An illustration of Jonathan in the Bible climbing a rock

Jonathan in the Bible: Humble Prince, Brave Warrior

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David and Jonathan’s friendship often overshadows Jonathan’s accomplishments as a warrior and prince. He was a leader and warrior in his own right. Unfortunately, Jonathan’s story is a tragic one. It begins at the height of his military career but ends in humiliation, cut down by the enemy as he flees.

Who was Jonathan in the Bible?

Jonathan was the first-born son of Saul who was due to inherit the throne upon his father’s passing. He was also a mighty, skilled warrior who would lead thousands of men into battle. Although he developed a strong friendship with the future King David, relinquished his claim to the throne, and saved David’s life, Jonathan remained loyal to his father Saul, dying with him at their last battle against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa.

Jonathan the Warrior

Before David became popular, Jonathan was an accomplished warrior.

The Philistines were a powerful people who had been at war with Israel since the conquest of Canaan (Joshua and Judges). From the very beginning of his reign, King Saul was thrust into conflict (and it would remain so for the rest of his reign). The reader’s first introduction to Jonathan is during a military campaign against the Philistines.

Jonathan Rallies the People Against the Philistines

In I Samuel 13, Saul splits his army in two giving Jonathan command of about one thousand men at Gibeah of Benjamin while Saul commands two thousand (verse 2). Jonathan brazenly attacks the Philistine garrison at Geba and defeats it. The Philistines respond to this provocative move by deploying a rather large force according to verse 5 to Michmash (30,000 chariots, 6000 horsemen, and “troops like the sand of the seashore”).1

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The Israelites were frightened and distressed, many of whom migrated to the other side of the river Jordan to be spared from bloodshed. The fear was not unwarranted. In addition to greater numbers, the Philistines may have controlled the technology and raw materials to make and sharpen iron weapons (superior to any bronze weaponry used in the past)2 putting the Israelites at a great disadvantage. Only Saul and Jonathan, according to the text (verse 22) had adequate weaponry.

Jonathan, however, was not dismayed by the odds. While his countrymen hid, he took his armorbearer, daringly climbed a sheer rock, and confronted the Philistines guarding the mountain pass at Michash without telling Saul. The decision to do so was not made in a vacuum. Jonathan was taking advantage of the Philistines splitting their forces at Michmash and deploying them in three different directions, North, West, and East (I Samuel 13:17-18), thinning out their numbers at the garrison at Michmash.

Jonathan’s intention was not to catch the Philistines by surprise. Convinced that God had delivered them into his hand, he makes sure Philistine scouts see him. His plan, as he tells his armorbearer, was that if the Philistines tell them to go up, they would go up and if the Philistines tell them to wait, they would wait for the Philistines to approach them (I Samuel 14:8-10). Both climb after being directed to do so and when they reach the top they proceed to kill 20 men in about half an acre of area. He was counting on them underestimating him and his armorbearer.

Shortly after, an earthquake rattles the area and the Philistines are frightened and flee. Back at Gibeah, Saul is informed of the commotion by his watchmen. Saul takes advantage and deploys his forces to the area of battle and other Israelites who had either sided with the Philistines or were hiding are motivated to go up against the Philistines.

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Jonathan and His Armorbearer

Jonathan’s success against the 20 Philistines would not have been possible without his armorbearer’s loyalty, courage, and skill.

The text in verse 13 demonstrates the harmonious fighting between Jonathan and his armorbearer. The reader may miss it at first depending on the Bible version they read. Notice the three different ways the text is translated below.

“Jonathan climbed up using his hands and feet, with his armor-bearer behind him. Jonathan cut them down, and his armor-bearer followed and finished them off.” CSB

“So they climbed up using both hands and feet, and the Philistines fell before Jonathan, and his armorbearer killed those who came behind them.” NLT

“Then Jonathan climbed up on his hands and feet, and his armor-bearer after him. And they fell before Jonathan, and his armor-bearer killed them after him.” ESV

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The Hebrew from which the English Bible versions are translated is probably a bit ambiguous leading to a slightly different interpretation in the various English translations. Either Jonathan wounded his assailants and the armorbearer finished them off, or the armorbearer killed anyone approaching from behind. Regardless, it demonstrates the symbiotic lethality of their approach.

The People Save Jonathan

As the campaign against the Philistines shifts to Beth Aven and then to Aijalon (east of Micmash)3 (verse 23 and verse 31), Saul issues a ridiculous decree that almost causes Jonathan his life.

In verse 24, Saul makes a foolish vow. None of his men are to eat until that evening. It was an unnecessary burden for men who burnt excess calories in the previous days of advancements and battle. Jonathan, who had not heard the decree, eats honey from a forest and not surprisingly regains his strength. The people, probably in dismay, tell Jonathan of Saul’s decree.

Upon hearing the news, Jonathan, a more astute warrior than his father, comments that the people would have fought better with food in their bellies. He rightly judges that Saul was hindering their victory, but he does not comment on his fate. Jonathan demonstrates here that he puts the people’s welfare before his own.

