Notes for teaching on 2 Samuel 1:17 – 2:7, part of which is featured in Explore the Bible, Fall 2018, Session 1.
Note: The Explore the Bible curriculum actually focuses in on 2 Samuel 1:22 – 2: 7. I have expanded the focus to include 1:17 – 1:21 in order to give context to David’s psalm of lament and also to cover its first section.
David mourns the deaths of Saul and Jonathan by honoring them in a psalm of lament and blessing the people who made sure that Saul got a proper burial.
The passage is applicable today because it invites Christians to consider the hard and ever-relevant question of honoring flawed leaders.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
To understand David’s psalm of lament in 2 Sam 1, we need to first have a sense of David’s relationship to these two men. Here’s a quick breakdown.
David and Saul had something of a cantankerous relationship. Indeed, Saul came to view David as a threat to his power and tried to kill David on several occasions. David and Jonathan, on the other hand, were fast friends, and Jonathan helped David against his father’s (Saul’s) wishes. Here’s how the timeline of all this works:
- Saul becomes king – 1 Sam 9-10
- Saul is told that his line will not continue on the throne – 1 Sam 13
- The Lord rejects Saul as king – 1 Sam 15
- David is anointed as king (but is not yet crowned king) – 1 Sam 16
- David enters Saul’s service/Saul likes David – 1 Sam 16
- David and Jonathan become fast friends – 1 Sam 18
- Saul becomes jealous of David’s growing fame (which surpasses his own) – 1 Sam 18
- Saul plots to kill David/Jonathan talks him out of it – 1 Sam 19
- Saul tries to kill David with a spear/David escapes and goes into hiding – 1 Sam 19
- Jonathan confirms Saul’s murderous intentions toward David and tells David to go on the run – 1 Sam 20
- Saul pursues David – 1 Sam 22-24, 26
- David has a chance to kill Saul but doesn’t (this happens twice) – 1 Sam 24, 1 Sam 26
- Saul and Jonathan die in battle (Saul takes his own life after sustaining severe wounds) – 1 Sam 31
17 David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, 18 and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):
At this point in 2 Sam 1, David has received word of Saul and Jonathan’s death. The ETB commentary on this section is quite helpful (see the first two paragraphs of p. 15 in the leader guide). Without being redundant, let me call attention to a few points that I also find applicable:
- David grieves for Saul and Jonathan by composing a psalm of lament.
- David ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament.
- This is an important point because David already had the support of the people in Judah. Had this been a politically motivated move, we would expect him to send the lament to Saul’s supporters to show them his respect for their fallen leader. As it stands, David is basically ordering his supporters (who were against Saul) to mourn Saul’s and Jonathan’s deaths. This is an unnecessary gesture of respect.
- The title of the psalm, “Lament of the Bow,” lets us know that the lament has a special emphasis on Jonathan, whom verse 22 describes as using a bow.
19 “A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.
How the mighty have fallen!
20 “Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.
21 “Mountains of Gilboa,
may you have neither dew nor rain,
may no showers fall on your terraced fields.
For there the shield of the mighty was despised,
the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.
Contrary to ETB, which seems to take this first part of the psalm as referring to Israel in general (the gazelle in v. 19) and then narrowing to Saul, I agree with Ronald Youngblood (author of 1 and 2 Samuel in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary) in understanding the gazelle of v. 19 to be referring to Jonathan. I take this position for two reasons:
- Understanding the psalm in this way makes the whole psalm about Saul and Jonathan rather than just the latter half. This seems appropriate for a lament focused specifically on Saul and Jonathan (as v. 17 describes it).
- The same description of the gazelle is given of Jonathan in v. 25. Note the similarity:
- 1:19: A gazelle lies slain on your heights.
- 1:25: Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
In the end, I wouldn’t sweat this too much – it won’t matter too much to the lesson. At the same time, taking v. 19 as referring to Jonathan makes Jonathan’s character more central to the psalm as a whole.
To summarize this part of the psalm in not-so-poetic terms, David is saying:
- Jonathan lies dead on the heights of Israel – how the mighty have fallen.
- Don’t mention this to our enemies because they will rejoice over his death.
- May Mount Gilboa, where this happened, be cursed because of this event.
- This was also the place where Saul died.
You may also find v. 19 translated “Your glory, O Israel, is slain on your high places!” as in the ESV. The reason that the NIV uses the term “gazelle” while the ESV uses “glory” is a wordplay in the original Hebrew. It can mean either.
