How the Mighty Have Fallen

2 Samuel

I. David Learns of the Deaths of Saul and Jonathan.

A. David had attacked Amalekites who had raided the homes of him and his men (1 Samuel 30). Everything had been recovered, and no lives had been lost. David knew that this had been due to the protecting providence of God (30:8, 23). David had returned to Ziklag to seek to restore what had been destroyed by the Amalekite raid (1 Samuel 30:1, 2).

B. On the third day after his return from the battle, he learned that Saul and Jonathan had been killed in a battle with the Philistines (2 Samuel 1:4), and the army of Israel had been scattered.

  1. An Amalekite had escaped from Saul’s camp during the battle and in his flight had come to Mount Gilboa where Saul and his three sons, including Jonathan, had been attacked by the Philistines. His sons were killed and Saul had been pierced by arrows.
  2. At that point 1 Samuel 31:4-6 and 2 Samuel 1: 6-10 differ in the details. There are two explanations for the differences in the narratives.
  • The first is that the Amalekite’s story serves as a more detailed narrative of what actually happened; They can easily be harmonized. After falling on his sword, Saul was as yet not dead. His armor bearer killed himself, thinking Saul dead, and Saul struggled to his feet and leaned on his spear.  The Amalekite appeared and Saul asked him to kill him.
  • The second possibility is that the narrative of 1 Samuel is complete but the Amalekite came upon Saul’s body before the Philistines arrived. He took the crown and the bracelet and concocted the story of his participation in the death of Saul thinking this would please David and give him protection and safety.
  • As he told the story, whether true or invented, he sought to ameliorate the obvious impact on David. When David learned of Saul’s death there was no moment of mirth or of self-vindication, but only a deep sense of loss. The ostensible executioner presented his action as a response to Saul’s request, he looked upon it as an act to put Saul out of his misery, and he brought the symbols of kingship to David, hoping that this would make him glad.
  1. David and his men showed genuine sorrow at the news and mourned, wept, and fasted for Saul and Jonathan, for “the people of the Lord,” and for the “house of Israel.” Saul’s death was not good news to him, but a point of lament for the cause of the Lord and his people.


II. David executed the Amalekite who struck the final blow to Saul. Whether he actually struck the blow, he showed his willingness to do it and demonstrated his complete misunderstanding of David’s attitude toward Saul as the anointed of the Lord (cf 1 Samuel 26: 23, 24). Saul was supposed to have eliminated the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) but did not, and now one of those under the decree of death had taken away the life of God’s anointed. David was pursing obedience to the command of God.


III. David laments the death of Saul and Jonathan. He wanted this lament to be taught to the people of Judah, so that Saul and Jonathan would be remembered with respect and gratitude. It was given the title “The Bow” and was placed in a book of poetry entitled  the “Book of Jashar.”

A. How David kept from any indication of gloating on this occasion is an evidence of great grace and a mature understanding of the sovereignty of God. He could have recalled his impatience and foolishness in making an offering (1 Samuel 13), his rash and unwise demands (1 Samuel 14), Saul’s unfaithfulness to God’s commands (1 Samuel 15), Saul’s attempts to kill David (1 Samuel 18:10, 11; 19:9, 10; 23:15-29), his slaughter of the priests at Nob (1 Samuel 22: 18, 19), his consultation with a necromancer (1 Samuel 28), and his treachery in giving David’s wife Michal to another person (1Samuel 25:44; 2 Samuel 3: 12, 13), or how David spared Saul’s life (1 Samuel 24:16-19; 26:7-11). It would have been easy to focus on the failures, irrationality, cruelty, inconsistency, and hubris of Saul. He did not do that, however, for he recognized that in the plan and providence of God Saul had been used to give a national identity to Israel, give her a place among the nations, protection from hostile aggression of other nations (1 Samuel 11; 14:47-52) and prepare the way for him to be king and for his greatest descendant to reign for ever.

