How the Mighty Have Fallen

1 Samuel 31 - 2 Samuel 1
7th Sunday after Pentecost–July 30, 2017 (am)


Do you lament the present state of our world, and of your own heart as you live in it? We are not very good at lamentation. But we should get better! As a comedian once said—a unique comedian to be sure—“There’s nothing that brightens the day like heart-felt grief!” And, strange as it sounds, there may actually be some truth in that! Let’s turn our attention to 1 Samuel 31-2 Samuel 1 and see the scenario in which David models for us a godly lament. And then let’s distill a few lessons about the purpose and importance and process of lament. And, toward that end, let’s condense these three scenes into two.

The Sad Story of Saul’s Demise – 1 Samuel 311-2 Samuel 116

Saul’s death is described by the narrator without any extra details or ceremonial fanfare. The reader has been expecting it for quite a while, even anticipating it, grieved at example after example of his acting quite differently than he should, being the anointed king over God’s chosen people. Now finally, here on Mount Gilboa, it happens.

This is in the same geographic area where Sisera was defeated by the woman, Jael, in the days of Deborah, the Judge of Israel (Jud.4:1-24). It was also the probable location of Gideon’s camp when he attacked the Midianites (Jgs 6:33) [BEB Gilboa]. Gideon’s son, Abimelech, acted like he was king (killing his seventy brothers to secure power [Jud.9]), but he was also defeated by a woman (Jud.9:54); she dropped a millstone on his head at the tower of Thebez. Saul’s death echoes Abimelech’s, who had asked his armor-bearer to run him through, lest they say of me, “A woman killed him” (Jud.9:54). Now, here, badly wounded by the archers (31:3), Saul—who had been repeatedly protected by his first-mentioned armor-bearer, David (16:21)—was now asking his last one to murder him, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me (31:4). Saul had been anointed king expressly to deliver Israel from… the Philistines (1Sa.9:16). Now, forty years later, the Philistines brought his life to an end, and defeated Israel, here on Mount Gilboa.

1 Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. 2 And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons, and the Philistines struck down Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul—there is the unceremonious end of Jonathan’s valiant life; and Saul’s death gets little more attention. 3 The battle pressed hard against Saul, and the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by the archers. 4 Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me.” But his armor-bearer would not, for he feared greatly. Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it. 5 And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. 6 Thus Saul died, and his three sons, and his armor-bearer, and all his men, on the same day together.

Tragic…. You can hear the rather emphatic reporting of Saul’s death here, I believe setting us up not to be misled by the next scene with the Amalekite (2Sa.1:1-16), but also to underscore the sorrowful situation of the people of God. Following four decades under the king they had requested, these days in Israel were not notably different than the days under Eli as this history lesson began. And Saul’s death also recalls Eli’s—he fell over backward and (broke) his neck (1Sa.4:18), while Saul fell on his own sword and took his life. Falling is a key theme in these two chapters (Leithart 155); we also see it in the chorus of the song: how the mighty have fallen (2Sa.1:19, 25, 27). 7 And when the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley and those beyond the Jordan saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned their cities and fled. And the Philistines came and lived in them—an ignominious day in Israel, and the utter failure of Saul’s reign.

The balance of this chapter describes how Saul’s body was treated not at all differently than he anticipated. But the people of Jabesh-gilead, those whom Saul had first saved from Nahash the Ammonite (1Sa.11:1-11), came and rescued his body, and those of his sons, burned them (to avoid further desecration), and buried their bones under the tamarisk tree (31:11-13), recalling the place where Saul sat and plotted against David (1Sa.22:6).

Then comes this interesting story about an Amalekite who arrived in Ziklag three days after the battle on Mount Gilboa with news of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (1:1-4). From the details he shared we know he had been there. And for all we know he was coming with good intent, having brought with him Saul’s royal insignia—his crown and arm band (1:10)—to give to David. But when David asked for proof that Saul and Jonathan were dead (1:5), the Amalekite—a resident of Israel (1:13), so he should’ve known better—told David that he himself had finished off Saul, at Saul’s request (1:9-10). Almost certainly he was trying to curry David’s favor, but he should’ve known better! And his lie cost him his life!

This account primarily serves to show us the sincerity of David’s devotion to Saul, the Lord’s anointed (1:14). David had the Amalekite executed based on his own confession (1:16). 11 Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them, and so did all the men who were with him. 12 And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and for Jonathan his son and for the people of the Lord and for the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword—our theme verses today; no happiness here.

The God-honoring Grief of David’s Lament – 2 Samuel 117-27

17 And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and Jonathan his son, 18 and he said it should be taught to the people of Judah; be-hold, it is written in the Book of Jashar… (of the upright [cf. Jos.10:13]), probably “a collection of early poetry commemorating outstanding events” (Baldwin 191). And the people of Judah should learn this lament—this poem, this song honoring Saul and Jonathan!

Now, some might wonder how David in good conscience could pen such a poem honoring Saul. But there is evidence here that he’s been meticulously careful in what he’s written. Let me give you just four examples.

  1. His lament opens with: 19 “Your glory, O Israel, is slain on your high places! And then the refrain (19, 25, 27): How the mighty have fallen! Typically we would expect that these words, your glory, O Israel, would refer to the king, Saul. But, first, this is not the typical Hebrew word for glory (kabod). Rather, David chose a word that has the secondary meaning of gazelle (tsebi [Baldwin 191, Leithart 163-4]) (cf. 2Sa.2:18). This works well poetically with his description of Saul and Jonathan being swifter than eagles (23). But notice in the second half of v.25, following the second refrain (How the mighty have fallen), we hear a repeat of the opening line, but this time with a name inserted. It’s not, your glory, O Israel is slain on your high places, but Jonathan lies slain on your high places. Jonathan is the gazelle of v.19 (Leithart 164). Jonathan is Israel’s unique glory in this lament!
  2. This, then draws our attention to structure. The refrain appears three times (19, 25, 27), but it’s not evenly dispersed. “Structurally, the poem is marked by an inclusio on the line ‘how have the mighty fallen,’ found in the second line (19) and the next to last (line) (27). Within this inclusio, the poem alternates between praise of Jonathan and praise of Saul: Saul alone (v. 21); Jonathan and Saul (v. 22); Saul alone again (v. 24); and Jonathan alone (vv. 25-26). But in verse 25, the theme phrase… (appears again before the end,) followed by (that repetition of) the (opening) line of the poem. And that’s when we notice that verses 19–25 (actually) form a clear and complete chiasm” (Leithart 164, edits mine). V.19 is balanced by v.25. V.20 is balanced by v.24. And v.21 is balances by vv.22-23 at the center of the structure. But the poem doesn’t end with the completion of this chiasm at v.25, even though the refrain returns. The poem continues on for two more verses, then uses the refrain a third time to close. So, what we see here is that, with the mention of Jonathan as the gazelle, Israel’s glory, in v.25, David breaks into deep and personal grief over the loss of his dear friend. “David was no longer speaking in stereotypical terms of the greatness of a king and a warrior” in these final two verses; “he was crying out at the loss of a friend” (Leithart 165). These verses were an add-on to the end of his poem giving space to express personal grief!
  3. Next, when we see praise for Saul and Jonathan together (22), Jonathan comes first. Saul would not have appreciated that! And the weapon associated with Jonathan here is his bow (22, cf. 1Sa.18:4; 20:18-23). Now, hidden behind our English translations is yet another hint that Jonathan is the hero in this poem. Back in v.18 we read that (David) said it should be taught to the people of Judahit meaning this poem, this lamentation (17). But as you can see in your esv footnote, it translates the lxx. The original Hebrew says the bow: 18 (David) said the bow should be taught to the people of Judah. The Bow is quite likely the title of this poem—Jonathan’s signature weapon!
  4. Finally, note then how Saul is remembered in the verses that speak exclusively of him (21, 24). In v.24, David calls the daughters of Israel to mourn Saul’s death, apparently because his reign, his military victories, did provide a certain quality of life for them (Bergen 293). But in v.21, on the heels of trying to prevent celebration among the Philistines, he actually calls Gilboa to mourn by becoming dry and unproductive (Baldwin 194)—no dew or rain. Why? For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, not anointed with oil. Along with his sword (22), the weapon that represents Saul is his shield, often the emblem of a king protecting his people (Leithart 164). So, here, what David may have had a hard time saying about Saul personally, he says about his shield: it lay defiled on the field of battle, not anointed with oil. This could surely refer to the practice of oiling shields to make them both shiny and slippery to ward off incoming projectiles. But the reader cannot miss the correlation with Saul himself, rejected by God. “Since Saul had fallen in battle, his anointed shield lay in the dust, a dramatic image of the fallen ‘anointed one’” (Leithart 164).

Thus, this poem does not exalt Saul. It laments his death, and the impact that will have on Israel. But it celebrates Jonathan, including a deep and personal expression of grief from David at his loss.


So, what does this passage teach us today? In it we see David lamenting personally and on behalf of the nation a very grievous culmination of events. And we could study it simply as a lesson in Israel’s history. But it seems like we should hear more. It seems like we should learn more. It’s hard to believe that David would make such a point that this lament should be taught to the people of Judah (1:18), and yet nothing would be there for us to learn! That is what calls us to further reflection on lamentation.

