An Exegetical Paper on 2 Samuel 1:17-27
In the opening chapters of 2 Samuel, we meet David in an awkward place. Having been anointed king in 1 Samuel 16, and then defeating Goliath (1 Samuel 17) and becoming a great man in King Saul’s house, the tables had turned and he spent the next several years on the run (1 Samuel 19-31). But at the end of the 1st installment of the Samuel narratives, we find out that Saul has died (1 Samuel 31:6). Suddenly relieved of the burden of being hunted, we might expect to find David rejoicing. Instead, David, upon receiving news of Saul’s death, rends his garments. The structural center of 2 Samuel 1:1-16 is David mourning. In the words of commentator Dale Ralph Davis, “[the narrator] thinks the most important item in his story is the grief and wailing of David and his men over Israel - her fallen leaders and troops.”
So far from finding this to be good news is David, he has the Amalekite who brought the news (and who falsely claimed to have taken Saul’s life) executed (2 Samuel 1:15-16). And then David continues to mourn. Which then takes us to our passage under consideration.
Text: 2 Samuel 1:17-27 (ESV)
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; behold, it is written in the Book of Jashar. He said:
19 “Your glory, O Israel, is slain on your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
20 Tell it not in Gath,
publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult.
21 “You mountains of Gilboa,
let there be no dew or rain upon you,
nor fields of offerings!
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of Saul, not anointed with oil.
22 “From the blood of the slain,
from the fat of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan turned not back,
and the sword of Saul returned not empty.
23 “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles;
they were stronger than lions.
24 “You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothed you luxuriously in scarlet,
who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
25 “How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!
“Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
26 I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.
27 “How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!”
A Song of Lament
Why would David lament over the death of Saul and Jonathan? Such a question seems beyond answering for some critical scholars, and thus they treat this as hagiographical reconstruction unmoored from history. But if we take the text straightforwardly, we understand that the “sanctity of Yahweh’s anointed king had the status of dogma for David.” Further, we will remember the bond between David and Jonanthan seen in 1 Samuel (18:1, 20:1-42). David sees the tragedy for his nation in the death of Saul, and tragedy for himself in the death of Jonathan.
The lament is structured with an inclusio of “how the mighty have fallen” in 1:19, and 1:25. However, the poetic lament runs out past the end of these markers, turning from a stylized lament over the leaders of Israel, to a more personal lament for David’s dear friend Jonathan. In between verses 19-25, though, we find a chiastic structure.
Aa: Israel’s glory is slain/the mighty have fallen (v19)
Ba: Don’t tell, lest the Philistine daughters rejoice! (v20)
Ca: The Shield (protection) has fallen to disgrace (v21)
Cb: Jonathan and Saul (protective leaders) were mighty in life (v22-23)
Bb: Weep, daughters of Israel, for he who cared for you! (v24)
Ab: Jonathan is slain/the mighty have fallen (v25)
Protection had been provided for the nation by Saul’s (imperfect) leadership, especially insofar as it was characterized by his son Jonathan’s valor. Jonathan’s bow is referenced in verse 22, and the tune of this song likely is named after that same bow. The loss of the protective shield should rightly lead to weeping among those who had benefited from his reign (v24). At the same time, one can be sure that despite David’s formal prohibitions on the news, it would carry to Gath and the daughters of the Philistines would rejoice in their triumph (v20). The defeat of Saul and his sons was an ugly day for Israel, and this song of lament is a formal recognition of that fact.
A Modern Concern
One modern preoccupation with this text has been to what, if any, degree is David implying a homosexual relationship with Jonathan? It would seem a clear reading of this text in it’s biblical context would lead us to agree with Davis: “It is utterly wrong-headed to read the idea of homosexuality into this text.” Their affection for one another is deep, but it is our modern obsession with sexualized identities that drives to insert relationships forbidden by God into a narrative which would have no problem criticizing David if such an inappropriate relationship existed (see chapters 11 & 12).
Rather, we should recognize that, “for a man to love one who he knew was to take the crown over his head, and to be so faithful to his rival: this far surpassed the highest degree of conjugal affection and constancy.” David recognizes what should be obvious to the careful reader: he has lost the best friend and ally he could ever have asked for. And he rightly gives air to his sadness.
For leaders to fall is a tragedy for God’s people. We see this in our own day in the church--when leaders topple, even if they weren’t good leaders, the effect of the fall can have all sorts of horrific fallout. When an abusive pastor is exposed or fired, often the result is not renewal in that church, but the disintegration of the church. Such was nearly the case for Israel, as there still waited seven years between the death of Saul and the acknowledgement of David as king over the united tribes. When Saul fell in battle, though it opened the way for the Davidic “glory years”, it was not a smooth transition. It was a sad day for the people, a day worthy of lament.
Davis, Dale Ralph. 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity. Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 1999.
Hamilton, Victor P. Handbook on the Historical Books. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004.
Leithart, Peter J. A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.