Have you ever been involved in a contest of wills? A contest of wills – when two people have become stubbornly fixed in their positions. Each one has dug in his or her heals. Neither one is going to move. It is a contest of wills – each one will try to outlast the other over some disagreement.
It happens sometimes between husband and wife:
We’re going to my sister’s for dinner next Thursday.
I’m not going to your sister’s place for dinner.
We’re going to my sister’s.
No we’re not.
We’re going to my sister’s for dinner.
No we’re not.
It happens sometimes between a parent and a child.
Mom, I want to dye my hair purple.
You’re not going to dye your hair purple.
Yes I am.
No you’re not.
Yes I am.
No you’re not.
A contest of wills – each person digs in his or her heels. Neither one will give in.
In the narrative of First Samuel there is a contest of wills going on. On the one side of this contest is king Saul, and on the other side is God. Each has dug in the heels. Each is pursuing a path directly at odds with the other. Now, of course this is not an equal contest of wills. On the one side is an admittedly powerful human being – a king with political and military might, with loads of social power. But on the other side is the creator of the universe – the one who spoke the world into being; the one who brings princes to nothing with a nod of his head. This not an equal contest of wills.
So what is this particular contest of wills about? It’s pretty simple, really.
Saul wants David dead.
God wants David alive.
Saul sees David as a threat to his throne – he wants him dead.
God wants David alive, and on the throne.
Now there’s a simple way to end this contest of wills. God could simply strike Saul down. God could act with direct, divine power to deal with the problem of Saul. Perhaps it’s not a great comparison, but think of it in terms of a contest of wills between parent and child at bedtime:
I won’t go to bed – yes you will.
I won’t go to bed – yes you will.
I won’t go to bed – yes you will.
The parent can often end this contest by simply picking the child up, putting on his pyjamas and dropping him into bed. I win. You lose.
But here’s what’s interesting. In most of the narratives of the Old Testament, including the narrative of First Samuel, God does not use divine power to interrupt events and accomplish his purposes. Very often God does not use sheer power to get the result he wants. Of course, there are times when God intervenes in a dramatic, powerful, and obvious way to effect his purposes.
Think of manna and quail in the wilderness.
Think of water from the rock.
Think of parting of the red sea.
But on so many other occasions, God does not act in these powerful and obvious and direct ways. On so many occasions God works, rather, through circumstances, through people, through everyday events in our human context. This contest of wills between God and Saul is a perfect example of that.
God doesn’t simply intervene to depose Saul and to bring David to the throne. Rather, God works through the circumstances, and people, around David and Saul to accomplish his purposes. So unwilling is God to intervene, in fact, that it sometimes seems possible that God will lose this contest of wills. Since God won’t simply intervene with divine power, on a number of occasions Saul comes very close to killing David.
Now we might ask why God won’t just do what God wants – just act with divine power to accomplish what he wants. Especially when we think about situations of injustice and suffering. We often want to know – why doesn’t God just act with power to bring about the kind of world he wants and we need? Of course we can’t really answer these questions – to such questions we can only offer inadequate and abstract answers. But what we can do, based on the scripture narratives, is describe how God does act. We can describe how God does in fact work through circumstances and people and events. And what we can specifically say this morning is that because God works through circumstances and people and events – because of this, friendships also be used by God. We could put it this way: How does God work in our world – well, sometimes he works through friendships.
You know the expression: blood is thicker than water. It means that when push comes to shove, you stick with your family. When push comes to shove – when it’s a choice between standing with a family member on the one hand or a friend or acquaintance on the other hand – well, blood is thicker than water. You’re supposed to stick by your family.
But in terms of Jonathan’s relation to Saul and to David, blood is not thicker than water. Jonathan, of course, is the son of king Saul. In so many respects, Jonathan owes his love and allegiance to his father. It would have made perfect sense if Jonathan aligned himself with his father against David. Both in terms of his duty, and in terms of self-interest, Jonathan should have aligned himself with his father. In that ancient context, and in many others, a son has a duty of allegiance to his father – blood is thicker than water. To betray one’s father is to betray one’s whole heritage and culture. Even more, for reasons of self-interest Jonathan should have sided with his father. Should the reign of Saul come to an end, who is it that will have a right to the throne – only his warrior son Jonathan.
Yet, here in the opening four verses of chapter eighteen, we encounter something amazing: “When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” Here we have the formation of a remarkable friendship between Jonathan and David. Between them there is a strong bond of affection. It is a friendship that also has a political dimension to it. When the text says that they were bound together, the Hebrew word used actually has a connotation of conspiracy. Jonathan and David are bound together as friends, they are bound together politically, and they are bound together in a kind of conspiracy. They form a covenant bond between them, and the sign of this covenant is given in verse four where we read: “Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armour, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.” Here Jonathan demonstrates his total allegiance to his friend David – he demonstrates the thoroughgoing nature of his friendship with David. Jonathan’s father is the king – he should have sided with his father – but here commits his whole self in love and friendship and service to David.
