Samuel 1:1-4, 17, 19-27 After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag. On the third day, a man came from Saul’s camp, with his clothes torn and dirt on his head. When he came to David, he fell to the ground and did obeisance. David said to him, ‘Where have you come from?’ He said to him, ‘I have escaped from the camp of Israel.’ David said to him, ‘How did things go? Tell me!’ He answered, ‘The army fled from the battle, but also many of the army fell and died; and Saul and his son Jonathan also died.’..
…Davidintonedthis lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan…
Your 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.
Fromthe 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!
Reflection We move on in David’s story to the point where he learns of the deaths of both Saul and Jonathan in a battle against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa. There are discrepancies between 1 Sam.31 and 2 Sam.1:1-16 about how Saul died and the number of his sons also killed; but that need not concern us here. This narrative marks a turning point and the focus hereafter moves onto David as king. First, though, we read of David’s lament in one of the psalmic passages attributed to him.
The refrain ‘How the mighty have fallen’ (vv.19, 25, 27) has come down into common usage in our society, often with a sense of irony, with most people having no idea where it originated. Here Saul’s positive achievements as king are being acknowledged and Israel’s ‘glory’ (v.19) probably refers to him. If Saul’s death is announced in Philistia Israel’s enemies will rejoice, so don’t broadcast it! In this lament David grieves the dead king on behalf of Israel and then expresses personal grief at the death of Jonathan, his beloved friend and ally.
Personally I doubt the authenticity of this lament; but it serves to remind us that every death impacts on wider society as well as on those most personally affected. The positive contributions someone has made during their life need to be honoured by those who remain and an opportunity to pause and to mourn is needed before moving forward to pick up the threads of life again.
Funeral services play an important part in this process, for the sake and well-being of the living. As I write I’m conscious of the Covid restrictions that have limited participation in funerals; and of countless numbers who’ve been unable to grieve in appropriate ways. May we endeavour to minister to their needs.
Prayer Eternal God we pause to remember all those who have died during the pandemic, those known to us and innumerable others the world over. We rejoice in knowing that each was known and loved by you; and give thanks for the contributions to communal life they have all made, from the greatest to the least. May those who mourn be comforted; and may your church enable their laments and praises to be heard. Amen
The Revd Dr Janet E Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge