Sermon preached on 2 Samuel 1:17-27 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/15/2015 in Novato, CA.
2 Samuel 1:17-27
“How the Mighty Have Fallen”
Indeed, how the mighty have fallen. That’s a saying that tends to get used in jest today, but that’s not how it is used here. David’s song here has this theme, repeating these words three times, in verses 19, 25, and 27: “How the mighty have fallen”. And so this song is no mockery of Saul or Jonathan. No, this is a song of genuine grief over great loss. And it is a song that laments the current state of God’s people.
As we start out then to consider David’s song here which was titled the “Song of the Bow”, I want us to begin by thinking about grief. This is a general point I could make from a lot of passages, but let me make it here. Grief is real. We’ve seen a quite a bit of grief in this book lately. We saw it when David and his men’s families were captured. We saw it last week when David and his men first learned about the death of Saul and Jonathan and Israel’s huge defeat to the Philistines. We saw it last chapter with the men of Jabesh Gilead as they mourned the death of Saul and his sons. And so grief is real, and its times like this where it will be especially profound.
And so David grieved over all of this. And we see hear one way that he expresses his grief. He expresses it by writing a song. I think that goes a long way to show that this is indeed genuine grief by David. He doesn’t just make a few quick customary statements of grief when he hears about the death of Saul and Jonathan. No, he takes the time to sit down and craft a song using Hebrew poetry. I would imagine this would take some time, but I also could see it would probably be a bit therapeutic; it could certainly help David in the grieving process to, well, grieve. By the way, in verse 17 when it says that David lamented with this lamentation, this is very specific language in Hebrew for a song of grief for someone who died. This is a dirge of an elegy. That’s the specific genre of this song, and thus it is the correct genre for this situation.
And so notice some of the details of this song that show this grief. First, if it’s not clear to you yet, observe that this is a song specifically lamenting the death of Saul and Jonathan. True, many others died that day, but this song is particularly about them. They are the mighty ones who have fallen. And so think first about what is said here of Saul. In addition to referring to him as a mighty one, it reflects on various positive aspects of his career. It has in mind his military victories. Similarly in verse 24, you see referenced how he provided to Israel many material benefits such as scarlet and gold; probably not just a reference to spoil brought back from victory, but from the peace he secured them that enabled their prosperity. And so as we see what David says about Saul here, we see again the loyalty that David had for Saul. Even though Saul had treated him so horribly, David in this lament again expresses a favorable attitude to Saul. He doesn’t use this as a time to speak ill of Saul. In fact he says nothing bad of Saul in his song, though surely we know there are many such things he could have said of Saul’s evils. But David doesn’t. David, in his grief over Saul’s death, highlights only the positives of Saul.
And so think then for a moment of what he says here of Jonathan. Yes, he laments Saul’s death, but he seems to especially lament Jonathan’s death. In addition to pointing out Jonathan’s own military might, David has some very personal words there in verse 26. “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; you have been very pleasant to me; your love to me was wonderful; surpassing the love of women.” And so for Jonathan he has this additional sentiment here, which of course we remember the background to it. We’ve seen the close friendship of David and Jonathan. We remember that it was such a close relationship that they repeatedly expressed it in the form of a covenant. And so this is a wonderful thing to see here, that David not only grieves for Jonathan’s death as the firstborn son of the king, and as a national hero, but also a best friend.
And so David genuinely grieves here. Yes, for Jonathan, but also even for Saul. He shows his loyalty to them both. David, the Lord’s anointed, grieves. And in this we are reminded that it is okay to grieve. Remember how we see the same even later with Jesus. John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” Jesus wept with Lazarus died, even though he knew he was about to raise him from the dead. It is okay to grieve when someone dies. It is fitting to remember their life and think about their accomplishments. It is right to thank God for them. And it is okay to miss them! In fact, as another general point here, this is why Jesus came. To be able to conquer death for God’s people; so that he could take away its sting. So he would be able to turn weeping into rejoicing, even like he did that day for all the friends and family of Lazarus. That is the hope for each of us now who are in Christ! Jesus is the resurrection and the life!
Okay, then, so that’s a brief bit on grieving. I want to turn now and ask a more specific question. What specific lesson can we learn from this song? I draw your attention to verse 18 that says that David wanted this taught to the children of Judah. It even ended up getting recorded in a book called the Book of Jasher, and of course it’s recorded right here in the Scriptures. The fact that it was to be taught, and that it got recorded for posterity, tells us inherently that there is some message it communicates to people; something worthy for their consideration at that time, and for the consideration of their posterity, including us.
