A Wrong and Right Way to Read the Bible

holding-biblePreachers are under enormous pressure from their congregations to emphasize the contemporary relevance of any given Biblical text. The Bible certainly is relevant: it is the story of our redemption in Jesus Christ, brimming with dramatic interest, and filled with both promises and commands. But very often this is not the sort of application that itching ears want to hear. The temptation for preachers is to apply the text immediately to the individual hearer by bypassing any real exegesis of the text. In this way they “apply” the Bible to their hearers in ways that God never intended.

In 1 Samuel 18:3 we read, “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.” In my life I have heard numerous sermons on this verse. The preachers waxed eloquently on the value of friendship. They illustrated their message with examples of great men who had close confidants and contrasted them with loner villains, such as High school assassins and Hitler. They gave practical advice on how to better cultivate such friendship and how to avoid common relationship pitfalls.

The problem with all this is that the text is not about the importance of friendship. The good news for the preacher, however, is that a little exegesis reveals an application that is much richer than the rather generic (and not specifically Christian) truth that friendship is good.

God promised Israel that he would set his own king over them in his own timing (Deut 17). Impatiently, Israel demanded of God a King like all the nations, and chose Saul of the tribe of Benjamin (ch 8-9). God, in his wrath, gave them Saul, and in his wrath he took him away (10, 15). The Lord then chose David, of the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10), as the man after his own heart, and anointed him to inherit the Kingdom of God (16).

Jonathan was the son of King Saul and heir to his throne. David is poised as his only rival. Here is the real drama in the text: will Jonathan side with the Lord’s Anointed or will he maintain his own right to the throne? His father leaves no doubt where he stands on the matter: “for as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established” (1 Sam 20:31). History is saturated with stories where a prince or newly established king assassinates all of his siblings in order to secure his claim to the throne. Herod the Great even killed his own children whom he feared might rival his regal authority. But Jonathan chooses David.

The drama is heightened when we recognize the place of David in redemptive history. The Lord promised David that he would establish his house and the throne of his kingdom forever (2 Sam 7:12-16) and that in the last days he would raise up a king like David to shepherd his people (Ezek 34:23; 37:24). Ultimately, God’s promises to David find their fulfillment in his greater Son, Jesus Christ. As the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary, “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33). David, as a prophet, and “knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption” (cf. Acts 2:31; Ps 110).

As a forerunner of the Messiah who was to come, allegiance to David is as allegiance to Jesus Christ. Saul emerges as a foil for the Lord’s Anointed and becomes an Antichrist figure bent on murdering David. For Jonathan there is no question whom he will choose. He gladly lays down his claim to the throne at great personal cost (his own father tries to kill him!).

We are faced with the same choice – friendship with God or with the world? Will we maintain our pretended autonomy or will we become servants of the true King? As Jesus Christ our King has said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23-24).