Sermon Discussion Questions:
If so many people throughout history have prioritized friendship, why do you think we tend to sideline it today? Do you think you have an accurate view of friendship? (Consider: what do you think of Jesus describing Himself as your friend? John 15:14-15)
How does Saul's suspicion become a self-fulfilling prophecy?
What do you do to fight against the isolating-tendencies that are common today?
What did Jonathan have to lose by remaining loyal to David? What does that tell us about the nature of godly friendships?
Read back through the list of practices to grow in friendship. Is there anything you want to begin doing?
Let me give you four quotes, and you guess at what fills in the blank:
Writing in the 4th century, the church father Gregory of Nazianzus in a letter to Basil the Great, wrote: “If anyone were to ask me, ‘What is the best thing in life?’ I would answer, ________.
In the 5th century, St. Augustine wrote: “Two things are essential in this world—life, and _______. Both must be prized highly, and not undervalued.”
In the 12th century, Aelred of Rievaulx, an English monk, wrote: “Absolutely no life can be pleasing without _______.”
In the 18th century, pastor and poet John Newton, wrote: “I think to a feeling mind there is no temporal pleasure equal to the pleasure of _________.”
I could go on with many other quotes from Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Spurgeon, Lewis. What pleasure could be so serious that so many of the greatest minds across history agree on its supremacy? What is the best thing in life? What is essential? If we could poll our neighbors, what would they say? What would you say? The answer, quite simply, is: Friends. The pre-modern world knew something about friendship that we have mostly lost today. Lewis, in The Four Loves, argues that so few modern people value friendship today because so few of them have experienced it. So, we tend to emphasize erotic love as the highest form of love, second familial love, and then lastly philial love. But, Lewis argues, in the pre-modern world the order was reversed: if in time our marriages and families will melt away in the light of heaven, then friend-love, philial-love is the closest to the angels. Of course, you should have philial love towards your spouse and children as well. But this is augmented by the way men and women in the past considered the priority of friendship:
Shakespeare wrote that with the friends we have, we ought to, “Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.” Don’t let friends go! Don’t let friendships be transient, fickle, disposable. George Herbert, the puritan poet, describing friendship exhorts us to bring our friend into “thy bosom: wear his eyes / Still in they heart, that he may see what’s there.” Don’t let friendships be superficial, thin, and fake. Let your friends see your heart, know you.
In our text today, we will consider two pictures of relationships: one of isolation and suspicion, and one of friendship and loyalty.
And Saul spoke to Jonathan his son and to all his servants, that they should kill David. But Jonathan, Saul's son, delighted much in David. 2 And Jonathan told David, “Saul my father seeks to kill you. Therefore be on your guard in the morning. Stay in a secret place and hide yourself. 3 And I will go out and stand beside my father in the field where you are, and I will speak to my father about you. And if I learn anything I will tell you.” 4 And Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father and said to him, “Let not the king sin against his servant David, because he has not sinned against you, and because his deeds have brought good to you. 5 For he took his life in his hand and he struck down the Philistine, and the LORD worked a great salvation for all Israel. You saw it, and rejoiced. Why then will you sin against innocent blood by killing David without cause?” 6 And Saul listened to the voice of Jonathan. Saul swore, “As the LORD lives, he shall not be put to death.” 7 And Jonathan called David, and Jonathan reported to him all these things. And Jonathan brought David to Saul, and he was in his presence as before.
8 And there was war again. And David went out and fought with the Philistines and struck them with a great blow, so that they fled before him. 9 Then a harmful spirit from the LORD came upon Saul, as he sat in his house with his spear in his hand. And David was playing the lyre. 10 And Saul sought to pin David to the wall with the spear, but he eluded Saul, so that he struck the spear into the wall. And David fled and escaped that night.
- 1 Sam 19:1-10
Saul: The Curse of Isolation
Saul, the king who once gained such vitality and power from the people, from the affirmation of others around them, has now become like a snail covered in salt: recoiling back into a shell of isolation and despair. The voices of the crowd that once shouted “Long live the king!” (1 Sam 10:24), have now started shouting, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands,” (1 Sam 18:7). In chapter 18, the already-fraying threads of Saul’s sanity finally snap. In chapter 19, Saul attempts to kill David twice: once by throwing a spear at him, and again by sending soldiers to kill him in his bed, but David evades both times. Then, in chapter 20, David and Jonathan create a plan to flush out whether or not David can remain in Saul’s court or must flee. David fails to show up at an important feast in Saul’s court and when Jonathan is asked, he will tell Saul that David asked his permission to attend a certain ceremony in his hometown in Bethlehem. When this happens, Saul explodes in rage and attempts to kill Jonathan because he suspects that his son has aided David. This confirms that David is not safe, so Jonathan relays this to David through a coded message, and David departs.