B. He expressed grief in terms of the responses of different peoples (19-21).

  1. He referred to Saul and Jonathan as “the beauty of Israel.” Saul was a truly impressive man physically (1 Samuel 10:23, 24) and a forceful leader. As he will mention subsequently, he was brave and adept in battle. Jonathan had all the elements of true greatness: bravery and skill, dependence on God, balance and maturity of judgment, and a spirit of self-sacrificing friendship.
  2. Not only have they lost their lives, Israel lost their splendid display of manhood and leadership, their willingness to risk all for the sake of the well-being of the nation. “The beauty of Israel is slain on your high places.”
  3. The perpetual enemies of Israel, the paradigm of uncovenanted people, the Philistines would find reason to rejoice. David felt deep remorse at the glee that would fill the temples of idol worshippers at the death of the Lord’s anointed. Indeed, they beheaded him, stripped him of his armor and placed it in the temples of their sex-goddesses, and proclaimed this word of his humiliation in the temples of their idols (1 Samuel 31:8-10. Precisely what David feared and rhetorically resisted—“Tell it not in Gath . . . lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice”—was being done in that very moment.
  4. Though David did not literally call for perpetual sterility and drought on the mountains of Gilboa (21), he wanted it to be remembered as the sight of a tragic event. Saul’s death was no joy to David, he felt no sense of triumph. It was there that Saul’s shield was taken away, displayed as a token of favor from pagan deities, and treated as if Saul had not been anointed with the oil of kingship over Israel (“not anointed with oil”). Although Antony’s brilliant speech began with the air of irony and facetiousness in it, David was unwilling to utter the words concerning Saul, though he too knew such would be the tendency: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” David would remind the people and have it set in perpetuity as a song to be recalled so that it could be said, “You all did love him once, and not without cause.”

C. He celebrates the courage, strength and prowess of Saul and Jonathan (22, 23). David wanted a song established in perpetuity that celebrated the great victories and litheness in battle of the father and son.

  1. As Jonathan’s bow had warned David of a plot of Saul against him (1 Samuel 20:35-40), and as Jonathan had even given to David his bow (1 Samuel 18:4), so the bow of Jonathan had been victorious in many a battle for Israel. “From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back.”
  2. Though Saul had fallen on his own sword, David does not put into song that tragic end, but points to the courageous leadership and success of Saul in defeating enemies of Israel: “And the sword of Saul did not return empty.” Saul reigned for forty years and much of his reign is summarized in the words, “When Saul had taken the kingship over Israel, he fought against all his enemies on every side . . . Wherever he turned he routed them. And he did valiantly and struck the Amalekites and delivered Israel out of the hands of those who plundered them” (1 Samuel 14:47, 48). David’s thought was dominated, not by the wrong that Saul did to him, but the good that he did for Israel.
  3. Again, David does not point to moments of bitterness in the relation of Saul and Jonathan (1 Samuel 14:41-44; 20:30-35) but speaks of them as “beloved and pleasant in their lives,” and saw them as united in a greater good by dying together in a battle against the Philistines (“And in their death they were not divided”). He also knew very well that they were masters at combat and had survived against great odds on many occasions (1 Samuel 14:1-23). Their tragic deaths on this occasion at the hands of the Philistines should not diminish the luster of their prowess, alacrity, and consummate skill in battle.

D. He reminds Israel of the prosperity made possible by the reign of Saul.

  1. The women of Israel loved their colorful fabrics, and their ornaments of gold, but probably knew little of the cost of diligence, danger,and risk of destruction that had allowed those luxuries. The internal stability, the industry, the trade patterns, the spoils of battle largely were the result of the aggressive industry of Saul and his counselors. Unlike the rejoicing of the “daughters of the uncircumcised,” the “daughters of Israel” were to “weep over Saul.”
  2. It is frequently the occasion that a prosperous people have little knowledge of the foundation of security that has allowed them to prosper. The centuries of theological discussion upon which political theory among western nations was developed resulted, as the best political and economic fruit of those discussions, the Constitution of the United States of America. Religious freedom and liberty of conscience are fundamental to the freedom of the press, the freedom of speech, and the right of the people peaceably to assemble. We should learn all we can of the foundations of our freedoms in order to protect them and to detect tendencies that would destroy those foundations.
  3. Likewise, the doctrinal confessions and ecclesiological development of Baptist life have come, often at great cost, but always through long and careful writing, thinking, and biblical discussion. Our views of biblical truth, our confessions of biblical doctrine, our united attempts at gospel missions, and our calls for personal and corporate holiness ride along on the backs of many who have suffered much at the hands of opposing forces. We should not dismiss their contributions without understanding the character of their convictions and the providential arrangements that made them valuable for the growth of God’s larger purpose among his people.
  4. We should neither elide their errors into their strengths and in dismissing the one criticize and destroy the other. We must not be so personally offended by their errors that we abominate their persons and their helpful insights into the truth, power, and glory of God. We should not let the good that they do be interred with their bones.
  5. Also, we must take seriously the admonition of Paul, that in correcting others, we should take heed to ourselves lest we also be tempted (Galatians 6:1, 2).
  • The temptation to take the ground of moral superiority when we detect weakness, inconsistency, or sin in others often drives us to give the impression that always we would have had the right views untarnished by human misjudgment or cultural pressures and would have made the right decision. “If I had been Augustine, I would not have justified the use of the sword against the Donatists; if I were Charlemagne, I would not have acted on this Augustinian principle and sought the conversion of the Saxons through the sword; if I had been Zwingli, I would not have allowed the drowning of Anabaptists; if I had been Calvin, I would not have approved of the execution of heretics; if I had been a white southerner in 1859, I would certainly have supported the abolitionist cause. I am morally superior to all of them, and because they endorsed errors, we should make an inextricable connection between their error and their apparent virtues and correct views of truth  and cast all of them away. After all, you can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s snout.”
  • David teaches us that it is possible to embrace the advantages of another’s personal gifts, to celebrate their strengths, to acknowledge the places in which they contributed to the cause of God and truth, and to keep a clear head on those things that were positive and in accord with biblical truth even though we know of serious failures in other areas.
  • Sometimes, moreover, we might even learn to concede that they are more righteous than we and that we, not they, are the ones who have made the present pressure of culture our source of authority rather than the Scripture.

