II Samuel 1:17-27

17 David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, 18 and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar): 19 “A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel. How the mighty have fallen! 20 “Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice. 21 “Mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain, may no showers fall on your terraced fields. For there the shield of the mighty was despised, the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil. 22 “From the blood of the slain, from the flesh of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied. 23 Saul and Jonathan—in life they were loved and admired, and in death they were not parted. They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. 24 “Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold. 25 “How the mighty have fallen in battle! Jonathan lies slain on your heights. 26 I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. 27 “How the mighty have fallen! The weapons of war have perished!”

1. A Lament of David 17-18

When David had rent his clothes, mourned, and wept, and fasted, for the death of Saul, and executed the Amalekite who made himself so very guilty, one might think David had made full payment of the debt of honor he owed Saul’s memory. But this is not all because David also wrote a poem. He was a great master of his pen as well as of his sword. In his poem David expressed his own deep sorrow and persuaded others to have a like mind; to lay it to heart. Putting his lamentations in a poem made it more moving and affecting, more wonderfully communicated to the readers and hearers, not only of David’s day, but to continue for a long time, from generation to generation. We can be enriched and influenced not only by reading the history of David’s life but also be touched by the emotions he felt. Some will even gain information by poems that would not read history. Jeremiah’s story, from the record of history and his personal feelings communicated through his Lamentations, give us the same double insight that David’s history and poems give us. Bible characters were real people with real feelings. We can learn from both kinds of literature.

David wrote it and then, just as Moses instructed people to read and know what he had written, so David “ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow.” Why was it called the lament of the bow? Perhaps because it was a lament about what a bow of a Philistine archer accomplished in killing Saul and Jonathan. Or maybe only because the bow was usually used in war. David had used a sling and a stone, but the Philistine’s use of the bow had taken down Saul. The bow and arrow may have been more advanced than the sling and stone and David wanted his army to be well equipped. It was a pity that those that had such good heads and hearts as the children of Judah should also need to be well armed. (Incidentally, the same is true today.) David may have referred to such an instrument for the sake of Jonathan’s bow which was so skillfully used by Jonathan. David showed his authority over and concern for the armies of Israel, and set himself to make it strong. As we saw in the previous chapter, companies of good men were coming to Ziklag daily and some were armed with bows according to I Chron. 12:2. Maybe the lament of the bow was just a general reference to things military.

Others, however, understand the bow as a musical instrument which may have had a mournful tune when strummed with skill. Possibly David specifically asked the Levites teach the lament. Whether an instrument of war or music, at any rate, the lament of the bow was included in the book of Jashar to be kept in remembrance of Saul and Jonathan. For sake of comparison, Joshua 10:13 informs us that at least part of the record of Joshua’s battles and victories were recorded the book of Jashar: “So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar.” Jashar was possibly a collection of state-poems; what is said to be written in it is also poetical, a fragment of a historical poem. Even songs would be forgotten and lost if they were not committed to writing.

The Lament itself, some believe, was not a divine hymn, nor given by inspiration of God to be used in divine service, nor is there any mention of God in it. It is just a human composition, and therefore was placed only in the book of Jashar, being only a collection of common poems, not in the book of Psalms which is well preserved as a book divine origin. Jashar has long since been lost, but the book of Psalms continues generation after generation to bless people all over the world. The lament of the bow is preserved for us in II Samuel 1 and we can learn several significant lessons from it. The dirge begins and ends with Israel’s glory and weapons abandoned on the battle site, highlighted by the repeated refrain, “How the mighty have fallen!” If the lament of the bow was to be taught, apparently there was something in it that Israel of many generations needed to know. The “Weapons of war” (vs. 27) probably refers to Saul and Jonathan who were weapons. This can be compared to what Elisha said of  Elijah calling him “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen” as in II Kings 1:12; 13:14.