22 “From the blood of the slain,
from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
23 Saul and Jonathan—
in life they were loved and admired,
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
David extolls the battle prowess of both Saul and Jonathan. He also notes the appropriateness of their dying together. Here the ESV may have the better translation: “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!; In life and in death they were not divided.” The idea is that Saul and Jonathan were close in life, and, though their deaths were not to be desired, it was appropriate that a father and son so close in relationship should die together. Think here of those stories of aged couples passing away hours apart from one another. We don’t celebrate their deaths, but we do find something fitting in their passing together.
24 “Daughters of Israel,
weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
David reminds Israel as a whole of Saul’s accomplishments as king by addressing the “daughters of Israel.” The idea is that Saul is worthy of grief because he brought prosperity to the country he ruled. These are general thoughts about a fallen leader.
25 “How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
26 I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.
27 “How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished!”
Whereas David calls all Israel to mourn Saul, his words about Jonathan are deeply personal in nature. Jonathan was a brother to David, he was dear to David, and David appreciated the close relationship that he and Jonathan shared. (As ETB notes, talk of Jonathan’s love being “more wonderful than that of women” does not refer to a homosexual relationship between him and David as some have suggested [see ETB, p. 16]).
Side Note Concerning David’s Different Expressions of Grief
As noted above, David had very different relationships with Saul and Jonathan. While Saul became jealous of David and tried to kill him, Jonathan was a fast friend who helped David in his time of need. This, I think, is important to keep in mind as we observe how David mourns for each of these men. For Saul, he finds a general legacy to affirm. For Jonathan, though, he speaks in personal terms. I don’t think this is an accident. David honors Saul despite Saul’s ill intentions toward him. However, he deeply mourns the death of his true friend Jonathan.
1 After this David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?” And the Lord said to him, “Go up.” David said, “To which shall I go up?” And he said, “To Hebron.” 2 So David went up there, and his two wives also, Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel. 3 And David brought up his men who were with him, everyone with his household, and they lived in the towns of Hebron. 4 And the men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah.
As ETB notes, Hebron “was the ideal place for David to consolidate his control over Judah” (p. 18). As such, it is possible to read this move as a politically motivated decision. According to this reading, David is a shrewd politician who moves now to consolidate his power. Indeed, much of David’s life can be read in such a light. The Bible, however, does not lend itself to this reading. While David was indeed a smart guy who understood the political landscape, the narrative shows clearly that David enquired of God whether he should go into Judah, and it is God, not David, who supplies Hebron as the target city. Note here that David’s political savvy lets him know that it is probably time to move into Judah to consolidate his power as the anointed king. It is God, though, who directs David’s action in this matter.
When they told David, “It was the men of Jabesh-gilead who buried Saul,” 5 David sent messengers to the men of Jabesh-gilead and said to them, “May you be blessed by the Lord, because you showed this loyalty to Saul your lord and buried him. 6 Now may the Lord show steadfast love and faithfulness to you. And I will do good to you because you have done this thing. 7 Now therefore let your hands be strong, and be valiant, for Saul your lord is dead, and the house of Judah has anointed me king over them.”
David now hears that the men of Jabesh-gilead buried Saul. This refers to a poignant scene at the end of 1 Samuel. After the Philistines find Saul’s dead body on the battlefield, they dishonored it by (1) beheading him, (2) storing his armor in the temple of their gods, and (3) displaying his body on a city wall, apparently with the bodies of his sons. The people of Jabesh-Gilead were the first to receive Saul’s military aid when he became king. Now they return the favor by honoring his dishonored body and those of his sons. They take Saul’s body off the wall at night (putting themselves at risk in doing so) and accord it proper treatment and burial. This scene shows the complexity of Saul’s legacy. Though he is ultimately a failed king who lost the Lord’s blessing, he also was a man who commanded the respect and allegiance of at least some of those he ruled – so much so that they made sure that he was honored after his death.
When David hears of this act of loyalty and honor, he blesses the men of Jabesh-Gilead for it and promises to do good for them (even as Saul did). He then lets them know that he has been anointed king over Judah. In effect, David honors Saul while at the same time looking to cement this people’s loyalty to himself. Here we once again see David’s political savvy on display.
