1 Samuel 17:55-18:9+Psalm 47:1-2, 5-9+(Hebrews 1:1-9)+Matthew 5:33-37
Those of you of a certain age will recall the comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s line, “I don’t get no respect,” and I think this could apply to Saul, too. Except that, for the first king of Israel, it wasn’t a source of laughter. Well, maybe there was laughter, but at his expense.
Saul recognized that David had talent and took him into his own home, and his own people turned against him in favor of David with the taunting line, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Samuel 18:6). You have to imagine the sing-song “nah-nah-nah-nah-naaaahhhh.”
God turned against him for not slaughtering all of the Amalekites, and now his own people have found a new favorite.
Even his own son has declared for David.
There are those who interpret Jonathan’s pledge of love for David – “he loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1) – as evidence of a homosexual relationship between the two. Later in this narrative when both Saul and Jonathan die (sorry, spoiler alert: they die), David laments
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women. (2 Samuel 1:26)
It certainly sounds like a romantic kind of love, doesn’t it? There is lots of flowery language about love and relationship and loyalty in scripture and other ancient texts, language that we would not necessarily use in our modern context. So, I am going to say that I am unconvinced about David and Jonathan, either way. Perhaps they were lovers; perhaps they were not. (I could go into a word study here about how the language David and Jonathan use is not the same used elsewhere for sexual relations or romantic involvement, but I will just leave it at that.)
Given that we have the words of Jesus about oaths paired with the one about the covenant between David and Jonathan, we have a more robust picture of what is at stake here. Jesus rejects the idea of swearing: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37). These words come in the middle of a section in which Jesus is reinforcing the Law, making it even stronger than what Jews believed to be the required thing to do.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.…“
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.“
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.“
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….”
Jesus is doubling down on the rules that governed Jewish life, not letting anyone off the hook for simply doing the right things. Don’t even think hate. Don’t even look with lust. Don’t even swear at all. Let your word be your word. This is the path Jesus commands us to follow because that’s what it means to follow him.
In contrast, the covenant, the oath, Jonathan made with David was transactional. It was Jonathan who declared his loyalty, and the giving of his robe, armor, and sword were symbols of that covenant. What we are to understand by this is not that they were romantically involved but that Jonathan had rejected his own father and his own right to succeed his father as king in favor of David, not for romantic reasons but because David was anointed by God. So, it is easy to see how Saul’s insane jealousy of David escalated from here and he plotted to kill him. Rejected by God, rejected by Jonathan, rejected by his own people, and tormented by what we might call psychiatric issues, Saul is the tragic foil in David’s ascent.
Saul is also the archetype of the one who is no longer the golden child, the winner past his prime, who cannot fade gracefully but battles against those people who have supplanted him, usurped his position, or stolen the spotlight. So much of what we read in the biblical narrative of the people of Israel is the story of human nature, from the first created humans wanting to be like God to the fraternal jealousy of Cain and Able, Jacob and Esau. The people beg for a king, and when Saul is given that honor, they say, “we didn’t mean that one.” Our human foibles are all over the pages of the bible.
The Good News is that God loves us anyway. We can make absolute fools of ourselves in our striving to be perfect or to be on top or to be the best. And maybe God is just chuckling and thinking, “isn’t that cute.”
The psalmist knew. “For God is sovereign over all the earth” (Psalm 47:7).
We don’t have to waste our time struggling to be great, scrambling to hold on to some semblance of worthiness. God makes us worthy. God love us beyond our ability to imagine.
All we have to do is to open our hands and our minds and our hearts to receive it as the gift it is.
And that is very Good News, indeed.