The best of friends

The best of friends

Sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 17:57-18:9,16

We’re now at the fourth episode in my continuing sermon series on the stories of kingship and nation-making in ancient Israel, and have come to real a transitional point in the unfolding narrative. We watch as the figure of David ascends, and at the same time we feel the temperature and tension rising in the internal politics of the royal household. As our story moves forward, the narrator will tell us that “Saul was very angry,” displeased by David’s growing prominence as a military leader. The king grows angry and displeased, in spite of the fact that this young hero is securing for him victories he himself was unable to win. Or perhaps angry and jealous, because Saul can see his own status begin to fade in the eyes of his people.

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This episode follows directly on the heels of the story we told last week, the story of David’s unlikely defeat of the Philistine champion Goliath. Abner, one of the key leaders in Saul’s army, brings the young man before Saul, who first asks his identity—“Whose son are you, young man?”—and then “[takes] David that day, and would not let him return to his father’s house.” You can’t let a warrior like this just go back to his father’s home to tend the sheep. He’s needed close at hand, to serve with the Israelite military forces. And so the narrator tells us, “David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him; as a result, Saul set him over the army.” This is a thoroughly astonishing ascent, from shepherd to general in what seems just a matter of months. As the text is structured, it would seem that at least at first Saul received David’s military skills as something of a gift. Certainly the people saw him things in this way, for the narrator is clear that “all the people, even the servants of Saul, approved.”

Before King Saul’s jealous anger is introduced into the story, there’s one other really notable element that begins to come into play; the friendship between David and Saul’s son Jonathan. The connection between the two seems to come almost out of nowhere. It is right after David has had his formal introduction to Saul that “The soul of Saul’s son Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” That’s powerful language, isn’t it? The binding of souls. “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.” In the biblical tradition, that language of covenant is stronger still; it is the language of a binding fidelity and loyalty. And as Jonathan makes that covenant he “stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, along with his armour, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.”

Think about that for a minute. Jonathan is the heir to Saul’s throne, and here he is giving David his prince’s robe, armour, sword, bow and belt. We know that David has been secretly anointed as the new king—the rising and true king—by the prophet Samuel, and David knows it, but other then David’s father and brothers no one else in the narrative knows it. Yet at least at some subconscious level, Jonathan too seems to know at least something of who David is. And while in the story of his battle with Goliath David had refused to wear Saul’s armour, here he accepts the armour of Jonathan. Saul’s armour was too big, too awkward and encumbering; and besides, it was God David trusted to be his protection, not Saul’s armour. The gift of Jonathan’s armour was different; David could wear that. Whereas Saul had tried to give David his armour in an act of desperation, Jonathan’s gift is grounded in covenant love and friendship.

That depth of friendship is striking, though you might be interested to know that in the medieval world there emerged something of a parallel. There was a practice often known as the “wedded friendship,” in which two men—occasionally two women—would have their covenant of friendship blessed by the parish priest at the church door. Seemingly arising from the shared experience of soldiers being together in battle, such covenants were meant to signal life-long bonds of faithful friendship. There are medieval churches in England where you can find memorial plaques mounted on the walls, bearing witness to such friendships. There are even shared grave plots in cemeteries, where the friends were buried side by side. It is a striking practice, particularly to our cultural world in which we tend to assume that bonds of that kind of strength are only possible in the context of marriage. Earlier ages apparently saw things quite differently. Later in the narrative, David will even memorialize his great friend with the words, “my brother Jonathan, greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26)

These will be the words David speaks upon hearing of his friend’s death, which points to the reality that friendships of that depth are no less complicated or fraught with risk than are our marriages. You see, as David continues his ascent, King Saul will become increasingly jealous, angry, and hostile. As the narrator presents it, even as David makes his way to formally meet Saul after the famous battle with Goliath, the seeds of that hostility are being sown. “[T]he women came out of all the towns of Israel,” the narrator tells us, “singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments. And the women sang to one another as they made merry,

‘Saul has killed his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands.’”

This reception for David “displeased him,” and “so Saul eyed David from that day on.” Saul became wary and watchful of David, sensing the threat he posed. As Walter Brueggemann summarizes it all, “Saul has it right, but for all the wrong reasons. Saul knows more than he understands, for he sees David only as ambitious, not as destined… Saul understands everything except the powerful resolve of Yahweh [to draw David to the throne]—which means Saul understands nothing at all, except his own pitiful jeopardy.”

And it is precisely that “pitiful jeopardy” that will make the friendship of David and Jonathan so very painful. As Saul’s hostility grows, David will be forced to flee, and it is Jonathan who tips him off and makes his escape possible. Jonathan is bound to his father by blood and family, and bound to David in covenant friendship; an almost impossibly painful place for him to stand. David’s flight from Saul will also mean the loss of his friend, to whom he is bound soul to soul. David will live by his wits, leading a small band of followers and working as a mercenary soldier, simply to survive. He’ll be pursued by Saul and his soldiers, hunted out in wilderness places, but never caught. And all the time, he’ll be cut off from the friend whom he loves, for while he was prepared to help David to escape from Saul’s wrath, Jonathan does not flee with him. He stays by his father, feeling perhaps more than a little conflicted and compromised, and his life will be ultimately come to its end on the battlefield where he has been fighting alongside of his father.

The jealousy and desperation of a king who will not or cannot see beyond his own need to secure his hold on power; the extraordinary bond of friendship which leaves Jonathan so conflicted in his allegiances before ending in sorrow for David; for all that David is anointed by God—called out, destined, accompanied by God—the path he walks is one that is marked by very human textures, very human losses, and very human pain. For all that “Israel and Judah loved David”—for all that God’s spirit was upon David—his path to the throne is no easy one.

I think we can take a strange comfort in that. The human dynamics of these stories—which are very much our stories—are not glossed over or prettied up. Even in these stories of his ascent, we get a rather unvarnished David, to say nothing of a tragic Saul and a sorrowful, conflicted Jonathan. Their emotions are real, and their decisions have consequences. They are not merely figures from history, but instead they are like us, our forebears, part of our story. And as is so true of us, in the very midst of the muddiness of their lives, still God is at work.

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