In the second part of our reading for this morning from 1 Samuel, you begin to get the idea why their friendship is a kind of ‘conspiracy’. This particular scene is one in which there is some uncertainty whether Saul’s anger and hostility toward David has perhaps passed for the moment. Saul is one of these utterly unpredictable individuals – one minute he is friendly and on a even keel, the next moment he flies into a murderous rage. David doesn’t know whether this is one of those safe moments or not.
And so Jonathan and David hatch a little plan. David will intentionally miss a royal dinner he is expected to attend, and Jonathan will gauge the king’s reaction. If the king responds with anger at David’s absence, they will know he is disposed to evil. In that case, Jonathan will make an excuse for David, that David has gone to perform a family sacrifice in Bethlehem. It is not a terribly complicated plan, but it is a plan in which Jonathan and David work together to protect David from the murderous intention of Saul – to this extent, they are working together for the purposes of God. Their love and their friendship has as its end the preservation of David’s life, and his ultimate establishment as king. Their friendship is working toward the goal that God has for David.
In every friendship there are times of doubt, aren’t there. Most of us have, at one time or another, questioned the allegiance or the faithfulness or the love of a friend. Is she really on my side? Is he really interested in my well-being? Does she really care?
David asks himself the same kinds of questions. In our passage David wonders aloud whether perhaps Jonathan thinks he has wronged the king. David wonders aloud whether Jonathan might trick him, saying everything is okay with Saul when in fact it isn’t. David says to Jonathan: If you think I’m guilty, just kill me yourself. Don’t bother bringing me to your father for him to do the job, just do it yourself.” So Jonathan has to reassure David. “David, I’m not going to lie to you. I’m not going to betray you to my father. You can trust me. Of course I will tell you if my father was going to do violence to you. Of course I will warn you.” David accepts the reassurances of his friend, and in reply vows always to serve and protect Jonathan.
Friendships are often like that. Perhaps I can get away with generalizing this morning by suggesting that women friends are more inclined to speak with one another about such things. “What did you mean by that? Is there something we need to work through?” Men on the other hand might be more inclined to have that conversation just in their own heads. “What did he mean by that? Is there something wrong here?” In any case, we all have these questions – is our friendship getting deeper, can I trust this person, what did she mean by that. We’re all constantly negotiating our way through friendships. It’s no different between Jonathan and David – they negotiate there way deeper into a relationship of love and friendship and conspiracy.
But here’s the most important thing we might want to say about the relationship between David and Jonathan – we’ve already mentioned it. Their friendship is in service to the purposes of God. Now at some level, Jonathan may not even be aware of this. Jonathan doesn’t know that David has been chosen as the new king. He doesn’t know he is offering protection to the one God wants on the throne. Rather, the love Jonathan expresses toward David is simply rooted in his affection for David, in his respect for David, in his desire to serve the truth, and in his willingness to stand with someone who is attacked for no reason at all.
In any case, God does not intervene directly to protect David or to destroy Saul. Rather, God works through this beautiful, very human friendship between Jonathan and David –
a friendship that is in service of the truth,
a friendship that is defined by the pursuit of justice,
a friendship that is rooted in genuine love and affection.
It is a very human relationship – a relationship marked by the fallibility and doubt that mark so many of our friendships. Yet through this good and beautiful friendship God’s purposes are accomplished among his people – David is protected, Saul’s evil purposes are thwarted.
This is perhaps the central message for us this morning, that through our friendships also, the purposes of God can be accomplished. Perhaps the central focus for us ought to be he possibility that our friendships could have the pursuit of God’s way at their centre – the possibility that our friendships could have life in the kingdom of the risen Jesus at their centre. Yes, our friendships are fallible, human relationships – yet as the example of David and Jonathan attests, they can also be relationships through which the good purposes of God can be accomplished in our world.
Perhaps it is true to say, in fact, that friendships only really come into their own when those friendships are preoccupied with the peace, the justice, the truth, and the goodness of the risen Jesus. Perhaps it is true to say that our friendships only find their fullness when we as friends talk about, and work toward, the fullness of life that is given in the kingdom of the risen Jesus.
C.S. Lewis, in his book The Four Loves distinguishes romantic love from friendship with interesting images, and with this we conclude this morning. He suggests that in romantic love a man and a woman are looking at each other – they are enamoured with each other. But he suggests that in friendship the two stand side by side looking at some other object – something that captures their attention – something they discuss and explore together. This morning the interesting possibility is that the object of interest in our friendships might be the risen Jesus and his kingdom. This morning the possibility is that the object of interest and discussion in our friendship might be the kingdom of the God who has come among us. So that that through our friendships, the good and beautiful purposes of God might be accomplished. It’s a possibility worth thinking about and worth praying about. Thanks be to God. Amen.