2 Samuel 1:17–27: David’s Lament for Saul and Jonathan
In the previous passage David had found out about the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. This passage covers a song David wrote—a “lament”—to mourn their loss. In fact, he made it a formal thing:
David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar): (verses 17–18)
The Book of Jashar isn’t part of the Bible though it apparently exists in some forms, as mentioned by the ESV Study Bible notes:
The Book of Jashar is a non-biblical written source which also included Josh. 10:12–13 and, according to the Septuagint text, Solomon’s poem in 1 Kings 8:12–13.
I’m not good with poetry, but… here’s David’s lament. The text first, followed by thoughts.
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.
This first part—and much of this lament—is obvious even to a person like me, who doesn’t read a lot of poetry. David is lamenting the loss of Israel’s king Saul and David’s friend Jonathan, and he doesn’t want Israel’s enemies to be rejoicing about the very thing he and Israel are mourning; he can’t stand the idea of others rejoicing at the event that is bringing him so much pain. The line “How the mighty have fallen!” will reappear at the end of the poem, bookending it with that phrase, which makes it the main theme (to my eyes).
One thing that I do notice is that the NIV and ESV have very different translations for that first line; “A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel” here in the NIV, vs. “Your glory, O Israel, is slain on your high places!” in the ESV. I might not even have noticed if I hadn’t had the ESV Study Bible notes open, to see if they had anything special to mention about the symbolism of a “gazelle” in poetry only to find that the ESV doesn’t contain the word “gazelle” in the first place. (Then again, I probably didn’t even need to go looking in my commentary because there’s a footnote in the NIV that says, “Gazelle here symbolizes a human dignitary.”)
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.
More poetic language—I guess it’s all poetic language, isn’t it?—where David wishes that the place where Saul and Jonathan perished would no longer be blessed by God.
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.
Here we see David taking a bit of poetic license; the kind of thing that’s typical when we’re talking about someone who’s just died. I don’t know that it would be accurate to describe Saul as being “loved and admired,” and I don’t know that the daughters of Israel at the time would have been thinking that Saul had clothed them in scarlet and finery or adorned their garments with ornaments of gold. Or… maybe they would have? The Biblical account of the end of Saul’s life focuses on his failures to obey God, his descent into madness, and his thirst for David’s blood; perhaps the people might have viewed Saul differently at the time.
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.
I’m sure there are people who interpret this verse in some kind of sexual way, and decide that there had been some kind of homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan. I think it’s exactly the opposite: David seems to be saying that the friendship of Jonathan was better than any sexual relationship could have been. I’m not going to say that it couldn’t be read in a homosexual manner, in which case David would be talking about more than just Jonathan—he’d be saying that homosexuality is even better than heterosexuality—but I don’t think that fits in with what David is talking about in the poem. Instead, David is saying that he truly valued Jonathan’s friendship, as well as Jonathan’s sacrifice—remember that Jonathan had indicated he supported David becoming king, which meant that Jonathan was sacrificing his own claims to the throne, as Saul’s son!
David had many wives and concubines over the course of his life, but none ever sacrificed that much for him.
27 “How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished!”
We could only wish that the weapons of war had perished, but alas, many, many others have fallen in war since Saul and Jonathan’s death.