Notes for Teaching
Teaching this passage can a bear because of its focus on honoring leaders. Especially in the current context in which numerous leaders/men in power have been shown to have abused their positions of power, talk of honoring Saul, who abused his own position of power in trying to kill David, can be problematic. Add to this the political powder keg concerning political leadership these days (regardless of political leanings), and we have a number of serious points that could end up monopolizing the conversation.
Here are some things I would keep in mind:
- While David chooses to honor Saul in his psalm of lament, this does not mean that he gives Saul a free pass for his poor behavior. Indeed, the generality of David’s praise of Saul (he made the country prosperous) when compared to David’s heartfelt grief for Jonathan shows that David kept Saul at arm’s length even in his mourning. David chooses to celebrate a positive part of Saul’s legacy, but he never acts as if Saul was an all-around wonderful human being.
- When David honors Saul, he is honoring Saul’s position as “the Lord’s anointed.” This is seen throughout his story and especially in the moments when he has the opportunity to kill Saul in 1 Samuel. In both instances, he stays his hand because he refuses to murder “the Lord’s anointed” (see 1 Sam 24:5-7; 1 Sam 26:9-11). In honoring Saul, David is honoring the kingship itself and not just a man.
- While David honors Saul despite Saul’s bad behavior, God does not. In fact, Saul loses God’s blessing and is ultimately rejected as king because of his lack of obedience to God’s instructions. The idea that someone in power should have cart-blanche authority simply because they are in power just isn’t true. God held Saul accountable, and he will ultimately hold all leaders accountable for their actions.
- While David chooses to respect and honor Saul as “the Lord’s anointed” king, this does not stop David from fleeing from Saul’s attempts at murdering him. Respecting/honoring a person’s position does not mean passively allowing that person to abuse or harm you.
- Saul is a complex character. While his actions toward David are abhorrent, his actions toward the people of Jabesh-Gilead at the beginning of his kingship were so appreciated that those same people honored him after his death. Our inclination is often to paint people as all good or all bad. However, the truth is rarely so clear cut. This insight does not excuse or explain away Saul’s behavior. Rather it views Saul through a wider lens.
At some point in the lesson, I think that it would wise to say something along the lines of: This passage does not encourage Christians to stay in abusive relationships in order to “honor” the offender and/or the offender’s position. God is the God of the exodus, and it is completely appropriate for the abused to remove themselves from dangerous and destructive situations and to speak out against their abusers.
A Possible Teaching Plan
- What do you know about King Saul?
- What do you know about David’s relationship with Saul?
- What do you know about David’s relationship with Saul’s son, Jonathan?
Explain: Fill in the gaps to the story as needed.
Read: 2 Sam 1:17-18
- How would you expect David to react to word of Saul’s death?
- Why do you think David writes a lament for Saul rather than rejoicing?
- What is the significance of David ordering that the people of Judah be taught the lament?
Read: 2 Sam 1:19-21
- What do you think it means when David says that a “gazelle” lies slain on Israel’s heights. Does anyone have a different translation?
- Why would David call for the news of Jonathan’s death (or Israel’s defeat) to not be told in Gath or proclaimed in Ashkelon?
- Why does David curse the mountains of Gilboa?
Read 2 Sam 1:22-23
Explain: Explain that David portrays Saul and Jonathan as valiant in battle.
- What does David mean when he talks about Saul and Jonathan not being parted in death?
Read: 2 Sam 1:24-27
- How is David’s mourning of Saul and Jonathan different? Why the difference?
- Do you think that it is significant that David doesn’t have any personal words for Saul?
- What does David mean when he says that Jonathan’s love was better than the love of women?
David Honors the Honorers
Read: 2 Sam 2:4b-7
- What is the story behind the people of Jabesh Gilead burying Saul?
- Why do you think David honors the people who honored Saul’s body?
Explain: Fill in story gaps as needed.
Explain: David is honoring a man who tried to kill him.
- What can we learn from David’s example?
- Is everything that characters do in scripture meant to be mimicked by Christians?
- The answer to this one is no.
- In light of recent revelations of many men abusing their power (think here of Weinstein and others), how should we approach this passage?
- What should the church’s stance be toward those caught in abusive relationships?
- Is it possible to honor a person while still holding that person accountable for their sin?
Explore the Bible curriculum
Ronald Youngblood, 1 and 2 Samuel in The Expositor’s Commentary series.
Walter Brueggemann, 1 and 2 Samuel in the Interpretation Commentary series.