Covenant friendship (1 Samuel 18)

“Jonathan stripped himself of his robe, and gave it to David.”

Chapter 18 begins the story of the friendship between David and Jonathan. This is no mere interlude in the book of 1 Samuel, nor is this just any old friendship. And of course it is nothing like the alleged justification for homosexual relationships as some liberal scholars have attempted to present it. Had these scholars’ humanist agendas not pushed out every last ounce of theological understanding in their brains, they might—might—have noticed the real issue here. This is no mere friendship, but rather a model covenantal friendship built on self-sacrifice.

This view changes the lesson once again from a mere inspiring morality tale (as it is often told) to one of covenantal faithfulness. It involves once again God’s Law and redemptive history. Indeed, the language used here recalls several other episodes of God’s covenantal faithfulness all through Scripture, not the least of which is Christ Himself. In the end we learn of the necessity of such friendship for our own salvation and community with the body of Christ. It becomes the foundation for relationships and social ethics, indicating the way forward for God’s kingdom on earth.

Strong Bonds

The first few verses describe the covenant Jonathan made with David. This happened almost immediately after the slaying of the giant, and may very well have been performed publicly with Saul as a witness. Note that at the end of chapter 17, Saul has David brought before him (17:55–58). Chapter 18 picks up at that exact scene just after the death of Goliath, and after David had been retrieved and brought before Saul. Then, as soon as he [that is, David] had finished speaking to Saul, we are told that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David (18:1).

Verse two notes Saul’s decision to conscript David permanently, no longer letting him stay with and work for his parents. It says this happened on that day—that being the same day as Goliath’s fall and Jonathan’s allegiance to David. The text immediately turns to Jonathan’s covenant and then their trip back home. It seems to me that this all takes place in the same venue. This is highly important, for it would mean that Saul was present to witness what Jonathan did.

And what did Jonathan do? He only a made a covenant with David, that’s all. And what was the nature of this covenant? Was it mere friendly affection? Jonathan’s actions say it was much more. It was a covenant of service, possibly even rank: And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt (18:4). The “robe” here is a meil—a robe of authority. Priests and princes wore these as signs of their authority (Ex. 28:4, 31, 34). Remember the meil Samuel’s mother made him (1 Sam. 2:19), and which Saul had torn (15:27). This is the type of outer garment worn by Jonathan as well. He was the heir to the throne after all. He was a royal prince. Yet we see him here recognizing the greatness of David—so much so that Jonathan divests himself of his royal robe and gives it to David. He also gave his armor and weapons to David as well.

I think this act had even greater significance yet, once you consider some background. Remember that Jonathan was in the camp with Saul in chapter 13 when Saul failed to wait, usurped the sacrifices, and heard the proclamation from Samuel that the kingdom would be taken from Saul and given to a man after God’s own heart (13:14). Likewise, Jonathan was there when Saul was about to kill him, and was rescued by the jury (14:45). Given Jonathan’s proximity in battle here in chapter 18, we can assume this was the norm, and thus was probably true as well in chapter 15 when Saul failed the commandment of the Lord and was publicly rebuked and rejected through Samuel. In short, Jonathan would almost certainly have known that Saul was rejected by God and that God had chosen a replacement. As a godly man himself, Jonathan was probably looking for that commander promised by Samuel in 13:14. Putting this all together, Jonathan’s gifts to David in 18:4 are very suggestive. They bespeak a promise of royalty and military command.

The fact that Jonathan gives these to David while making a covenant with him suggests this even more strongly. This is a pledge of loyalty to the death. David has already been anointed king, but the Lord has not brought this to fruition in history. Jonathan seems to be the first person to recognize the potential.

The text says Jonathan’s soul was “knit” to David’s (18:1). “Knit” is a common translation here, but it is a bit unfortunate. We are not talking about mittens and scarves here. The Hebrew word qashar denotes a tight bond. It refers to political leagues made between individuals, and also is frequently used later in the historical books to denote conspiracy or treason (2 Sam. 15:12, 31; 1 Kings 15:27; 16:9, 16, 20; 2 Kings 9:14; 10:9; 11:14; 12:21; 14:19; 15:10, 15, 25, 30; 17:4; 21:23–24; 23:13; 24:21, 25–27; 33:24, 25; et al). The prophets use the word this way (Isa. 8:12; Amos 7:10). Jeremiah and Ezekiel both generalize it into a larger conspiracy of the people against God (Jer. 11:9) and of wicked prophets against the people (22:25). Isaiah confirms also the covenantal nature of this “binding” (a distinctly covenantal term, after all) by using it in reference to marriage and for the purpose of redemption and fruitfulness of children:

Lift up your eyes around and see; they all gather, they come to you. As I live, declares the LORD, you shall put them all on as an ornament; you shall bind them on as a bride does (Isa. 49:18).

