David’s Lament for Sha’ul and Y’honatan

Second Samuel 1: 17-27

DIG: For what purpose did David compose and teach this lament for Sha’ul and Y’honatan? What were the qualities or achievements of Sha’ul that David highlighted in this lament? Why does David call for censorship in Gath and Ashkelon (First Samuel 31:8-10)? Likewise, why does David curse Gilboa? What kind of warriors were Sha’ul and Y’honatan? What does this lament reveal about the friendship of David and Y’honatan? What can you tell about how David treats his enemies? His friends? In what ways should a Messianic congregation or church celebrate its leaders, especially its rabbis and pastors?

REFLECT: What worst enemy and best friend can you begin treating the way David treated Sha’ul and Y’honatan? What is holding you back from doing this? How could you overcome the hurdles involved and do this while they are still living? If you have experienced a death close to home recently, how might you creatively remember him or her? What can you say to those who are still living before they pass away, so you won’t have any regrets after they are gone?

1011 BC

The last time we hear about Y’honatan is when he died with his father and two brothers on the battlefield against the Philistines. The slaughter brought profound grief to David, launching a sorrowful lament, or a formal expression of grief or distress, which can be written, read, learned, practiced or repeated. It differs from the informal, spontaneous, immediate outbursts of grief that vomits out its feelings. The lament is an expression of thoughtful grief. The sorrows and wounds God’s people receive from their losses are not miraculously healed after a short time of emotional catharsis. The lament-form of the Bible assumes that our grief is deep and ongoing, and it invites us to enter the discipline of expressing that grief in words that convey our anguish, in images that picture our despair, and in written prayers that verbalize despondency. It is a grief that takes its time.191

The Lament: David took up this lament concerning Sha’ul and his son Y’honatan when he was 29 years old. And he ordered that the people of Y’hudah be taught this lament, which became known as the song of the bow. David thus provided a vehicle by which Isra’el could continue mourning. It was written in the Book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13), an early account commemorating great events in Isra’el’s history perhaps written in poetic form, but since has been lost (Second Samuel 1:17-18).

But David also wanted his mighty warriors (see Ej – David’s Mighty Warriors) to know this sad song and to know it by heart. Because he intended to use it as part of their motivational military training. Gilboa would not be the last time Isra’el would fight the Philistines (see Cp – David’s Defeats the Philistines) and David wanted his men to remember Gilboa, remember the disgrace, remember the tragedy, remember the pagan arrogance. He wanted them ready for the next time.

The same principle is at work in the state of Isra’el today. The Isra’el Armored Corps swear their oath of allegiance on top of the old fortress of Masada. It was a fortress west of the Dead Sea, where, in 72-72 AD, some 960 Jews held out against Flavius Silva’s Roman army. After seven months of siege the Romans breached the fortress but were denied the pleasure of Jewish blood since the defenders had committed suicide in the night. Masada then stands as a symbol of courage, and Israeli troops today stand on its summit to swear their oath of allegiance, saying “Masada shall not fall again.”192

David openly sang about the grandeur of Sha’ul and Y’honatan and the enormous loss that Isra’el faced. It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine the extent of their sorrow today. As we read the books of Samuel, we get so caught up in Sha’ul’s chase of David that we might miss what Sha’ul’s death meant to Isra’el. Even with Samuel’s rejection of Sha’ul, Sha’ul was the king. Now the king and the prince had died. Something precious and vital in Isra’el was gone and would never return. David, in his ability to turn the rhetoric completely away from himself, made it possible for Isra’el to embrace the loss more fully.

Only Isra’el could understand what this loss meant. An outsider could never know. Outsiders must leave the family or a clan to its grief, because outsiders will always get the wrong impression. David was sure that the Philistines, in particular, would not understand. Indeed, like the death of the Two Witnesses in the Great Tribulation (see the commentary on Revelation Dm – The Resurrection of the Two Witnesses: The Third Sign of Jonah), when the Philistines learned of the death of Sha’ul and Y’honatan (First Samuel 31:9), they would turn the occasion into joy and celebration. Indeed, they cut off his head and stripped off his armor, and they sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to proclaim the news in the temple of their idols and among their people. They put his armor in the temple of their gods, the Ashtoreths, and fastened his body and his severed head to the wall of Beth Shan in the Temple of Dagon (2 Sam 31:8-10; 1 Chron 10:8-10). However, joy in response to the death of their king, and celebration in the face of their pain was unbearable to them. From the Israelite perspective, those uncircumcised outsiders were less than human.193

