Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

There is no ambiguity regarding the mourning for Jonathan

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Photo by Benjamin Ranger on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

June 30, 2024

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Commentary on 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

Perhaps, Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” was not as radical as you think.

Who are your enemies? Life tends to place enemies in our paths through all our domains of life. They may be at the office, in the neighborhood, at home, even in the same bedroom. In our past, they were our roommates, teammates, classmates, bosses, colleagues, and even clergy. We are all human. The presence of enemies is universal across time and space.

In the book of Samuel, political and military enemies square off between Saul and David. Their relationship was … complex. Saul was Israel’s first king, initially a reluctant one. Yet he was a physical presence and proven military leader. But he was eventually rejected by Samuel in favor of David. The ongoing rise of David seemed to have sparked insecurities in Saul. As David’s military successes grew, so did Saul’s paranoia. Saul eventually made multiple attempts to murder David, driving him to flee for his life and even collude with the Philistines.

Second Samuel opens with the phrase “After the death of Saul” (1:1). Thus, 2 Samuel begins the same way as Joshua, as the death of a leader signals a new phase in Israel’s history. But the Bible does not turn to a royal enthronement psalm nor a fancy coronation ceremony as one would expect in the ancient Near East. Instead, David begins this era by performing a lament. Rather than rejoice at the death of his enemy, he mourns. Second Samuel 1:17 deploys a word play that emphasizes the lament in that “David lamented this lament” over Saul and his son Jonathan (Hebrew wayǝqinen david ’t haqînâh ha’zōt).

The actual lament is completely embedded within the narrative of 2 Samuel 1. The gloss in verse 18 shows that this was not an impromptu creation of David. Rather this is a composition deliberately placed in a written collection called the Book of Jashar, or the “Book of the Upright.” The term “upright” projects a hint of a wisdom composition. Perhaps this is a subtle note that the genuine lament over one’s enemies is a sign of wisdom.

The actual lament appears at 2 Samuel 1:19–27. The structure oscillates between different forms and themes. Here is one potential outline:

Proclaiming the Glory of Israel; “How the mighty have fallen” (19–21)
Commemorating the greatness of Saul and Jonathan (22–23)

Daughters weep for Saul (24)
“How the mighty have fallen” (25a)
First-person lament for Jonathan (25b–26)

“How the mighty have fallen” (27)

The lament begins with the proclamation “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!” (verse 19). The reference to high places associates the people’s sin with the end of Saul’s kingship. Such a downfall is good news to Israel’s enemies, thus the lament hopes that the major states of Philistia (Gath, Ashkelon) will not know of the news. 

Not only are there political implications, but the defeat of Saul results in an economic curse of drought. Gilboa is the place of Saul’s suicidal end, on the eastern side of the Jezreel Valley, meaning “God seeded.” (Do a Google Image search for the lush Jezreel Valley and reflect on the curse of “no dew or rain.”) This is a failure of obedience with harsh repercussions.

The lament then moves to attributions toward Saul and Jonathan. The lament uses military imagery of “bow” and “sword” (22) and “eagles” and “lions” (23b), alongside descriptors of “beloved” and “lovely” (23a). Although the prior narratives of 1 Samuel show disagreement between the king and his son, primarily in regard to David, this posthumous lament declares them as free from father-son succession challenges.

The lament then moves specifically to Saul, calling the daughters to weep over him. This balances his portrayal as warrior in the earlier verses. David mourning Saul may be surprising as so much of the later part of 1 Samuel narrates the bitter antagonism that Saul had against David. But at the same time, the death of the first king and his prince is a significant tragedy. As the next king, David would have to conduct some public display of lament. But is it authentic? The text suggests that it is indeed a general display of mourning for the loss of Israel’s first king.

But there is no ambiguity regarding the mourning for Jonathan. Suddenly, the lament turns to first-person in verse 26. The mood shifts from nationalistic mourning to a deeply personal sense of loss. David is distressed and deploys the kinship language of “my brother.” In this state, the lament makes the extreme claim, “Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” This line does not describe the nature of their relationship, though it does note Jonathan’s physical beauty and the devotion between the two. The plain reading is that the line expresses the heightened grief that David experiences at this loss.

The lament closes by again repeating the phrase “How the mighty have fallen,” verbatim in verses 19, 25, 27. The repetition of this phrase likely indicates a liturgical role in the proclamation of the lament. Perhaps the recurring phrase stresses the ambiguity of this psalm. How does one mourn the tragic end of a life that was so antagonistic? Did David sing this with joy that God’s sovereignty prevailed? The human condition and complexities of life lead us to think that both of these possibilities are true. 

As we move through stages of life, perhaps it models a similar movement for us as we face moral ambiguity in our own narrative arcs. Loss is unavoidable. Death is constant. Our relationships, even with our loved ones, are complex. We can do well to express that despair in lament. This is a fitting context for the people to proclaim the sovereignty of God. Even the mightiest fall.

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