2 Samuel 1:17-2:7.
 Responding to Life's Losses

Copyright © 2008, American Journal of Biblical Theology
www.biblicaltheology.com   Scripture quotes from KJV

The experience of loss can certainly be one of the most traumatic in our lives.  As we become more and more a part of the society around us we gather items that have great value to us including relationships, property, social or career position, opportunities, or any other manner of things.  Often we tend to define ourselves based upon those things in our lives that we consider of great personal importance.  We also may define the blessings of our lives by the set of important things in our life.

When we place great importance on things, we also accept the risk that they could be lost.  The loss of a close loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of possessions; each loss can bring about a form of suffering.  One might avoid the pain of loss by simply not placing personal importance in those things, but to do so is to rob one’s self of the blessing that close relationships brings.  It is worth embracing closely those things that we value in life, even though we always face the prospect of losing them.  What are some of the things that are very important to you, and would bring pain to you if lost? 

Sometimes loss can bring about significant changes in one’s life, change that can bring with it all manner of fears and anxieties.  Job loss could bring about the need for relocation to a new community, bringing with it the loss of daily interaction with family, friends, and acquaintances.  That same job loss can bring financial challenges and fears of financial strain.  Some people live in fear every day because of the painful potential of loss, or the potential for undesirable changes. 

Much can be said about the character of an individual when they demonstrate their reaction to the loss.  Many were devastated when they lost their homes and possessions to Hurricane Katrina.  The news media was filled with stories of people who suffered great emotional trauma as they projected blame and anger at the government and other around them.  When the next Spring brought wildfires to California, many of those who also lost their multi-million-dollar homes and possessions felt less impacted as they referred to their property as “just stuff,” and simply stated plans to rebuild.  Both events brought total loss, but the response of the cultures was dramatically different.  Many of those who demonstrated strength and peace during the time of loss also testified to their faith.  Faith in God can serve to place the importance of the things of this life in proper perspective.

When our own home caught fire several years ago we were successful in getting our children safely out, and quickly brought the fire under control.  We found ourselves joking with the fire department servicemen about the “wood, hay, and stubble” that was our home.  We had saved that which was really important to us, and would not have been emotionally traumatized had we lost the house.  The firemen told us we were unusual (weird, actually) because of our lack of panic.

God can provide strength and direction at times of difficult loss.  Probably the most difficult loss to is that of a close friend or family member.  The death of Israel’s King Saul and his sons was a devastating blow to David, son of Jesse, who had been anointed by Samuel to succeed Saul.  The closeness of the relationship between David and Saul’s son Jonathan is recorded in the book of 1 Samuel.  David and Jonathan were as close as friends can be.  Each was the other’s trusted friend and confidant.  They trusted each other with their lives.  There was no other individual in David’s life with whom he shared such trust.  Knowing that he would some day succeed Saul, David fully intended that Jonathan would be his “second in command” when succession would take place.

All that changed when Saul and his sons stood against the Philistines at Mount Gilboa.  Saul’s forces were overwhelmed by the larger and better-armed Philistines.  When Saul heard of the death of his sons, including Jonathan, Saul killed himself by falling on his sword rather than allow himself to fall into the hands of his enemy.

David was greatly grieved when word of the battle came to him.  The Amalekite messenger claimed to have killed Saul, thinking that David would reward him.  Instead, the Amalekite was immediately executed for his confessed crime.  David was then overcome by the prospect of the death of the entire royal family of Israel.  Familial succession was not possible, making his anointing to the throne suddenly imminent.  In his grief, David wrote a poetic obituary that is recorded in 1 Samuel 1:19-27 

2 Samuel 1:17-27. 

And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and over Jonathan his son: 18(Also he bade them teach the children of Judah the use of the bow: behold, it is written in the book of Jasher.)

David gave instructions that the poetry that follows would be taught to the people of Judah.  Literally, David instructs the people of Judah to learn this prose.  By learning this passage, the people of Judah would remember and honor their first king Saul and his son Jonathan.  Clearly, David is showing his loyalty and respect to Saul that he also showed even when Saul sought to kill him.  David did not want Saul to go down in history as the king who tried to kill his successor, but rather as the Champion of Israel that he was.  David clearly forgave Saul of his past sins, and honored him in every way possible.  David entitled his poetry, “The Bow,” and included it in the book of Jasher, a non-extant “Book of the Righteous.”  The inclusion of Saul in the Book of the Righteous is another indication of David’s sincere respect for Saul 

2 Samuel 21:19-20. 

The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen! 20Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.

