The Fate of a Jonathan

In my moniker JMSmith, the J stands for Jonathan. It is a name that has served me well, although my mother tells me that, when I was a child, shouting it sometimes failed to engage my attention. But a man who also bears the surname Smith will have a connection to all of his names that is, I daresay, somewhat less proud and proprietorial than a man whose last name is Murgatroyd, Pecksniff, or Abercrombie. And in my case, the sense of ordinariness was enforced by the fact that, until I reached adulthood, everyone called me Jon.

As a child raised on Bible stories and Sunday School lessons, I could not, however, escape the feeling that being named Jonathan placed me in some sort of occult relation to the son of Saul and friend of David. I therefore found myself wondering if there might be some onomastic qualia, some essential Jonathan-ness that was shared by every boy who bore that name. It was not easy for me to answer this question inductively, since there were not many Jonathans among my classmates (unlike Smiths), and these Jonathans were mostly Jews (which strangely made them seem irrelevant to my inquiry).

So I was thrown back on pondering the character in the Bible story, and the more I pondered, the less thrilled I was with my name.

This was because it appeared to me that a Jonathan’s fate was to play second fiddle to some David. I was aware that some people thought that the archetypal Jonathan was admirable in his own way, but I was also certain that to be admired in the way of David would be far better. Translating the Old Testament characters into a television program from those days, I saw David as something like Andy Taylor, and Jonathan as something like Barney Fife.

And while Barney made them laugh; it was Andy whom they loved and admired.

Thus it was that I came to the discouraging conclusion that to be named Jonathan was to be marked as one of life’s sidekicks, as a deputy who was destined to pass his days in the shotgun seat.

* * * * *

I was reminded of these self-pitying thoughts at this morning’s Bible study, where our reading of 1 Samuel reached the catastrophe of Saul and David’s rise to power. The story was just as I remembered it, with haughty Goliath crashing to earth and good old Jonathan yielding pride of place to David. It may be that all these years in the shotgun seat has changed me, but I found it no longer vexed me to be named after Jonathan.

As I now see it, this is a story of charisma passing from Saul to David. After forty years at the head of the Israelites, Saul has lost the divine gift of leadership. As any man may, Saul resents this loss, is jealous of his successor, and is not above using low tricks to defy God and hold on to power. I take this as the meaning of the line

“Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrorized him” (1 Samuel 16:14).

The charisma of leadership was the Spirit that departed; jealousy of David was the evil spirit that took its place.

As I now see it, this story also foreshadows the pivotal day of all human history, when charisma passed from the Old Covenant to the New, from the Nation of Israel to the Church of Christ. Read in this light, Saul is the type of the Nation of Israel, great in his day, but after forty years sadly decayed. David is, of course, the type of Christ, whom we call the “Son of David,” and who, like David, slayed the Goliath of sin, death and the world. David’s sling and stone are symbols of the unpromising means that Christ would employ to do this, and Saul’s jealous rages and treachery anticipate what Acts 20:19 would call the “plots of the Jews.”

In this reading, Jonathan is much more than David’s sidekick. Jonathan, as heir to Saul, is the man who has most reason to resent, and resist, the truth that charisma has passed from his father to his friend.  And yet he yields.  He is thus in this reading the type of the Jews who, centuries later, laid aside the Old Covenant and followed Christ into his Church. Jonathan could easily have followed his father down the path of jealousy and hatred, could easily have opened his heart to the “evil spirit” that made his father rage and finger his spear whenever David appeared, strumming his harp. But instead:

“Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, including his sword and his bow and his belt.” (1 Samuel 18:4)

Thus, if we Jonathans share a fate, it appears that fate is to yield to fate without “murmuring,” as Marcus Aurelius put it. We Jonathans take the Stoic view that, when a man like Saul rages against the will of God, he “makes himself a sort of excrescence of the world . . . and instead of a limb becomes an ulcer” (Meditations, II.16).

* * * * *

If this is true, I must confess to being a highly imperfect Jonathan, for I am not above “murmuring,” and I can direct you to people who will testify that I am an “excrescence” and an “ulcer” in this world. The temptation to follow Saul is particularly strong nowadays, as I near the end of my forty years and begin the dolorous descent into impotence and oblivion. And I will confess that there are times when I “rage in my house” (or at least in my head), and when I “poise my spear” and think how sweet it would be to “nail David to the wall” (1 Samuel 18:11).

But a highly imperfect Jonathan is still a Jonathan. The blood of Saul runs in his veins, and his eye may from time to time dart to the ready spear that is hanging on the wall, but because he is a Jonathan, he knows in his heart that to be “uneasy at the appointments of Providence is a failure of reverence and respect” (Meditations IX.1).


See also “The Art of Dropping Out.”

9 thoughts on “The Fate of a Jonathan

  1. Pingback: The Fate of a Jonathan | @the_arv

  2. The song of Saul.

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked no lightening, they
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn too late they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors, and be gay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    And you, my father, there on that sad height,
    Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

  3. Pingback: The Fate of a Jonathan | Reaction Times

    • Your reading is interesting, although obviously set in a different frame and based on different presuppositions than mine. I suppose we are both positing esoteric meanings to the text, although mine is typological and yours is more in the spirit of cabala. I’m afraid cabalistic decoding leaves me cold, although this may be owing to the same personal limitation that makes me indifferent to crossword and sudoku puzzles. I of course disagree with your reading of the verse in which Jonathan hands the symbols of royal power to David, since I doubt this has anything to do with his appreciation of David’s “soul.” To my mind, charisma is a gift, not a personal property, and the meaning of this event is in any case anticipatory.

  4. The setting out of the type of Johnathan in the Old Testament is perfected in the New Testament in John the Baptist. Let that sink in; I wish I could say that I had the fortitude to give my head to be John the Baptist.


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