Commentary on 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
It’s a classic trope of male-bonding and war literature.
The hero of the story suffers the loss of either a compatriot or a mentor. Luke Skywalker loses Obi-Wan to his self-sacrifice on the Death Star; Maverick holds Goose in a Pietà pose in the ocean after his wingman (in both the battlefield and the night club) dies in training; the Avengers finally set their squabbles aside and band together after Loki kills Agent Phil Coulson. In this lectionary text, David loses both a mentor and a friend, even if their relationships have become complicated. Like the mourning of Luke, Maverick, and the Avengers, David recalls only the best details about his friendship with both Saul and Jonathan in his song commemorating their deeds. Likewise, the memory of the fallen propels the hero to even greater achievements as their story continues.
The song does not encompass David’s entire emotional outburst, though. After hearing of the details of Saul’s and Jonathan’s death at the hands of the Amalekite messenger, David rips his clothes and begins to weep and fast for all of the fallen soldiers of Israel (2 Samuel 1:12). He also confronts the Amalekite, who followed Saul’s own orders to end his misery (v. 9). David interrogates, “Were you not afraid to lift your hand to destroy the LORD’s anointed?” (v. 14) David then orders his men to kill the messenger for this offense.
These details from the intervening story that the lectionary omits are quite important to the interpretation of this passage and of David’s character moving forward in 2 Samuel. They foreshadow David’s future reign (the messenger also brought back Saul’s crown and armlet to give to David in v.10) and flashback to David’s actions and relationships with the two deceased rivals. In 1 Samuel 24, David had a chance to kill Saul himself. Instead, he cut a piece of Saul’s cloak, saying “The LORD forbid that I should do anything to my lord, the LORD’s anointed … for he is the LORD’s anointed” (1 Samuel 24:6). When David and his men have a second chance to kill Saul, David almost prophesies Saul’s demise saying that God will strike him down, he will die of natural causes, or he will die in battle (1 Samuel 26:10). Instead, he exclaims, “The LORD forbid that I should raise my hand against the LORD’s anointed” (1 Samuel 26:11). These two chances to kill Saul solidify David’s constant service to his prior master, even though they lived much of their lives at odds.
In his ode to Saul, David warns the enemies of Israel to stay silent and begs that even the land would fast from dew or rain to mourn the death of Israel’s shield, Saul their messiah (the transliteration of the term “anointed”). Even though Samuel had anointed David years earlier (1 Samuel 16:13), David continually recognizes Saul as God’s anointed until Saul’s death. David continues to praise this man and his son, Jonathan, who never retreated from Israel’s enemies: “The bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty” (2 Samuel 1:22).
In addition to his kingly mentor, David loses his best friend, Jonathan. Much of our current fascination with David’s and Jonathan’s relationship stems from this verse of the song: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (v. 26). While some have suggested that this line and its counterpart in 1 Samuel 19:1 suggest either a homosexual or homoerotic relationship between the two biblical figures, we must not forget that this song is poetry, where hyperbole and flowery language find their constant home. I do not say this in order to tear a possible homosexual relationship from the pages of scripture, but to suggest that David here is expressing appreciation for Jonathan’s brotherly companionship (he calls him “my brother”) through very trying times despite the fact that their friendship causes Jonathan to defy Saul, whose desire to kill David drives him mad. Moreover, this is war poetry, the realm where comrades in arms take priority over romantic relationships.
While David’s mourning is national, it is also personal. In it we catch a glimpse of David’s volatile emotional responses. David will mourn several times in his life, including before the death of his firstborn son with Bathsheba and at the death of his most beloved son, Absalom. He will go to war and commit murder (and perhaps he even does this when executing the Amalekite in this chapter). He will know the hate of many men and women in his future, including Jonathan’s sister and Saul’s daughter, Michal, and his own son, Absalom.
Like many chapters to come in 2 Samuel, this is another difficult passage to teach and for congregations to understand. Perhaps, though, it can serve as a passage that helps us understand the raw emotions of war, companionship, and death. Sometimes those emotions compel us to rash actions such as David’s execution of the Amalekite (maybe Saul’s mentorship had more of an impact on David than we like to admit). Sometimes they call for us to enter a stage of mourning. Perhaps, they remind us to take notice of the deeds of our friends before it is too late. In David’s case, Saul’s and Jonathan’s deaths took on a greater importance. No longer does David live in the shadow of another of the LORD’s anointed ones. Now he must, for good and ill in the chapters to follow, take on the mantle of the anointed one that Samuel had bestowed upon him in his youth. His story henceforth becomes much more complex. He will have victories and will also make many mistakes. In this war story, gone are the days of the righteous boy who would be king. David will now become king and face several difficult decisions that have precarious effects for both his family and the nation of Israel.