Jonathan & David: David’s Lament
Key Passages: 1 Samuel 31, 2 Samuel 1

By Bruce L. Gerig

Saul and Jonathan are killed – In 1 Sam 31 we read about Saul’s final battle and death (31:1-7) and of what followed (31:8-13). Then 2 Sam 1 describes David’s receiving the news of this from a messenger (1:1-16) and the lament he composed to honor the fallen heroes and express his personal loss (1:17-27). In these two chapters, four responses are described to Saul’s death – by the Philistines (1 Sam 31:8-10), by the citizens of Jabesh-gilead (31:11-13), by the Amalekite messenger (2 Sam 1:2-10), and finally by David himself (1:11-27).1 Initially the Philistines gathered for battle against Israel at Shunem (28:4), a town located a few miles NW of the Jezreel Valley, which extended westward from the Jordan River and was located c. 18 miles SW of the Sea of Chinnereth (later called the Sea of Galilee). Meanwhile, Saul gathered his forces at the spring of Jezreel (29:1), also the name of a crossroads town c. 4 miles S of Shunem on the northern edge of Mount Gilboa, a ridge of limestone peaks that bordered the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley and rose to a height of some 1,640 feet.2 The Philistines no doubt started the battle by charging across the open valley with their formidable chariots and horsemen (2 Sam 1:6), whereupon Saul and his lightly-armed troops scrambled up the rugged slopes of Mount Gilboa to seek a better advantage.3 However, the Philistines followed on their heels and soon killed Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua (Saul’s three sons who were present, 1 Sam 31:2).4 Early on, many of Israel’s farmer-soldiers fled or were killed (13:1), leaving Saul’s elite guard to fight on to the end, so that “all his men died together” (31:6). Then the Philistine archers hit Saul so that he “was badly wounded” (31:3, NRSV), or as Kyle McCarter prefers, “was wounded in the belly,” drawing on the Septuagint Greek (LXXB).5 Saul then asks his armor-bearer to take his sword and end his life, but the aide is too terrified to do it. So Saul (somehow) falls on his own blade (31:4). The king had learned several days earlier during his visit to the medium at En-Dor (28:7-25, who called forth the ghost of Samuel) that he and his sons would be killed in this battle (v. 19); still, he leads his men against the enemy and so dies a heroic, if finally self-inflicted, death, rather than to let the Philistines get hold of a living, captured Saul.6 It should be noted that the narrator has imagined the dialogue here between the king and his aide, since no one survived from the scene to recount it. After the battle, the Philistines triumphantly controlled the entire Jezreel Valley, cutting off the southern tribes from the northern tribes and leaving only the Judean hill country in the south as uncontested Israelite territory.7

The next day the Philistines returned to the battlefield, as was customary, to strip the dead of weapons8 and whatever else was of value. They may have identified Saul by his tall size and special armor,9 or perhaps they brought along an Israelite prisoner to help them identify the king10 and his sons. Saul’s head was carried off to be hung as a trophy of war in the temple of Dagon (1 Chron 10:10) and his armor was displayed in the temple of the Ashteroth (lit. “[the] goddesses,” 1 Sam 31:10). In excavations at Beth Shan, two temples were found on level V (c. 11th cent. B.C.) dedicated to the god Resheph and the goddess Antit, respectively; and archaeologist Alan Rowe believes that these were the temples of “Dagon” and “Ashteroth,” where Saul’s head and armor were put on display.11 Beth Shan, located on the E edge of the Jezreel Valley, was an old, important Canaanite city which controlled the N-S and E-W trade routes in the area.12 Very likely Jonathan and his brothers were beheaded as well.13 Since David earlier had done essentially the same thing to the Philistines’ champion14 – presenting Goliath’s head to King Saul, then later displaying it in Jerusalem, while the giant’s sword was placed in the Lord’s tabernacle at Nob (1 Sam 17:50-57, 21:9) – he surely must have known what would befall his beloved Jonathan’s body, a realization that added to his shock. Then the bodies of Saul and his sons were hung exposed on the wall (1 Sam 31:10) in the public square (2 Sam 21:12) in Beth Shan, where birds of prey (vultures, buzzards and the like)15 no doubt gathered, attracted by the smell. The people of Canaan greatly feared these meat-eating birds; remember, for example, how Abraham had to drive these creatures away from his sacrifice (Gen 15:9-11).16

