2 Samuel 1:1–16: David Hears of Saul’s Death
I need to do a quick recap of the book of 1 Samuel before we get into 2 Samuel; especially since it was all originally one book, not broken into 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel—so from the original author’s intent, this is all one storyline.
In a nutshell:
- The story begins with the birth of Samuel and his rising to become a trusted prophet for the nation of Israel. 1+2 Samuel are named for him, even though he dies and leaves the story in 1 Samuel 25.
- There is some storyline of the way the Israelites are suffering at the hands of the Philistines1, including an incident where Samuel rescues them—meaning that Samuel is very much acting like a Judge, as depicted in the book of Judges.
- The people, seeing that they’re going to keep having problems with their neighbours, decide that they want a king. This is more complicated, from a spiritual sense, than it might appear to be at first glance, but the LORD agrees to let them have a king anyway.
- The LORD then appoints Saul to be the nation’s new king.
- Around this time Samuel gives a farewell speech, believing that he is no longer needed as a leader now that the Israelites have a king, though his part in the story is not yet over.
- Almost immediately after becoming king Saul starts messing up, not listening to the LORD’s instruction the way he should. He gets a few chances, but the LORD eventually rejects him as king and informs Samuel of His decision.
- The LORD now sends Samuel to anoint a new king, with David as His choice. Saul is not informed of this, it’s kept quiet, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be trouble…
- Now that the LORD has departed from Saul, Saul starts being tormented by “an evil spirit.” So, through God’s providence, David ends up in Saul’s service: anytime Saul is tormented by the evil spirit David plays the lyre for him and Saul is soothed.
- We get the story of David and Goliath, which is famous (although many people don’t actually know the story, they’ve just heard it referred to and think it’s a lesson about how sometimes the weak can defeat the powerful).
- David is no longer just playing the lyre for Saul, he’s now one of the commanders in Saul’s army. A pattern emerges whereby the LORD is obviously with David, giving him success wherever he goes, and Saul starts to get jealous of him.
- This is somewhat ironic, given that David is steadfast and unwavering in his support of Saul as the LORD’s anointed king, but 1 Samuel is making it clear by this point in the story that Saul isn’t in his right mind.
- Saul’s son Jonathan, on the other hand, is fast friends with David. Jonathan seems to believe that the LORD is going to make David king in his father’s place (he’s not wrong), but he supports David in this—which is incredible, because it means David would become king instead of Jonathan!
- The relationship between Saul and David devolves to the point that Saul decides to kill David. David flees, forming a band of soldiers with whom he raids and conquers Israel’s enemies, and much of the remainder of 1 Samuel is taken up with Saul trying to chase David down to kill him and David refusing to lift his arm against the LORD’s anointed.
1 Samuel ends with Saul being killed on the battlefield against the Philistines. (Technically he’s mortally wounded, and takes his own life so that the Philistines can’t kill him.) Jonathan has also been killed in the same battle, so even if he hadn’t been supportive of David, David would have no barriers to becoming king. (Well… few barriers. There will be some light opposition to his kingship, as we’ll see a little later on in 2 Samuel.)
After all of that recap, this passage begins with David learning about Saul’s death2.
While Saul and his men were fighting the Philistines, David himself was fighting the Amalekites with his men. A few days after the fighting has finished a man comes to David, fresh from Saul’s camp, with news: Saul and Jonathan have fallen in battle!
David then asks the man how he knows that Saul and Jonathan are dead, and he gives the story:
“I happened to be on Mount Gilboa,” the young man said, “and there was Saul, leaning on his spear, with the chariots and their drivers in hot pursuit. When he turned around and saw me, he called out to me, and I said, ‘What can I do?’
“He asked me, ‘Who are you?’
“‘An Amalekite,’ I answered.
“Then he said to me, ‘Stand here by me and kill me! I’m in the throes of death, but I’m still alive.’
“So I stood beside him and killed him, because I knew that after he had fallen he could not survive. And I took the crown that was on his head and the band on his arm and have brought them here to my lord.”
Hearing this, David and all of his men go into mourning for Saul, Jonathan, and the nation of Israel (which has lost this battle to the Philistines). But that evening he talks to the messenger again; even though the man had previously stated that he was an Amalekite, David asks him again where he’s from. The man repeats that he’s an Amalekite.
David then asks a very unexpected question:
David asked him, “Why weren’t you afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (verse 14)
David then has one of his men strike the Amalekite down, for his crime of killing “the LORD’s anointed” (i.e. the king).
The main thing that strikes me about this chapter is the constant theme throughout 1+2 Samuel of David’s unwavering support for Saul as the king of Israel—“the LORD’s anointed,” as David keeps referring to him—despite the fact that God has already decreed that David is going to be king. In fact, not just decreed it, He had David anointed, so there’s a sense in which David is already king in the LORD’s eyes.
We might expect David to think that God has anointed him to be king—which is true—and God has taken the kingship away from Saul—which is true—so therefore David can rightfully depose Saul and claim the throne. David didn’t see it that way, however. In David’s mind, God anointed Saul just like He anointed David, so David should therefore not touch Saul, because Saul is God’s anointed king, just like he (David) is. When God is ready for David to take over for Saul, God will make it happen, and in the meantime, for David to kill Saul would be to kill the LORD’s anointed, and David will not do that.
In other words, David had real faith in the LORD. I’m sure it didn’t always seem like the LORD was going to make David king; I’m sure the period during which Saul’s army was chasing David down, seeking to kill him, felt like it had been going on a long time, and there might have been momentary doubts in David’s mind as to whether God had forgotten about him. (There are multiple psalms written by David from that period in his life, if memory serves.) But even if there were momentary doubts, on the whole David had faith that God would do what He wanted, when He was ready to do it, and all David had to do was have faith and wait on the LORD. There were multiple occasions in 1 Samuel in which David could have struck Saul down and didn’t.
Anyone having read all of 1 Samuel, and arriving at this passage, would find it totally in character for David to be mourning Saul instead of rejoicing that he is now officially going to become king.
The ironic part of this passage is that the Amalekite would have assumed he was delivering good news to David. When he informed David that Saul was dead—the obvious implication being that David can now become king, which is why the man brought the crown—he expected David to focus on the “you can be king” part, whereas David focused on the part about the LORD’s anointed being killed.
What’s even more ironic is that the Amalekite is actually lying! In 1 Samuel 31 we see that Saul took his own life, he wasn’t killed by the Amalekite or anyone else. (He’d asked his armour bearer to do it but the man refused, so Saul had to do it himself.) So either the account given in 1 Samuel 31 is incorrect or the Amalekite’s account here is incorrect, and I assume it’s the Amalekite who’s lying—there’s nothing in 1 Samuel 31 to indicate that it might not have happened the way it was reported.
So he came to David making big claims and expecting to be rewarded for removing David’s obstacle to the throne, but he found execution instead.
We sometimes use the word “philistine” in a pejorative sense, essentially meaning “uncivilized” or “uncultured,” but in the time of 1+2 Samuel the Philistines were a people who lived in the same general area as the Israelites, and caused them no end of grief. In fact, the famous giant Goliath, whom David fought, was a Philistine. ↩︎
Remember that 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel were originally just one book, not broken down into two. So from the author’s perspective, this is just a continuation of the same book. ↩︎