Saul is initially unaware of Jonathan’s unintentional transgression and the people are not keen on ratting him out (verse 39). But by casting lots, Saul determines that Jonathan must have sinned. Jonathan confesses and accepts the consequences, but the people, who up to this point had acquiesced, drew the line in the sand. They refused to let Saul execute Jonathan.

Refusing a king’s orders comes at great risk. For the people to rebel against Saul’s orders to execute his son speaks to their loyalty and support for Jonathan. He had earned that loyalty through his bravery, leading from the front, and his apparent care for them.

David and Jonathan

David and Jonathan were kindred spirits. They were two warriors driven by a love for their God and insurmountable courage. It was a bond forged in war.

Jonathan’s admiration for David began shortly after the latter killed Goliath, but they had probably met before. By the time David killed Goliath, David had already served as Saul’s armorbearer (See King David, Warrior King). Jonathan would have interacted with the young man on several occasions. But in killing Goliath, Jonathan saw the true courage of the young warrior. David was a man Jonathan could understand because he was a lot like him.

The Parallels in the Accounts of Jonathan and David

That the David vs Goliath duel was the beginning of David and Jonathan’s friendship is no coincidence. There is a stark parallel between the stories of Jonathan’s defeat of the Philistine encampment at Michmash and David’s defeat of Goliath. In both scenarios, the people were paralyzed with fear. Before Jonathan stormed the encampment with his armorbearer, the people were hiding in caves and those who followed Saul were described as trembling (I Samuel 13:6-7). Compare that to how the people reacted to Goliath. The text reads that they were both dismayed and greatly afraid (I Samuel 17:11).

In both cases, it took one courageous warrior to spur the people into action through one heroic act. Jonathan scaled a wall and killed 20 men with the help of his armorbearer. David killed a giant. Immediately after their feat, the scared Israelis sprung into action pushing the Philistine lines back (see I Samuel 14:21-22 and I Samuel 17:52 respectively).

Look also at the similarities between how Jonathan and David viewed God vis-a-vis their enemies.

Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.”

I Samuel 14:6 (ESV)

And David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” I Samuel 17:26 (ESV)

I Samuel 17:26 (ESV)

No doubt that when Jonathan witnessed David’s bravery and heard the conversation between him and his father (I Samuel 18:1), he saw a reflection of himself and probably a better version of himself.

A Future King Gives Up His Throne

A covenant undergirded David and Jonathan’s friendship. At some point early on (I Samuel 18:3), Jonathan made a binding agreement with David of astronomical proportions. He took off his robe, armor, bow, belt, and sword and gave them to David. In doing so, Jonathan relinquished the throne to David. Note that Jonathan is the one who initiated the covenant. David did not ask him to do that.

This gesture speaks less to Jonathan’s bond with David and more to Jonathan’s understanding of God’s will. The common theme among royals in the Bible (and history in general) is for a power struggle to ensue. Jealousy, power, and greed are the driving factors that led to rivals being murdered, even if they were blood relatives. Saul tried to kill David on several occasions so he would not have to give up the throne even though God had decreed that it was no longer his. Absalom would stage a coup against his father David. Solomon’s half-brothers tried to usurp the throne even before David had died. Even children were not spared the dangers of growing up in a royal family (see Jehosheba).

As the firstborn and rightful heir (in the eyes of men) of King Saul, Jonathan’s decision to relinquish the throne stood in sharp contrast to his father Saul’s refusal to do so and it demonstrates his utter humility before God. Jonathan knew fighting against God’s will was futile and understood that God would stand with David (I Samuel 20:15).

While Jonathan did give up the throne, he did require something of David, that David would spare his offspring. From a worldly perspective, this was not in David’s interest as Jonathan’s offspring could later be a liability –if they claimed the throne. However, David was true to his word and the covenant by providing for and sparing Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s only surviving son (II Samuel 21:7).

A Warrior’s Friendship

A lot has been insinuated about the friendship between Jonathan and David, but their friendship was nothing more than two warriors who were bound by the spilling of blood.

In some ways, their friendship was similar to the relationship between Julius Ceasar and Marc Anthony, who were also both military men and elites within the republic (although this duo was driven by power while David and Jonathan, by their love of God). Julius Ceasar was almost two decades older than Marc Anthony just as Jonathan was at least two decades older than David. Both friendships had a mentorship intonation, but the friendships were rooted in the uniqueness of the military experience.

In my studies of war, at the human level, there is a common theme that endures military innovation, the band of brothers. Warriors have a special bond with other warriors. Usually, that bond is formed by serving side by side, but strong friendships can form among those who never served together, but who have the same shared experience. That bond is often stronger than the love of one’s spouse even in the best of marriages. A teary wife begging her husband not to return to the battlefield more often than not loses to the husband’s call to protect one’s brothers in arms.

In the lament after Jonathan’s death, David exclaims,

“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.”

II Samuel 1:16

King David had had multiple wives. He probably never had the opportunity to develop a strong bond with one woman who could compete with the bond between warriors. In that context, his words about Jonathan appropriately describe the bond they had formed through the brutality of war and their shared experiences.

