David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar. He said:
our glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult.
You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more.
From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty.
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!
“How the mighty have fallen” – it’s a phrase we still use, but the connotations have changed rather. Today, we might use it of a politician who climbed to the top on the bodies of comrades, now disgraced and removed from office. We might use it of an overly-ambitious colleague, once the boss’s pet, now sacked for fraud; the jumped-up cheat who finally got what they deserved.
But when David speaks these words over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, there is no triumph at another’s downfall. There is no sense of ‘serves them right’. Which, to be honest, is rather strange.
How many Psalms are David praying that God would strike his enemies? Lots! “O God, break the teeth in their mouths” he prays in Psalm 58, “The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done.” And it’s probably Saul that David it writing about.
It’s quite understandable. Saul has made David’s life a complete misery, trying to murder him almost since they met. It’s right that David should express his anger, fear, frustration to his Lord.
But why this lament then? It sounds more like something you’d write when your best friend dies, or someone you admire. When the person you’d been hoping would walk under a bus (or the Old Testament equivalent) finally gets it, shouldn’t you rejoice? Every good story should end with the goodies triumphing over the baddies.
And surely, it’s a bit hypocritical to pray for God to smite your enemy and then write a lament when he does.
Or perhaps, are people a bit more complicated than just ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’?
God of Justice, God of mercy, who causes your sun to rise on the evil and on the good, teach us to see others and ourselves through your eyes; to rightly lament the faults in ourselves and generously praise you for the good in others; be they our friends or our enemies. That we may be your children, Through Christ our Lord, Amen
Fay Rowland is a graduate student at Wesley House, Cambridge, and worships at St Botolph’s Anglican Church, Northamptonshire.
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