Remember that the book of Samuel is all one book, and we stopped in the middle of it (at our conventional break between first and second Samuel) simply for the sake of convenience. The same great narrative continues, as God establishes His kind of rule, and does so in His way.
“Now it came to pass after the death of Saul, when David was returned from the slaughter of the Amalekites, and David had abode two days in Ziklag; It came even to pass on the third day, that, behold, a man came out of the camp from Saul with his clothes rent, and earth upon his head: and so it was, when he came to David, that he fell to the earth, and did obeisance . . .” (2 Sam. 1:1-27).
Summary of the Text
While the battle was going on at Gilboa, David was fighting the Amalekites and, after his victory, he had been back in Ziklag for two days (v. 1). On the third day, a messenger arrived from Saul’s battlefield (v. 2). He reported that he had escaped from the camp of Israel (v. 3). When asked, he said that many were dead, as were Saul and Jonathan (v. 4). How do you know this? (v. 5). The young man then spins a story which the reader knows to be false (vv. 6-10; 1 Sam. 31:4-7). He claims to have killed Saul at Saul’s request, and he brought the crown and bracelet to David. David, and all the men with him, tore their clothes and wept for Saul and Jonathan (and for Israel) until that evening (v. 12). David then inquired further of the messenger (v. 13), and asked how he dared to lift up his hand against God’s anointed (v. 14). He then turned and commanded one of his soldiers to execute him (v. 15). David pronounced him condemned by his own testimony (v. 16).
David then composed a lament to be included in the Book of Jasher (the Book of the Upright), called the Song of the Bow (vv. 17-18). The gazelle of Israel is slain in the high places (v. 19). Don’t tell the Philistines about this (v. 20). Mount Gilboa is told to wither up and go dry (v. 21). Saul and Jonathan are then praised highly (vv. 22-23). The daughters of Israel are then commanded to lament (v. 24). The gazelle from earlier is now identified as Jonathan (v. 25), and we come to the center of David’s lament (v. 26). The mighty have indeed fallen (v. 27).
Some Striking Figures
Saul lost his kingship because he plundered the Amalekites, and here an Amalekite plunders him . . . and loses his life for it. David has just finished wiping out the Amalekites, and then here comes another one. When David asks what happened? he uses the same phrase that Eli spoke to his messenger from the battlefield. This is the next iteration of Hannah’s great vision of the collapse of the corrupt elites, and their replacement by faithful outsiders. Only this time the words are spoken by the one who will replace, not the one to be replaced.
Hebrew poetry is vivid, concrete, and brevity is one of its great virtues. The word rendered beauty (v. 19) also means gazelle, and David makes it very plain he was talking about Jonathan (v. 25). Also, the lost shield of Saul, unburnished with oil, represents a play on words (v. 21). Shields were oiled to make them gleam, and to help weapons glance off them. But this lost shield has no oil—it is unanointed, or “messiah-less.” This is a powerful image showing that the Lord’s anointed is no longer alive. But if we remember our narrative, David is also the Lord’s anointed.
This lament repeatedly uses the apostrophe—David speaks to Israel at large, and then to Gilboa, then to (about) Saul and Jonathan, then to the daughters of Israel, and then last to Jonathan directly. It is a fitting form of address for an elegy.
Those who take v. 26 as representing something homoerotic simply demonstrate that they have not read the rest of David’s life, not to mention how little they understand a warrior culture like this one.
The Early Chapters
Not surprisingly, we have a chiastic structure here. A. David executes the purported murderer of Saul (1:1-16); B. David laments Saul and Jonathan (1:17-27); C. struggle between the house of David and house of Saul (2:1-3:1); D. David’s house (3:2-5); C’ struggle between Abner and Joab (3:6-30); B’ David laments Abner (3:31-39); A’ David executes the murderers of Ish-bosheth (4:1-12).
Teach the Bow
This injunction (v. 18) should be understood by us at three different levels. The first is that this is clearly the title of the song, and this is how it is to be recorded in the Book of Jasher. The children of Judah were to be taught this song that eulogized Saul and Jonathan. Second, the title is significant. The central person to be honored here is Jonathan—he is the one associated with the bow (v. 22). Be a Jonathan, imitate Jonathan in this. Take the right lesson away from the song. This is how David is able to include Saul in the eulogy. Anyone that someone like Jonathan was willing to die with (and for) is worthy of praise (v. 23). This is not an instance of “lying at funerals.” Saul was David’s father here because Jonathan was his brother (v. 26).
But last, this is a call to learn the craft of bowmanship itself. There is no gun control fastidiousness here. There is no “being like Jonathan” without actual bows, and the knowledge of how to use them (Ps. 144:1). To praise his use of the bow in song is to praise the bow itself. Remember that this was a lament offered by a small band of men whose great army had just been taken out by the Philistines. Never forget. Learn the bow, and learn to be the kind of man that Jonathan was when he wielded it. And whatever happens, do not drift back to the way it was when Saul and Jonathan first mustered the troops (1 Sam. 13:19-22). When there is no “smith” allowed in Israel, there is a tyrant in Israel.
Just this last week, Vice-President Biden called upon “faith leaders” to keep up the pressure on the issue of gun control, and to reframe the whole debate in moral terms. Okay. Anyone who cannot tell the difference between a criminal and an inanimate weapon is also someone who cannot tell the difference between an American and an Amalekite. Do not be children in your understanding, but grow up into maturity.