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Jonathan’s Dilemma

Updated: Jun 11

While Islamic teaching holds that prophets were infallible, the Bible paints a realistic picture of the strengths and weaknesses of God’s people. Muslim-background believers in Christ (MBBs) have much to learn from the biblical figures who sought to serve God in their respective generations. This blog focuses on Jonathan, the son of King Saul.  


Samuel anointed Saul as the first king of Israel, following the rule of judges. Despite a good beginning, Saul’s double-mindedness caused much grief to himself, his family, and his subjects. Saul’s spiritual decline ended with him desperately consulting the Witch of Endor for guidance, even though he had previously banned such practices. Jonathan was the son of this fallen king. He was the crown prince of Israel.


With Saul suffering from episodes of demonic attack, the palace staff had earlier sought someone who could bring soothing worship before the king. They found David the son of Jesse, a simple shepherd who loved God. With Saul having fallen from grace and sanity, Samuel had anointed young David as Saul’s replacement. With David in the palace, Saul fell into a jealous and demonic rage. He sought to kill David with the tip of his spear. So David had no choice but to flee into the wilderness.


Jonathan observed all these happenings. He was in a bind. He knew God was with David. Jonathan and David were great friends. Jonathan observed that Saul was becoming unglued, but he took the risk to enter into a covenant with David. And Jonathan promised to inform David of Saul’s true intent. Would the king kill David or not?


The biblical drama reached a crescendo in 1 Samuel 20:30-33 as Saul turned his anger against his son, Jonathan, for siding with David:


Then Saul’s anger burned against Jonathan and he said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you are choosing the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?  For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Therefore now, send and bring him to me, for he must surely die.”  But Jonathan answered Saul his father and said to him, “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” Then Saul hurled his spear at him to strike him down; so Jonathan knew that his father had decided to put David to death.


The Bible does not give us a full disclosure of all that was going on in Jonathan’s heart. We know he was a brave soldier who routed a Philistine garrison. Later, he even took the risk of finding David in the wilderness to encourage him. He did this at a time David was a Wanted Man, Public Enemy #1:


Thus he [Jonathan] said to him [David], “Do not be afraid, because the hand of Saul my father will not find you, and you will be king over Israel and I will be next to you; and Saul my father knows that also.” So the two of them made a covenant before the Lord; and David stayed at Horesh while Jonathan went to his house. (I Sam. 23:17-18)


Jonathan knew that God would give the Kingdom to David. It would be torn away from his father, Saul. What would this mean for the crown prince? Was it even realistic that he could be at the right hand of David in a new dynasty? Should he outright throw his lot in with the renegade David in an insurrection against his father?


Application to MBBs


MBBs find themselves in a bind which often results in this question: “How can I honor my father and mother if they do not want me to serve the Lord Jesus?” MBBs want to be good family members. But sometimes things go the way of King Saul, who attempted an early “honor killing” of his own son. Sometimes MBBs cannot both serve Jesus and remain in the good graces of their family members.


The Old Testament Hebrew culture was an eastern culture. In such a context, it would have been very difficult for Jonathan to publicly throw his support behind his father’s enemy, David. However, God was with David; He had departed from Saul.


MBBs often find themselves facing “Jonathan’s Dilemma:” to serve a family which is standing in opposition to Jesus, or serve Jesus at the expense of family? In a sense, Jonathan wanted to “have his cake and eat it to.” He wanted to support his father and wait for the day his father would die. Then he could show his support—and this was a sincere, brotherly support—for David.


King Saul warned Jonathan that he was bringing shame on the family (1 Sam. 20:30). So, the question was not only about allegiance to King Saul (his father, whom God was departing from) or David (whom God was with), but about family shame. This caused a gut-wrenching decision for Jonathan. The same decision confronts MBBs in our times. Many MBBs think, “I am willing to suffer for Jesus. But what right do I have to bring shame upon my whole extended family—most of whom are not followers of Jesus?”


In the end, Jonathan served his father, dying with him in battle against the Philistines at Mount Gilboa. David’s lament, “the Song of the Bow,” in 2 Samuel 1 is still a tear-jerker after 3,000 years. David came to the throne, but Jonathan would not be sitting next to him as the latter had hoped.


A lot of questions intrigue us regarding Jonathan. Did he make the best decision in following his father into an untimely death? Could he have done anything differently? In some ways, Jonathan had no good options.


MBBs today also confront excruciating situations. It looks like no good options may exist. Yet, the process of going through the crucible can increase faith, perseverance, and trust in God. In the end, God must always come first, but some people, like King Saul, as well as Islamic leaders today, may stand in the way of that happening.


We do appreciate your prayers for MBBs who are facing Jonathan’s Dilemma. May the Lord Jesus be glorified in their lives.

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