THERE ARE NOT MANY CHAPTERS in the Bible that devote much space to the theme of friendship, but 1 Samuel 20 is one of them.
Strictly speaking, of course, 1 Samuel 20 is not about friendship per se, in the way that friendship is a theme to be explored by a gifted novelist. The account fits into the larger narrative of the decline of Saul and the rise of David, a major turning point in redemptive history. Yet the way that account unfolds turns in important ways on the relationship between Jonathan and David.
Jonathan turns out to be a wholly admirable young man. Earlier he had shown considerable physical courage when he and his armor-bearer routed a contingent of Philistines (1 Sam. 14). When David became part of the royal court, one might have expected Jonathan to display many malevolent emotions: jealousy at David's rising popularity, competitiveness in the military arena, even fear that David would one day usurp his right to the throne. But "Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself" (1 Sam. 18:1). He entered into a "covenant" with David that made David, in effect, his own brother (1 Sam. 18:3–4)—an astonishing step for a royal to take with a commoner. By the time we arrive at chapter 20, Jonathan is aware that David will one day be king. How he acquired this knowledge we cannot be sure. Given their friendship, David may have confided in Jonathan the account of his anointing at the hands of Samuel.
Not only does Jonathan not share his father's malevolence, but, having once before effected a reconciliation between his father Saul and David (1 Sam. 19:4–7), he finds it hard to believe that his father is as implacably determined to kill David as David believes (1 Sam. 20:1–3). So the elaborate plan of this chapter is put into effect. Jonathan discovers that his own father is resolved on Jonathan's best friend's death. Indeed, his father is so enraged that Jonathan himself is in mortal danger (1 Sam. 20:33).
David and Jonathan meet. They renew their covenant, as they will do once more (1 Sam. 23:17–18). David, for his part, vows to look after Jonathan's family if and when Jonathan is no longer around—a harbinger of things to come, and rather different from the normal bloodletting that customarily took place when a new king sought to wipe out the potential heirs of a previous dynasty.
But perhaps the most striking thing is that Jonathan stays in town with his father. For the fact of the matter is that we choose our friends, but we do not choose our family; yet our responsibilities to our families take a prior claim.
Otherwise friendship itself becomes an excuse for a new form of selfishness.
1 Samuel 20; 1 Corinthians 2; Lamentations 5; Psalm 36