However, the men of Jabesh in Gilead (a region E of the Jordan River, between the Sea of Chinnereth and the Salt Sea/Dead Sea) remembered how Saul early in his reign had bravely saved them from the Nahash the Ammonite, who had threatened to enslave them and gouge out their right eyes (1 Sam 11:1-11). So, during the night, they secretly traveled to Beth Shan (c. 10 miles N), forced their way into the city, retrieved the royal bodies, and carried them back to Jabesh (31:12). They did the unusual practice in Israel of burning the flesh off the bones, probably to rid them of the defilement by pagan hands, as well as to prevent any re-capture and further abuse.17 Also, decomposition would have quickly set in, aided by the birds’ ravages; and burning the bodies would obliterate this disfigurement.18 Then the royal bones were buried under a well-known tamarisk tree (eshel),19 where there was probably a cemetery20 and which was regarded as a sacred place (cf. Gen 21:33). In 1 Chron 10:12, this tree is called an oak (NRSV, ela); however, both terms specify an evergreen species, which seldom, if ever, would have lost its greenness and shade; and so this would have been considered a special site.21

David hears the news – Earlier, Achish, king of the Philistine city of Gath, had given David and his men the country town of Ziklag for their home (1 Sam 27:3-7), located c. 40 miles SW of Gibeah, Saul’s capital, and c. 85 miles S of Mount Gilboa. With a major battle approaching, Achish had asked David to fight with the Philistines against Saul (28:1-3); and although David appears willing enough on the surface, surely his respect for Saul as the Lord’s anointed and his love for Jonathan would have made him very conflicted about such a mission. Fortunately, other Philistine commanders strongly objected to having Israelites in their midst; and so David and his men were sent back to Ziklag (ch. 29). To his horror, however, David then discovered that Amalekite nomads, who lived in the desert south of Judah and who had been Israel’s longtime enemies,22 had attacked Ziklag, set his city ablaze, and carried off all of its inhabitants. Hot on their pursuit, David finally locates the bandits – feasting, drinking and dancing – and he and his men kill most of them and recover their women, children, flocks and spoils, which they return to Ziklag (1 Sam 30). So, perhaps by Divine providence, no one from Saul’s tribe of Benjamin (or anyone else) could claim that David had had anything to do with Saul’s death.23 Also, we should note that David has already been through a lot emotionally, when he receives the gut-wrenching news that Jonathan has been killed, along with Saul.

The books of 1-2 Samuel in the Hebrew were originally one scroll, the division being introduced later by the translators of the Greek Septuagint. Yet they could not have picked a better division point, since Saul’s death in 1 San 31 changes everything; and 2 Sam 1:1–5:10 then follows the awkward, bloody transition from Saul’s death to David’s ascension to the throne in Jerusalem.24 In 2 Sam 1, we are told how the news is brought to David by an Amalekite messenger (surprisingly enough), who had “escaped from the camp of Israel” (1:3, NRSV) and then traveled three days to reach David in Ziklag (1:1-2).25 As a foreigner living in Israel (1:13), perhaps he was a mercenary soldier26 or he had been assigned a job to do at Israel’s army camp.27 Whatever the case, many of the details of Amalekite’s story of Saul’s death (2 Sam 1:6-10) differ from those given in the narrator’s earlier version (1 Sam 31:1-6). Interpreters now generally agree that this messenger invented a good bit of his tale about killing Saul in order to gain favor with the most powerful man in Judah28 and perhaps a large reward, as well.29 He tells David how he wandered upon Saul on Mount Gilboa, who begged him to kill him, saying “for convulsions have seized me” (1:9, NRSV) or “My head is swimming” (1:9, NJB) – and so he obliged, as an act of mercy.30 However, David receives this not as happy but as horrible news; and, in fact, the messenger’s lies will cost him his life (2 Sam 1:14-16).31 It is true that this plunderer had gotten to the battlefield before the Philistines, because he brought to David the king’s “crown” and “armlet” (1:10, NRSV), the first probably a royal fillet (thin head-band) that could easily be worn in battle32 and the second a bracelet (McCarter)33 or arm-band (CEV) – and both objects surely made of gold. David, who had spent time at court, probably recognized both of these royal insignia (symbols) as belonging to Saul.34 Upon hearing the news, David and his men tear their clothes in traditional mourning custom (1:11, cf. 1:2) and they weep and fast until evening.