And so this song would have caused the people to reflect more on the circumstances surrounding Saul and Jonathan’s deaths. It causes us to do that same reflection. And surely it calls us to do that reflection in light of God and his Holy Word. And so what do we learn from this song? Well, to help answer that question, let me first ask a different question. It’s a question that kept coming into my mind when I read this song. Here’s my question: why does David lament Saul? I can understand him lamenting his Jonathan, his close friend and a proven man of God. But Saul? Saul, the one God rejected as king? Saul, who killed all the priests? Saul, who kept trying to kill David? Saul, the one God had chosen David to replace? Why does David lament Saul? You know there is a type of song in the bible called an imprecatory psalm, when the psalm speaks curses upon evil people. Why does David lament Saul instead of curse Saul? Why doesn’t he rejoice that evil Saul had finally come to an end?
Well, surely David’s lament of Saul reflects what we’ve repeatedly seen is David’s attitude toward Saul. David has repeatedly said he would honor Saul as much as he could honor him, because he is the Lord’s anointed. This idea surely continues to control David’s thinking here, and how he thus laments Saul’s death. And so I think this helps us to consider the song more. Why does David lament Saul’s death? Because this mighty man was the anointed of the Lord, and God’s people now have lost the anointed one of the Lord who was there leader. But not only that, this then surely reflects not just on the loss, but on what things could have been.
In other words, for David to mourn the loss of Saul, the anointed of the Lord, expresses sorrow at the whole notion. I mean, who would think it is good that the mighty anointed one of the Lord has fallen in battle against the pagan godless gentiles? That’s the sentiment expressed here! That’s why they don’t want this news to make it to Gath or Ashkelon. It’s shocking; humbling, maybe even humiliating, that the mighty anointed hero of Israel has fallen like this. The sense you get is that this is not what should be. And so my point is that this song shows that David realizes that this is not how things should ultimately be. When David speaks so positively of Saul in this song, it highlights in theory what the anointed of the Lord should have been among Israel. He should have been this mighty warrior that saves God’s people from their enemies, that places them in a position of prosperity and blessing. To a degree Saul did that, and that showed what Saul could have been. But this lament expresses the failure of Saul, even though it never puts it in such explicit negative terms. Because the bottom line is that the mighty have fallen.
Let me try to make this idea more clear by contrasting this song with another song in this book. I have in mind the start of the book, 1 Samuel 2. That’s the Song of Hannah that she prophetically sings as she rejoices in God giving her Samuel. Hannah’s song is a song of great hope. That hopes is connected with Samuel’s birth, and that is very fitting as Samuel is to become the kingmaker. In other words, Samuel is the one who would on God’s behalf anoint a king for Israel. And so when you read the Song of Hannah it ends with a reference to a coming anointed king. Her song ends with these words: “He will give strength to His King, and exalt the horn of His anointed.” Those words were clearly prophetic because at that time there was no anointed king in Israel. And yet her son, Samuel, would be used to be bring such an anointed king. At first we might have thought that would be Saul. But when you contrast Hannah’s song with this Song of the Bow here in today’s passage, we get the point now. We see the message of David’s song. Hannah’s song couldn’t ultimately have been talking about Saul. Hannah’s song talked about how God would make this anointed King mighty and strong. But David’s song says that the anointed Saul was mighty but has fallen.
In a similar note, when you study Hannah’s song a key theme in her song is reversal. Her song basically sees Israel as in a low bad place, with enemies afflicting it and subjugating it, and it sees that reversed. It sees Israel’s position as being lifted up and greatly improved, and it sees Israel’s enemies being humbled and put down. And again, this theme of reversal for Hannah sees that happening through a messianic king. Which in light of today’s song by David, the contrast is so telling. For example, this reversal theme is seen in Hannah’s song in 1 Sam 2:4 when it says, “The bows of the mighty men are broken; And they that stumbled are girded with strength.” There in her son the mighty men with bows are the enemies of God’s people, they are going to be broken. and the stumbled are God’s people and they are going to be made mighty. But then think of that line in her song in comparison to David’s song here, the Song of the Bow. In this song, the mighty are Saul and Jonathan; Jonathan himself has a bow. In light of Hannah’s song, you might expect God to be making them mighty and lifting them up; but instead they are the ones who have fallen. Even the bow imagery is so telling. Jonathan’s bow fails here. But we know the bows of the Philistines are what so badly injured Saul that ultimately resulted in his death.
So do you see the point then? When we consider this song, we realize that a main reason why they should lament is because this is the wrong direction. Saul the anointed one of God had not brought about the reversal prophetically described in Hannah’s song. If anything, the reversal has gone the other way. Israel’s anointed king and his beloved son have fallen. How the mighty have fallen.
And so that’s a major lesson to learn from this song. In lamenting the death of Saul and Jonathan, David has us grieve over what could have been. I think back to 1 Samuel 13 when Saul as king first disobeyed God so greatly. He presumptuously offered the sacrifice himself instead of waiting for Samuel. And remember what God told him then. God said that because of that, his kingdom would not continue. In 1 Samuel 13:13, God said that if he had obeyed God, then God would have established his kingdom forever. That would of course presumably happened through Jonathan. And so for Saul and Jonathan to die like this, only confirms what God had said. And this is a reason to grieve. Israel needed a good king. Israel needed a king that could establish the kingdom in prosperity, forever. If the people hoped it had been Saul, we see that it was not. And so the people rightly lament over this.
