Skip to content

The Tragic Death of a Good Man

Sometimes I ask my students to vote for the best candidate for king: Saul, Jonathan, or David. The results are mixed. At first glance, David gets all the good press. But the biblical perspective is much more nuanced. Admittedly, voting isn’t an Old Testament idea. God appointed the leaders; rebels were stoned. Israel would “hear and be afraid” and “not act presumptuously again” (Deut. 17:12-13, NRSV). Yet one senses the beginnings of democracy.

While a king must obey Mosaic law precisely, he must not exalt himself “above other members of the community” (Deut. 17:20) – almost like Jesus’ response when James and John asked to be first in the kingdom. That’s for Gentile rulers, said Jesus, not for you. In my kingdom those who want to be great must become servants – like the Son of Man who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28).

That’s astonishing, for in the New Testament, the Son of Man is God incarnate. Thus the God who commanded that the disobedient be stoned ends up modeling a life where loving service obliterates the idea of “obedience.” And Jesus preserved that ideal, for in the Gospels he never once demanded to be worshiped. That’s why we can worship him from love, not fear. As G. K. Chesterton puts it in his biography of Francis of Assisi, “it was because the thing was not demanded that it was done.” [1]

But now back to Jonathan, my candidate for king. Gracious, self-effacing, honest, open, a promise-keeper – why didn’t God appoint him as king? Instead, he died at the hands of the Philistines (1 Chron. 10:2).

Maybe it’s because people of purity like Jonathan – and Jesus – get killed in a world like ours. David’s toughness enabled him to lead his people. Yet as king he modeled the very evils against which Deuteronomy warned: wealth and women as markers of pride. He arrogantly took another man’s wife, murdering her husband (2 Sam. 11). And, in a less-well-known incident, David demanded that his former wife Michal – given by her father Saul to another man, Paltiel – be wrenched from her husband and brought to him. David had at least six wives who bore him sons (2 Sam. 3:3). Why insist on Michal, too? When they came to take her away from her husband and bring her to David, Paltiel “went with her, weeping as he walked behind her all the way to Bahurim. Then Abner said to him, ‘Go back home!’ So he went back.” (2 Sam. 3:16.)

In our wild world, God doesn’t always pick the “best man.” And that helps us understand grace. Tick off the best of them: Abraham, Jacob, Moses – great men, flawed men, men saved by grace, not by ability, not by goodness.

Still, God gives us good men like Jonathan to warm our hearts; to help us dream dreams about a kingdom where honor, integrity, and purity banish vanity, double-dealing, and arrogance.

But how does God lead us to a world like that? Buried in Jonathan’s story shines a little jewel that marks the way. It shows how ordinary people, thoroughly embedded in an authoritarian structure, can still be led by God’s Spirit to counter the unbending rigidity which marks authoritarian structures.

In 1 Samuel 14 Saul and his army are locked in combat with the marauding Philistines. Saul rashly laid a troublesome oath on his troops: “Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is evening and I have been avenged on my enemies” (1 Sam. 14:24, NRSV). In ignorance Jonathan tasted some honey. When told of the oath, he honestly disagreed with his father. If we hadn’t been so hungry, he said, we would have won more convincingly.

But in an authoritarian system, an oath broken in ignorance still shatters the structure and cannot be ignored. An oath is an oath. Thus God himself intervened to preserve formal justice, but used the people to insure that real justice be preserved.

When God did not respond to his request for guidance, Saul looked for the culprit. “Even if it’s my son Jonathan,” he exclaimed, “he shall surely die” (1 Sam. 14:39). They cast lots. It was indeed Jonathan.

“What did you do?” demanded Saul. Jonathan confessed.

“You shall die!” exclaimed his father.

But then the troops rebelled. “Not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground,” they declared, “for he has worked with God today.” Thus they “ransomed” Jonathan and “he did not die” (1 Sam. 14:45).

Clever. Saul gets credit on earth and in heaven for keeping his oath, crucial from an Old Testament point of view. But then God uses the people to prevent the penalty of the broken oath from being carried out. Clever indeed.

But lurking in this story are additional implications and applications that we should address.

First, the Hebrew Bible omits key phrases that the Greek Bible includes. One variant lets us glimpse the yes/no function of Urim and Thummim (1 Sam. 14:41-42), the only narrative passage in the Bible to do so. All other references are either legal or merely descriptive.[2] The NRSV includes this variant without comment.

The other omission illumines the troops’ rebellion against Saul’s oath. In the Hebrew Bible the troops say nothing when Saul sets out to find the culprit (vs. 39); they even affirm his plan to choose between them and royalty (vs. 40). But when the choice was Saul or Jonathan, the crucial variant gives a first glimpse of their rebellion: “Although the troops said it shouldn’t be this way, Saul forced them and they cast between him and Jonathan his son” (vs. 42).[3]

Already seething, when the lot landed on Jonathan, the troops erupted, blocking the “legal” execution. Thus the narrative illustrates the movement from codebook to casebook in legal matters and shows how the troops nudge us ever so slightly toward Jesus’ view of authority.