The public memorial service – David then composed a eulogy (a speech or writing in praise of someone or something), which he must have sung himself at the public memorial gathering held at Ziklag to honor Israel’s fallen heroes.35 The lyrics were recorded in the Book of Jashar (“of the Upright”), a kind of Book of Golden Deeds;36 and are also given to us in 2 Sam 1:19-27. Aage Bentzen has charged David with insincerity in his praise here for Saul (who had hunted him like an animal); but as William McKane notes, one cannot expect criticism and discord to be introduced into an elegy37 (a poem or song written to lament and praise the dead38), particularly one delivered in public to mark the passing of Israel’s first king, the Lord’s anointed – along with the crown prince. (Apparently Jonathan’s brothers were so undistinguished that they did not warrant any special mention.) Anyway, David is generous in his tribute to Saul, remembering only those qualities in the king that had inspired devotion and admiration.39 Moreover, what a poem this is! C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch (1950) have called it “one of the finest odes [song lyrics] in the Old Testament,40 Barbara Green (2003) “the most beautiful stretch of language in the Bible,”41 and J.P. Fokkelman (1986) “a pearl of Hebrew poetry”42 – as one might expect from “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam 23:1, KJV). Read the poem slowly and out loud (2 Sam 1:17-27), for it is lyrical and moving not only in the Hebrew but in translated English. After a brief introduction (v. 17-18), the lament itself divides into two parts, which Francisco García-Treto (1993) has called a “public” part (v. 19-25a) and a “private” part (1:25b-27). In the first part, we are given “a dazzling kaleidoscopic effect of multiple views and multiple responses to the death of the fallen gibborim [‘warriors’],” while in the second part we are granted “an anguished intimate revelation of David’s grief for Jonathan.”43 The poem begins and ends and is divided into its two sections by a refrain, which repeats a “how” statement (characteristic of Israelite lamentation44): “How the mighty have fallen” (v. 19, 25a, 27).

In the opening stanza 1 (v. 19), David sees “the land humiliated, deprived of its pride and ornament, the dead everywhere up there” on Mount Gilboa. It is such a terrible sight that he can only look at it briefly, then turn away to speak of it indirectly.45 In stanza 2 (v. 20), the pain of defeat is intensified, however, by the thought of singing and dancing in the enemy camp; David imagines messengers on their way westward to disseminate the news, whom he fiercely (but fruitlessly) prohibits from doing so. In stanza 3 (v. 21), the poet returns to Mount Gilboa, site of the massacre, where he calls for the landscape “to wither and stay scorched just like Saul’s [leather] shield,” which still lies there and will never again be rubbed with oil to keep it in good condition. Although only the Almighty can do this, the wish expresses “David’s impotent need for revenge.”46 In stanza 4 (v. 22), the royal pair are praised and their successes in battle commemorated, turning from the present horror to remember past better days. J.P. Fokkelman understands this verse to say that Saul and Jonathan “were wont [accustomed] to be successful on the battlefield, so that their weapons became drunk ‘with the blood [life] of the slain and with the fat [power] of warriors’” who attacked Israel – although even this still sounds like exaggeration, since the Philistines remained in control of much of Israel’s land. In stanza 5 (v. 23), David honors the king and crown prince further, who stood shoulder to shoulder, are equally loved, and had fought against Israel’s enemies together to the death.47 In stanza 6 (v. 24), David calls upon the women of Israel (who had benefited from Saul’s spoils of war) to weep for Saul, contrasting with (and hopefully drowning out) the jubilant women of Philistia (v. 20). In stanza 7 (v. 25), “How the mighty have fallen” reappears as a refrain, while at the same time David comes to the climax of the poem, turning his attention to the loss of his bosom friend. There is no particular warmth in David’s speaking about Saul (v. 24) – in fact, he had called upon a third party (Israel’s women) to commemorate him; but when his attention turns to Jonathan, in stanza 8 (v. 26), David speaks “extremely personally, very intensely and very warmly to Jonathan,” presenting us with a “me” face-to-face address to “you”48 – from lover to beloved. Stanza 9 (v. 27) then ends the lament by repeating the refrain a final time.

