The son of the first king of Israel made a life choice that may not go down well with some of today’s ambitious young leaders.
God never intended for Israel to have an earthly king. God was Israel’s Judge, Lawgiver, and King (Isa 33.22). Israel was to be distinct from other nations — a theocracy ruled by prophets such as Moses and Samuel, charismatic leaders such as Gideon and Deborah, and priests who acted in accordance with the laws issued by God at Mount Sinai (Ex 19.5-6).
However, knowing the propensity of human beings to conform to the world around them, Moses envisioned the day when Israel would say, “Let us appoint a king over us so that we can be like all the other nations” (Deut 17.14-15). Sure enough, after being in the Land for some three hundred years, the people grew restless.
The elders of Israel approached Samuel and said, “Make us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam 8.4-5).
Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said, “Give them what they want. They have not rejected you, they have rejected Me. They do not want Me to reign over them.” Thus, Samuel anointed Saul as the inaugural king of Israel. According to the Scriptures, Saul was the most handsome man in Israel. He stood head and shoulders above all the other people (1 Sam 9.2). But as the great Pentecostal preacher, Ern Baxter, famously observed, this was Saul’s problem: he was a “head and shoulders” man.
Saul was a natural-minded man who had little or no understanding of the ways of the Spirit. He depended on his own strength and resources rather than the arm of the Lord. He did what was right in his own eyes, not what God directed him to do through the mouth of His prophet Samuel. And inevitably, God rejected him from being king over Israel (1 Sam 15.26).
The Lord instructed Samuel to anoint a young shepherd from Bethlehem as Saul’s successor, declaring, “I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after my own heart, who will do all My will” (Acts 13.22). Significantly, the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward, and departed from Saul (1 Sam 16.13-14). However, that did not mark the end of Saul’s reign. He continued to occupy the throne for another seven years before perishing on the battlefield at Mount Gilboa.
During this time Saul led a schizophrenic existence, experiencing bouts of deep depression, attacks of paranoia, and violent outbursts of anger. As Commander-in-Chief, he made several foolish decisions which compromised the safety of his troops. His narcissistic and erratic behaviour alienated members of the public, some of whom rallied around the king-in-waiting, David, at the cave of Adullam (1 Sam 22.1-2).
A critical choice
All the while, Saul’s eldest son, Jonathan, walked a tightrope: dutifully supported his ailing father, and risking his life to protect his close friend, David. The Scripture says that “the life of Jonathan was bound up with the life of David” (1 Sam 18.1). Moreover, Jonathan revealed his true character when he took off his robe and gave it to David, along with his sword, bow, and belt — signifying that he was giving his right of inheritance, his authority of succession, to the one whom God had anointed (1 Sam 18.4).
Saul even taunted Jonathan, suggesting that his friendship with David would cost him the opportunity to accede to the throne of Israel (1 Sam 20.31). Saul said, “You have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame and humiliation.” But like the Son of God himself, Jonathan was prepared to lay aside his privileges and become a servant (Phil 2.7).
In what was to be their last meeting together, Jonathan found David living as a fugitive in the Wilderness of Ziph. Recognising the precariousness of David’s position, Jonathan encouraged him with these words: “Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Even my father Saul knows that” (1 Sam 23.17).
The two of them made a covenant before the Lord, little knowing that this would be the last time they would see each other in this life. Meanwhile, David stayed in the woods with his six hundred men and Jonathan returned home.
Several months later, the Philistines massed their armies and launched an attack against the Israelites in Jezreel. With the battle turning against them, the men of Israel fled and many were slain on Mount Gilboa, including Saul’s three sons — Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua. Severely wounded, Saul fell on his own sword rather than surrender to the enemy.
Did Jonathan do the right thing in returning to his father, or should he have stayed with David and supported him in his quest to be the next king of Israel? It is important to remember that at the time of Jonathan and David’s final meeting, Saul was still the duly appointed king of Israel. His moral and ethical destitution notwithstanding, he was still “the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam 24.6). It was up to God to remove him, not man (Dan 2.21). And until such time as the Lord intervened, he was to be accorded due respect as the reigning monarch.
Jonathan was, in fact, obeying the fifth commandment by honouring his regal and very flawed father (Deut 5.16). And yet, for all intents and purposes, it didn’t seem to pay off. It certainly didn’t go well with him and he didn’t live long on the earth! But the question is, how do we measure value and success? By the temporal yardstick of wealth and power, or the eternal yardstick of glory, honour, and immortality? (Rom 2.5-7).
Do we really believe that this world with its greed and pride is passing away, but that the person who does the will of God will live forever? (1 John 2.17). Do we really believe that our true inheritance is in heaven, and that if we only have hope in this life, we are of all people most pitiable? (1 Pet 1.4; 1 Cor 15.19).
Or have we been brainwashed by prosperity preachers to believe that faith is a means of getting rich (1 Tim 6.5), and that it is honourable to accumulate treasure on earth (Mat 6.19), and that the “abundant life” that Jesus came to give us consists of material possessions? (John 10.10; Luke 12.15).
The great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, once made the startling claim that very few Christians believe in the resurrection of the dead! I would also add that very few Christians make decisions in the light of eternity. There seems to be altogether too much grasping for power, clamouring for recognition, and accumulating of wealth on the part of modern-day “king’s sons” — even to the point of supplanting the leader and usurping his throne.
However, I am sure of one thing: that because of his principled decisions and his value-based life choices, Jonathan will be seated in a place of honour in the kingdom of Heaven, together with his beloved friend David, and David’s Greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ!
Walking the walk
This is not just a theoretical bible study; this is also a personal testimony. To put it in modern parlance, “I have been there and done that.” I worked for over ten years with my father in the ministry, serving in various capacities as youth pastor, music director, and associate pastor. My Dad was a good man — a better man than I will ever be — but he had his limitations as a leader. And because of that, he was not easy to work with.
On several occasions people came to me with a supposed “word from the Lord” that God wanted me to take over the leadership of the church. Each time I resisted the temptation. I even stated, perhaps foolishly, that I would rather die than displace my father from his God-appointed position.
Eventually my father decided to hand the church over to me, only to take it back again a short time later because he wasn’t “comfortable” with the way I was leading it — despite the fact that the church was growing numerically and expanding in new directions.
As things became increasingly difficult, and to avoid a schism in the church, my wife and I decided to quietly leave, and with my father’s blessing and the church’s support, start an outreach on the Mornington Peninsula, some fifty kilometres away.
Was it easy? No. Was it painful? You better believe it. Did it cost me? Big time. Do I regret it? No way!
The apostle Paul said, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility let each esteem others as better and more important than himself” (Phil 2.3). He also said, “Do not destroy your brother for the sake of satisfying your appetite” (Rom 14.15). Selfish ambition often masquerades as a ministry gift or calling. And too often we are willing to trample on people to achieve our goal!
Looking back after all these years, I’m grateful to be able to say, “By the grace of God I did not lift my hand against the Lord’s anointed. I did not destroy the work of God because of personal ambition.”
Possibly time, but certainly eternity, will reveal the consequences of that decision.