Saul has become a Gollum character: poisoned and mutated by his idolatry of the approval of people. Saul was once a normal, healthy, good person (1 Sam 9:2). But now he is haunted by demons and exploding in irrationality. But God did not turn a switch inside Saul from “good” to “evil.” Long before we are told of God sending an evil spirit to harass Saul, he has already been giving himself over to sin and idolatry. No, God handed Saul over to the budding and blossoming evil within his heart (cf. Rom 1:24) and let it rot into what we now see. So, Saul becomes unhinged, erratic, and violent.
From now till his death, we will see three major themes develop in Saul’s life: impotency, irrationality, and isolation.
We continue to see the motif of impotency in Saul’s repeated attempts on David’s life. Back in chapter 18, he attempts to impale David with a spear, but fails (twice) (1 Sam 18:10-11). Then he attempts to kill David indirectly through a marriage to one of his daughters and the campaigns on the Philistines that will entail, but fails (again, twice) (1 Sam 18:17-30). Here in chapter 19, Saul (again) tries to kill David by hurling a spear at him, but fails (1 Sam 19:10). Then Saul attempts to kill David in his bed, but his wife Michal warns him ahead of time, so he (again) fails (1 Sam 19:11-17). Then, Saul sends a troop of assassins to go dispose of David at Ramah where he is hiding out with Samuel, but as soon as they draw near, they immediately begin prophesying, halted in their murderous footsteps by the overpowering Spirit of God (1 Sam 19:20). So, Saul sends another troop, and the same thing occurs. And another troop, and still the same thing happens (1 Sam 19:21). Don’t send a soldier to do a king’s work, Saul thinks, so he goes to take matters into his own hands.
But, the exact same thing happens to Saul, only we are told that he also strips all his clothes off, and writhes around on the ground all day and all night (1 Sam 19:22-24). David slips away while this occurs (1 Sam 20:1) and Saul is left humiliated and emasculated. What did he think would happen? If the Spirit of God overcame the three troops of assassins he sent previously, did he think he would be able to contend with God? No, Saul’s powerlessness and feebleness is displayed for all to see as he lay naked, raving.
In 19:6, after Jonathan’s speech about David’s faithfulness in serving Saul, Saul makes a vow: “And Saul listened to the voice of Jonathan. Saul swore, “As the LORD lives, he shall not be put to death,” (1 Sam 19:6). But just four verses later, Saul breaks that vow by attempting kill David (1 Sam 19:10). This is especially jarring when one remembers how adamant Saul was about sticking to his unwarranted, sinful vow back in chapter fourteen, even though it meant the death of his own son, Jonathan (1 Sam 14:24-46). There, he only broke the vow out of public embarrassment and pressure. Here, though the vow to spare David’s life is righteous and no one is pressuring him to break it, he gives it up almost immediately. And from now on, this mercurial volatility will mark Saul. He says one thing one minute, but then does another the next.
The most jarring display of Saul’s unraveling sanity is depicted in chapter 20, when Saul realizes that Jonathan has helped David escape Saul’s clutches: “Then Saul's anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother's nakedness? 31 For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Therefore send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.” 32 Then Jonathan answered Saul his father, “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” 33 But Saul hurled his spear at him to strike him. So Jonathan knew that his father was determined to put David to death,” (1 Sam 20:30-33).
Saul, blinded by rage, pours out vile language to insult his son (and indirectly insulting his own wife, calling her a perverse and rebellious woman). Saul is venting white hot anger. He can’t even mention David by name, only referring to him as “the son of Jesse” and admits that he knows that he is going to be king, that he is going to replace Jonathan as the next king of Israel, and therefore he must die. Jonathan asks “Why?” and Saul attempts to kill his own son because he asked a question. He has gone insane. He views his own son with the same suspicion as an enemy.