Of special interest, of course, is David’s lament for Jonathan (v. 26). Typical of early commentators, Stanley Gevirtz (1963) goes into great detail analyzing every other stanza in this poem, but when he comes to v. 26, he writes, “Just as the Israelite women who had benefited from Saul’s munificence [generosity] were called upon to weep, so David mourns, confessing the gift of Jonathan’s friendship.” – only a single sentence.49 Marvin Pope (1976) acknowledges more openly, “The friendship of David and Jonathan has provoked suspicion because of the line in David’s lament, ‘Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’ (II Sam. 1:26). Whether there was any sexual involvement in the intimacy with Jonathan, David’s heterosexual character is well attested and his ample experience with women enhances the tribute to Jonathan’s love.”50 Yet Jonathan Kirsch (2000) writes more boldly, “[T]he passion in David’s elegy cannot be overlooked, and the plainspoken references [here] to love between men cannot so easily be explained away.”51

David’s address to Jonathan contains three beautiful lines: The first line, “I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan” (1:26a, NRSV), reveals to us, writes Robert Gordon, “a particularly intense affection … shown toward Jonathan” by David, in addressing the prince as “my brother.”52 Susan Ackerman notes “the well-known tendency in ancient Near Eastern literature to sometimes use the terms brother and sister euphemistically [indirectly] to refer to a beloved and/or to the object of one’s sexual desire.”53 Further, the Hebrew word sarar (“am distressed,” #6887) comes from a word meaning “to cramp,” in a literal or figurative sense (Strong);54 and this points to “the pinching or pressure of the heart consequent upon pain and mourning” which David is feeling.55 Here the real cause of David’s intense grief is revealed, in unfettered words. The second line, “greatly beloved were you to me” (1:26b, NRSV), contains the word na‘im (#5276), which means “to be pleasant, delightful, lovely.”56 This word can also designate physical beauty; and, in fact, a related old Aramaic word is sometimes translated as “my darling” (Brown).57 Then me‘od (#3966), meaning “wholly, exceedingly, very much so” (Strong),58 underscores the intensity of David’s love for Jonathan, which is here expressed openly for the first time in the Biblical story. The third and final line, “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (1:26c, NRSV), not only compares David’s and Jonathan’s same-sex love with the love between a man and a woman, but says that Jonathan’s love was more “wonderful” (pala, #6381) to him than the heterosexual love of any woman. Walter Brueggeman writes of the words “pleasant [NRSV: ‘beloved’]” and “lovely [NRSV: ‘wonderful’]” that the first here denotes physical attractiveness, a trait Jonathan shared with David, and the second an elemental devotion, a feeling that both men felt toward each other.59 Moreoever, “passing” (NRSV) or “more than” (NJB) points to Jonathan’s love being “greater, more wonderful, more marvelous” than the heterosexual relationships and sex David had experienced with the three women he had married, Michal (1 Sam 18:27), Abigail (25:40-42), and Ahinoam (25:43). Evidently David did not find the pleasure, comfort, solace, support, and oneness with any of these women, as he had found in Jonathan’s arms.

A Closer Look at David’s Lament (Part 1)

