Perhaps the only thing harder for prideful humans than humbly wielding power is humbly yielding power.
And the most beautiful Old Testament example of this is the way Jonathan yielded Israel’s throne to David. But as we see in 1 Samuel 23:15–18, he did far more than just yield.
Abinadab had watched his fugitive younger brother receive Jonathan like royalty. Such an embrace. Such intimate talk. Such weeping in farewell. What had David divulged to the enemy’s son?
He stepped beside David at the cave’s entrance and they watched Jonathan depart — returning to serve beside his father whose homicidal paranoia was forcing them to run like foxes and live like badgers.
“David, you won’t like my asking, but I need to. Is it wise just letting him go back to Saul?”
“My life is never safer than when it’s in his keeping.”
Abinadab shifted uneasily. “I know you love him. You’re very loyal. Very trusting. It’s one of your great qualities. I just hope your loyalty isn’t naïve here.”
David said nothing, his eyes still fixed on Jonathan.
Abinidab continued, “Brother, these are treacherous days. You barely escaped Doeg’s loose tongue. And those cowards of Keilah would have offered you as a peace offering to Saul despite the fact that you had just saved their necks from the Philistines. We need clear thinking here. Jonathan is next in line to be king. You’ve been friends. But the fact is, you’re now his one rival to the throne. Isn’t it possible that the blood of royal power may be thicker for Jonathan than the water of your friendship?”
Jonathan’s silhouette melded into the dusky shadows of the Horesh hills. David wiped his eyes and turned back into the cave. “You don’t know him, Abinadab. I’ll forgive this offense to his honor. We’re no more in danger than if that was our father walking away. But it’s not Jonathan’s affection for me that I trust. It’s his faith.”
Abinadab followed David. “Well, I hope I’m wrong, I really do. But Jonathan’s coming out here makes no sense to me if it’s not to spy you out. If he wanted to protect you he should never have come at all! What if he was followed?”
“Nobody’s more skillful at traceless trekking than Jonathan.”
“Maybe. But why would he come just for a friendly visit? Think of the risk. If his father finds out that he’s been here and didn’t report it, his life won’t be worth a pigeon’s. The king has nearly murdered him twice already! If he came here for love then he risked his life and all of ours. Why?”
“To strengthen my hand in God, Abinadab. Because he knows me. He knows how discouraged I can get.” David looked down and smiled. “God sent him because he knows how dark it’s been for me. I know what God has promised me. But with barely a step between me and death, it’s like I forget.”
David sat down on the rock near his gear and pulled some parchment from his satchel. “I’ve been working on this psalm. Let me read you the first lines:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
And by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1–2)
“Today,” David paused, clenching back sobs. “Today Jonathan risked his life to help me rest—to remind me that God is not far at all. What he said to me was, ‘Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel,’” David paused again as tears flowed freely, “‘and I shall be next to you. Saul my father also knows this.’
“Jonathan believes God, Abinadab. It’s his faith I trust. Jonathan loves God more than he loves power. And more than he loves me. He loves me because he loves God. That makes him the safest man in the world to me. He has no equal.” David hung his head. “I only hope he survives his father’s insane faithlessness. I so desperately want him next to me.”
David had a very difficult calling: to wield the power of Israel’s kingship with God-dependent humility.
Jonathan’s calling may have been more difficult: to yield the power of Israel’s kingship with God-dependent humility.
But Jonathan didn’t just yield to David. He loved David (1 Samuel 18:1), empowered David (1 Samuel 18:4), protected and advocated for David (1 Samuel 20). And when David’s faith-hand was losing its grip, he sought him out and “strengthened his hand” by reminding him of God’s promises (1 Samuel 23:17). He could have only done this if he trusted in the Lord with all his heart (Proverbs 3:5).
Like Jonathan, God wants us to seek first the kingdom (Matthew 6:33), not our prominence in it. When we trust God enough to yield our prominence (or expected prominence) to someone else for God’s purposes it’s a sign and wonder. And when we go beyond that to doing everything in our power to help them succeed — nothing else quite images the Philippians 2:5–11 glory of Jesus.
Jonathan did not consider the throne a thing to be grasped, but he made himself nothing for God’s sake and became a Christ-like servant. Let us also “have this mind” (Philippians 2:5).
This story is from 1 Samuel 16:8; 1 Samuel 22:9–19; 1 Samuel 23:1–14; 1 Samuel 14:24–46, 20:30–34; and 1 Samuel 20:3.