The text doesn’t explicitly state that David and Jonathan fought wars together, but it is implied. In Chapters 18 and 19 of I Samuel, Saul gave David command over elements of his military and sent him out to fight for Israel. Up to this point, Jonathan had been a commander of major military units and there is no reason to believe that he would have been relieved of those duties. The more likely scenario is that Jonathan and David both commanded various units during their concurrent service to Saul. And Jonathan must have been David’s superior on the battlefield as he was in the royal court (see I Samuel 20:28).

In addition to whatever battlefield experiences they may have shared, they were cut from the same cloth. Both men loved God. Both men were heirs to the throne (Jonathan by carnal authority and David by divine authority). Both men were ridiculously courageous, and both men were the elite of the elite among their warring brothers.

Jonathan Protects David

Jonathan sought to protect David from the hand of his father who was intent on killing David. Even so, Jonathan would remain loyal to his father.

A significant part of the biblical text about Jonathan is dedicated to the lengths Jonathan went through to save David from Saul’s ire. In I Samuel 19:1-3, Jonathan informs him of his father’s plans when Saul first gives the order to kill David. Jonathan’s actions are treasonous and he puts himself at risk for betraying his father. But his covenant is with David.

Jonathan walks his father off the ledge and David is welcomed back into the royal court, but his welcome is short-lived (I Samuel 19:4-8). Sometime after David returns from defeating Philistine elements, Saul is back at it again. David is forced to escape with the help of his wife Michal. He makes contact with Jonathan, presumably for help, but Jonathan is in denial. He assures David that he has his father’s confidence and would know if Saul had given orders again for David’s head. David rightly judges that by this point Saul knows of the strong friendship between both men and would likely hide his intentions from Jonathan (I Samuel 20:1-3).

Jonathan and David devise a plan to covertly notify David if Saul is still intent on killing David (I Samuel 20:5-23). The plan, fitting for two men of war, would involve target practice with a bow.

Unfortunately, Jonathan soon realizes how determined Saul is to get rid of David. In a heated exchange at a feast, when Saul asks Jonathan why David was absent from the table, Saul directs his anger toward Jonathan. He utters shameful words to his firstborn son, at a public dinner and then finishes by hurling a spear at Jonathan (I Samuel 20-24-30). Considering the close proximity at which Jonathan must have been to Saul, his ability to avoid injury speaks volumes to his fighting prowess (and reflexes).

As per their plan, Jonathan sends David the signal and communicates that he should flee (I Samuel 35-42).

Jonathan, a Loyal Son.

After David flees, Jonathan meets David again at his hiding place in the Wilderness of Ziph ( I Samuel 23:14-18). Jonathan encourages David and makes another covenant, presumably one where he would be guaranteed a seat at David’s side in the Davidic kingdom. Per the biblical text, Jonathan and David would not meet again.

Jonathan dies alongside his two brothers and father Saul in a battle against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines overtook the Israeli main element and then pursued the royal command. Jonathan fell while in retreat. It was a disappointing end for a war hero.

David was on the run for several years, but as we know from I Samuel 23:17, Jonathan was convinced that David would one day be king of Israel. Why then would he not have left his father’s side and joined David?

It was certainly not for the lack of courage. He might have been calculating the risk to his family and children of living on the run and preferred to wait it out. But I don’t believe that fits with Jonathan’s character.

Despite the ordeal between Saul and David, Saul trusted his son Jonathan. There was more to ruling a kingdom and fighting against the Philistines than the animosity Saul had for one of his military commanders. While at one point Saul realized he couldn’t trust Jonathan on the matter of David, the text implies that Jonathan was still a close confidant. Jonathan didn’t think it was possible that his father wouldn’t tell him if he intended to kill David. That speaks not to Saul’s character but to Jonathan’s. He was a man of honor, and while his father had no qualms about throwing a spear at him in a rage, Jonathan still honored his father.

Jonathan was waiting for Saul to be removed from power by David (which he believed to be inevitable), but he did not want a role in dishonoring his father in that way. He would protect David because he was innocent and God’s anointed, but he would not stab his father in the back either. He was loyal to his father to the very end, but sadly, his father did not seem to validate his efforts.

The people loved Jonathan. He must have been as charismatic as he was skillful with a sword and bow. But there was one the people would grow to love more, David. While others (like Saul), would have been eaten alive by jealousy, that was not Jonathan’s character. He was a humble prince who willfully gave up his rights to the throne to honor the chosen one of God. He was a man of valor but also a man of extreme humility.

A pin showing an illustration of Jonathan in the Bible climbing a rock with the words, "An in-depth look at King David's best friend."
  1. Numbers in the Bible, especially regarding the size of military forces should not always be taken literally. It appears numbers, culturally, were used loosely. Their primary purpose is to convey an idea rather than provide the reader with exact facts. In this case, we can read the numbers to mean it was a much larger force vis-a-vis Israel []
  2. Chronological Study Bible, p 308 []
  3. Carl G Rasmussen. Zondervan Atlas of the Bible. (Grand Rapids, Mich., Zondervan: 2010): 132 []
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