So the word has a pedigree more distinct than to mean mere emotional attachment here. This is a tie that binds people together even through adversity or opposition. And, of course, verse three says specifically that Jonathan made a covenant (literally “cut” a covenant, which is usual in the Hebrew),[1] so we should understand the binding of his soul in that context. It was not only emotional, it was of his whole being, and he made it a legal and religious reality as well.

That Saul was most likely present to see this is quite important as well. He, too, remembers Samuel’s sayings in chapters 13 and 15. He may have only considered Jonathan’s actions in the context of the immediate hype of victory—mere excitement. But it would not be long before Saul was getting jealous of David’s popularity and success. And it would not be long before Jonathan’s loyalty to David manifested in defenses of David, then in privately helping David escape Saul. In only a couple of chapters, we will see Saul curse his son for giving up his claim to the throne, and instead having “chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame” (1 Sam. 20:30). But Saul’s memory gets somewhat selective in chapter 22 when he upbraids his servants for not warning him that Jonathan had made a league with David. It is here, however, that we see that word qashar again. Saul accuses his men of engaging in “conspiracy” against him by their negligence to inform (22:8). The only direct evidence Saul could have had would have been here in 18:1–4. Apart from this, all his later tirades would have been based upon mere inferences. This is not, of course, out of the picture, for Saul’s paranoia reaches stratospheric heights quickly; but his recollection of Jonathan having divested his robe and arms in deference to David would have provided a powerful backdrop to Saul’s claim about conspiracy and of Jonathan selling out his throne.

But in the end, Jonathan is right. David is greater and David will be king. Jonathan symbolically divested himself of his rank and power in order to covenant with this man. He sacrifices to the greater, and does not mind the humility of it. It will be a long time and way too late when Saul finally admits this (24:20).

In Jonathan’s actions we see a picture of true friendship: based upon humility and self-sacrifice. As such, Jonathan is, in this scene, a type of Christ. This is exactly the type of friendship Christ commanded to His disciples:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another (John 15:12–17).

Deep Division

Saul is immediately impressed with David and conscripts him for permanent service. Saul set David over the men of war and he fought successfully wherever he went out (18:5). But Saul would not remain enamored long. Even though he would promote David highly and quickly, the seed of his hatred began to germinate very early. Over time, his hatred manifested in more and more ways, more consistently, and with more dedication. His hatred would lead to an all-out war against David.

From jealousy to war

That war began with nothing more than personal jealousy. The trigger for this jealousy was the reaction of the people to David’s victory. The army walked home after the battle and was greeted in each city along the way by scores of women playing and singing. The song was celebratory by provocative:

Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands (18:7).

As you can imagine, this did not sit well with Saul. But it’s even worse than you imagine. Consider the context. Saul was declared by Samuel to have been rejected and would be replaced. This news had to have spread throughout society by this time. Next, Saul had just been shown up by Goliath. Despite being the big man chosen for his size and for war, Saul cowered with the rest of Israel while David marched out fearlessly. The very thing for which he had been chosen, he failed in. Do not think the people had not noted this. Then, note what actually happens in verse six. The women sign this provocative song as they went to meet King Saul, and the women sang to one another. This means they had organized and orchestrated their little ditty for the occasion. Putting all this together, these women were not just singing randomly and were overheard by happenstance by Saul. No. They had planned this song, and planned it for Saul specifically to hear. In other words, they were trying to be provocative. This was a political statement designed to make Saul look silly, like a political cartoon today. Saul knew this, and it had its intended effect: it really got under his skin.

Saul was not only jealous of David, but his reaction shows that he grew paranoid: since the people now thought more highly of David, Saul reasoned, what more can he have but the kingdom? (18:8). Thus he eyed David, or, treated him with suspicion, from that day on.

While the women’s song was the trigger of Saul’s war on David, the root cause of it really was Saul’s own pride and lust. James teaches that lust and covetousness are the roots of all war:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel (Jam. 4:1–2).

These are the spiritual roots of hatred, the opposite of love. John cites the example of Cain, “who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 John 3:12).

