When David learned of the deaths of King Saul and Prince Jonathan in battle with the Philistines, he tore his garments, wept, mourned, and fasted (2 Samuel 1:11-12). Then, David memorialized his agony over their loss with a psalm of lamentation he entitled Qesheth or the Song of the Bow, and he instructed the sons of Judah to learn the psalm. In this song, the newly crowned King David especially lamented the loss of his friend Jonathan with these words:
How the mighty have fallen
In the midst of the battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
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 Samuel 1:25-26
The most straightforward thing I can say about King David’s profession of exceedingly great love for his dearly departed Jonathan is that contemporary Westerners generally do not and cannot understand this very well. His love’s inscrutability to our minds and hearts is a result of the cultural forms for relationships available to us, which mold our expectations and set boundaries on the possibilities of our imaginations for varieties of love. This form of love was more commonly understood in the premodern world.
This sort of intimate language of affection between friends, as expressed by David and existing as recently as the nineteenth century in the United States, has frequently been misconstrued sexually by many in the twentieth century up to the present due to lack of a social construct for intimate friendship like this. After speaking of ancient tales of epic friendships, which lack contemporary counterparts, C.S. Lewis rebuts this foolish and ignorant charge in The Four Loves with an air of disdain:
This imposes on me from the outset a very tiresome bit of demolition. It has actually become necessary in our time to rebut the theory that every firm and serious friendship is really homosexual.
The dangerous word ‘really’ is here important. To say that every Friendship is consciously and explicitly homosexual would be too obviously false; the wiseacres take refuge in the less palpable charge that is it ‘really’ — unconsciously, cryptically, in some Pickwickian sense — homosexual. And this, though it cannot be proved, can never of course be refuted. The fact that no positive evidence of homosexuality can be discovered in the behavior of two Friends does not disconcert the wiseacres at all: “That,” they say gravely, “is just what we should expect.” The very lack of evidence is thus treated as evidence; the absence of smoke proves that the fire is very carefully hidden. Yes — if it exists at all. But we must first prove its existence. Otherwise we are arguing like a man who should say “If there were an invisible cat in that chair, the chair would look empty; but the chair does look empty; therefore, there is an invisible cat in it.”
A belief in invisible cats cannot perhaps be logically disproved, but it tells us a good deal about those who hold it. Those who cannot conceive of Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend . . .
Indeed. People who insist that deep friendship is veiled “homoeroticism” have never had a real friend in their lives. However, given how contemporary Western society via Romanticism has constrained the meaning of intimacy and has chained it to sexuality, such thinking demands compassionate ministerial intervention for its enslavement to pagan (i.e. Freudian) thought-forms and word-forms. And it requires liberation from imprisonment by the social constructs built thereupon.
Although ‘soulmates’ is one of Modern Western Romanticism’s descriptors for ‘lovers’ (another freighted word) lost in each other’s affections, the closest thing to soulmates that the Holy Scriptures know are intimate friends. In a passage of the Law regarding enticement to apostasy, the Lord warns his covenant people emphatically about those in close relationships who would entice them:
“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly . . .”
Alongside his siblings, his children, and his wife, a man is warned about a friend who is like the man’s own soul. Such a friend is named by the Lord as one of the people in the position of great intimacy and influence toward the man.
In the case of David and Jonathan over just a few chapters, we’re repeatedly told how the souls of the two men were intertwined and endeared to each other:
As soon as [David] had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.
1 Samuel 18:1-3
And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him, for he loved him as he loved his own soul.
2 Samuel 20:17
Jonathan and David made a covenant with one another. This is reminiscent of the vow of Ruth toward Naomi. Under the political circumstances of Jonathan being the heir to Saul’s dynasty and David being the head of a newly emerged rival kingly lineage, this covenant allegiance in love is deeply counterproductive to Jonathan’s future kingship. His father Saul was enraged that Jonathan had more love for David his competitor for the kingdom than he had esteem for Saul’s and his own dynasty. King Saul lashed out at Jonathan, calling him a “son of a perverse, rebellious woman” (1 Samuel 20:30).
David’s love for Jonathan even extended to Jonathan’s descendants. While some were seeking to aid in the solidification of David’s kingship and curry favor with King David by dispatching his potential political rivals and their military allies, David was wailing aloud, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Samuel 9:1). And he found his beloved friend Jonathan’s crippled son Mephibosheth and grandson Mica. David exalted Mephibosheth by restoring his family’s servants and possessions and receiving him daily at the king’s table alongside the king’s own sons (2 Samuel 9:9-13).
This magnanimous love shown by David for Jonathan’s descendants on account of his love for Jonathan his friend is very similar the covenant love shown by El Shaddai for Abraham’s offspring on account of his love for Abraham his friend.
Behold, to the Lord your God
Belong heaven and the heaven of heavens,
The earth with all that is in it.
Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers
And chose their offspring after them,
You above all peoples,
As you are this day.
We too who are sons of Abraham by faith in Jesus his Blessed Offspring are loved for the sake of our Father Abraham.
David, a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), models for us passionate intimacy in his friendship to Jonathan that is “extraordinary” and shows us that friendship need not be casual or transient. It can be such a love that two souls become knit together as one, and the course of a man’s future and his children’s future after him are bound up in the covenanted oaths that he and his dear friend made to one another.