How the Mighty have Fallen – Reflection for Pentecost 6B (2 Samuel 1)

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

1 After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag. 

17 David 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.) He said: 

19 Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
    How the mighty have fallen!
20 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.
21 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.
22 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.
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 O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
    who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
    who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
25 How the mighty have fallen
    in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
26     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.
27 How the mighty have fallen,
    and the weapons of war perished!

*********************
                “How the mighty have fallen.” That is the refrain in David’s lament at the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan in battle. Israel had demanded a king to fight its battles. God heard their request and directed Samuel to provide a king. The one Samuel selected at God’s direction was Saul. Saul proved to be a good warrior, but a less than competent king. God tired of him and directed Samuel to anoint another king in his place. Samuel found David among the sons of Jesse, though David was the youngest of Jesse’s sons, and anointed him king. This anointing came even though David was a mere shepherd. Although Samuel anointed David, David made no claim on the throne as long as Saul lived. David initially remained at home, continuing his previous work. His brothers would go off and join Saul’s army, but David was too young. Finally, as the story goes, David appears at Saul’s camp, at the very moment that the Philistine champion Goliath was challenging Israel to one-on-one, winner-take-all battle. When no one stepped forward to take on the challenger, David volunteered, bringing down Goliath with a stone fired from a sling. David would go on to join Saul’s army, become a leader of that army, marry Saul’s daughter Michel, befriend Saul’s son, and at some point, become estranged from an increasingly despondent Saul. Remember that Saul had lost the Spirit, if not his throne, when David was anointed by Samuel. 1 Samuel ends with Saul’s death, along with three of his sons, including Jonathan, David’s closest friend. David wasn’t with Saul at the time, for he was in exile. While he wouldn’t fight against Israel, he did fight battles for the Philistines against other enemies, until the Philistines tired of him. At the time of Saul’s death, David was fighting the Amalekites, who had sacked Ziklag, where David had set up residence. It was while he was at Ziklag that David heard the news of Saul’s death.   

2 Samuel is the story of David’s reign, from the time of Saul’s death to his own. It begins with David returning from his victories over the Amalekites. Despite being estranged from Saul, and despite knowing he had long before been anointed Israel’s king, David too the news of Saul’s death hard. It is said that “David rent his clothes and wept for Saul and for Jonathan. Much of the story of David hearing the news is omitted from the lectionary reading. It picks up in verse 17 with the narrator’s note that David cried out in lamentation, his song being called “The Song of the Bow.” It was a song all in Judah were to be taught.
The song begins: “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!” What is the glory spoken of her? It is, Saul, the king, the one who was understood to be anointed by God and thus reflecting the glory of God. Then comes that refrain: “How the might have fallen!” David laments that this story will be told in foreign lands, as the Philistines gloat their victory. David wants Saul and Jonathan not to be remembered in defeat, but in their victories. The people need to remember that “the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty.”
Saul and David were estranged in life, which put a great strain on David’s relationship with his beloved friend Jonathan. Yet, David remembers them both fondly. Here the words he uses to describe both men, one who ended up seeking to kill him, declaring them to be “beloved and lovely!” The mighty have fallen, but they should not be remembered as being defeated. Yes, David is distressed at the death of his beloved friend.
There is a passage here that speaks of deep friendship. Questions have been raised as to the depth of that friendship. David sings out concerning Jonathan: “greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” The question raised concerns whether this is a reference to a homoerotic relationship. The truth is, no one knows. The wording is intriguing, but it proves nothing. Our interest in that phrase may say more about our hyper-sexualized world than about the relationship of Jonathan and David. Could it not be that they forged a friendship so deep that, without it become sexualized, was more intimate than any other form of friendship. Concerning Jonathan, Pablo Jiménez, writes that he was a “man of integrity, trapped between his loyalty to his father and his loyalty to his friend. Ultimately, he sacrifices his life fighting a losing battle at his father’s side. Jonathan thus evokes another young man who loved his friends to the point of sacrifice, hanging on a cross” [Preaching Transforming Justice, p. 307]. If we focus on Jonathan, we see a celebration of a life lived for others. He was loyal to his father to the end, and the same was true of his loyalty and friendship with David. He was caught in the middle, but he did not forsake either man. Thus, David seems to celebrate this dimension of his friend’s life.
There is a second consideration as we ponder this song and its implications for our lives. The song emerges out of war. Saul, Jonathan, and David are all warriors. Whether in victory or defeat they are hailed as heroes. At one level the song reminds us of the costs of war, but it can also glorify war. Looking back to the death of Saul and Jonathan, this was a great loss for the people of Israel. Death has consequences. It’s messy. Lives are lost. Even though the United States has been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for nearly twenty years, it’s easy to forget the cost. This isn’t like World War II, when everyone felt the burden of war. This isn’t even like Vietnam, where most families at least faced the possibility of sons being drafted (women were not yet subject to the draft). These most recent wars are being fought be an all-volunteer army, and so an increasingly smaller number of families feel the consequences. We don’t feel the pain in the same way as before.
At the same time the song could be seen as glorifying war. This leads to a question that churches struggle with: how do we honor those who have died in war without romanticizing war? I know that those who served in Vietnam returned home to a deeply divided nation that had long since come to detest the war, and the returning Vets were often seen as symbols of that war. As symbols, they were often treated with disrespect. Could the same happen today with the latest returnees? What’s interesting is that in the United States soldiers and veterans are about the only group still respected.
This song invites all manner of questions, among them is the question of our own human fragmentation. At a time in my nation’s history when we are being driven further and further apart, where there seems to be no center, no place of respect for the other, might David’s relationship with Saul offer us a different perspective. Saul, who by the end was suffering mental anguish had become David’s enemy, but David chose not to directly oppose Saul. He refused to fight against him. He tried to remain close to Jonathan. It was difficult, and yet David persisted. How might we persist in the pursuit of what is right and just without creating unnecessary barriers? Remember that even though Saul had become David’s enemy, David grieved his death. There is compassion here that we might take note of in our own day, even as we become numb to the lives of those with whom we disagree.
It is worth considering how this passage might speak to those living in the United States on the Sunday prior to Independence Day. How might this song speak to this national celebration? Yes, and “how have the mighty fallen?”

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

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