Assessing David and Jonathan’s “Love Story”: An Antidote to Bad Bible Usage

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Assessing David and Jonathan’s “Love Story”: An Antidote to Bad Bible Usage

In light of recent happenings such as the majority decision of the Supreme Court on gay marriage, the growing public acceptance of a homosexual lifestyle, and many people’s lack of clarity on sexuality from a biblical perspective, it seems apropos to revisit and reflect on our biblical belief about sexuality. Not long ago a few messages were given to an Adventist college by a chaplain who, though probably well-meaning, committed an egregious and erroneous faux pas. In striving to assuage the negativity aimed at people who choose to engage in the unbiblical lifestyle of homosexuality, he suggested, among other things, that in some way David and Jonathan’s relationship afforded biblical support for such a lifestyle.

I commented to a friend that what bothered me more than the wresting of the truth of Scripture from its intended meaning was the fact that so many people in the audience were giving hearty amens and applause. I suspect that their emotive response to the charisma and engaging rhetoric of the speaker bypassed their knowledge of the clear biblical teaching on sexuality. Not only that, an awesome opportunity was lost to share the true grace of God in Scripture, and the message ultimately produced more confusion than answers.

Rather than criticize the speaker’s motives or person, it seems more Christlike and productive to address more profound needs among the people of God:

  • The need for sound Bible study methods that lead to a deeper relationship with Christ and
  • The need for sound beliefs that are faithful to Scripture and lead to biblically based practices in interpersonal relationships.

I will use the story of David and Jonathan as an example of how we can responsibly interpret Scripture so our beliefs are well-founded. Of course, this is a brief case study and is not meant to be exhaustive.

My Struggle Isn’t Unique

So where should we start? I’m writing this blog for two major reasons:

  1. To make accessible to the non-specialist a simple approach to studying God’s Word which can be built upon, and
  2. To aid as a stimulus for a deeper and richer understanding that we may see, hear, and taste the riches of God’s glory as revealed in Scripture.

I probably should add a third: To develop a critical, analytical approach toward what others are saying. Not critical in the sense of pejorative, but critical in the sense of understanding the underlying premises behind what is being said, for Christ Himself advised us not to allow ourselves to be deceived. In respect of time, let us pray for the spirit of discernment, and we can work on that later.

Having personally tried to make sense of how to study the Bible for more than a decade by reading many books on the topic, I feel at times exhausted. Where is one to go to learn how to study the Bible? Inundated with books, websites, and seminars, many Christians are left feeling overwhelmed by what I call “analysis paralysis.” By this I mean that we are taught many words and given many examples but rarely walked through the process of doing it ourselves.

After speaking to thousands of people and giving just as many Bible studies, I recognized a pervasive need among the people of God. There is a difference between reading the Bible and studying the Bible just as there is a difference between hearing someone speak and listening intently to someone speak. Of course one is a requisite for the other. While some have had the benefit of godly mentors who spark interest in studying the Bible, most people don’t have the time to commit copious amounts of personal attention to one individual. Hence this blog is meant to be a springboard for such a personal commitment.

Addressing a Few Hang-ups

Navigating the terrain of studying the Bible is at times intimidating. The good news is that God’s intention is for us to grow in grace and in our knowledge of Him (2 Peter 3:18). If that is God’s purpose, then He definitely will provide all the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual capabilities we need as we submit to Him and commit our time to improving in those areas.

So first, a brief look at what Bible study is not and at how to avoid being overwhelmed or intimidated.

  • Avoid the technical spectacles. You don’t have to be a specialist to know God or understand His Word—but it will be helpful to have a Bible dictionary and concordance handy. (I personally hold leaders and teachers to a higher level of accountability because they are representing God to the people of God.)
  • Avoid the “silver bullet” syndrome. This is the belief that if you have one special tool (e.g., language, philosophy, culture), you don’t need anything else or you are assured the “correct interpretation” all the time.
  • A text out of context is a pretext. For example, a pronouncement made by one person may not apply to everyone, and to do so is a misuse of Scripture.
  • Line upon line…but what about the rest of the story? Many times reading the whole story can bring to light the importance of one verse or clarify the meaning of a word. (Why was it important that Absalom went to Hebron to kick off his pitch for kingship?)

