case of careful biblical exegesis and more a case of seeing what you want to see in the text. This is instead what’s going on.
As soon as [David] had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armour, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:1-4, all quotes ESV)
That first line of chapter 18 is key to understanding David and Jonathan relationship. Jonathan’s just seen David do what no-one else was brave enough to do. He’s just seen him slay Goliath and liberate all of Israel from under the hand of the Philistines. But that’s not what causes Jonathan’s soul to be knitted to David. Jonathan’s soul is knitted to David when he hears what David has to say to Saul. And what did David say to Saul? “ ‘I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.’ “ (1 Samuel 17:58). That’s hardly the thing to say to make a grown man go weak at the knees is it? In the history of great speeches that have caused people to fall in love with them this one doesn’t even make the shortlist. So what is it about what David says that makes Jonathan love him? To understand that you need to understand some of the history of the monarchy of Israel.
For a while upon entering the land God had promised the Israelites, God’s people had no king. Or rather, God was their king ruling directly through the priesthood and the law and after a bit various judges. The judges were sent by God when Israel sinned and consequentially fell into the hands of other nations. The judges rescued Israel from the other nations, at least for a while until Israel fell back into sin. After some time of this the Israelites decided the problem wasn’t with their sinfulness, but rather with their lack of a human king on earth ruling over them like all the other nations. With grave warnings about the consequences of having a king like all the other nations, God gave them a king. Saul, Jonathan’s dad, was anointed king of Israel with great fanfare. He was a king like all the other nations. He was the biggest, the strongest, the tallest of all the Israelites. He was a man who looked like he should be king. And he was a failure as king. He doesn’t faithfully obey God’s commands. He swings between mad arrogance when he thinks he can do something and self-centred false humility when he realises he can’t. In one particularly memorable incident he is angry with his son because of his son’s righteous acts and wants to put him to death, but the people come along and appease his anger. When the people have to ransom the righteous son from the father’s displeasure (1 Samuel 14:45), you know Saul hasn’t grasped the whole Christ-like leadership thing.
So Saul’s rejected as king by God. The prophet Samuel tells Saul “For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:26). He’s not alone when he’s rejected either, so if Jonathan’s not there he’s going to hear about it.
The burden of the future crown must weight heavy on him. His dad is the guy he’s meant to follow? But his dad is a terrible person! Does he want to be a king like that? And his country has been at war his entire life, with no end in sight. Does he want to be a king of a kingdom like that? And now the kingdom’s been taken from his father? Does that mean he’s not going to be king anyway? Maybe that’s sweet relief. But if that means he’s going to die or that Israel will collapse that’s no better.
With Saul rejected, what does God do with the monarchy? Eliminate it as a failed idea? No, he shows the people something better. What you need is a not an end to the monarchy but a king after God’s own heart. Someone who trusts and obeys God to death. Ultimately that is Christ, but for now David’s going to be that clear picture of him. And so David, a man without the appearance of majesty that we should look at him, is anointed as king in secret. And David as the Lord’s anointed one heads out and walks down into the valley of death where he fights against the devilish figure of Goliath who holds God’s people in fear and captivity. He takes out Goliath and turns his own weapon against him, killing him and leads God’s people in a triumphal procession of victory. He’s grasped the whole Christ-like leadership thing.
But that’s not why Jonathan falls in love with David remember? It’s “as soon as [David] had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” So let’s finally work out why those words do his job. Jonathan must know his bible, because he’s a righteous upright Israelite who grew up with the priesthood around him. And because he knows his bible and because he grew up heir to the throne, he’s going to have paid attention to those few verses about ruling authority. And so as he’s read the blessings to Israel’s sons in Genesis 49, he’ll have wondered -isn’t the king meant to come from the tribe of Judah? After all, to the tribe of Judah is promised “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet” (Genesis 49:10). So why, Jonathan must wonder, is my dad from the tribe of Benjamin? (1 Chronicles 8).
So when David is brought before Saul and Jonathan is standing there and Saul says “where are you from?” and David replies “I’m from Bethlehem” that’s massive. Jonathan knows Bethlehem is in the tribe of Judah (the same way you know San Francisco is in California or Edinburgh is in Scotland). And Jonathan hears this and of course he falls in love and his soul is knit to David! Here is someone who not only acts like a king should, but comes from the family where the king should come from. Here’s the person who’s going to be king instead of Jonathan! Praise the Lord. Here’s someone who can take the heavy crown off Jonathan’s head and carry it for him. Here’s the guy who Jonathan can fall behind. No more will he have to carry the burden of the people. Instead this king will stand up and defend the people. What sweet relief! Of course Jonathan is delighted to give him his robe, his sword, his armour, and his bow. All his signs of his authority and power he hands over to David. Let this man
the man who God has chosen be king and let me follow after him.
So too for us. We think we must rule and master our own life, we must lead the way in the world. But we soon realise deep down we’re a terrible king of our own soul. We make poor decisions, we ruin relationships, we lie, we worry and panic about how we will cope in life and self-medicate with wine and internet. How much better to throw down our pitiful attempts at running things at the feet of Jesus and allow him to carry the burden. How good is it to have a king who’ll fight for us. What relief to be a citizen of the kingdom of the King who has already conquered everything.
It’s not sexual love between Jonathan and David that’s praised in the Bible, it’s the same love as the Christian towards Jesus. That’s what’s going on with David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 18 and what’s going on later in 1 Samuel 20 and 2 Samuel 1:26. Not star-crossed lovers, but the deep profound love as we should have for Christ. This is a picture of how we should love Christ. We should cling to Jesus and kiss him like Jonathan does to David (1 Samuel 20:41). For us guys, that might not be manly in our Western world, but it’s the response we’re taught in the bible. We say with David about Christ “your love to me was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:27).
Here’s my horse in this race, why this annoys me and why it’s relevant to my ministry. If I ask a large number of the young people I work with “do you love your friend?” the response will be “no, I’m not gay.” (maybe not quite as politely stated.) That’s because they’ve grown up being taught and so believe that love is sexual. You feel affection towards your friend and like spending time with them? Well that means you probably fancy them. You can maybe love your mum or your sister in a non-sexual way, but even that is seen as a weird abnormality. This is of course, massively damaging to a person. These young guys don’t develop deep intimacy with their male peers because they’re worried this is somehow gay and they only develop deep intimacy with their female peers because they fancy them. Part of the solution is to work against homophobia, but more than it’s to show that deep, fulfilling non-sexual relationships between the same gender are possible. People need to hear that non-sexual relationships are good and proper. You can have mates and enjoy their company. When you go to the cinema to watch a film with someone of the same sex, you don’t have to say “no homo” afterwards.
This sexualised interpretation of David and Jonathan is exactly what some of my young people are taught by their culture week on week. Of course they’re closet gay. Of course that level of intimacy means they want to jump into bed with each other but are fighting it back. Enough! Can we fight for non-sexual relationships? Can we teach that intimacy is possible between people without rolling round under the covers?
I guess I have another horse in the race. As a guy, I need to have David and Jonathan’s example of an intimate, close, relationship with other guys. I need them to show me what my relationships could be like with my friends but also to show me what my love and intimacy for Jesus should be like. David and Jonathan’s love for each other can show me how I can love Jesus with all my heart and affection, and enjoy sweet intimacy with him. I need that.