The refrain from 2 Sam 1:1, 17-27, How the mighty have fallen, is the dominant impression of this poetic lament by David after he learns that Saul and his sons, including David’s close friend Jonathan, have been killed in a battle with the Philistines. Still, there is more to the passage.
Saul had been the first king of Israel, but because of his own misdeeds, God withdrew his support of Saul’s kingship. God told Samuel that David would be Saul’ successor. This news angered Saul and he tried to have David killed so David fled while Saul’s forces pursued him.
Despite Saul’s animosity towards David, David regrets Saul’s death and the death of his best friend Jonathan. David had revered Saul and recalled that Saul was, first, his king: the anointed one of God who recognized David’s bravery, innovation and musical talent and who gave him both opportunity but also his daughter, Michal, to be his wife.
After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites…
David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan … He said:
Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
Tell 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.
Gath and Ashkelon are Philistine towns and the people would have celebrated Saul’s death.
You 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.
David calls for a period of mourning for all of the land of Israel, including the inanimate objects, such as the mountains of Gilboa. He mourns the death of God’s one-time chosen leader. The death has sacred meaning.
From 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.
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.
Jonathan and David were kindred hearts. In 1 Sam 18:2 we read Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Jonathan was a great warrior having won many battles against the Philistines. Jonathan’s fondness of David was real. He intervened with his father Saul on David’s behalf when Saul had become jealous of David’s fame as a warrior. David knew this and loved Jonathan even more for his loyalty. (1 Samuel 19:1-7)
O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.
How the mighty have fallen,
and the weapons of war perished!
Saul’s death will mark the turning point in David’s life. From here he will become the undisputed king of Israel, defeat the Philistines, unite Israel and bring the ark to Jerusalem… but all that happens later. At the time of this reading David is devastated by the loss. Saul and Jonathan had seemed invincible. The certainty and divine blessing of Saul’s kingship seemed to have been lost. Hope was gone.
The gospel (Mark 5:21-43) presents a variation on this theme, when Jairus, a leader of the synagogue learns that his daughter has died. Jesus went with him to the house where his daughter lay and took the child’s father and mother … and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about.
Jesus reverses what might have been the parents’ lament over the loss of their daughter. Like David before them, this event may have been the turning point in the lives of, not only the daughter, but also of the parents, the disciples and those who had already gathered to mourn the girl’s death. The certainty of God’s love and the personification of his blessing in the life of this girl had seemed lost. Jesus changed that.
- David’s lament for the deaths of Saul and Jonathan is genuine. He felt lost and without a sense of what the future would hold. Yet God uses their deaths to change the course of Israel. Are there comparable turning points you have seen in the lives of others or in your own life? Does the story give you hope?
- Why do you think that David was so sad about Saul’s death? After all, Saul had been jealous of David and tried to have him killed in a number of different ways. Did he regard Saul’s anointing as a king as divine approval? Was how the mighty have fallena deep reflection on how righteous even the most favoured should be? Do you think he recalled the lament later in his own life when his son Absalom rose against him?
- Do you see Jesus’ raising Jairus’s daughter from the dead as a miracle? As a teaching moment for his disciples? As an act of compassion? As a form of prophecy of Jesus’ own return from the dead? Or all of the above?