The Leader's Right Hand

The Leader's Right Hand: A Character Study of Jonathan & Joab

The phrase “right-hand man” is commonly used to describe a person who can be counted on, the leader’s second in command. A right-hand man is faithful, dependable and has the needs of the people they serve in mind. Christ himself is a right-hand man, sitting at the right hand of the Father, a position of authority but also submission (Col 3:1). Christ exemplifies what it means to be a faithful servant to both his Father but also to the people he serves. Sadly, the Bible tells us that finding a faithful man can be hard (Prov 20:6). In today’s church it is hard enough to find true servant leaders and pastors, let alone dependable and faithful counterparts to those servant leaders.

...it is hard enough to find true servant leaders and pastors, let alone dependable and faithful counterparts to those servant leaders.

In 1 Samuel we see David, son of Jesse, exalted from a faithful shepherd to a promised and anointed king in just a few chapters. In that short time he finds himself promoted and faithfully serving alongside King Saul, an arrogant and faithless leader. David becomes a loyal and submitted soldier who serves honorably and without question. Nonetheless, Saul begins to feel threatened by David’s growing popularity in Israel and in turn threatens David’s life. David spends the next decade on the run, surviving incredible difficulty. What is relevant to note is that in the midst of all of this drama, Saul’s son Jonathan becomes dear friends with David. Their bond is exceptional, and a true model of unconditional love.

1Sa 18:1 And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.

What a beautiful description of a friendship. On the surface it seems against Jonathan’s self-interest to be so close to David, the man he knew would eventually usurp him in the inheritance of the kingdom. Saul even points this fact out in one of his wicked tyrades…

1Sa 20:30 Then Saul's anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said unto him, Thou son of the perverse rebellious [woman], do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother's nakedness? 31 For as long as the son of Jesse liveth upon the ground, thou shalt not be established, nor thy kingdom. Wherefore now send and fetch him unto me, for he shall surely die.

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What makes Jonathan a particularly unique friend is that he was a friend of God first. No matter the difficulties Jonathan faced, he had proven that he was a man of God. He was brave and fearless, not in his own might, but because he knew God was with him. Jonathan’s personal well-being was never his first priority, but rather defending the name of the Lord (1 Samuel 14:4-14). His faith in God made his faithfulness to David possible, despite the inherent contradictions of their relationship. Jonathan swore his allegiance to his friend knowing God had chosen David over himself. David swore his devotion in return knowing that a faithful man was hard to find. It was the hope of both men that they would one day be reunited and that Jonathan would serve alongside David in a unified kingdom.

1Sa 20:42 And Jonathan said to David, Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of the LORD, saying, The LORD be between me and thee, and between my seed and thy seed for ever. And he arose and departed: and Jonathan went into the city.

It is important to note that over the next decade David's own faith is refined while on the run from a jealous and emotionally careless King Saul. In that time David had two unique encounters with his enemy, and in both instances David chose conviction over convenience. When he had an opportunity to easily kill Saul he instead left the fate of his adversary in the hands of God. David was clearly a man of faith, disinterested in making his own way outside of the authority of God’s divine hand.

David was clearly a man of faith, disinterested in making his own way outside of the authority of God’s divine hand.

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During the years of David’s hiding, we sadly learn that Jonathan died in battle. It was not in God’s perfect will that David would have Jonathan by his side during his reign. God’s plan for David, through the entirety of his rulership, would instead test his response to a rebellious right-hand man: Joab.

In 2 Samuel, David takes his rightful throne and soon begins to surround himself with men of action. David's nephew Joab, though not listed among David’s “mighty men” (2 Samuel 28:8-39; 1 Chron. 11:10-47), becomes his chief military officer. The first time we see Joab in operation, he is a part of instigating a fight that ends with the death of his own brother (2 Sam 2:14-15). Despite his clear lack of discretion and hot-headedness, David allows Joab to have greater influence and he quickly begins leveraging his military might. Joab is strategic, smart, brave and logical. He was valued by David as a man who "gets things done".

Very early on in Joab’s tenure he makes it clear he is going to function in his own might and by his own reasoning. In an egregious instance, Joab’s sworn enemy Abner, the General for the House of Saul, is secretly negotiating the terms of a cease fire directly with King David. By all accounts it appears Abner’s desire is to unify Israel and is willing to capitulate in order to restore peace in the nation. This is a decisive opportunity for David, but before the negotiations can be completed Joab draws Abner aside and murders him.