David paints an interesting picture as he refers to the “beauty” or “glory” of Israel.  He uses the same word that refers to an antelope or gazelle.  One envisions a beautiful gazelle, struck down on the mountain slope.  David, recognizing the celebration that the death of this beautiful gazelle brings to the Philistines commands the people of Judah to keep the news and their mourning within the boundaries of Israel so that their pain will not be further heightened by Philistine celebration.

2 Samuel 1:21. 

Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil.

David then speaks a curse upon Mount Gilboa, one that would be repeated continually by each of the people of Judah who learn this poetry.  It was on Mount Gilboa that Saul and his sons fell.  David is assuring that Gilboa would always be known as a place of death.  He first denies its receipt of life-giving water, and then denies its use.  of David’s lament, Gilboa would always be known as a graveyard.  It was probably left fallow because of David’s curse.  In fact, there are no biblical references to Gilboa outside of this reference.   

2 Samuel 1:22-24. 

From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty. 23Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. 24Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights, who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel.

Turning from the graveyard of Gilboa, David turns to words of praise for both Jonathan and Saul.  Certainly, David’s grief over the loss of his friend Jonathan was great.  David’s grief over Saul’s death would be great also, but probably equal to that of Jonathan only because this was also the end of the Saulide dynasty.  Those who remember the death of American President John F. Kennedy may recall this form of grief.

David describes Jonathan and Saul in both elegant and praiseworthy manner.  David lifts up the very best character of their lives, causing Israel to remember them as lovely, pleasant, unified, strong, and skilled.  David also points out how Saul improved the lives of the people of Israel by bringing them the securities of his armies.  Prior to the kingdom, the people were always vulnerable to attacks from neighbors.  Saul formed the first “professional army” that was supported by conscripts from the farms and communities.  This security brought peace and wealth to the communities.

2 Samuel 1:25-26. 

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! O Jonathan, thou wast slain in thine high places. 26I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

It is quite normal for our grief to be expressed by a vacillation between praise and mourning.  We may remember the blessings of the one lost and even laugh as we remember good things, and then soon cry again as the mourning returns.  We see this pattern as David then returns to words of mourning and distress.  David grieved over the loss of the kingdom, but his grief over the loss of Jonathan was far more personal.  Where he earlier referred to the weeping of the women of Judah, he now turns to his own weeping.  He refers to Jonathan as his own brother.

One social characteristic of ancient Israel should be noted at this point.  In modern western society, a person’s spouse is usually the closest “peer, friend, and confidant”[1] in an individual’s sphere of relationships.  This was not the case in the ancient near east.  Women did not own the social status of our modern culture, and were not included in the affairs of the man’s world.  Men depended upon women to provide children and assure the future of the tribe, but did not usually embrace them as they would a best friend.  Consequently, it was common to have multiple wives since none of them even considered that they would be the most important person in their husband’s life.  The husband’s life existed outside the home where peerage was established with other men.  The application of these verses to some form of homosexual encounter is quite erroneous and disregards completely the nature of ancient culture.  David’s adoption of Jonathan as his very best friend and confidant was normal, and would have had no homosexual context at all.

2 Samuel 1:27. 

How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!

David closes the poem with the same words that opened it.  David reminds us of the painful loss that comes from warfare, and in this circumstance, this loss is that of Saul and Jonathan.

The writing of this poem and David’s proclamation of it as a lasting memorial illustrates the nature of the grieving process.  David came to a stark realization of the death of Jonathan and Saul when the Amalekite approached with the testimony of their death and the evidence of their weapons in his hands.  Following the realization of the truth of the news, David then moves on to process this information in a way that works for him.  David is known as a writer of poetry, specifically evident in his writing of many of the Psalms, as well as content for other non-extant literature.  His writing of the poetry is simply his way of putting his feelings in order. 

We may process loss in many different ways, but some form of process needs to take place.  Much has been studies and written about the stages of grief, a sequence of responses to grief that we must encounter in order to deal with difficult issues in a successful manner.  One well-accepted summary of the process of grief resolution was published by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross[2] and can be described by the figure below.

Figure 1.  The Kubler-Ross Grief Cycle

As one studies David’s response to his learning of the death of Jonathan and Saul, we can identify his experiencing several of the stages in this grief cycle.  Kubler-Ross identifies the following steps:

We can see a little bit of each of these stages in the lament.  His opening and closing words are words of shock.  Though we do not note any denial on David’s part, his frustration is certainly evident.  It would appear that, by the time of this writing, David has worked his way through to the acceptance stage as he now looks to the future.

2 Samuel 2:1-3. 

And it came to pass after this, that David inquired of the LORD, saying, Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah? And the LORD said unto him, Go up. And David said, Whither shall I go up? And he said, Unto Hebron. 2So David went up thither, and his two wives also, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess, and Abigail Nabal’s wife the Carmelite. 3And his men that were with him did David bring up, every man with his household: and they dwelt in the cities of Hebron.