The First Strophe: Your pride and joy, O Isra’el, lies dead on the hills. How the mighty have fallen, repeated in each strophe and therefore central to the lament, emphasizes the greatness of Sha’ul and Y’honatan even after defeat and death (Second Samuel 1:20 NLT). Like the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11, there is nothing recorded in the song that remembers any sins or mistakes in their lives.194 Tell it not in Gath, their capital city, or proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon, the chief religious center where people would give thanks to their idols for helping their army defeat Isra’el, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice (2 Samuel 1:20). David could picture the welcome home, with the women singing and dancing in praise of the victors in the same way that the Israelite women had welcomed him after the defeat of Goliath (1 Sam 18:7). That the uncircumcised would rejoice over the death of Isra’el’s king was too painful for David to contemplate.195

The poem recalls that it was in the great battle on the mountain range of Gilboa that death came to Isra’el. Those mountains were held accountable and placed under a curse. The death of ADONAI’s anointed had contaminated them and they were then defiled. Mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain in the summer, and may showers not fall on your terraced fields in the winter. For there the shield of the mighty was despised, the shield of Sha’ul – no longer rubbed with oil (Second Samuel 1:21). What David could not have brought himself to say about the king, he can say about the shield.

The memories of Y’honatan and Sha’ul at the height of their powers came flooding back. From the blood of the slain, from the flesh of the mighty, the bow of Y’honatan did not turn back, the sword of Sha’ul did not return unsatisfied. We see the two together, father and son, treasured in Isra’el, valiant warriors. The poetry of grief looks past the rage of the father and the deception of the son. Those tensions are not important anymore. Sha’ul and Y’honatan in life they were loved and admired, and in death they were not separated. Death has a way of permitting us to focus on the larger issues in our lives, to transcend the details of hurt and affront.

Together they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions (Second Samuel 1:22-23). To David, these men weren’t just great soldiers; they were also gracious people who were loved in life – and in death were loyal to each other and the people of Isra’el. From his meeting with Samuel at Endor (see Bv – Sha’ul and the Medium at Endor), Sha’ul knew that he and his sons would die the next day in battle, yet he entered the fray determined to do his best. Y’honatan knew that his father had disobeyed YHVH and sinned against David, yet he stayed at his side until the end. Even though the army of Isra’el was defeated, David wanted the people to remember the greatness of their king and his sons.196

Daughters of Isra’el, perhaps professional mourners, were invited to grieve, just as the daughters of the Philistines (Second Samuel 1:20) were prohibited from grieving.197 Weep for Sha’ul, who clothed you in scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold (Second Samuel 1:24). The rich and affluent of Isra’el who thought it was beneath them to show any display of public mourning were required to join the common people in their grief.

The Second Strophe: David now speaks directly to Y’honatan: How the mighty have fallen in the heat of battle, Y’honatan lies slain on your heights! For the first time David speaks in the first person: I grieve for you, Y’honatan. While David had called on others to weep for Sha’ul, he was consumed with grief for my brother; you meant so much to me! David had never experienced such love, such devotion, that Y’honatan had shown him. He did not have to spell it out, for everyone knew that Y’honatan, heir to the throne, had not demanded his rights, but had voluntarily surrendered them in favor of David, whom he had protected and encouraged through the years. And this renunciation had been no impulsive act, but an ongoing generous attitude of heart and mind: Y’honatan had allowed his own interests to be disregarded so that David’s could prosper (see An – David and Y’honatan’s Friendship). True, David had found love from the women in his life, his mother and his wives, but even their love was not to be compared with the love that motivated Y’honatan. His selfless, transparent goodness had not looked for reward, and hence we read of David’s heartfelt praise for his fallen brother,Your love for me was deeper than the love of women” (Second Samuel 1:25-26).198 Y’honatan was about 54 at the time and David was 29.

The Third Strophe: David had spoken to Y’honatan, but now he must face reality: How the mighty have fallen. The battle was over, and the weapons of war had perished (Second Samuel 1:27). For all David knew, Sha’ul and Y’honatan were still laying alone on the war-torn slopes of Gilboa, their weapons lying useless beside them. The lament brings to an end the account of Sha’ul’s reign, but at the same time marks the beginning of David’s Kingdom.

David ordered the people of Judah be taught this lament for Sha’ul and Y’honatan, and God commanded Moshe to write down a song and teach it to Israelites (see the commentary on Deuteronomy Er - The Song of Moses). Apparently the epic hymns of Isra’el’s history were intended to be taught and applied from generation to generation. David’s lament may well have been a favorite if First Maccabees 9:21 is any indication. There we read that the lamentation for the slain Judas Maccabeus, leader of the Jewish rebellion against their Seleucid overlords, began with these words: How the mighty have fallen!199


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