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Pinning Down Butterflies, Pt. 1

After Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle with the Philistines, David returned from defeating the Amalekites, and for two days he rested in Ziklag.

Three days later a man showed up unannounced from Saul’s army camp. Disheveled, he fell to his knees in respect before David. David asked, “What brings you here?”

He said, “The Israelites have fled the battlefield, leaving a lot of their dead comrades behind. And Saul and his son Jonathan are dead. I happened to be on Mount Gilboa; and there was Saul leaning on his spear, while the chariots and the horsemen drew close to him. He said to me, ‘Come, stand over me and kill me; for convulsions have seized me, and yet my life still lingers.’ So, I stood over him and killed him, for I knew that he could not live after he had fallen. I took the crown that was on his head and the armlet that was on his arm, and I have brought them here to my lord.”

David said to him, “Were you not afraid to lift your hand to destroy God’s anointed?”

Then David called one of the young men and said, “Come here and strike him down.” So, he struck him down and he died. David said to him, “Your blood be on your head; for your own mouth has testified against you, saying, ‘I have killed the Lord’s anointed.’”

In lament, David ripped his clothes to ribbons. All the men with him did the same. They wept and fasted the rest of the day, grieving the death of Saul and his son Jonathan. Then David sang this lament over Saul and his son Jonathan, which he ordered taught to the people of Judah and recorded in The Book of Jashar.

O Gazelles of Israel, struck down on your hills, the mighty warriors—fallen, fallen!

Don’t announce it in the city of Gath, don’t post the news in the streets of Ashkelon.

Don’t give those coarse Philistine girls one more excuse for a drunken party!

No more dew or rain for you, hills of Gilboa, and not a drop from springs and wells,

For there the warriors’ shields were dragged through the mud, Saul’s shield left there to rot.

Jonathan’s bow was bold—the bigger they were, the harder they fell.

Saul’s sword was fearless—once out of the scabbard, nothing could stop it.

Saul and Jonathan—beloved, beautiful! Together in life, together in death.

Swifter than plummeting eagles, stronger than proud lions.

Women of Israel, weep for Saul. He dressed you in finest cottons and silks, spared no expense in making you elegant. The mighty warriors—fallen, fallen in the middle of the fight!

Jonathan—struck down on your hills! O my dear brother Jonathan, I’m crushed by your death. Your friendship was a miracle-wonder, love far exceeding anything I’ve known—or ever hope to know. The mighty warriors—fallen, fallen and the arms of war broken to bits.

2 Samuel 1:1-27


In the 1994 epic, Forrest Gump, movie-goers were offered a window into some of the important moments in late twentieth century American history. We were all given a chance to witness and observe the rise of Elvis, the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, assassinations of political leaders, and even the founding of a new computer dynasty called Apple through the eyes and ears of Forrest Gump—our narrator and guide who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. If you’re familiar with the movie, you know that Forrest Gump is an open book—unfiltered, direct, and transparent. He is a man without an agenda. He didn’t tell us what to think about the Vietnam War or any of the presidents he met; he just shared his experiences. Forrest let us watch and listen in from his point of view—without any accompanying disclaimers, interpretations, or assigned meaning. In fact, on the rare occasion when he would offer any conclusions he’d drawn or lessons he’d learned, Forrest possessed a unique ability to sidestep the arguments of history and, instead, reach for the universal truths—those big, transcendent ideas that moved small and specific events into the larger contexts of love and life and loss. During the course of the movie, Forrest grieves and laments the loss of three loved ones. First, it’s Forrest’s best, good friend, Benjamin Buford Blue, killed in battle during the Vietnam war. Second, it’s Forrest’s mother, who died of cancer on a Tuesday. And in perhaps the most poignant scene of the movie, Forrest stands alone over the grave of his wife, Jenny—mourning and describing to her the growth and beauty of their son, whom he is now raising on his own. It’s evident that Forrest is lost, hurting, and confused—concerned for the future—painfully searching for solid ground on which to stand. As he struggles, he tearfully speaks these words to Jenny:

“I don’t know if Mama was right or if it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze. But I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both are happening at the same time.”

