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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

2 Samuel 1

Verses 1-27



2 Samuel 1:1-27.

DAVID had returned to Ziklag from the slaughter of the Amalekites only two days before he heard of the death of Saul. He had returned weary enough, we may believe, in body, though refreshed in spirit by the recovery of all that had been taken away, and by the possession of a vast store of booty besides. But in the midst of his success, it was discouraging to see nothing but ruin and confusion where the homes of himself and his people had recently been; and it must have needed no small effort even to plan, and much more to execute, the reconstruction of the city. But besides this, a still heavier feeling must have oppressed him. What had been the issue of that great battle at Mount Gilboa? Which army had conquered? If the Israelites were defeated, what would be the fate of Saul and Jonathan? Would they be prisoners now in the hands of the Philistines? And if so, what would be his duty in regard to them? And what course would it be best for him to take for the welfare of his ruined and distracted country?

He was not kept long in suspense. An Amalekite from the camp of Israel, accustomed, like the Bedouin generally, to long and rapid runs, arrived at Ziklag; bearing on his body all the tokens of a disaster, and did obeisance to David, as now the legitimate occupant of the throne. David must have surmised at a glance how matters stood. His questions to the Amalekite elicited an account of the death of Saul materially different from that given in a former part of the history, “As I happened by chance upon Mount Gilboa, behold Saul leaned upon his spear; and lo, the chariots and the horsemen followed hard after him. And when he looked behind him, he saw me and called unto me. And I answered, Here am I. And he said unto me. Who art thou? And I answered him, I am an Amalekite. And he said unto me, Stand, I pray thee, beside me, and slay me, for anguish hath taken hold of me: because my life is yet whole in me. So I stood beside him and slew him, because I was sure that he could not live after that he was fallen; and I took the crown that was upon his head, and the bracelet that was upon his arm, and have brought them hither to my lord.” There is no reason to suppose that this narrative of Saul’s death, in so far as it differs from the previous one, is correct. That this Amalekite was somehow near the place where Saul fell, and that he witnessed all that took place at his death, there is no cause to doubt. That when he saw that both Saul and his armour-bearer were dead he removed the crown and the bracelet from the person of the fallen king, and stowed them away among his own accoutrements, may likewise be accepted without any difficulty. Then, managing to escape, and considering what he would do with the ensigns of royalty, he decided to carry them to David. To David he accordingly brought them, and no doubt it was to ingratiate himself the more with him, and to establish the stronger claim to a splendid recompense, that he invented the story of Saul asking him to kill him, and of his complying with the king’s order, and thus putting an end to a life which already was obviously doomed.

In his belief that his pretended dispatching of the king would gratify David, the Amalekite undoubtedly reckoned without his host; but such things were so common, so universal in the East that we can hardly divest ourselves of a certain amount of compassion for him. Probably there was no other kingdom, round and round, where this Amalekite would not have found that he had done a wise thing in so far as his own interests were concerned. For helping to dispatch a rival, and to open the way to a throne, he would probably have received cordial thanks and ample gifts from one and all of the neighbouring potentates. To David, the matter appeared in a quite different light. He had none of that eagerness to occupy the throne on which the Amalekite reckoned as a universal instinct of human nature. And he had a view of the sanctity of Saul’s life which the Amalekite could not understand. His being the Lord’s anointed ought to have withheld this man from hurting a hair of his head. Sadly though Saul had fallen back, the divinity that doth hedge a king still encompassed him. ’’Touch not mine anointed" was still God’s word concerning him. This miserable Amalekite, a member of a doomed race, appeared to David by his own confession not only a murderer, but a murderer of the deepest dye. He had destroyed the life of one who in an eminent sense was "the Lord’s anointed." He had done what once and again David had himself shrunk from doing. It is no wonder that David was at once horrified and provoked, - horrified at the unblushing criminality of the man; provoked at his effrontery, at his doing without the slightest compunction what, at an immense sacrifice, he had twice restrained himself from doing. No doubt he was irritated; too, at the bare supposition on which the Amalekite reckoned so securely, that such a black deed could be gratifying to David himself. So without a moment’s hesitation, and without allowing the astonished youth a moment’s preparation, he caused an attendant to fall upon him and kill him. His sentence was short and clear, “Thy blood be upon thy head; for thy mouth hath testified against thee saying, I have slain the Lord’s anointed.”