Where do I go from here?  This is probably one of the most common questions that accompany grief.  It may rise in the bargaining and depression stages when one is first considering the changes that can come from the loss.  David asks this question as he is coming out of the acceptance stage and is truly looking for God’s purpose in this event.  As he considers the dramatic changes in his own life that Saul’s death will bring, He desires to seek God’s guidance before he even takes his first step.

As David writes, he has been exiled outside of Judah.  David’s question is quite appropriate, “Shall I return now to Judah.”  The threat of Saul’s jealousy and rage has been eliminated.  Is it safe now for his return?  The LORD answers David’s prayer in the affirmative.  Judah was his home territory and it would be there that he would find support as he recognizes that it is the LORD’s intent that he ascend to the throne. 

David also understood the LORD’s will was that he go specifically to Hebron.  Hebron was uniquely prepared for this purpose.  Hebron had been set aside as a special place of safety for those who had been falsely accused of crimes.  It was also set aside as a place for the Aaronic priesthood.[3]  It was a city of Caleb, and one of his wives was the widow of a Calebite,[4] and the home of Abiathar the high priest who had accompanied David in his exile.  The group that descended upon Hebron would have been large, including David’s family and the families of up to 600 soldiers.  The group could have been as large as 2,000 and their settlement would have been too great for Hebron alone, so they settled in the “Cities of Hebron,” or those around the city.

1 Samuel 2:4a. 

And the men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah.

The news of David’s arrival would not have spread slowly.  The nation’s desire for a king certainly had not ebbed, as they had seen how the king can put together an army that will protect their villages and give them some security.  Consequently, it did not take long for the Judean tribal leadership to descend upon Hebron and anoint David to be their king.  It may be useful to note that his kingdom included Judea, one of the twelve tribes of Israel.  He was not anointed king over all Israel at this time, though he understood from the anointing that he received from the prophet Samuel that he would serve the entire nation at some point in his experience.

2 Samuel 2:4b-6. 

And they told David, saying, That the men of Jabeshgilead were they that buried Saul. 5And David sent messengers unto the men of Jabeshgilead, and said unto them, Blessed be ye of the LORD, that ye have showed this kindness unto your lord, even unto Saul, and have buried him. 6And now the LORD show kindness and truth unto you: and I also will requite you this kindness, because ye have done this thing.

The conflict between Saul and David was famous, known by all of Judea and Philistia as well as other neighboring tribes.  The men of Jabesh Gilead, located East of the Jordan River in the land of the tribe of Manasseh, showed both courage and respect for the royal family by their actions.  The average citizen might think that David considered Saul an enemy, and their actions could be considered traitorous by the new king from Bethlehem.  Of course, Saul was not an enemy to David and would find no conflict in the actions of the men of Jabesh Gilead.  In what would be a significant message of reconciliation, David sent messengers to Jabesh Gilead to thank them for treating Saul and his sons with such respect.  David promised that they would always receive kindness from this new king for their brave action.

2 Samuel 2:7. 

Therefore now let your hands be strengthened, and be ye valiant: for your master Saul is dead, and also the house of Judah have anointed me king over them.

David also encouraged the people of Jabesh Gilead at a time when they, too, were mourning the death of their king.  These people would certainly not have received the lament he had just written, and may not know where David stands concerning the death of Saul.  David certainly knows their grief, and blesses them with words such as “hands be strengthened” and “be ye valiant” as these are characteristics that are needed when working through the grief process.

David also lets the people of Jabesh Gilead know that he has been anointed king over Judah, a precursor to his availability to also serve as king over other tribes of Israel, including Manasseh. 

We see in this example how David dealt with the grief of losing his closest friend Jonathan, and the loss of the royal family.  David would have to deal with dramatic changes in his life and in the life of his country directly resulting from this event.  David dealt with his grief by first recognizing and accepting the loss, though its trauma was evident by his execution of the Amalekite messenger.  He worked through his emotions as he wrote the epitaph that he asked by distributed and learned throughout Israel.  He remembered the very best of those whom he lost, and forgave all else.  He then sought God’s direction and purpose as he submit himself to the changes that this event would bring.  Having done so, he then stepped into that new future with confidence and purpose, having been strengthened through this experience rather than being defeated by it.  When we seek the LORD in such times of grief, we can find similar empowerment to find strength rather than defeat, for that is God’s purpose for us.

[1] Bergen, 293.

[2] Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying, Macmillan, NY, 1969

[3] Joshua 21:13.

[4] 1 Samuel 25:3.