The Interpretive Triad

The history of biblical interpretation through the ages has led to many fruitful understandings of Scripture on the one hand and numerous unhelpful, even detrimental ones on the other. The main problem (as I see it) is the desire to systematize the Bible into a textbook of information for our own personal use and views rather than seeing it as an authoritative revelation of God that shows God’s control over and presence in the human experience. What this means is three things. Simply that the Bible is

  1. an inspired literary text that details
  2. various historical settings and contexts with
  3. clear aims from the Author (in the forms of the co-authors) to teach His people about Him and their relationship to Him in time and space, all the while giving us reasons to have confidence in Him.

Just as in Christ, we see divine and human aspects in Scripture, which cannot be separated. What often happens when any part of this framework is lost or discounted is that we may overemphasize or give primacy to one aspect of Scripture without paying attention to the interplay of the written structure, the historical background, and the divine role of God in the experience described in His Word. So without further ado—after we pray and submit to the authority of Christ (I’m not writing simply to argue a theological point)—here are three simple and foundational aspects of Bible study that emerge from Scripture:

  1. Literary style (the way something is said);
  2. Historical background (the cultural milieu in which God revealed Himself, the life of the people, the thought forms of the time, etc.);
  3. Theology (what the text teaches me about God, His world, and other people He has created).

Literary Style: Why Did They Say It Like That?

Literary style is (to me) the most helpful starting point because it is a Bible-based indicator of what we should expect the text to portray, how things are described, and the relative weight each statement plays in the text. It helps us to keep the focus on the text.

Contrary to popular thinking, the inspiration of the Bible doesn’t mean the Bible dropped from the sky and therefore we need no understanding of how the author is giving his inspired message. A common statement like “I just take the Bible as it reads” really does an injustice to the skillful articulation of truth the text represents (Eph 4:12–14). Unless we dig in Scripture for the tools to grow in our understanding of how truth is presented, we can become limited solely to our own thinking and reading style and run the risk of isolationism or relativism.

We contemporary readers of the Bible should recognize that when Scripture was written, those who had the benefit of living in that culture and being familiar with its literary styles more than likely understood the nuances of its language better than we do. Hence, we need to come to the text with that acknowledgement and, even better, an appreciation for the styles of writing and structures in the Bible.

In many cases the particular structure may be key in determining what is of greatest import or the central thought. In modern parlance, if you started to read a page stating “Long ago and far away…” or “Hickory dickory dock…” you would have some notion of what you were about to hear even if you didn’t understand all the technical jargon and intricacies of that genre (literary style and use of literary conventions).[1]

So how can a knowledge of literary style help us understand David and Jonathan’s relationship? Let’s look at a key text, 2 Samuel 1:26:

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.[2]

We are told earlier in the passage (2 Sam 1:17) that the genre is a lamentation (a psalm expressing sorrow). We can also observe that the passage is written in poetry (most modern Bible translations help us make the distinction between prose and poetry).

This lament was to be “taught to the people of Judah.” Why? As we see in the subsequent chapters, there was war between David and the house of Saul. David seems to be addressing any type of animosity that may be held against Saul or Jonathan, paying tribute to Israel’s first royal family, and dealing with the larger and ever-relevant issue of loved ones dying in war.

Knowing these two points that the Bible expresses about the passage should serve as a control and help decrease the level of speculation about the meaning of the text. It is clear from the use of similes (swifter than eagles, stronger than lions) that the lament includes a level of “heightened language,” also called hyberbole. So as we read this poem we recognize that the facets of Biblical poetry must emerge from the text. When we study other Biblical lamentations, especially in poetic verse (such as the whole book of Lamentations), and then read about lamentations in good Bible dictionaries, we have good tools to hear how David is expressing his thoughts about Saul and Jonathan.