In this incident we find David in a position in which good men are often placed, who profess to have regard to higher principles than the men of the world in regulating their lives, and especially in the estimate which they form of their worldly interests and considerations. That such men are sincere in the estimate they thus profess to follow is what the world is very slow to believe. Faith in any moral virtue that rises higher than the ordinary worldly level is extremely rare among men. The world fancies that every man has his price - sometimes that every woman has her price. Virtue of the heroic quality that will face death itself rather than do wrong is what it is most unwilling to believe in. Was it not this that gave rise to the memorable trial of Job? Did not the great enemy representing here the spirit of the world, scorn the notion that at bottom Job was in any way better than his neighbours, although the wonderful prosperity with which he had been gifted made him appear more ready to pay honour to God? It is all a matter of selfishness, was Satan’s plea; take away his prosperity, and lay a painful malady on his body, his religion will vanish, he will curse Thee to Thy face. He would not give Job credit for anything like disinterested virtue - anything like genuine reverence for God. And was it not on the same principle the tempter acted when he brought his threefold temptation to our Lord in the wilderness? He did not believe in the superhuman virtue of Jesus; he did not believe in His unswerving loyalty to truth and duty. He did not believe that He was proof at once against the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life. At least he did not believe till he tried, and had to retreat defeated. When the end of His life drew near Jesus could say, “The prince of this world cometh, but hath nothing in Me." There was no weakness in Jesus to which he could fasten his cord - no trace of that worldliness by which he had so often been able to entangle and secure his victims.

So likewise Simon the sorcerer fancied that he only needed to offer money to the Apostles to secure from , them the gift of the Holy Ghost. "Thy money perish with thee!" was the indignant rebuke of Peter. It is the same refusal to believe in the reality of high principle that has made so many a persecutor fancy that he could bend the obstinacy of the heretic by the terrors of suffering and torture. And on the other hand, no nobler sight has ever been presented than when this incredulous scorn of the world has been rebuked by the firmness and triumphant faith of the noble martyr. What could Nebuchadnezzar have thought when the three Hebrew children were willing to enter the fiery furnace? What did Darius think of Daniel when he shrank not from the lions’ den? How many a rebuke and surprise was furnished to the rulers of this world in the early persecutions of the Christians, and to the champions of the Church of Rome in the splendid defiance hurled against them by the Protestant martyrs! The men who formed the Free Church of Scotland were utterly discredited when they affirmed that rather than surrender the liberties of their Church they would part with every temporal privilege which they had enjoyed from connection with the State. Such is the spirit of the world; if it will not rise to the apparent level of the saints, it delights to pull down the saints to its own. These pretences to superior virtue are hypocrisy and pharisaism; test their professions by their worldly interests, and you will find them soon enough on a level with yourselves.

The Amalekite that thought to gratify David by pretending that he had slain his rival had no idea that he was wronging him; in his blind innocency he seems to have assumed as a matter of course that David would be pleased. It is not likely the Amalekite had ever heard of David’s noble magnanimity in twice sparing Saul’s life when he had an excellent pretext for taking it, if his conscience had allowed him. He just assumed that David would feel as he would have felt himself. He simply judged of him by his own standard. His object was to show how great a service he had rendered him, and thus establish a claim to a great reward. Never did heartless selfishness more completely overreach itself. Instead of a reward, this impious murderer had earned a fearful punishment. An Israelite might have had a chance of mercy, but an Amalekite had none - the man was condemned to instant death. One can hardly fancy his bewilderment, - what a strange man was this David! What a marvelous reverence he had for God! To place him on a throne was no favor, if it involved doing anything against “the Lord’s anointed!” And yet who shall say that in his estimate of this proceeding David did more than recognize the obligation of the first commandment? To him God’s will was all in all.

