2 Samuel 1 (NRSV)
The books of 1 and 2 Samuel were originally one book. In the Septuagint it was divided into two, owing to its length. 1 Samuel recounts the periods of Eli, Samuel, and Saul; 2 Samuel tells of the reign of David. Particularly the figure of King David has had a great impact on Western thought and art.
David is highly successful in his career. He conquers Jerusalem, makes it his administrative and religious center, liberates Israel definitively from Philistine domination, and even creates an empire. In his personal life, however, he makes serious mistakes, and consequently has to undergo great sufferings.
David Hears of Saul’s Death
After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag. 2On the third day, a man came from Saul’s camp, with his clothes torn and dirt on his head. When he came to David, he fell to the ground and did obeisance.
3David said to him, “Where have you come from?”
He said to him, “I have escaped from the camp of Israel.”
4David said to him, “How did things go? Tell me!”
David knows it is bad news, since the messenger comes with the trappings of mourning — torn clothes and dirt on his head.
He answered, “The army fled from the battle, but also many of the army fell and died; and Saul and his son Jonathan also died.”
5Then David asked the young man who was reporting to him, “How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan died?”
6The young man reporting to him said, “I happened to be on Mount Gilboa; and there was Saul leaning on his spear, while the chariots and the horsemen drew close to him. 7When he looked behind him, he saw me, and called to me. I answered, ‘Here sir.’
8“And he said to me, ‘Who are you?’
“I answered him, ‘I am an Amalekite.’
9“He said to me, ‘Come, stand over me and kill me; for convulsions have seized me, and yet my life still lingers.’
10“So I stood over him, and killed him, for I knew that he could not live after he had fallen. I took the crown that was on his head and the armlet that was on his arm, and I have brought them here to my lord.”
Something is a little fishy here. We have already been told that the armor bearer killed Saul. Perhaps this man came upon Saul’s dead body and grabbed the ornaments — then brought them to David, with this self-promoting story, thinking to get David’s approval and reward.
Or perhaps his story is true, and if so, what irony! God had told King Saul to utterly destroy the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15. Saul disobeyed — and then an Amalekite kills him.
11Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them; and all the men who were with him did the same. 12They mourned and wept, and fasted until evening for Saul and for his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.
David might have said, “Good riddance. Now I finally get to be king!” But instead his heart is broken for the deaths of his king and his best friend, for all the soldiers who had died, and for the division of the country.
13David said to the young man who had reported to him, “Where do you come from?”
He answered, “I am the son of a resident alien, an Amalekite.”
14David said to him, “Were you not afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?”
15Then David called one of the young men and said, “Come here and strike him down.” So he struck him down and he died. 16David said to him, “Your blood be on your head; for your own mouth has testified against you, saying, ‘I have killed the Lord’s anointed.’”
David Mourns for Saul and Jonathan
17David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. 18(He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.)
Laments, as poems or songs or pieces of music which express sorrow and grief, are among the oldest and most enduring of human compositions. They are found in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, in Beowulf, and of course, in the Old Testament.
19Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
20Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon;
or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult.
21You mountains of Gilboa,
let there be no dew or rain upon you,
nor bounteous fields!
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more.
Shields were made of leather and had to be oiled regularly.
22From the blood of the slain,
from the fat of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
nor the sword of Saul return empty.
23Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
24O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
Dirges were conventionally sung by women.
who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
25How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
26I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.
27How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!
“Fire and Rain” was the song that propelled James Taylor into stardom in the early 1970’s. The storyline behind the song is autobiographical: Taylor had battled depression, heroin addiction, a near-fatal motorcycle accident, and professional failure. Not quite David’s story. Even so, I can hear David singing this, thinking about his most recent losses . . .
HERE is a recent recording, from an older James Taylor — very gentle and plaintive.
The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.