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 her 2020 book The Art of Gathering, strategic facilitator and consultant Priya Parker insightfully describes the work of the famed photographer Platon. You may not know Platon by name, but you’ve probably seen his work. He was a staff photographer for The New Yorker magazine and also provided the cover photography for Time Magazine over a number of years. Parker writes, “You’d probably recognize a Platon if you saw one. His signature style is a photograph taken so close to his subjects that you can see their pores.” Platon has photographed both the powerful and those who have challenged power—the famous and the infamous. His portfolio includes iconic shots of world leaders, despots, celebrities, cultural icons, and every sitting U.S. President since 1976. According to Priya Parker, however, what’s more remarkable about Platon than “his litany of famous subjects, is what he is able to get his subjects to do.” Regardless of the context of the photo shoot—whether “…in his studio…a cramped hotel room…backstage at a university or concert, or at the United Nations,” Platon “brings a decrepit, falling apart, white, painted crate for his subjects to sit on.” Parker writes,
It is in the interest of these leaders, many of whom have press secretaries and image consultants, to show a face that they want the public to see. It is in Platon’s interest to get them to show something else—something real. Sometimes, a presidential advance team will see the box and freak out. ‘We can’t ask him to sit on that box!’ Then, Platon tells them who else has sat on that box and they always acquiesce.
Platon is displacing his subjects from the context that they’re in and is, through this physical object, connecting them to all the other photo shoots—and therefore—people who have come before them.
After years of lugging it around—when the box finally fell apart—he had his assistants remake the new one to look as old and weathered as the original. It had become the gritty symbol that temporarily displaced a leader from his throne.
I will confess that I find Platon’s artistry and methodology fascinating. The common white crate carries an inescapable tension and at least one question.
Is the subject of this photograph an important person— someone powerful or famous and worthy of our attention— or is the subject of this photograph just a person sitting on an old white box like everybody else?
I can’t help but wonder if the same inescapable tension and question is present in the epic of Samuel. It seems to be a fair statement that the stories of Samuel—and for that matter, the entire Bible—are, at least in part, a series of photographs that allow us to examine the subjects so closely that we can see their pores.
Just as it is with Platon—every biblical subject—be they hero, villain, or somewhere in between—is placed on the same common crate for us to behold. Each enslavement, deliverance, and doomed dynasty connected to those that came before and inviting in those that will inevitably follow. Every death faced and lament composed carrying experiences to which we all relate and questions that we all will ask. Story after story holding the power to displace monarchs—any monarch, including you and me—from their thrones.
Are the subjects of Platon’s photographs titans and icons, despots and heroes, or are they just ordinary women and men sitting on a box?
Was David God’s anointed—a Messiah—a man after God’s heart, or was he a great actor and liar in the pursuit of power?
Are these stories simply a recording of historical data, or do they hold an epic and universal invitation?
Are the deaths we face the end, or are they a beginning?
Do we each have a destiny, or are we all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze?
Maybe some things aren’t meant to be pinned down. As a wise rabbi in my life says,
“The moment you pin a butterfly to the board for examination, it’s no longer a butterfly.”
At the end of Forrest Gump’s lament over the grave of his wife, he composes himself and then earnestly tells his wife, “If there’s anything you need, I won’t be far away.” If you’re like me, that line gets to you because I know he means it. He’s not just saying that. Those aren’t just empty words. Forrest is on call—ready to help—to do whatever needs to be done.
I submit to you that the lamenting voices of Samuel and Saul and David cry out to us that our God is never far away—that whether we find ourselves enslaved, wandering in the wilderness, or killing to build our own kingdoms, The Source of All Things is still just as close as our very breath.
I submit to you that the dying declaration of these monarchs joins with Moses and Joshua and the history of Israel to declare that we always have a future—to universally remind us that when our own stories begin with the words, “After the death,” God is still with us, and death is not the end.
Sinner and saint.
History and universality.
Death and life.
Our destiny and our responsibility.
May we live like it’s both
and love like both are happening
at the same time.
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