This was exactly the case with Saul. He was the evil seed. His own deed had been evil. Yet he could not stand to watch another outperform him. His jealousy provoked him to try to murder the righteous seed: Saul had his spear in his hand. And Saul hurled the spear, for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” But David evaded him twice (18:10–11). Not without irony, the spear and the attempted murder here both take us back to the evil seed. Recall from our introductory sermon that the Hebrew word for Cain can mean “spear.” Here is the new spear-man. Saul has become a new Cain.

Thwarted attempts

But David escaped, and Saul probably did not believe at this point that he could continue with open attempts at murder. Nevertheless, Saul was still paranoid—afraid of David. So, he began a series of indirect attacks aimed at killing David.

At first he set David as a captain over a thousand, and began sending him out on regular battles. The design here was to keep David in battle continually in hopes that he would get killed. But it did not work. David prospered in all that he did. The only outcome of this was not David’s death, but a massive increase of his popularity with the people. In effect, David had become the great military leader the people wanted when they first got Saul. This only confirmed the women’s song even more. When Saul realized this, he grew even more afraid (vv. 12–16).

Saul then concocted a new plan to get David killed. He tried to entice David into further wars with the prize for success being to marry his daughter Merab. The text specifically records Saul’s murderous intent to have David killed by the Philistines in battle (18:17). David’s response shows his character: David did not need such an honor in order to serve the king. Yet David’s humility here was even greater: he already should have had a free pass to marry the king’s daughter, for this had been promised to the man who would slay Goliath (17:25). Saul had not given this as he had promised, but David was not making a stink about it. He just served faithfully and quietly.

But when Saul’s other daughter Michal revealed a crush on David, it gave Saul another opportunity for a set-up. This time he could appeal to his daughter’s love for David. Also this time he would enlist all of his servants in an attempt to persuade David. David balked, apparently due to his inability to pay a tremendous bride-price as would customarily be expected to marry a king’s daughter. But this gave Saul just the opening he wanted. He joined his murderous intent and conspiracy with deceit: “The king desires no bride-price except a hundred foreskins of the Philistines, that he may be avenged of the king’s enemies.” Now Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines (1 Sam. 18:25). Saul took away any excuse from David based on any poverty, but at the same time felt like he ensured David’s death by requiring 100 foreskins from Philistine warriors. David was as good as dead, surely!

Not so. God prospered David once again. David not only fulfilled the demand, he doubled it. Then he came right into the court before Saul and made a show of it. He plopped the whole bloody pile of foreskins down in front of Saul, and some translations suggest that he literally counted them out to make the point. This guy seemed to be invincible.

Saul acquiesced to his bargain and gave his daughter to David, but the incident only hardened Saul further. The worst aspect of this is that Saul actually understood that David’s success was of the Lord: he saw and knew that the Lord was with David (18:28). Yet he could not bring himself to submit to God himself. Instead, Saul’s orientation was toward himself and his own throne. Saul was even more afraid of David. So Saul was David’s enemy continually (18:29). What began as a jealousy of the heart ballooned into a full-blown murderous campaign of warfare. This tension between Saul and David will drive the narratives until chapter 27 when David leaves the country. The underlying reason for Saul’s fear—the fact that God had departed from him—will play the backdrop to this confrontation between the wicked and faithful seed until Saul dies at the very end of the book.

In contrast to Saul’s murderous behaviors growing out of and feeding his fear in a vicious cycle of hatred, we see David as the complete opposite. He exhibits loving service based upon his trust and faithfulness to God. God continually prospers him, and this turns into a cycle of ever greater faith on David’s part. The chapter ends by telling us that no matter how much the Philistines attacked, David was more and more successful, and more so than Saul’s other servants. And the more successful he was, the more his reputation grew.


They key virtues at work throughout this narrative are exhibited by both Jonathan and David: they are 1) understanding the principles of biblical theology, and 2) acting faithfully to these. Acting faithfully manifested in each case in a posture of self-sacrifice, and humble service. On the contrary to this, Saul displays perfect selfishness and all of the spiritual and psychological fallout which total self-absorption produces. In short, his lack of love results in a failed government which exploits faithfulness, lies, attempts murder, and creates various other negative social consequences.