A three cord strand is not easily broken, and the tragic final cord of Saul is his isolation. Of course, most significant of all, Saul has been spiritually isolated by his rejection of God, and God’s departure from him. Saul finds the heavens to be silent to him. But also, all the people closest to him—not just the crowds—but his closest advisors (1 Sam 18:5), his former mentor, his daughter, and his son, all have sided with David over him. Saul is a sad oyster; a solitary figure, suspicious of all, shut off from God and others.
But, of course, this is only from Saul’s distorted perspective. Amazingly, Jonathan doesn’t abandon his deluded and maniacal father (even after his attempt on his life). Further, his estimation of David is completely untethered from reality. He assumes that David’s rise in popularity necessarily means his downfall; that the love everyone has for David comes at the diminishment of his own. Because Saul has made the approval of others his god, it is a zero-sum game for him. He needs all the attention, and for any of it to be diverted to David means that David is now his enemy. Which is ludicrous of course, but in the dark distortions of Saul’s conspiratorial mind, it all makes sense. And, ironically, his distortions become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as he uses and abuses those around him.
Isolation makes everything worse. We all can give ourselves over to the insanity of sin, we all know what it is like to kick against the goads, to try to fight what God has determined. But, when we sever ourselves from others, then the silliness of our sin doesn’t seem so silly anymore. Have you ever found a time where you finally told someone a fear you had or something you were ashamed of, and as you said it out loud you realized: Oh, that sounds silly. But, about five seconds beforehand, it didn’t sound silly at all. In the dark cloister of your mind, it sounded titanium-strong. It felt like an irreversible truth. But the, you said it, you told someone else, and then it deflates in size.
Saul is an extreme case, here. But it didn’t start that way for him, and he is a cautionary tale for us all. “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment,” (Prov 18:1). Do you isolate yourself? It has never been more easy in the history of humanity to isolate yourself. If you want, you can easily spend most of your life interacting with no one.
Saul’s isolation, though, wasn’t out of a desire for convenience, but out of jealousy.
Are you envious of others? Comparison is the thief of joy.
Do you harbor suspicions easily? Nurse grudges? This is not the way of love. Consider Paul’s famous teaching on love as a prescription for our posture to one another: “4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” (1 Cor 13:4-7).
David and Jonathan: The Blessing of Friendship
If Saul is Hyde, then Jonathan is Jekyll. Saul views David as a competitor, an enemy, who poses an existential threat to Saul’s empire, life and joy. Jonathan, on the other hand, views David as a friend. “There are no portraits in the Bible of love and loyalty between friends to match this one,” (NIB: 1 Samuel).
Jonathan is the one who really shines when it comes to the display of loyalty to David by telling David repeatedly about his father’s intent on killing him, but standing up for David to his father, and even risking his own life. Which is astonishing given that David is going to be replacing Jonathan as the next king (cf. 1 Sam 20:31). Jonathan is the anti-Saul. He is not motivated by jealousy or fear, but by steadfast love. The loyalty between these friends is displayed formally in their pledges to one another:
“If I am still alive, show me the steadfast love of the LORD, that I may not die; 15 and do not cut off your steadfast love from my house forever, when the LORD cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth,” (1 Sam 20:14-15).
“Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, because we have sworn both of us in the name of the LORD, saying, The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my offspring and your offspring, forever.’” (1 Sam 20:42).
Like two soldiers walking into war, they promise that if anything happens to either of them, they will take care of each other’s families. And this is precisely what happens. Later, when Jonathan dies, David cares for Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth (2 Sam 4).
Like we said last week, at this point in the story, everyone loves David (1 Sam 18:16, 20). But Jonathan sees something in David that causes him to especially love David: “As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul…Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul,” (1 Sam 18:1, 3). The covenant that Jonathan makes is likely a political and military covenant with him. Jonathan, the son of the king, sees in David a remarkable military ally and wants to arrive at a contractual commitment with him. But, make no mistake, Jonathan loves David. His soul is “knit to the soul of David” and he “loved him as his own soul.” We are told this again in chapter 20, “And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him, for he loved him as he loved his own soul,” (1 Sam 20:17).