And yet the prophetic word of the Lord through Hannah’s Song would not fail. That’s the joy that comes for us and for them back then. Yes, there is grief and sorrow in thinking of what Saul and Jonathan would not be. But there would yet be an anointed king through whom God would establish a mighty kingdom; even an eternal kingdom. It will be through David. But as well see in 2 Samuel 7, it will ultimately be through an offspring of David. And of course, we know that is in Jesus.
And so flash forward to the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. There, during that time, there were similar things going on. There, like in the days of Saul, there were people putting their hope in the wrong places. If the people in Saul’s day had put their hope in Saul, we see that such hope was dashed. And so remember in Luke 19 how Jesus expressed that the Israelites at that time put their hope in the wrong things. Luke 19:41-44, “Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” And so like David here, Jesus would later grieve and lament how the people had their hope in the wrong place.
For in fact, Jesus came to bring that ultimate hope. It’s amazing to see how in Jesus’ ministry the idea of reversal from Hannah’s song comes up again and again. For example, when you read the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel, there are several songs there, and the idea of reversal for God’s people is a big theme in some of them; think of Mary’s song for example. And Jesus himself then taught on the notion of reversal. The beatitudes for example have it; those who mourn will be comforted; those who hunger will be satisfied; etc. Or when Jesus said that the last will be first and the first will be last; that’s him teaching on reversal.
And so Jesus came in fulfillment of Hannah’s song. David’s song showed us here that by Saul and Jonathan dying that we had to look for another anointed of the Lord to fulfill this idea of reversal. And so Jesus came, son of David, and began to talk about bringing reversal. And yet what then happened? Jesus died. Jesus, the Lord’s anointed who was to bring reversal — he died! Think of how the people who had started to hope in Jesus, that he was finally the promised one — think of how they must have felt. Surely they must have wanted to cry out, “Oh how the mighty have fallen!” Because the Messiah has been crucified. How could this happen? Remember the confusion of the disciples who were on that road to Emmaus in Luke 24. They said that they had been hoping that he was going to be the one to redeem Israel. But Luke 24 says that they were sad! In other words they were grieved. Of course they were grieved; again, the Messiah had fallen! Oh what reason to lament.
But God brought reversal! On the third day Jesus the Christ rose from the dead in power. Yes, the mighty had fallen in death, but only to suffer for our sake and to redeem us from our sin. And then that was reversed! He was lifted up into newness of life, and after appearing to many witnesses over 40 days, he ultimately ascended up into heaven, and now sits at the right hand of God, in power. What glorious reversal! The mighty has been lifted up and exalted to the highest place. As Jesus declared afterwards, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me!” Praise the Lord as this is our Messiah! He has begun the reversal that was prophesied through Hannah.
Back during David’s time it may have been hard to see how God would yet bring this reversal, but he did. It may have been hard for them to fully appreciate after such a horrible loss. But already for them there was the hope with David. God would use David to being some rebuilding and reversing. But now it has come all the more in Jesus Christ, the great son of David. Trust then in Christ. Believe in him. Repent of your sins and know his redemption through faith.
Brothers and sisters, in closing, let me try to bring out a final application for us from this psalm. David lamented how things hadn’t been working out through the Lord’s anointed Saul as he would have desired. But God was still at work and bringing about the fulfillment of his promises. Well, in our day too, we can be tempted to look at the troubles we face, the seeming losses that we have to the world, and the apparent victories of the pagans, and we can tempted to lament. We might think, “Where is this reversal that we are supposed to have in Jesus Christ?”
Well, let us think biblically then in such times. Yes, we have known reversal already in Christ. Already we have passed from death to life. Already we have been liberated from the slavery of sin in our new birth. Already we have been converted from enemies of God to his adopted children. Already we have been changed from being condemned by God to being seen as righteous in his sight, for Christ’s sake. I could go on. So much reversal that has already taken place.
And yet we know there is more yet to come. And it’s in that time of further waiting, that we must remember what Jesus said this time would be like. He said we would have trouble. And so remember the words of 1 Peter 4:12, “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.” In other words, we should not be surprised the fact that we yet face troubles from the enemies of God in this world. We should not think it strange or think it unexpected. We should plan for it, actually.
And so instead realize that this is part of the plan, and that the full extent of reversal will yet come to pass. So believe all the more in the idea of reversal. The first will be last. The last will be first. Every tear of ours will be wiped away. He will lift us up and make us mighty in the full. Christ who has raised from the dead has already shown this to be true. For we do not have an anointed one who died and that’s it. But rather we have one who also came back from death. The mighty one fell for our sake, so that now none of us can ultimately fall if we are in him! Praise the Lord! Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.