Three Summary Lessons on Lament

  1. Lament presses us to see this fallen world from God’s perspective. The standard is set for us by the Word of God, and what we lament are the situations and experiences of this life that just don’t meet that standard. We lament our personal sin. We lament heartache and tragedy in this life—illness and accident, self-sufficiency and scandal. And the larger the scale the more corporate the lament.

    I lamented my father’s sudden diagnosis with brain cancer, and the cruel symptoms is brought. And you could grieve with me, but not to the same depth. You didn’t know my father, and so couldn’t miss what was lost. That is personal lamentation. We hear the same from David, as an add-on to national lament for loss of the king. Vv.26 and 27 are not lesser lament, they just more personal—we enter in only by having similar personal experiences.

    But the events of 9/11, as one example, were seen worldwide. They were met by corporate lament. They were lamented by many who didn’t even know or understand what standard was being violated, what was causing them to feel such intense pain and anger and fear. Yet they lamented nevertheless, in random and unrooted ways. Corporate lament can often be like that, grieving my personal loss with no real point of reference to confirm how things should be.

    But David modeled something different here, in both personal and corporate lament. He led the nation in lament over the death of the king who had not necessarily reflected the standards of God’s Word in his life. And he modeled personal lament for the loss of one whose life did reflect those standards. And he wove them together in such a way that he modeled for us what godly lament actually looks like. The central focus is not where this world would place it: on the big even, the loss of the king. Rather, David’s focus was on the godly, humble, valiant, trusted friend who modeled covenant love and faithfulness. David is grieving the deeper loss, recognized by seeing this world, relationships and all, through God’s eyes.
  2. Lament presses us to see God’s truth in ways we don’t (can’t?) see it clearly apart from tragedy. Tragedy tests our allegiance to God and His truth. We saw this so clearly in this very room last Saturday as we gathered for the Memorial Service for Juliana Schwartz, lamenting the loss of a seventeen-year-old who took her own life. The excruciating purpose for that gathering just formed the backdrop for helping us all see God’s truth more clearly than ever, and watch it prove true! How does a father say the words Andres said to us that day, except by the same power that enabled David to write this lament? And when, where will we ever learn more about the reliability of God’s sovereign love than we learned that day?

    Do you remember Andres’ words? Let me give you a few of them. “The danger at a time like this is to ask ‘What if?’. We cannot go there. I know that in this time we all have asked ‘What if?’. This is a torture we cannot engage in. The problem with each ‘What if’ is that it will lead to a million more. Each ‘What if’ is a subtle questioning of God’s sovereignty. And each ‘What if’ gives Satan an opportunity to whisper one of his lies. God is sovereign. God is (in) control. Nothing happens that isn’t a part of his perfect plan. There isn’t a plan B. There isn’t a better plan. Jesus had a specific and providential plan for Juliana. I do not presume to have the answers. This is hard to comprehend or accept. But I do know that I must trust in God’s promise found in Romans 8:28, ‘We know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them’.”

    It is this very promise from God’s Word that sets the standard for our lamentation. When we see pain and suffering and failure and evil that causes us to question whether God’s promises are true, we can either go the direction of doubting His goodness, or we will be driven to lament, grieving how far this world has fallen from all He says is true. Lament is not a closing of our eyes to God’s truth. It is an opening of our eyes to see how far we have fallen from His truth, and how tempting it is to doubt Him rather than to receive Him in unconditional acknowledgment of our desperate need. This is what Jesus was getting at when He taught: Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Mat.5:4)—eternally comforted!
  3. Lament presses us to look for the Day when all pain and suffering will be finished. Lament clings to the promise of that Day! It ceases striving to perceive this present world as good enough. It is only those who lament who can feel the full weight of the sin and suffering here, and tell the truth about it. If this world is all there is, then we need to make ourselves comfortable with all the evil it includes. But when we know we were made for better than this, and when we’re reminded from God’s Word that better is precisely what we’re promised by Him, we lament what we see here and now as part of our longing for what lies ahead. And we are pressed, together, to live for that Day!

    Peter (2Pe.3:10-13) reminded his readers that 10 … the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Lamentable things happen here! And when our hearts are aligned with God, we lament! 11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness…! 13 … According to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Part of our lamentation includes living in hope of our Lord’s return, just as surely as living in light of our Lord’s return includes lamentation!

    Our lamentation is an expression of longing for the relief that God has promised. And it is a confession that He alone can bring that relief. Have you found that relief today? Have you engaged God by faith in Christ such that you need not lie to yourself any longer about the true state of this world, but by faith in Christ can embrace both the breathtaking beauty of it, but also have categories to comprehend its stunning sinfulness? We grieve, but not as those who have no hope (1Th.4:13). We grieve the absences of what is still to come of the Kingdom of God, and as such we actually grieve even in expression of our hope.

So, are you living in hope of the Lord’s return? Do you lament the present state of our world, and of your own heart as you live in it? And does it drive you to Christ?