2. David was Generous to Saul

David was very generous to Saul, his sworn enemy. Saul was his father-in-law, his sovereign, and the anointed of the Lord. Though he had done him a great deal of wrong, David does not take revenge even just on his memory when he is in his grave. Being the man of noble spirit that he was, David hid Saul’s faults. There was no possibility of hiding Saul’s faults in history, but they will not appear in David’s elegy. When I was in grade school my teacher told me in front of the whole class, “If you cannot say something nice about a person, don't say anything at all.” I never forgot it. Is it lying, or courtesy or just plain common sense to say nothing but good concerning the dead? What does it say about us when we derive pleasure for telling something bad about another—even if it is true? Is everyone a bad person who has said or done something that puts us in a bad light? Let the corrupt part of the memory be buried with the corrupt part of the man—earth to earth, ashes to ashes; let the blemish be hidden and a curtain be drawn over the weakness.

David celebrated what was praiseworthy in him. He did not commend him for what he was not and cannot say anything about wisdom, courtesy, godliness or good leadership. We have all heard the dead praised as though they were saints when they were not saints. This cheapens words. They are not to the praise of the deceased, nor do they truly honor the speaker who wrongly praises what was not praiseworthy; it says nothing of the ardor, fidelity or grace of the deceased. David has this to say in honor of Saul himself, he was anointed with the sacred oil which showed his original elevation and qualification to govern. The crown of the anointing oil of his God was on him. He was honored because God who is the fountain of all honor had honored him.

Also, he was a mighty man of war. “A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel. How the mighty have fallen” (v 19)! He had often been victorious over the enemies of Israel. “After Saul had assumed rule over Israel, he fought against their enemies on every side: Moab, the Ammonites, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. Wherever he turned, he inflicted punishment on them” (I Sam. 14:47). “From the blood of the slain, from the flesh of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied" (II Sam. 1:22). The intent of this line is to praise Saul’s military prowess. Saul’s disgrace and fall at the end must not cause his former successes and services to be forgotten. Though his sun set under a cloud, time was when it shone brightly. 

Saul and Jonathan, taken together, in the pursuit of the enemy were bold brave men. Never were men more bold, more brave, “Saul and Jonathan—in life they were loved and admired, and in death they were not parted. They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. The harmony and affection that for the most part characterized the relationship between Saul and Jonathan was good; they were lovely and pleasant to each other, Jonathan a dutiful son, Saul an affectionate father; and therefore dear to each other in their lives, “and in death they were not parted.They kept close together in the stand they made against the Philistines, and fell together in the same cause.

David’s lament even has a bit of a humorous comment—regarding women’s clothes. Saul had enriched his country with the spoils of conquered nations, and even contributed to the better garments the Israelites were given to wear. When they had a king like the nations, they must have clothes like the nations so even the women could dress better. “Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul, who clothed you in scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold” (v 24).

3. David was Grateful to Jonathan

He was very grateful to Jonathan, his sworn friend. Besides the tears he shed over him, and the accolades and tributes he gave him in common with Saul, he mentioned him with additional marks of distinction: “Jonathan lies slain on your heights” (v 25). Compare this with verse 19 “A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel. How the mighty have fallen!” This comparison suggests he meant Jonathan when he referred to a gazelle. He lamented Jonathan as his particular friend, “my brother,” not just because of what he might have become to him if he had lived. If he had lived, without question he would have been very serviceable in his advancement to the throne and instrumental to prevent the long struggle which David eventually had with Joab, Abner, Ish-Bosheth and the prolonged war between David and the house of Saul. David looked back in time and lamented Jonathan for what he had actually already been: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women” (vs 26).

He had reason to say that Jonathan’s love to him was wonderful; it was rare for a man to love the one whom he knew would take the crown he might have worn, and to be so faithful to the one he might have considered his rival. This amazing honor that Jonathan consistently showed to David far surpassed the highest degree of normal romantic affection between a man and a woman. Nothing is more delightful in this world than a true friend, that is wise and good, that kindly receives and returns our affection, and is faithful to us in all our true interests. Likewise, nothing is more distressful than the loss of such a friend; it is parting with a piece of one’s self.

What is most pleasant to us we are likely to be most distressed about. The more we love something or someone, the more we grieve at the loss of it. The solution to this, the way to avoid such grief, is to not love at all, but that is too great a price.

The phrase, “surpassing the love of women” deserves a comment. David’s praise of Jonathan’s love does not mean that love between friends is inherently superior to marital love. Rather, the point seems to be the astonishingly selfless quality of Jonathan’s love for David. “And Jonathan made a covenant with David  because he loved him as himself” (I Samuel 18:3).

