The death of a king is no small event, even if that king was an imperfect first draft pick. But imperfect as he was, Saul was a tremendous milestone in the history of Israel, and one worth examining.
As necessity mandates, it is impossible to cover the entire saga of Israel’s first kings in ten weeks. As such, a lot has had to be cut out, which is why we are skipping from David’s boyhood defeat of Goliath all the way to death of King Saul, a good decade or so later. A lot has happened in between last week’s lesson and this week’s song. To try and summarize would be a disservice to the text, so I’ll keep what summarization I do minimal. What I do want to attempt is to find some meaning in this song for us today.
There is a great deal at stake in this song. Songs are no small matter in the scriptures. Songs are different than histories, in that they are more often than not “primary sources,” or sources from firsthand accounts. What the vast majority of the histories in the bible–and in modern history–are classified as secondary sources, aggregated from after the fact. Songs, however, reflect an emotion and a perspective much more in a traditional way, handed from one person to the next verbatim. Songs touch an emotional core in us all; that’s why even an Alzheimer’s patient can remember a song like Jesus loves me more than anything else. Music has a power on its own. It has been said that all art aspires to the substance of music, and I can identify with that deeply.
David puts his emotions about a very complicated event into the form of a song for us today. That enough should tell us how important this is. David, the most prolific song writer in the canon of scripture, chose to write about both his greatest enemy and his greatest friend in the same song. It is a song of grief. It is a song of memory. It is a song fit for a king and a prince, echoing as God’s own voice down the ages to us today.
The Story So Far
Before we dig into the emotional and spiritual meaning of the song, let’s rifle through the baggage that led to this particular depot.
First of all, let’s deal with Saul. Saul, after taking on David as part of his kingly court, was always suspicious of David, for a number of reasons.
David was a hero, for one. He saved Israel from the Goliath menace, and proved himself as a daring warrior and cunning commander of soldiers. Every battle he fought, he wound up winning. Which, to Saul, became annoying. Every battle David won, more and more people sang David’s praises, and Saul began to fall into the background. Soon, Saul became paranoid of David, and tried to have him killed, first indirectly, and then directly. He sent David time and time again to the front lines, promising his daughter Michal as a reward, hoping that in battle, his David problem would go away. No such luck. Not only did he keep winning, his daughter threw her support behind David too, so Saul lost support from more of his family. After a while, Saul sought out to kill David himself. He wanted David gone, and would do anything to get that done.
Eventually, Saul had David on the run, and David wound up hiding in the Philistines’ territory, playing double agent for them while he raids enemy camps and playing nice with the Philistine kings. Saul sent party after party to find and kill David. David eluded him so much, Saul stooped to summon a medium to talk with spirits about how to find David. This didn’t turn out so well, as he wound up talking to the dead Samuel, who revealed that Saul would die in battle the very next day. And die he did.
Saul fell in battle after witnessing the utter defeat of his own soldiers. So crushing was his defeat, in both spirit and in military might, that he decided to take his own life rather than become a prisoner of war. We need to talk about Saul’s suicide, and suicide in general, and so I apologize if this is troubling for some. The Bible talks about it though, and so I would rather address it head on rather than let it slide. Saul was on his last leg. He had become so desperate that this seemed his only option. Saul was obviously not in his right mind; nobody who commits suicide is. He was depressed. He was paranoid. Not only that, he faced torture and imprisonment at the hands of his enemies. The horrors of war are not to be trifled with, nor marginalized. Saul did not take the easy way out; he chose to die rather than suffer any more. His death was tragic, but so was his life. I’m not condoning his suicide, or suicide in general; what I’m trying to do is help your realize his state of mind, and that Saul died a tragic death.
The other focus of David’s song is Jonathan, Saul’s son.
Now this death, I have no doubts, truly grieved David. Jonathon was David’s greatest friend and ally. Jonathan was so devoted to David, he recognized David’s right to rule and gave him his birthright as successor to King Saul. (Naturally this infuriated Saul, who saw David as a huge threat already. Jonathan repeatedly defended David from Saul, ran interference, gathered intelligence, and aided David in any way he could. The last time they saw each other, they gave each other a long, tearful embrace, as truly kindred spirits.
Much has been written about David and Jonathan’s relationship, as it is fairly singular in scripture. Rarely much is made about the friendship of men in scripture, let alone friendship as open and as close as this one was. Men don’t usually show much emotion to each other in general; we’ve been socialized to retain an air of dignified emotional distance. There was none of that in David and Jonathan’s relationship. David says as much in this song: Jonathan’s love or care for him was greater than “the love of women.” Take that as you will, but the fact remains, Jonathan and David loved each other. What better way to mourn that than in song?
The Song of the Bow, Examined
Once you have the historical baggage dealt with we can dive head first into this beautiful piece of poetry in scripture, a fitting tribute to two important figures.
It begins by stating the fact: your prince has fallen. The king is dead, and his death in battle earns him a place among the fallen in combat.
It then immediately urges people to not speak of this to their enemies, so as to defend against attack in an imminently vulnerable time for a country. Imagine if the president were to be assassinated; that would be the worst time for another country to seize the moment and attack us, and it would be the same for Israel. There’s also an ulterior motive in this bit; David was living in Philistine territory as a double agent; their knowledge of Saul’s death would potentially endanger David! It’s an odd thing to put into music, I’ll admit, but the reason for doing it is a pretty practical.
“You hills of Gilboa! Let there be no rain on you.” David’s grief, as Israel’s grief, should extend to nature itself. This death affects the very rains in the heavens! God’s anointed has fallen, and that ought to matter to people.
Now perhaps an aside is in order. David’s relationship with Saul was always rocky.
Even though it was rocky, however, David always respected Saul as king. He respected the title. He respected the fact that Saul was God’s choice to rule, before him and before anyone else. David could have easily launched an attack and seize the crown, but he never did. He respected Saul so much that even as Saul was actively trying to kill him, David refused to fight back. He ran, he hid, and he even spared Saul’s life on more than one occasion. This ought to be a reminder for us about authority. Most authorities we hear about, we will often disagree with. Some may even actively hate them. But that doesn’t change the fact that the office is to be respected, no matter who holds it.
From this point, David goes on to describe how Saul and Jonathan will be missed, how they brought riches to Israel, how they vanquished their enemies. Ultimately, it mourns their loss as warriors in God’s army.
A Song that Changes Things
This song may not be as memorable as others in scripture, like the Magnificat from Mary, or the psalms. But it does something that others don’t; it signals a shift in history. It’s the end of one reign, and the beginning of another. And ultimately, it proves how much David is fit to rule.
David did no seize the crown in a bloody coup. He inherited it, setting a precedent for an inherited kingship, instead of a seized one. God chose David, and David is living up to that choice.
David is honoring not just a friend in Jonathan, but even an enemy like Saul of his in beautiful song. When was the last time you mourned for the loss of an enemy? When was the last time you honored someone who hated you, or whom you hated? David’s song is a grace to one who offered him none; and it’s worth us paying attention to. None other than David’s own descendent, Jesus of Nazareth, would go on to tell his followers to love their enemies, and pray for those who persecute them. David did just that, and left his example for us. There is risk involved in this; it is difficult and even life-endangering to love your enemies as he did. But love them he did, and so love them we must.
In this, and in many other things, David is truly a man of God’s heart. I can’t think of another figure who would set this kind of an example in the Old Testament. This song is a shift in regime, but also in mindset. What would it be like if we honored others like David honored both a friend and an enemy? How would our lives change? And what can we do to extend respect to others as David gave it to Saul and Jonathan? These things we ought to ponder in our own hearts. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.