2Sa 3:24 Then Joab came to the king, and said, What hast thou done? behold, Abner came unto thee; why [is] it [that] thou hast sent him away, and he is quite gone? 25 Thou knowest Abner the son of Ner, that he came to deceive thee, and to know thy going out and thy coming in, and to know all that thou doest. 26 And when Joab was come out from David, he sent messengers after Abner, which brought him again from the well of Sirah: but David knew [it] not. 27 And when Abner was returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside in the gate to speak with him quietly, and smote him there under the fifth [rib], that he died, for the blood of Asahel his brother.

This type of “make it happen” attitude flies in the face of David’s historical faith position. Up to this point, David had always been a man who trusted God’s divine work and was not accustomed to imposing his personal will. Despite Joab’s subversive and murderous actions, David's response was not to dissolve his relationship with Joab but rather to ignore his clear character flaws. There is an argument to be made that in so doing David's character became more like Joab.

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Throughout the years Joab was allowed to function autonomously in order to serve the kingdom as he saw best. David had little oversight over Joab and while there were some great victories together, eventually it led to more pain and suffering. Joab even became complicit in David’s murder plot of Uriah for the sake of that famous adulterous relationship. I wonder what Jonathan would have thought of such a wicked scheme? To top it all off, late in Joab’s career, just before David’s death, he designed a conspiracy to supplant Solomon as David’s heir and instead aligned himself with Adonijah.

When a proud man is unduly promoted to a place of oversight, souls are immediately hanging in the balance.

David was a man of great responsibility and leadership that far surpasses my own. Perhaps his responsibility made life overly complex and cumbersome, difficult to bear alone. At some level, I am sure it was a relief to be able to simply entrust the authority of his military to someone else. In my flesh, I can see the “benefits” of thinking that way, that it is easier for me to divide the load than to consider the potential threat that employing a man of worldly reasoning might bring. Delegation is an incredibly important principle in scripture and requires the utmost discretion. Another important principle is the warning against promoting unprepared leaders. (1Tim 3:6) A leader who lacks grace poses a great risk to the integrity of a ministry. When a proud man like Joab is unduly promoted to a place of oversight, souls are immediately hanging in the balance.

Pro 16:19 Better [it is to be] of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.

Wistfully, we will never know what David’s kingdom would have looked like with Jonathan at his right hand. What we do know is that David was tested by God to prove if he would protect God's mission by promoting faithful men who shared his passion for simple faith. Joab, though effective at times, was not a faithful man. Joab brought as much plague upon the house of David as he did victory. Of course David would never have been able to replace his dear friend Jonathan, but he would have been wise to seek and elevate proven men of godly character; humble and willing to partner on God’s terms.

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You can train a man in a skill and you can hone gifting you can model leadership but surrender, faith and servanthood is ultimately molded by the hand of God.

The Apostle Peter is a great example of both types of men. The handful of years Peter walked with Jesus were riddled with his desire to do spiritual things in his flesh (Mat.14:30-31; Matt 16:16-23; John 18:10-11).

Mat 26:39 And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou [wilt]. 40 And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? 41 Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed [is] willing, but the flesh [is] weak.

In those three years with Christ, Peter supposed he was Christ’s right hand man. But it wasn’t until Christ died and rose again that Peter found himself truly broken and humble enough to move forward in faith as a submitted servant (1 Peter 5:5; 1 Pet. 2:18). You can train a man in a skill, you can hone gifting and you can model leadership but surrender, faith and servanthood is ultimately molded by the divine working of God's hand.

Faithfulness is not synonymous with talent, ingenuity or a “get-r-done” attitude. A faithful believer is one who puts God first, and in so doing has the humility necessary to submit to God’s ordained leadership, pursuing a common interest in the mission. An effective yet unruly leader will eventually only inhibit God’s true work of winning and discipling souls and will tarnish the culture of a ministry. Pastors don’t need the fervor or faculty of a Joab; they need the fearlessness and faithfulness of a Jonathan.


Brandon Briscoe is the pastor of the college and young adults ministry (C&YA) at Midtown Baptist Temple in Kansas City.