Dismissing this painful episode, we now turn to contemplate David’s conduct after the intelligence reached him that Saul was dead. David was now just thirty (2 Samuel 5:4); and never did man at that age, or at any age, act a finer part. The death, and especially the sudden death, of a relative or a friend has usually a remarkable effect on the tender heart, and especially in the case of the young. It blots out all remembrance of little injuries done by the departed; it fills one with regret for any unkind words one may have spoken, or any unkind deeds one may ever have done to him. It makes one very forgiving. But it must have been a far more generous heart than the common that could so soon rid itself of every shred of bitter feeling toward Saul - that could blot out, in one great act of forgiveness, the remembrance of many long years of injustice, oppression, and toil, and leave no feelings but those of kindness, admiration, and regret, called forth by the contemplation of what was favourable in Saul’s character. How beautiful does the spirit of forgiveness appear in such a light! Yet how hard do many feel it to be to exercise this spirit in any case, far less in all cases! How terrible a snare the unforgiving spirit is liable to be to us, and how terrible an obstacle to peaceful communion with God! "For if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses."

The feelings of David toward Saul and Jonathan were permanently embodied in a song which he composed for the occasion. It seems to have been called "The Song of the Bow," so that the rendering of the Revised Version - "he taught them the Song of the Bow," gives a much better sense than the old - "he taught them the use of the bow." The song was first written in the book of Jasher; and it was ordered by David to be taught to the people as a permanent memorial of their king and his eldest son. The writing of such a song, the spirit of admiration and eulogy which pervades it, and the unusual enactment that it should be taught to the people, show how far superior David was to the ordinary feelings of jealousy, how full his heart was of true generosity. There was, indeed, a political end which it might advance; it might conciliate the supporters of Saul, and smooth David’s way to the throne. But there is in it such depth and fullness of feeling that one can think of it only as a genuine cardiphonia - a true voice of the heart. The song dwells on all that could be commended in Saul, and makes no allusion to his faults. His courage and energy in war, his happy co-operation with Jonathan, his advancement of the kingdom in elegance and comfort, are all duly celebrated. David appears to have had a real affection for Saul, if only it had been allowed to bloom and flourish. His martial energy had probably awakened his admiration before he knew him personally; and when he became his minstrel, his distressed countenance would excite his pity, while his occasional gleams of generous feeling would thrill his heart with sympathy. The terrible effort of Saul to crush David was now at an end, and like a lily released from a heavy stone, the old attachment bloomed out speedily and sweetly. There would be more true love in families and in the world, more of expansive, responsive affection, if it were not so often stunted by reserve on the one hand, and crushed by persecution on the other.

The song embalms very tenderly the love of Jonathan for David. Years had probably elapsed since the two friends met, but time had not impaired the affection and admiration of David. And now that Jonathan’s light was extinguished, a sense of desolation fell on David’s heart, and the very throne that invited his occupation seemed dark and dull under the shadow cast on it by the death of Jonathan. As a prize of earthly ambition it would be poor indeed; and if ever it had seemed to David a proud distinction to look forward to, such a feeling would appear very detestable when the same act that opened it up to him had deprived him forever of his dearest friend, his sweetest source of earthly joy. The only way in which it was possible for David to enjoy his new position was by losing sight of himself; by identifying himself more closely than ever with the people; by regarding the throne as only a position for more self-denying labours for the good of others. And in the song there is evidence of the great strength and activity of this feeling. The sentiment of patriotism burns with a noble ardour; the national disgrace is most keenly felt; the thought of personal gain from the death of Saul and Jonathan is entirely swallowed up by grief for the public loss. "Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph!" In David’s view, it is no ordinary calamity that has fallen on Israel. It is no common men that have fallen, but "the beauty of Israel," her ornament and her glory, men that were never known to flinch or to flee from battle, men that were "swifter than eagles, and stronger than lions." It is not in any obscure corner that they have fallen, but ’’on her high places," on Mount Gilboa, at the head of a most conspicuous and momentous enterprise. Such a national loss was unprecedented in the history of Israel, and it seems to have affected David and the nation generally as the slaughter at Flodden affected the Scots, when it seemed as if all that was great and beautiful in the nation perished - "the flowers o’ the forest were a’ weed awa’."