E. He records his great love for Jonathan. Jonathan and David experienced an unusual bond of friendship.

  1. There is a consistent witness to this transcendent friendship in many places in 1 Samuel. In 18:1-4 we read that “Jonathan and David made a covenant because he loved him as his own soul.” In 19: 1 we read, “But Jonathan, Saul’s son delighted greatly in David.” Chapter 20:17 reads, “Now Jonathan again caused David to vow, because he loved him; for he loved him as he loved his own soul.” At their final meeting, the text (20:41, 42) says, “As soon as the lad had gone, David arose from a place toward the south, fell on his face to the ground, and bowed down three times. And they kissed one another; and they wept together, but David more so. Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace, since we have both sworn in the name of the Lord saying, “May the Lord be between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants, forever.”’ So he arose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city.”
  2. This friendship endured though Jonathan’s father had developed both a fear and hatred of David. Also Saul knew that David would supplant Jonathan as king and said, “As long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, you shall not be established, nor your kingdom. Now therefore, send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die” (1 Samuel 20:31).
  3. Certainly David was distressed at having lost such a friend. That the entire song has built to this point shows that the most grievous part of this to David is the loss of Jonathan. For the third time he says, therefore, “How the mighty have fallen” (19, 25, 27).
  • He called him brother. He was at least as dear to him as his own brothers by blood.
  • But this was even more precious for it was voluntary on both their parts and sealed by covenant. It involved Jonathan’s surrendering to David the symbols of his own heritage of kingly descent (1 Samuel 18:3, 4).
  • Even though their lives and relationship were filled with tension and danger, David could testify, on the basis of the superlative quality of friendship per seand the particular value of theirs, “You have been very pleasant to me.”
  • When he says, “Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women,” he refers to the covenantal, self-sacrificial quality of that love. In marriage, the love of a man for a woman is that he must be willing to lay down his life for her. She is to be protected by him, as she respects him, and loves him, and is submissive to him. He is to play the part of Christ to her. In Jonathan, David found a type of the redeemer, one who would give his soul in ransom for his people; one who, like the Christ to come, out of the great love with which he loved us, died in our place. Though Jonathan knew that David would become king, and not he, he harbored no jealousy but sought to make the way clear for David; he sacrificed his own position, the favor of his father, and submitted the well-being of his house to the word and kindness of David.


IV. David Begins his reign. David begins his reign in a relatively small way but in perfect reliance on the guidance of the Lord.

A. He inquired of the Lord and did exactly as the Lord told him (2 Samuel 2:1).

B. Only the tribe of Judah accepted David as king in the initial stage of his reign. This condition lasted for seven and one-half years.

C. His efforts to show deference to Jabesh Gilead for their kindness to the bodies of Saul and his sons, were met with resistance from Abner, the commander of Saul’s army who believed that the proper succession should be to Ishbosheth, the forty year old son of Saul.

D. Thus we have seen the first actions and gracious judgments of a man who was complex in his makeup. He already has shown cunning, courage, compassion, and a diverse range of emotions. He has shown his subjection to impulse and the ability to listen to reason and be corrected. To be chosen of God leads to a life of deep responsibility, deep conviction, deep repentance, and often intense sorrow. This calling shows in a brighter light the failings and sins of those who are called of God and are bold to speak for his truth; it also leads to the confidence that the Lord restores our soul and that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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