But we see the depth of affection these men have for one another when it comes time for David to depart, thinking that he will never see Jonathan again: “And as soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times. And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most,” (1 Sam 20:41). While it is less common in our culture to kiss as a common form of greeting and parting (cf. the five commands to “greet one another with a holy kiss” in Paul’s epistles), a more typical expression for us would be an embrace, a hug. These are men who have fought together, who have labored together, who love one another, and now that they must depart, it is agonizing for them.
This has caused some to suspect that there was a homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan. But, that reveals more about us than it does about David and Jonathan. “Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise…of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend,” (Lewis, The Four Loves).
This isn’t merely tangential. The suspicion that leads some to suspect that David and Jonathan, Sam and Frodo, Hrothgar and Beowulf—men who love one another and openly proclaim their affection—belies the fact that our current culture has been put on a total starvation diet of meaningful friendship. We assume that erotic love is the highest and truest form of love and, ever since Freud, we assume that erotic desire is the basic subterranean reality of affection. So when we read of Jonathan’s soul being knit to David’s soul, we assume that must translate into the romantic realm. But like a golfer bragging about how high his score is reveals he doesn’t understand the game, the more we make those claims, the more we reveal we have fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of friendship. Consider an excerpt from a public letter that Anselm, a theologian in the 12th century, wrote to a fellow friend of his:
“For since your soul and my soul can by no means endure to be absent from each other, but are incessantly entwined together, there is nothing in us that is missing from each other except that we are not present to each other bodily,” (Anselm). The effusive display of affection between two men may seem odd to us, but that reveals that there is something in us that needs to be repaired. “We, not they, are out of step,” (Lewis, The Four Loves).
Deaths of despair are on the rise (suicide; overdose; liver disease). Loneliness has become an epidemic in the Western world, affecting most (1) young people, (2) mothers of young children, and (3) men. The church has an opportunity to serve a relational feast to a starving world.
“This world is full of sorrow because it is full of sin. It is a dark place. It is a lonely place. It is a disappointing place. The brightest sunbeam in it is a friend. Friendship halves our troubles and doubles our joys,” (J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion, 317).
How Can We Grow in our Spiritual Discipline of Friendship?
- Don’t confuse the flattened digital interaction with the fully orbed embodied experience. A text doesn’t compare with a hug.
- Evaluate your digital habits and consider whether they are helping or impeding your relationships. Does your screen time lead you to crave isolation?
- Consider taking a typical solitary event (playing a video game, watching a show, or movie) and turning it into a community event.
- You make time for what you value.
- Are you crazy-busy or lazy-busy? Whenever we tell someone “I’m so busy” we often really mean: “I don’t have time for you.”
- Be friendly to all, enjoy friendship with some. Don’t be a cruise ship with a thousand friends on the surface; be a submarine that goes deep with a handful. Different people have different relational capacities. Find yours.
- Have you prioritized the right things in your schedule?
- Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Where you invest your time will bear relational fruit.
- Don’t let tasks be an impediment to friendship, use them. Don’t build the tree house alone, invite some friends to join.
- Friendship isn’t created by staring at friendship, but by staring at something else together.
- Be curious. Ask more questions. People are fascinating.
- Be transparent. Vulnerability takes time, but make it your destination.
- Be encouraging. Tell people how much you appreciate them.
Here is a good test of how much you value friendship. When the Bible describes Jesus as a “friend,” does that seem quaint to you? “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,” (John 15:14-15). Jesus is our Lord, our King, our Master—yes and amen. But He is also our friend. When Jesus was accused of being a “friend of sinners” (Matt 11:19), what did that mean? Look at what Luke tells us, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him,”(Luke 15:1). Jesus was approachable. Jesus spent time with sinners. And Jesus tells us:
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” (John 15:13). The epitome of love is displayed through a sacrifice made for a friend. And what are you to Jesus? His friend. And how does He display His great love to you? By laying down His life for you. By dying for your sins. Maybe you realize that you aren’t a very good friend. Maybe you realize that you are selfish, and vain, and aren’t very loyal. But take heart, Jesus is a friend of sinners. He sees your hypocrisy and self-centeredness and isn’t repulsed by it. In fact, He is willing to take your sins from you and bear them away at the cross. He is eager to receive you and cleanse you and embrace you. And what a model for friendship! What a display of loyal-love! As those who have received such love, what great bounty do we know have to share with those around us, with our friends. The Church has a unique opportunity to serve a banquet of meaningful Christ-like relationships to an emaciated world.