In the 2,500-to-3,000-year-old epic written in the books of Samuel, hearers and readers are offered a window into some of the important moments in ancient Israelite history. We are all given a chance to witness and observe the rise of Saul, the beginning of the Israelite monarchy, the Philistine war, assassinations of political leaders, and even the founding of a new dynasty called David through the eyes and ears of our narrator and guide, who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. This narrator, however, is not an open book. Unlike Forrest Gump, the story this narrator tells is frequently filtered, strategically circuitous, and often obscure. The Books of Samuel have an agenda. Throughout the epic of Samuel, readers and hearers are told exactly what to think. Case in point: the ascension of David to the throne. A lot of people had to die for David to become king. There are numerous murders and assassinations that take place to remove every hindrance to David’s rise to power. Yet in each killing, the narrator goes to great lengths to make sure the audience knows that David’s hands are clean. Each time someone standing in the way of David’s coronation dies, this narrator loudly and fervently establishes not only the innocence of David but also guilt of the real killer. In each instance, the blame lands squarely on the shoulders of someone else. In fact, David comes through so many murders and assassinations unscathed and unaccused that historians can’t help but suspect his complicity. In the fourteen chapters leading up to the opening of 2 Samuel, Saul—the reigning king—is chasing after David, trying to kill him. Saul is so obsessed with destroying David that it tears a rift in his relationship with his son, Jonathan. David is on the run—hiding, dodging, trying to survive. He can’t rest, and he certainly can’t be king as long as Saul is alive. So as 2 Samuel opens, and we receive the news that King Saul and his heir-to-the throne, Jonathan, are dead, what does David do to celebrate the end of his persecution—the end of Saul trying to kill him? He grieves—can you believe that? And David doesn’t just grieve a little bit—he really sells it. The narrator makes sure that the audience knows that David tore his clothes in agony—that he fasted and wept—and that David had the real culprit, the messenger who brought the news of Saul’s death, killed. He then writes a lament mourning the loss of Saul and Jonathan and orders that his lament be taught to the people. It’s kind of strange that even in his grief, David seems to be adjusting quite nicely to acting like a king. He has a messenger killed and orders a lament that testifies to his grief and innocence—taught to the people. And friends, this lament—this poem of grief—is strange, too. It doesn’t fit. It describes an alternate reality. It lavishly mourns the loss of Saul—the man trying to kill David, the man 1 Samuel chapter 15 says God regretted making king. David writes about Saul as though he was the best of all the Israelites. This lament even portrays Saul and Jonathan’s relationship as though they were thick as thieves—father and son out there doing righteous battle together for God. That was not the case. They were not thick as thieves. Their relationship was one of violent opposition—precisely because of David. Sitting through this lament is like attending the funeral of someone you knew really well and being forced to receive a eulogy that does not describe them or their life at all. Theologian Walter Brueggemann believes this is because “Death has a way of permitting us to focus on the larger realities, to transcend the details of hurt and affront”—which makes sense. If nothing else, we do generally try not to speak ill of the dead, but I still have to wonder if there’s something else going on beneath the surface of this lament. It’s just so over the top. According to Victor Hamilton, professor emeritus of the Hebrew Bible at Asbury Theological Seminary, this lament and the rise of David as recorded in Samuel’s epic, present us with a dilemma. He writes, “Either David has a heart that is genuinely free of malice, or he is a great actor (and a liar) who knows how to ‘play to the gallery’ and diplomatically establish a bridge with Saul’s supporters…” So, which is it? Was David genuinely free of malice toward the man who was trying to kill him or was he a great actor and a liar? Was David divinely anointed to the throne and this lament serves as proof of his innocence or was he in some way responsible for the deaths that allowed him to seize the throne and this lament serves as propaganda and misdirection? Was David a man after God’s heart or was he a calculating politician pursuing power? Sinner or saint?

Let's put a pin in that for now.


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