As a literary unit (section) the poem goes from vss. 19–27. The introduction to the poem (vss. 17–18) actually indicates its genre and purpose and states that it is to be found in a book that was also used as a source book for another biblical text (Joshua 10:13). Both texts exhibit poetic verse, and both deal with warfare situations.

The makeup of the lament is important too. David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan exhibits a number of general similarities to other ancient Near Eastern laments.[3] For example, a broad public is addressed (v. 19); military imagery is prevalent and deeds of bravery are celebrated (vss. 21–22); physical ability is highlighted (v. 23); deep affection and grief are expressed (v. 26); and there is a recurring refrain (vv. 19, 25, 27).

Historical Background: What Happened in the Past Is in the Past, Right?

What is often missed in the study of the Bible is the relation of the parts in regard to history. The relationship between Jonathan and David hinges on a very important notion that the developed nations of that time operated on: namely, sons as royal heirs. We may not understand completely how this principle impacted David’s understanding of everything Jonathan did as the royal heir, but later in the Samuel narratives we see how David’s attitude toward his own heirs affected his actions toward them (2 Samuel 18:5; 1 Kings 1:30).

Let’s look at Jonathan’s actions toward David that would elicit such a profound sense of covenant friendship in light of Jonathan’s royal position.

  • 1 Samuel 18:1, 20—Saul’s children take an affinity toward David while Saul is trying to kill him, and we are told that Jonathan loved David “as his own soul.”
    • This is extremely important in light of the command in Leviticus 19:17–18: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
    • The same word for love is used in both passages, so in this text we see Jonathan living in harmony with God’s command for covenant fidelity. (I would expect someone who had obtained a theological degree and had access to biblical languages to be able to make this connection.)
  • 1 Samuel 18:4—Jonathan stripped his robe off and gave it to David. The robe was a sign of authority and kingship, and its significance would have been clear to both of them (1 Samuel 15:27, 28; 24:4–7).
  • 1 Samuel 19:4—Jonathan defended David to his father, the king.
  • 1 Samuel 20:30–33—Jonathan risked his life for David.
  • 1 Samuel 23:17—Jonathan gave up the claim to the throne and gave his full support for David’s reign.
  • 1 Samuel 23:18—The last act between Jonathan and David we are told of is that they made a covenant with each other.

The history of Jonathan and David shows a pattern of self-renunciation and selfless acts. It is clear to see now why such a deep covenantal bond between brothers existed and was lauded by David. Jonathan’s selfless love had such a profound impact on David that instead of following an ancient custom and killing his predecessor’s heirs (2 Kings 10:1–11), he took care of Jonathan’s surviving son (2 Samuel 9:6–13).[4]

Theology: What’s God Got to Do with It?

In the chaplain’s message mentioned previously, I presume the context of the use of this passage was: How does the Christian understand, internalize, and apply a song like this in the broader context of a postmodern world where tolerance and moral relativism seem to be the order of the day?[5] It is here that I will combine the previous two aspects and take the speaker to task. I fear that in an effort to assuage the burdened consciences of his hearers, the speaker did not do good theological analysis, and thus he reached incorrect conclusions regarding what this text says about God, His world, and His human creations. This is the point of contention. I don’t know him and have no animosity toward him, but if he is representing himself as a speaker on behalf of Christ, what he is saying needs to be prayed about and held up to the closest scrutiny, because we are dealing with eternal things.

Language is often problematic to the translators/interpreters of the Bible because no secondary domain language can perfectly “translate” a word. So, most modern translations try to find approximations that transmit the thought or essence of a given word. In the instance of the message preached at the Adventist institution, the love of Jonathan was equated with eros or erotic love. However, the Septuagint (Greek Translation of the Old Testament) uses the word that is used for godly love—agape—rather than eros. The speaker either was not aware of this fact or overlooked it to strengthen his case.

Alas, the failure to faithfully exposit the text at hand has misconstrued the Word of God, misrepresented the character of David as the typological messiah figure, and made Scripture say something it does not.