In our perverted present generation there are homosexuals who say that this means David and Jonathan had a homosexual relationship and that David felt it was better than any heterosexual relationship. The perverse and perverted will see things in Scripture that just are not there.

4. David was concerned for the Honor of God

“Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice” (v 20). He was deeply concerned for the honor of God; for this is what he dreaded when he feared lest the daughters of the uncircumcised, who do not know God, should triumph over Israel, or more correctly perceive themselves to be triumphing over the God of Israel. Good men are touched in a very sensible part by the reproaches of those that reproach God. David pleaded that the terrible news be kept from the Philistines so that their women could not gloat, as Israelite women once did at Philistine defeats. It grieved him to the heart to think that it would be proclaimed in the cities of the Philistines, and that the news would be an insult to Israel there. This, in contrast to the triumphs when Israel sang, “Saul has slain his thousands.” If Gath heard this news, that former song could be and surely would be retorted. Tell it not in Gath.

5. David was concerned for Israel’s Public Welfare

Three times (vs. 19, 25, 27) David wrote, “The mighty have fallen.” He was deeply concerned for the public welfare. It was the Gazelle of Israel that was slain and the honor of the public that was disgraced. So the strength, army, reputation, and national pride of the people was weakened by this military loss. Public losses are more strongly felt in the heart by men of public spirit. David hoped God would make him instrumental to repair those losses and yet lamented them.

6. David was a literary man with deep feelings

David was a wise and holy man and had a fine imagination as well. The expressions are all excellent, and calculated to stir our hearts. It is not enough to know the history in the Bible, we must also be emotionally involved. “Mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain, may no showers fall on your terraced fields. For there the shield of the mighty was despised, the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.” David now called down a curse on the mountains of Gilboa, the theatre of this tragedy. This is a poetic expression like that of Job, Let the day perish wherein I was born. Not as if David wished that any part of the land of Israel might be barren, but, to express his sorrow for the thing, he speaks with a seeming indignation at the place. The worst thing he could wish to the mountains of Gilboa was barrenness and unprofitableness to man. The useless are miserable. It was the curse Christ pronounced on the fig-tree, may fruit never grow on you again, and that took effect—the fig-tree withered away and that incident helps us understand this curse on the mountains of Gilboa. When he wished them barren, he wished there might be no rain upon them; and, if the heavens be brass, the earth will soon be iron. A very sad thing happened on this mountain. May it never be fruitful again!

Fruitlessness is the reproach David called down on the mountains of Gilboa, which, having been stained with royal blood, thereby should forfeit celestial dews. Surely, in this elegy Saul had a more honorable interment than that which the men of Jabesh-Gilead gave him.

Saul’s shield would no longer be rubbed with oil. What does this mean? A shield anointed with oil? It was customary to condition and preserve leather shields by rubbing them with oil. Isaiah 21:5 says, “They set the tables, they spread the rugs, they eat, they drink! Get up, you officers, oil the shields!” It may be more than coincidental that the particular wording in David’s poem is associated with royalty. Not only were kings “anointed” for their office, but the word “shield” is sometimes used in the Old Testament as a figure for “sovereign” or “chieftain.” God is our Shield. Beneath the literal meaning of the words is perhaps the implication, ‘‘sovereign Saul, no longer anointed with oil.” Alas! Our anointed king, our anointed shield is no longer with us.

In the lament of the bow David paid due respect to the memory of Saul his king and Jonathan his friend, but what he did was as much his praise as theirs. He was gracious to honor others. Approximately thirteen years after David was catapulted into the public eye at the slaying of Goliath, he was now ready to become king. He will first become Judah’s king and not for another seven years will be become king over all Israel. With these observations we conclude the story of God’s preparation of David for kingship and are ready to learn what God did through a man after God’s own heart.

Whether you are in the preparation stage of your life, or after having been prepared are now in a position to assist others as God prepares them, in either case it is valuable for us to understand God’s process of leadership development. With this lesson we have completed twenty-eight lessons from the life of David. Each of them have examined a part of the process God used to develop David. What things in your life has God used to develop you? What events do you see God using to develop others you know. Encourage yourself. Encourage others. God is developing good people to lead, bless and protect the people He loves.