1. The mind of Christ and revival

The self-sacrifice defined by Christian living begins with being born again and having the mind of Christ. Jonathan displays this is divesting himself and giving his position and power to David via a covenant. David displays the same by serving Saul loyally even through hazardous missions. In each case, the men did not take their grand positions too seriously in regard to their own worth. This is exactly what Paul both describes and prescribes as Christian faith and life:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. . . . Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:5–13).

Modern day reformers looking to biblical Law as a blueprint for social ethics and law can easily deduce that we have a long way to go. Indeed, we do. And we need to retain those ultimate goals so we know what direction to head at least. But we must understand that a biblical Law society can only exist where members of that society have this mind of Christ—a mind of self-debasement and sacrifice on behalf of the communities. This is why revival must precede and lasting reconstruction of family, church, and state. Without such a revival in which God works in you, any system of governments will devolve into statist tyranny in a matter of time.

Gary North made this point multiple times many years ago. Here is one example:

These changes must be implemented only after a full-scale revival and the clear-cut political triumph of Christians as self-conscious Christian voters. Attempting to amend the Constitution before you have the votes is suicidal; this would play into the hands of the humanist left wing. . . . This would be a top-down political transformation, something quite foreign to Christian social theory. It puts the cart before the horse. The religious transformation must precede the political transformation; the political transformation must precede the Constitutional transformation.[2]

North properly critiqued the “top-down” elitist plans of some who later left the movement of Christian reconstruction:

On this point, I am in complete disagreement with James Jordan’s recommended program of self-conscious elitism in social and political transformation, which he calls a top-down system, despite its tendency toward “impersonal bureaucracies” and the obvious anti-evangelism attitude fostered by such an elitist outlook, which he admits has been the result historically. “Elites seldom feel any need to evangelize.” Precisely![3]

Simply put, the example of Christ, which is foreshadowed by both Jonathan and David here, is that Christian society is not imposed through a hierarchy of rulers from above, but exemplified humbly and faithfully by God’s chosen as minds are transformed to be like Christ’s. How and when this will grow to permeate society over time is God’s doing, but we are called to act in this manner whether God provides revival and relief from our Saul and our Philistines or not. This is the necessary beginning. Yet it is merely the beginning.

2. Friendship

Godly society will only last if it is built on true covenantal communities. This is exactly what we see in Jonathan’s covenant with David. Not only was humility and service at the root, but the bond of affection and loyalty formed is the backbone of any true community. This level of eternally-committed self-sacrifice should be the nature of all our covenantal communities: family, church, state.

Christ’s exposition to His disciples was that He was a vine and we are the branches. We are vitally connected to Him, and yet by virtue of this we are vitally connected to each other as well. Thus He went on, as we saw, to explain true friendship as well: when one is willing to lay down one’s life for his friend. This is self-sacrifice to the max, which, of course, Christ did for us.

When we are so connected to Him (by His choice and grace), we are enlivened by His Spirit to show the same grace to others in our covenant relationships. We then serve others before ourselves, even in precarious and self-detrimental situations, so that we may sacrifice much in the process. We sacrifice time, patience, money, feelings, “face” in marriage and childrearing; but this is the basis of successful family. If it is founded instead upon the selfishness of spouses and parents, all manner of negative reactions will occur, especially in children. A child who has been driven to fear or anger by his parents will respond in hostility, rebellion, etc. Likewise in churches; elders and deacons are to serve, not lord it over anyone; and members are to submit one to another. Submission and service mean others are treated as friends, not adversaries or competitors, and not uneducated, ignorant sheeple. And likewise in the civil state. Although the state exists to punish crime, its agents and officers are still servants of God, not autonomous rulers. They must remain wed to a self-sacrificial ethic of service rather than use their office and a means of self-promotion, gain, ego, etc. When once political and judiciary offices are infected with fear, greed, and terror, corruption and sin will dominate all of society, and eventually destroy it. Sin backed with the sword is a destructive beast.