Casebook? A student’s spontaneous interjection of the word during my lecture was the catalyst for my adopting it. Brilliant, I thought. Ever since, I have used the codebook/casebook distinction to describe the concept that I first learned from Ellen White’s Patriarchs and Prophets [4] — that because Israel couldn’t understand the great principle of love, God gave them the ten commandments. But because they couldn’t even understand the ten, “additional precepts were given, illustrating and applying the principles of the ten….”. I have been astonished at the furor stirred up by the use of the word “casebook” to make the point that not all of God’s laws apply to all people at all times. Ellen White frequently used the phrase “common sense” for that purpose. Citing Paul – “all things to all people – she urged ministers to “study to be skillful when there are no rules to meet the case.” George Knight uses the same phrase for the same purpose. But one of my students, responding to Elder Daniells’ use of “common sense” at the 1919 Bible Conference, revealingly noted that it “almost makes me nervous because it makes everything seem so ordinary instead of sacred.”

Ordinary instead of sacred? Is that the issue? At one level, everyone practices what I preach. No one can “obey” all the laws in Scripture, much less all of Ellen White’s counsel. Indeed, wise parents give apparently contradictory commands to different children, not with the intention of being unfair, but in order to be fair! What I have discovered, however, is that many believers are reluctant to say out loud that God has given commands that we won’t obey.

Recently when reading from Deuteronomy, I was struck by the thought that the actual words of the biblical text would seem to militate against any kind of casebook. “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it,” says Moses (Deut. 4:2). Yet Scripture reveals that laws come and go. Gratefully, the laws calling for stoning are gone. But why is it so hard to admit what is so obvious?

Another potentially volatile issue raised by the story in 1 Samuel 14 is that of “textual criticism,” the search for the original text of the Bible. Even though we see it practiced all the time in the footnotes of our Bibles, it is more troubling than we usually want to admit. Note this comment from one of my students after I explained why the doxology in the Lord’s Prayer is missing from most modern translations. “It is really starting to upset me the way you are making the Bible seem like it all might not be true, she wrote. “See, when I was a kid a lot of people turned out to be not true. They let me down and now I don’t trust them. Well, you are making the Bible feel like I can’t trust it…. Please help me gain back the trust I am losing.”

“Textual criticism” often illumines the Bible. I must admit that I am fascinated by the variant in Jonathan’s story that completes the picture of how the people rebelled against authoritarian rule. It’s fascinating – and potentially helpful. But how can we safely point that out to the church?

Finally, a wonderful story that gives me hope. It comes from Llew Edwards, now head of the Adventist work in Egypt. When I was putting the finishing touches on my book Inspiration, Llew and I met weekly to tussle through the various issues I was addressing in the book.[5] He was pastor of the church in Edinburgh at the time. Years later he confessed to the anger he had felt at what I was doing, though he admitted that following each of our weekly sessions, he would make peace with the issues. But his initial reaction was one of anger. And I know he is not alone. His insights have been incredibly helpful for me and hopefully for the larger church as well. He has encouraged me to keep using the word “casebook” as it applies to Scripture. A few weeks ago he shared with me this encouraging narrative:

This past weekend I was in a small village in Upper Egypt by the name of Beni Sharon. Before the service I was [trying to] chat with 3 of the men. The topic was related to the SS lesson and God’s election but then suddenly one of them asked me if women were allowed to speak in church and referred to the couple of texts that say that. I had to stop and think for a moment – with some of our churches here having partitions that separate men and women, I felt I needed to answer cautiously. So I asked him a question – should we stone people who break the Sabbath? [Keep in mind that all this is with our very limited number of ‘in common’ words of English and Arabic] He said that we shouldn’t stone people. [I was relieved!] So I then asked him why not? I was thinking of how to introduce the code or case book approach to him. He is a vet – so I asked if he always gave the same medicine to all creatures. In his poor English he replied “No … some case and other case.” His use of the word ‘case’ was a joy to hear! I said “In some case… God says use stones… in another case… no stones; so in some case… women be silent and in another case… they should speak. Like you, we must know when and which case to apply the medicine.”

His face lit up and he said “Very good, very wise. Thank you!”

Jonathan’s story is both wonderful and tragic, the story of a beautiful person whose life came to a tragic end. Yet his story can be a great encouragement to us. The next time you worry about “providence” when your “good” candidate doesn’t win an election, Jonathan can give you hope that God is still alive on planet earth. And good people can still do a great deal of good, even when they lose an election.


1. G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1960 [1923]), 96.

2. E.g. Exod. 28:30; Lev. 8:8.

3. Ralph Klein, 1 Samuel, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 10 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983).

4. Ellen White, Patriarchs and Prophets (1890), 305, 310-11, 363-64.

5. Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1991).

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.