The Real Love We Need in the Church

David says about Jonathan,

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women. (emphasis supplied)

I would point out two key words. David says Jonathan has been very pleasant to him. This is the same word from which we have the name Naomi. It is used of the physical beauty of two heterosexual lovers (Song of Solomon 1:16; 7:6), of the nation of Egypt (Ezekiel 32:19), and of Issachar’s portion in the land of Canaan (Genesis 49:15). More importantly, it is used just a few verses earlier (vs. 23): “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles; they were stronger than lions.” [6] So for the chaplain to be consistent he would also have to include Saul in his homoerotic interpretation, as well as this being taught to the people of Judah (vs. 17). We know Saul was married (1 Sam 14:50) and are never given any indication of homosexual acts or tendencies in the text.[7]

David also is called the beloved singer of Israel (2 Sam 23:1). David calls Jonathan a brother, not in the biological sense, but in the covenantal sense (Numbers 20:14).

So rather than misuse this text for an agenda supporting homosexuality, what can we learn about this type of love that is helpful for the church? The comparison of Jonathan’s love to that of women hinges on how we understand the preceding word “extraordinary.” The relationship between the two was indeed a powerful example of self-sacrificing love transcending normal human experience. With the death of Jonathan, David lost his most trusted confidant and companion. Jonathan’s affirmations of support (cf. 1 Sam 18:3–4; 19:1–7; 20:1–42; 23:16–18) had come at key moments in David’s life and were deeply appreciated.[8] We have no description of this type of friendship elsewhere in the Old Testament.

Just as Jonathan recognized God’s hand in David’s life, we too need the spirit of discernment to see God’s leading; encourage and support what God affirms, condones, and commands; and teach others to do so. So the next time you hear some new interpretation, before you clap, pray. Be like the Bereans and go back to Scripture with these helpful tools and see if these things are so (Acts 17:11).



[1] A few non-technical sources that will help us grasp the literary artistry of the Bible: Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984); Leland Ryken, Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1992); Leland Ryken and Tremper Longman, A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1993). There are many other books that are useful. I chose these because they are accessible to everyday readers. It is unnecessary to be baptized in scholarly language to get helpful insights into how understanding the literary terrain of the Bible makes a vast difference in understanding its message. For a more advanced level of reading, see Tremper Longman III, Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987).

[2] Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

[3] For the curious or astute, in terms of a comparative literary product see Gilgamesh’s lament for his dead friend Enkidu. See W. W. Hallo, “Lamentations and Prayers in Sumer and Akkad,” Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 1871–81. Hallo discusses individual elegies on page 1875. For examples, see Context of Scripture, 1.118:419–20; 1.119:420–21.

[4] A good handbook on biblical customs in their historical milieu in helpful to see if people in the Bible followed the customs of the time or not, and if there was an existent custom, how they related to it. For example, Abraham said Sarah was his sister. We would call this incest, but in Abraham’s time, according to texts from Nuzi and Mari (contemporary peoples/places), this was a custom. It was later prohibited in the Bible (Leviticus 18:8-18 and 20:11-21; also in Deuteronomy).

[5] See critiques of this mindset in D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (reprint; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[6] For the more academically inclined, Adventist scholar William Shea demonstrated that vss. 22 and 23 together constitute a stanza that is the center of the poem. See “Chiasmus and the Structure of David’s Lament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 no. 1 (1986): 13–25.

Here is an abbreviated structural view of the poem:

A Refrain: How the mighty have fallen (Jonathan), response of the nations (vss. 19–20)

B Saul (vs. 21)

C Jonathan and Saul (vss. 22–23)

B1 Saul (vs. 24)

A1 Refrain: Jonathan (vs. 25 is a reversal of vs. 19), response of David (vss. 25–27)

[7] Of course a word can have a large semantic range, but in a structured poetic text, unless there is a clear pun, antithesis, or poetic device operating, it is best to understand two words from the same root in similar ways.

[8] Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, The New American Commentary, vol. 7 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 293.

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About the author


Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.