A word on the general structure of this song. It is not a song that can be classed with the Psalms. Nor can it be said that in any marked degree it resembles the tone or spirit of the Psalms. Yet this need not surprise us, nor need it throw any doubt either as to the authorship of the song or the authorship of the Psalms. The Psalms, we must remember, were avowedly composed and designed for use in the worship of God. If the Greek term psalmoi denotes their character, they were songs designed for use in public worship, to be accompanied with the lyre, or harp, or other musical instruments suitable for them. The special sphere of such songs was - the relation of the human soul to God. These songs might be of various kinds - historical, lyrical, dramatical; but in all cases the paramount subject was, the dealings of God with man, or the dealings of man with God. It was in this class of composition that David excelled, and became the organ of the Holy Ghost for the highest instruction and edification of the Church in all ages. But it does not by any means follow that the poetical compositions of David were restricted to this one class of subject. His muse may sometimes have taken a different course. His poems were not always directly religious. In the case of this song, whose original place in the book of Jasher indicated its special character, there is no mention of the relation of Saul and Jonathan to God. The theme is, their services to the nation, and the national loss involved in their death. The soul of the poet is profoundly thrilled by their death, occurring in such circumstances of national disaster. No form of words could have conveyed more vividly the idea of unprecedented loss, or thrilled the nation with such a sense of calamity. There is not a line of the song but is full of life, and hardly one that is not full of beauty. What could more touchingly indicate the fatal nature of the calamity than that plaintive entreaty - "Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon"? How could the hills be more impressively summoned to show their sympathy than in that invocation of everlasting sterility - "Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain upon you, or fields of offerings"? What gentler veil could be drawn over the horrors of their bloody death and mutilated bodies than in the tender words, "Saul and Jonathan were loving and pleasant in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided"? And what more fitting theme for tears could have been furnished to the daughters of Israel, considering what was probably the prevalent taste, than that Saul had "clothed them with scarlet and other delights, and put on ornaments of gold upon their apparel"? Up to this point Saul and Jonathan are joined together; but the poet cannot close without a special lamentation for himself over him whom he loved as his own soul. And in one line he touches the very kernel of his own loss, as he touches the very core of Jonathan’s heart - "thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." Such is the Song of the Bow. It hardly seems suitable to attempt to draw spiritual lessons out of a song, which, on purpose, was placed in a different category. Surely it is enough to point out the exceeding beauty and generosity of spirit which sought in this way to embalm the memory and perpetuate the virtues of Saul and Jonathan; which blended together in such melodious words a deadly enemy and a beloved friend; which transfigured one of the lives so that it shone with the luster and the beauty of the other; which sought to bury every painful association, and gave full and unlimited scope to the charity that thinketh no evil. Demortuis nil nisi bonum, was a heathen maxim, - "Say nothing but what is good of the dead." Surely no finer exemplification of the maxim was ever given than in this "Song of the Bow."

To "thoughts that breathe and words that burn," like those of this song, David could not have given expression without having his whole soul stirred with the desire to repair the national disaster, and by God’s help bring back prosperity and honour to Israel. Thus, both by the afflictions that saddened his heart and the stroke of prosperity that raised him to the throne, he was impelled to that course of action which is the best safeguard under God against the hurtful influences both of adversity and prosperity. Affliction might have driven him into his shell, to think only of his own comfort; prosperity might have swollen him with a sense of his importance, and tempted him to expect universal admiration; - both would have made him unfit to rule; by the grace of God he was preserved from both. He was induced to gird himself for a course of high exertion for the good of his country; the spirit of trust in God, after its long discipline, had a new field opened for its exercise; and the self-government acquired in the wilderness was to prove its usefulness in a higher sphere. Thus the providence of his heavenly Father was gradually unfolding His purposes concerning him; the clouds were clearing off his horizon; and the "all things" that once seemed to be "against him" were now plainly "working together for his good."

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 1". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".