Probably each of us has a favorite hero or heroine in the Old Testament. Were we to have a show of hands, I wouldn’t be surprised to see at least a few votes cast in favor of King David. Most everyone who reads the two books of Samuel finds something to admire in the son of Jesse, whether we look on him primarily as a pattern of courage, of magnanimity, of personal devotion or humble penitence. And that’s as should be; David’s fine qualities are not far to seek.
But for my own part, I would say that the Old Testament figure I most admire is David’s comparatively uncelebrated friend, Jonathan. I doubt whether it would be possible to name a more selfless character among the biblical patriarchs. Jonathan’s character is not presented by the author of I Samuel in any considerable detail, but we are told enough about him to recognize that he had, above all things, a capacity to deny himself. It never appears that he was tempted to envy David the honors he had received from men or from God. He knew that God had chosen David to supplant Saul as king of Israel, but we are not told that any ambition Jonathan might have previously entertained left him with any feelings of bitterness or resentment towards God or God’s anointed.
This long act of self-denial might not be so impressive had Jonathan been a character of less vigorous temperament than he in fact was. A naturally passive or unassertive man, himself the son of a king, might be expected to bear in good part the revelation that he would never wear the crown himself. But we know full well that Jonathan was not by nature so acquiescent. He possessed in notable degree exactly the martial virtues that a king of those times was expected to have. There was in him nothing of the malingerer.
We read in the fourteenth chapter of I Samuel that Jonathan had the sort of reckless valor that delights to find itself in a contest with all odds against it. Far from being inert and lifeless, Jonathan was a hero of the Homeric type, and can easily be imagined in the company of Hector or Diomedes. Such a character could never be merely a foil to David; he was truly worthy to stand beside him, which makes his willingness to bow to God’s will in this matter all the more admirable. He knew the part that fortune had left him to play and played it without hesitation or complaint.
Jonathan also leaves us a fine example of a man who never made an idol of one good or one blessing to the exclusion of all others. He maintained always in his conduct a sense of the proportion of things, and an understanding of what his duties were to Saul and David respectively. He never abandoned David when circumstances made him an enemy of Jonathan’s father; neither did Jonathan abandon his father when Saul’s insecurity and failing sanity drove him to outlaw his son’s best friend. A baser character might easily have turned aside from a friend in distress or a parent abandoning himself to poor judgment, but Jonathan was not given to betrayals of this kind. To break faith and betray a sacred trust was not in his nature.
So what should we learn from Jonathan? For one thing, his life is proof that it is useless to resent the absence of gifts we have not been given. This is difficult for most of us, I expect, in various ways, because who would not wish to have at his command Mr. Valeriano’s excellent Swiftian wit, Mr. Denison’s knowledge of the dramatic arts, Mrs. DeGroot’s impeccable organizational skills, or Miss Owens’ command of the violin? It is naturally easier to be jealous of or irrationally despise our neighbor’s talent, but Jonathan’s case proves that there is a more graceful response, one that I admit doesn’t come to me at all naturally but which I would commend to all of us enthusiastically nonetheless.
Prideful assertion and self-advertisement come to men and women almost reflexively, and for those of us whose singular fortune it is to live in what might be labeled “The Age of the Endless Sales Pitch,” the temptation is certainly not made easier to bear. Jonathan might profitably be taken as a model for those of us who must constantly fight within ourselves the allurements of egotism, for he recognized what each of us must recognize, namely, that our gifts are not the only ones worthy of celebration and that the roles assigned us in God’s great drama are in all probability more nearly resemble that of Shakespeare’s gravedigger than that of Hamlet.
Jonathan’s self-forgetfulness deserves a place in our memory. And we are promised that this self-forgetfulness will not lose its reward: for as Christ said, the one who loses his life shall find it.