Saul’s government exemplified such danger. The wickedness of his throne-centered, top-down approach to government resulted in failure after failure. These failures eventually led to a failure of confidence among the people. This led to deep political divisions. This deserves some consideration:

The taunting of Saul by the women singers shows there was a growing political polarization in Israel based upon the repeated failures of the government. But consider how this manifested: there was certainly an establishment loyal to Saul, and there were also dissenters. We will see the loyal establishment in later chapters. But consider the likely constituency of dissenting parties. First, there were probably many who were originally supportive, but who had lost faith in Saul after he failed along the way, or even just previously before Goliath. These would have been nevertheless pro-military, and still wanted a similar government for the purposes of strong national defense almost exclusively. Second, there were probably a few who had dissented from the change in government from day one. These would likely have been comprised of some who were fiercely loyal to God’s Law, despised the departure from God as King in 1 Samuel 8, and probably decried every infraction of God’s Law by Saul during his entire reign. This group would likely have been preaching a sermon series like this one in their own day. They would have been an easily dismissed minority, though they were right. Finally, there would have been a small but growing group who dissented from Saul along the way due to his policies of conscription, confiscation, taxations, etc. Those most affected and oppressed by these would grow disaffected and desire a new government strongly. In fact, we will see this group explicitly in a later chapter.

What do we have here? We have a group who still believes national greatness is achieved through military might, just “anybody but Saul.” We have a group disaffected when government does not favor them at the moment. In this context, these were the women. Again, “anybody but Saul.” And we have a tiny minority who think the government is wrong and always has been wrong to do anything not sanctioned by God’s Law. In short, we have got statists, shallow voters, and theonomists. Since the first two are just different forms of the same type of self-interest, we can say that we simply have two parties: those built on fear and selfishness, and those built on true friendship and community.

3. Covenant and dissent

One thing we see in this story is the fearless of dissenting parties to criticize their government. But for different groups, this has different outcomes. The reason this is so derives from their orientation to God’s Law.

Jonathan and David criticize the government from the standpoint of God’s Law. God uses these means to prosper David. Jonathan remains faithful through acknowledging the greatness of David, and submitting to him in covenant. David remains faithful by carrying out orders and fighting the battles of the Lord. No matter what ungodly scheme is before them (or behind their backs), God overrides it to prosper them.

The women agitators, however, criticize Saul based on party rivalry and personal insult. However legitimate it may have been, it helped create a murderous jealousy that snowballed not only into Saul’s total war on David, but throughout all of society, as we shall see. All from a simple political bumper-sticker. The point here is that political dissent is necessary in a corrupt society, but it must be done according to God’s Word, and with the progress of God’s Kingdom as its goal. If not, it will only agitate the fallen human nature towards fallen humanistic agendas, and this will fan the flames of party jealousy, and set society ablaze.

Political dissent alone is not enough. It may in fact be detrimental in that it only breeds animosity, jealousy, and hatred. That goes for all parties and all platforms speaking and acting outside of God’s Law. Unredeemed political rhetoric is all ultimately hate speech, for it all seeks to impose upon others, by coercive force, a law other than God’s revealed will. This is to despise and cajole men instead of love them. There is no better description of hate speech, and indeed, hate crime.

In this story, every time David succeeds, Saul is said to fear more and more (vv. 12, 15, 29). We saw fear as a central component in the Goliath narrative. We preached against it there. Now we see it become the primary motivation of Saul’s politics. This pattern will continue. Fear will remain his primary reaction to every crisis until the end. It is the impulse that compels him to seek the witch of Endor in chapter 27. It will be the force behind his suicide in chapter 31. It will kill, steal, and destroy many things along the way. The more one perpetuates partisan spirits based on jealousy and fear, the more one suffers, and the more one’s society suffers also.

We have a very similar situation today. Dissent between political rivals is universally framed through negative attacks and negative portrayals of one’s opponents. Political points are scored by playing upon the fears and paranoia of constituencies, rarely by ration debate and discourse. Parties and special interests groups soon do little but fan jealousy, envy, pride, contempt. Once this becomes the norm, it is a very little thing to lie, cheat, steal, and even murder to accomplish agendas. Saul looks like a beast in this narrative, but there is little he did that has not been exceeded by our own governments today.

What is needed is the Word of God obeyed. In some cases, this can come in the form of public protest—for example, Jonathan’s public covenant with David. In other cases, this may simply come in the form of obedience to God while ignoring the raging of the tyrants—for example, faithful, obedient David. In all cases, that Law and Word must remain central. We must have the mind of Christ. We must build true communities from the ground up built on love and God’s Law. And even our political activism must stand and fall upon that same standard.

Let the world throw all the spears it will. As God wills, they will miss. Let all the plots and subterfuges target our lives that can. As God wills, they will backfire. These things are of no matter if we focus on what does.

[1] Consider our own phrase, “cut a deal.”

[2] Gary North, Healer of the Nations: Biblical Blueprints for International Relations (Ft. Worth, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), 301.

[3] Gary North, Healer of the Nations, 301n26.

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