Few of us would deny the significance of friendship in our lives. From childhood onward most of us hope to have a friend or two alongside us as we travel through each season of our lives. If we are blessed, we know that joy, but many of us also know the pain that can be a part of friendship as well when it is wounded or absent from us. It reveals the power it holds in delight as well as trials.
“Friendship is a much underestimated aspect of spirituality. It’s every bit as significant as prayer and fasting. Like the sacramental use of water and bread and wine, friendship takes what’s common in human experience and turns it into something holy.”Eugene Peterson
Of all the aspects of the story of David that we may know, the friendship between David and Jonathan is perhaps one of the most powerful scenes as his life unfolds in good times and bad. As David and his music serves for a time to bring healing and calm to King Saul, Jonathan observes the character, and the quality of love and service David offers his father despite the hatred that begins to grow in his father’s heart toward David. How he must have been impacted as David is doing something good on behalf of his father and then sees his father turn with murderous rage against David and seek to take his life.
David and Jonathan both sought the best for King Saul and became closer friends than words alone can describe. Jonathan watched as David took on Goliath and brought a great victory to the stalemate between Israel and the Philistine army and hence honor to Jonathan’s father, King Saul. The story unfolds in 1 Samuel 17 and as the next chapter begins, we read the beginning of the friendship between David and Jonathan. Eugene Peterson’s description paints the scene:
“By the time David had finished reporting to Saul, Jonathan was deeply impressed with David—an immediate bond was forged between them. He became totally committed to David. From that point on he would be David’s number-one advocate and friend.”I Samuel 18:1 (MSG)
Reading those words slowly and reflecting on them points to a quality of friendship beyond friends we enjoy chatting with over coffee or a shopping spree, going to a movie or sporting event together. It goes beyond those we may greet warmly and care about and see regularly in church as well. If we are honest, some of these friendships would not meet the standard of “totally committed” and “number-one advocate”. Those descriptions go to a depth only a small number of friends over our lifetime might fit despite our enjoyment and care of many others. This points to what is often noted as a covenantal friendship between Jonathan and David.
Why is it described this way? Eugene Peterson describes it this way:
“Friendship with David complicated Jonathan’s life enormously. He risked losing his father’s favor and willingly sacrificed his own royal future. But neither the risk nor the loss deterred him; he became and stayed David’s friend. Jonathan’s friendship was essential to David’s life. It is highly unlikely that David could have persisted in serving Saul without the friendship of Jonathan. Jonathan, in striking contrast to his father, discerned God in David, comprehended the danger and difficulty of his anointing, and made a covenant of friendship with him. Jonathan’s friendship entered David’s soul in a way that Saul’s hatred never did.”Eugene Peterson
Such a friendship isn’t about sharing our deepest secrets with one another (though that may happen). It isn’t about how we may benefit from each other in one way or another. It’s about truly seeing us as we are and loving us anyway with a fierce commitment that will not be deterred. It’s a gift that must not be taken for granted because it is rarer than we might realize. Many will come into our life and make judgments about who they think we are and fit us into a certain place in their relational sphere and that is not bad, but this other kind of friendship is more than that.
“And then someone enters our life who isn’t looking for someone to use, is leisurely enough to find out what’s real going on in us, is secure enough not to exploit our weaknesses or attack our strengths, recognizes our inner life and understands the difficulty of living out our inner convictions, confirms what’s deepest within us. A friend.”Eugene Peterson
And this goes beyond whether the friend has known us for many years or a short time. This speaks to the pursuit of our hearts beyond what we may know or have to offer. It speaks to a grace to allow us to be flawed in their presence without a desire on their part to try to fix us or move away from us in disappointment. And within that we discover a committed love that has the power to not only restore and bless us, but to defeat evil when it comes knocking at the door (as it often will over our lifetime).
“Evil doesn’t stand a chance against goodness. Persecution is futile in the presence of faithfulness. Hostility is picayune compared to friendship.”Eugene Peterson
The story of David could have turned out much differently were it not for this covenantal friendship with Jonathan. Jonathan’s love not only saved David’s life from King Saul’s desire to murder him but it also made him a different man, a better man. Who knows what else may have been gained had Jonathan not been killed in battle long before some of David’s biggest challenges?
“David, his election, vocation, and imagination confirmed by Jonathan’s friendship, refuses the way of violence and embraces the way of love and service. Each episode reveals more of what he’s daily becoming: singer, lover, friend. Evil doesn’t diminish David; it doesn’t narrow him. Bound in the covenant of Jonathan’s friendship, David is protected; none of Saul’s evil gets inside him. In the face of such concentrated goodness, evil is powerless to maintain itself.”Eugene Peterson
I am persuaded that J.R.R. Tolkien understood that when he wrote the epic Lord of the Rings series that depicts relationships at their best and their worst. The centerpiece of all the relationships is that of Sam and Frodo. When we meet them as frolicking friends in the Shire, we have little understanding of the depth of commitment and covenant between them that will be played out when the task of destroying the one evil ring of power comes to Frodo. Over and over again Sam stands with and for Frodo despite grave danger and Frodo’s personality change when carrying the ring nearly overpowers him. Sam, like Jonathan, remains steadfast as he recognizes the call on Frodo’s life.