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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on 2 Samuel

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(2 Sam 1:1–27 ) David's Mourning for Saul and Jonathan

Before proceeding to events concerned with the succession to Saul's throne, there is an account of how his death was reported to David, and then his reaction to the loss of Saul and Jonathan. This chapter is a fitting conclusion to the narrative about Saul and David; it is more appropriate to take it with that section than to treat it as the opening chapter of the following section on David's rule in Judah.

The problem here is that vv. 1–16 give an entirely different account of Saul's death to the one read in 1 Sam 31:3–5 . The Amalekite who brought the news to David claims that he killed Saul, and as proof presents the king's crown and armlet to David. There is no suggestion that Saul committed suicide; his ‘leaning on his spear’ (v. 6 ) was no more than an attempt to support himself. Moreover, Saul was overtaken by ‘chariots and horsemen’ (v. 6 ), not ‘archers’ as in 31:3 ; there is no mention of an armour-bearer in this account, and it mentions only Jonathan of the three sons killed. Of the various solutions offered the most likely explanation of the discrepancy is that the Amalekite was lying in order to gain favour with David. This is preferable to the suggestion that this chapter continues the narrative in 1 Sam 31 , but is the result of the combination of literary strands (Grønbaek 1971 ), and also to the view that it is an alternative account emphasizing that Saul's death was the result of divine judgement (Ackroyd 1977 ). If it is accepted that the Amalekite was lying, several features of the narrative fall into place. The Amalekites, as old enemies of Israel, were not trusted; once the messenger is identified as an Amalekite (v. 8 ), only treachery can be expected. He came showing signs of grief, his ‘clothes torn and dirt on his head’, but they may well have been contrived in an attempt to give authenticity to his account. Although he claims to have killed Saul, it is more probable that he went to Mount Gilboa in search of plunder and chanced on Saul's body; he immediately stripped him of his crown and armlet, and then realized that these insignia of kingship would be valuable to David. He saw in this an opportunity to curry the favour of the king-elect (McCarter 1984 ). The messenger describes himself as ‘a resident alien’ (gēr); an Amalekite who was resident was bound by the laws of his adopted community (Lev 24:22 ), and therefore his disregard for the sanctity of ‘the LORD's anointed’ could not go unpunished and he was sentenced to death. Not only does this narrative confirm once again David's respect for YHWH's anointed, but may also have been intended to exonerate David entirely of the events that led to his succession. It also has an apologetic aim, for it explains how David came quite innocently to be in possession of Saul's crown and armlet (McCarter 1984 ).

David's lament in vv. 17–20 , with its very personal expression of his grief over the loss of Jonathan, can be attributed to David himself (cf. Hertzberg 1964; McCarter 1984 ). The introduction in v. 17 contains a difficult phrase, ‘and he said to teach the sons of Judah a bow’, which the NRSV has taken to refer to the lament's title, ‘The Song of the Bow’. Another possibility, having some support in the LXX, is to omit ‘bow’ as an intrusion. The poem was preserved in an anthology known as the Book of Jashar (cf. Josh 10:12–13; 1 Kings 8:12–13 ), and although it is called a lament it does not adhere strictly to the qînâ metre. A kind of refrain, ‘How the mighty have fallen’, occurs in three places (vv. 19, 25, 27 ). After stating that Israel's ‘glory’ has fallen (a reference to Saul, according to McCarter 1984 , to its ‘young men’ according to Hertzberg 1964 ), the poet expresses his wish that the news be kept from the cities of the Philistines to prevent their exultation over Judah (v. 20 ). He then curses Mt. Gilboa (v. 21 ), the scene of defeat, and condemns it to barrenness; it is the place where Saul's shield is left to rust. In turning to Saul and Jonathan (vv. 22–4 ), David extols them as heroes who, although now slain, persevered in battle and had slain the enemy (v. 22 ), for they were strong and swift in battle (v. 23 ). Father and son were joined in death (v. 23 ). Then the women of Israel are called upon to mourn Saul, who had brought them prosperity and luxury (v. 24 ). Before the final refrain in v. 27 , David gives vent to his personal grief for Jonathan (vv. 25b–26 ), and the word ‘love’ echoes once again the covenant of friendship between the two.

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