FOOTNOTES: 1. Green, B., p. 435ff.    2. Cf. Anderson, p. 7; additional Philistine forces also massed at Aphek (29:1), c. 22 miles NW of Shunem.    3. Cartledge, p. 339.    4. Ishbaal/Ishbosheth, Saul’s other son, was not at the battle, probably by design; later he will surface as a contender for the throne of Israel, 2 Sam 2:8-10a.   5. McCarter 1980, p. 439.    6. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 623,627,630.    7. Cartledge, p. 341.    8. Gordon, p. 203.    9. Brueggemann 1990, p. 208.    10. Cartledge, p. 342.    11. Youngblood, p. 800.    12. Ackroyd 1971, p. 229.    13. Cf. Blaikie, p. 437. 14. Gordon, p. 203.    15. Cf. Waltke, B.K., “Abomination, Birds of,” ISBE I(1979), p. 14.    16. Cartledge, p. 342.    17. McKane, p. 173-74.    18. Hertzberg, p. 233.    19. Smith, H., p. 253.    20. Breuggemann 1990, p. 209.    21. Robinson, p. 151-52; Harrison, R.K., “Tamarisk,” ISBE IV(1988), p. 725.    22. McCarter 1984, p. 58.    23. Cartledge, p. 351.    24. Ibid., p. 349-50.    25. Youngblood, p. 805.    26. Cartledge, p. 351.    27. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 641.    28. McCarter 1984, p. 59,62-63.    29. Cartledge, p. 352-53.    30. Ibid., p. 352.    31. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 645.    32. Anderson, p. 8.    33. McCarter 1984, p. 55.    34. Youngblood, p. 807. 35. Webster’s New World College Dictionary; Fokkelman II(1986), p. 648.    36. Kirkpatrick, p. 247.    37. McKane, p. 180.   38. Webster’s New World College Dictionary.    39. McKane, p. 180.    40. Keil & Delitzsch, p. 288.    41. Green, B., p. 440.    42. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 649.    43. García-Treto, p. 57.    44. Cf. Robinson, p. 157.    45. Cf. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 659; note, however, that the numbering of stanzas here is the author’s, and not Fokkleman’s.   46. Ibid., p. 659-60,662-63.    47. Ibid., p. 663-65,667.    48. Ibid., p. 669-71.    49. Gevirtz, p. 95.    50. Pope, Marvin, “Homosexuality,” IDB:SV, p. 416.  51. Kirsch, p. 130.    52. Gordon, p. 210.    53. Ackerman, p. 190.    54. Strong, #6887.    55. Keil & Delitzsch, p. 291-92.    56. Strong, #5276.    57. Brown, p. 653.    58. Strong, #3966.    59. Brueggeman 1990, p. 216-17.

Ackerman, Susan, When Heroes Love, 2005.
Ackroyd, Peter, The First Book of Samuel, 1971.
Anderson, A.A., 2nd Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 1989.
Blaikie, W.G., The First Book of Samuel, 1898.
Brown, Francis, et al., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 2000 ed.
Brueggemann, Walter, First and Second Samuel: Interpretation, 1990.
Cartledge, Tony, 1 & 2 Samuel (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 2001.
Fokkelman, J.P., Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. II: The Crossing Fates (I Sam. 13-31 & II Sam. 1), 1986.
García-Treto, Francisco, “A Mother’s Paean, A Warrior’s Dirge; Reflections on the Use of Poetic Inclusions in the Books of Samuel,” Shofar 11, 2 (1993), p. 51-64.
Gevirtz, Stanley, Patterns in the Early Poetry of Israel, 1963.
Gordon, Robert, 1 & 2 Samuel: A Commentary, 1986.
Green, Barbara, How Are the Mighty Fallen? A Dialogical Study of King Saul in 1 Samuel, 2003.
Hertzberg, Hans, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, 1964.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vols. I-IV, 1979-88.
Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: Supplementary Volume, 1976.
Keil, C.F., and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, 1950.
Kirkpatrick, A.F., The First and Second Books of Samuel, 1930.
Kirsch, Jonathan, King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, 2000.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr., I Samuel (Anchor Bible), 1980.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr., II Samuel (Anchor Bible), 1984.
McKane, William, I & II Samuel: Introduction and Commentary, 1963.
Robinson, Gnana, Let Us Be Like the Nations: A Commentary on the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel (International Theological Commentary), 1993.
Smith, Henry Preserved, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, 1899.
Strong, James, “Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary” and “Greek Dictionary of the New Testament,” in Strong’s Abingdon’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., 2002.
Youngblood, Ronald, “1, 2 Samuel,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. III, 1992, p. 551-1104.

TRANSLATIONS: Contemporary English Version, 1995.    King James Version, 1611.    New Jerusalem Bible, 1998.    New Revised Standard Version, 1989.


© 2006 Bruce L. Gerig

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