Love is a complex word in the English language. Imagine a man whose wife has been out of town for a week going to the airport to pick her up. It would be perfectly acceptable for the husband to give his wife a long hug, kiss her and tell her, “I love you.” It would also be normal 30 minutes later for them to eat at a restaurant they love, hear a song they love, come home to the house they love and greet their kids and pets whom they also love.
How can one word have so many meanings? The challenge of understanding the distinction of what love means extends into our English translations of the Bible. The original biblical languages have different words with specific meanings that get translated as love. Understanding these words can help us appreciate God’s love better and keep us from dangerously misinterpreting certain biblical passages.
Over a few articles we will discuss different aspects of biblical love by looking at some passages that display different forms of love. Sometimes, understanding what a word does not mean helps us to understand what it does mean. That is what we will do in this article by looking at the relationship between David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel.
A Recap of the Relationship
To get a full understanding of their relationship, it would be helpful to read 1 Samuel in its entirety, but we will have a quick review. Saul was the first king over Israel by God’s command and Jonathan was Saul’s oldest son (1 Samuel 10:20-24, 13:16). After becoming king, Saul disobeyed God by making a burnt offering and as a result, God removed the royal line from Saul and anointed David instead (1 Samuel 13:8-14). Saul was furious about this and repeatedly tried to kill David. This is first seen in 1 Samuel 17:6-16, but Saul’s pursuit of David runs throughout the rest of 1 Samuel.
As Saul’s oldest son, Jonathan would have been anointed king when Saul died and it would have been understandable if he tried to kill David; however, we read that, “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David (1 Samuel 18:1).” Instead of trying to kill David, Jonathan risked his life by repeatedly warning David of Saul’s plans to kill him (1 Samuel 20:1-42). He made a covenant with David and gave him his robe, armor, sword, bow and belt (1 Samuel 18:4), signifying that he supported David as the next king. Jonathan was a godly man who knew that God was in control. This leads up to the death of Saul and almost all his sons including Jonathan in 1 Samuel 31 during a battle with the Philistines.
What Kind of Love?
David’s response upon hearing the news of their deaths is recorded in 2 Samuel. In 2 Samuel 1:26 he says, “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.” This passage has been mistakenly given as evidence of a homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan. The Hebrew word that is translated as love can mean a sexual love as used in Genesis 29:20 to describe Jacob’s feelings for Rachel. It can also mean the love of a parent for their child (Genesis 22:2), the love we should have for God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and the love we should have for our neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), among others.
What does David mean in this passage? Is he mourning the loss of a homosexual lover? Thankfully we do not have to speculate; rather we can look earlier in the story of David and Jonathan’s relationship. In 1 Samuel 20:17 we read, “And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him, for he loved him as he loved his own soul”, using the same word that David used for love in 2 Samuel 1:26. When Jonathan spoke of his love for David, it was the same type of love that he had for his own body. It was very deep, but it was not of a sexual nature.
Furthermore, we must understand that homosexual acts are clearly forbidden in the Old Testament. Any time a homosexual act is recorded in the Old Testament, it is plainly identified as sinful (Genesis 19:4-8, Leviticus 18:22, Judges 19:22-23). If David was mourning the loss of Jonathan as a homosexual lover, he would have been rebuked just as he was with his heterosexual sexual sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12.
Why would David specifically mention that Jonathan’s love surpassed the love of women? It is important to understand that this statement is said in the context of a lament, a type of poem. We should expect to see dramatic, exaggerated language used to express the intense sadness David felt.
In the same lament David says, “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles; they were stronger than lions (2 Samuel 1:23).” Obviously, they were not literally faster than eagles or stronger than lions. It is also unlikely that David felt that Saul was beloved and lovely after spending much of his life running from Saul. In both cases, David uses embellished language to illustrate the loss he felt by their deaths.
By understanding Jonathan and David’s relationship and knowing God’s law regarding homosexuality, we can see that David is using dramatic language by saying Jonathan’s love surpassed the love of women. It is meant to grab your attention and cause you to reflect on how much Jonathan did love David, but it was not homosexual in nature.
Looking more deeply into David and Jonathan’s relationship helps us see that we have to keep context in mind when we read about love in the Bible. Instead of reading a single verse and making it mean something it does not, we should honor God by seeking to understand the verse by considering the rest of scripture. By doing so we can understand what a word does not mean and have more confidence to understand what it truly does mean.