Saul and Jonathan: Beloved and Lovely

Although many readers of the books of Samuel read around them, the books as a whole are structured around three longer blocks of poetry. The first of these, Hannah’s Song, is in 1 Samuel 2:1 – 10 and reflects the way in which God brought Hannah hope. But it also points the way forward in Samuel, because although Samuel himself is the answer to Hannah’s prayer, Hannah’s Song ends with reference to the arrival of kingship. It celebrates that God will exalt the power (literally ‘horn’) of his anointed. This reference takes on a future perspective, looking to see what God will do to bring his king to the throne and what that king will be like.

The second major poetic piece occurs in 2 Samuel 1:19 – 27. It comes at the end of an extended narrative that has run since 1 Samuel 16:1 when Samuel was sent to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to become king in place of Saul. Samuel did not know it, and indeed almost missed God’s point when he was impressed by David’s eldest brother Eliab, but the one God had chosen was David himself. That this was so is not only indicated by God telling Samuel to anoint him, but also because the Spirit is said to have come upon David from that time forward (1 Samuel 16:13). Although David was an important member within Saul’s household from quite early, establishing himself as a warrior following his defeat of Goliath (1 Samuel 17), it did not take long for problems to arise. In particular, although Saul’s son Jonathan saw David’s importance, once people celebrating victory seemed to Saul to attribute more to David than him then their relationship went into a downward spiral (1 Samuel 18:8 – 9). So bad was this that, even when Saul offered David the chance to marry his daughter Michal after David declined the opportunity to marry her older sister Merab, it was really an attempt to have David killed by the Philistines. Saul set the bride price at one hundred Philistine foreskins, and since we can reasonably assume that they would not have given these voluntarily, he must have reasoned that at least one of the Philistines would kill David first. Instead, because God was with David, he delivered not one hundred Philistine foreskins but two hundred (1 Samuel 18:27).

But this was not to be a stable family, and although Jonathan continued to show his loyalty to David, even he was eventually forced to recognise that Saul’s intention was to kill David (1 Samuel 20). From this point on, David became an outlaw, first in the wilderness in the south of Judah, and eventually moving across to Philistine territory where he managed to fool Achish, the king of Gath, into thinking that he was working for him when in reality he continued to have Israel’s interests at heart. In the end, when the Philistines and Israel were gathering for war it seemed as if David’s cleverness would trap him and he would have to fight against Israel, only for the other Philistine leaders to show more suspicion than Achish and insist that he return to the rear (1 Samuel 29:4 – 5). What David could not know was that even as he was returning to his base at Ziklag in the south, Saul was preparing for battle by seeing a spirit-mistress at Endor and hearing from Samuel’s shade that God was about to judge him so that he and his sons would die on the one day (1 Samuel 28:3 – 25 – note that these events actually occur after those of chapter 29). As Samuel had announced, Saul was indeed killed at the battle, though in the end he died at his own hand rather than directly from the Philistines, falling on his sword when his kit bearer refused to kill him (1 Samuel 31:4).

David was well to the south when Saul died, and it took several days for word to reach him, coming via an Amalekite who presented a slightly embroidered story in which he claimed to have slain Saul in a mercy killing, obviously expecting some reward from David. What the Amalekite cannot have known was that David had both refused to kill Saul himself (1 Samuel 24) and to allow someone to do it on his behalf (1 Samuel 26), so his confession ran counter to all that David had insisted on, since Saul too was the Lord’s anointed. The Amalekite’s claims amounted to a confession of regicide, and even if he had not actually committed the deed, the only reward David could give him was execution.

In spite of all that had happened, David was clearly touched by the deaths of Jonathan and Saul (though Jonathan’s brothers do not appear in David’s lament) and he not only composed a lament for them, he instructed that the lament be written in one of Israel’s collections of sacred poems known as the book of Jashar so that Judah would learn about harsh realities (2 Samuel 1:18 – note that the translation of this verse is very difficult) because even having God with you is no means of avoiding loss and pain. It is this poem, which comes out of a time of personal and national tragedy that is the pivot for the whole of the books of Samuel. It is this lament which closes off the account of how David rose to the throne and prepares for the narrative of how he served as king.

David laments for both Saul and Jonathan together, though his words are directed to Israel as a people because they must understand as a nation that they have suffered a great loss. The extent of this loss is evident from the refrain “How the mighty warriors have fallen” which occurs in verses 19, 25 and 27. The mighty have fallen low, but they are slain on the high places, on the hills which should have provided them with a degree of security against the Philistine forces. This news is something Israel must keep to itself, and which must not be told to the Philistines (cf. Micah 1:10), but it must still be known. The nation as a whole has lost something special with the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, and they cannot be replaced.

It is important that, in spite of all that had happened, David laments over both Saul and Jonathan equally. It is easy to lament over the loss of those who are our friends and who have meant much to us. It is much harder, especially in a public role, to lament sincerely for those who were our enemies, especially for someone like Saul who had spent the second half of his reign seeking to kill David. For all that, although it is full of grace towards Saul, emphasising that he was swift and powerful, there is still a sense that David’s own sense of loss for Jonathan is greater as one whose love and friendship exceeded that of any relationship with women. But what he makes the nation know through all of this is that in the end no king is a guarantee of safety. Their contributions together should be noted, but there is always something more that is needed, and David’s own reign will be no different in that respect.

Hannah’s Song had looked forward to the coming of kingship, and David’s lament both looks back on the first experiment while hinting at the way forward. It looks back with fondness, but knows that Saul’s reign had failed because Saul did not see submission to God as the primary task for an Israelite king. The nation, too, had failed. When they asked for a king, it was so he might lead them in battle (1 Samuel 8:19 – 20), but these kings could not do this. It is these things which must be learnt. But knowing what has gone wrong in the past, and knowing that David too is the Lord’s anointed, the lament can look forward in that once the lessons of the past have been learnt it is possible to shape new ways into the future. That future now lay with David, but he too could only succeed if he, like the nation as a whole, learnt the lesson of the past. Security lay not in having a king, but in submission to God as the one who truly reigns through his king.