Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 1, 2018
2 Samuel 1:1,17-27 Commentary
This may, at first glance, seem like a rather odd passage to proclaim in the twenty-first century. The entirety of 2 Samuel 1, after all, mentions the Lord only twice. What’s more, David’s eulogy never mentions God.
So if this were the only or last message I was ever going to proclaim, I wouldn’t choose this one. I’m not sure why the Lectionary even appoints this passage at all. Yet here it is. So God’s people try to listen to it together.
Our text’s Israel has essentially had two kings for a number of years. They’ve clearly headed, however, in opposite directions. Saul, the rejected king, has watched his kingdom, family and mental health slowly disintegrate. David, the king-in-waiting has, on the other hand, gained strength and followers, even as he constantly flees Saul’s murderous rage.
As 2 Samuel opens, however, Saul and his three sons have died in battle. Yet while their deaths resolve the long-simmering tension over Israel’s royal succession, Israel has no king. In fact, as Walter Brueggemann (Exodus, John Knox Press, 1990, p. 218), to whom I owe much for this Commentary’s structure and inspiration, points out, her future king could hardly seem farther from the throne.
Yet while, in fact, David is also far from the scene of Israel’s army’s defeat, an Amalekite messenger manages to track down Israel’s next king anyway. This bedraggled figure announces that Israel’s army has fallen, along with Saul and Jonathan. However, when David presses him for details, the messenger admits that he actually killed the dying Saul. Scholars suggest he expects some kind of a reward from a relieved David. By delivering dead Saul’s royal paraphernalia to David, the messenger, after all, essentially makes him king.
Yet instead of handing the Amalekite a reward, a grieving David hands him a death sentence. After all, he recognizes that Israel’s king deserves not treachery, but respect. David had long known that he would someday be king instead of Saul. However, he still could not approve of the killing of Saul.
Yet how can David move beyond acceptance of Saul’s death to mourning his flawed predecessor as “Israel’s glory” (19)? After all, his predecessor’s death clears the way for him to finally become Israel’s king. So how can he speak of the Saul who repeatedly tried to kill him, as “loved and gracious” (23)?
David recognizes that Saul was not just Israel’s king, but also “the Lord’s anointed” (14). He also knows that God had told Samuel not only to “give Israel a king,” but also told to anoint Saul to “govern” God’s people. Israel’s next ruler knows, in other words, that God, not Samuel or anyone else had made Saul his predecessor.
In asserting that, David foreshadows the claim made by Paul in Romans 13. “The authorities that exist have been established by God,” he writes. “Consequently he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.”
Reformed and other professions of faith make similar claims about rulers. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism professes that God expects us to honor, love and be loyal to “all those in authority over us.” God even challenges us to be “patient with their failings.”
Those who have flawed parents, bosses and political leaders know that’s not always easy. Often, after all, those in authority don’t deserve our honor, love and loyalty. And when those authorities claim authority that God reserves for God alone, God expects us to obey not those authorities, but God.
So Christians may have to disobey those whom God places in authority over us when their demands conflict with God’s. However, people who recognize those in authority as God’s servants never do so lightly. And they certainly don’t kill authorities like Saul, however despotic, easily.
David’s angry reaction to Saul’s murder reveals the kind of righteousness that stands in stark contrast to Saul’s disobedience. It, after all, shows that he remains loyal to Saul even when the king’s death benefits him. David shows that he will largely be a king after God’s heart by grieving over the king who had tried to kill him.
Yet before David becomes king, he leads the public mourning for Saul and Jonathan. He poignantly expresses the grief of both the Israelite community and him. David is very generous in his praise of Saul and Jonathan. In fact, in their death, he even overlooks the tensions between them over David. David graciously remembers them as united in life as well as in death.
David also grieves for Saul and Jonathan together because of their joint defense of Israel in its desperate fight against the Philistines. These enemies have been persistent aggressors ever since Israel entered the land of promise. David mourns that Saul and Jonathan had to lay down their lives to defend their besieged country.
Yet David also pauses to remember Saul and Jonathan individually. He grieves for Saul as the one who provided for his people. David also mourns the loss of the deep friendship and loyalty of Jonathan.
However, David doesn’t ignore death’s brutality and finality. He describes the ugly details of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths with imagery of battle and blood. David’s haunting refrain, “How the mighty have fallen!” both honors the dead and makes their death real. He won’t, after all, let Israel just deny its grief so that it can blithely move on.
David also recognizes that Saul and Jonathan’s death have a profound impact on their survivors. The victors will gloat the way they usually do. However, David calls the defeated Israelites to remember and grieve for their king and his son. Though the Philistines’ daughters rejoice, David invites Israel’s daughters to weep in their role as the community’s mourners.
So can we learn anything about proper expressions of grief from David’s eloquent eulogy? First, as Brueggemann notes, it reminds us that words do matter. Christians try to find the right words that will let us genuinely experience, process and even embrace life’s sometimes-jagged edges.
In a culture that struggles to express its grief, God’s adopted sons and daughters remember that words are, in many ways, at the very heart of the church’s life. Our society prefers to silence all serious speech, gloss over genuine loss and even deny all real grief. Yet when our talk about death and loss is shrunk to either silence or mere clichés, we diminish life itself. David, by contrast, is willing to talk honestly about life’s limits and violence’s cost.
Secondly, as Brueggemann also notes, David’s poem signals our need to get beyond our own fear, guilt and even enmity to speak graciously of the dead. David is able to get past his own issues to focus with and for the community on the life and death of Saul and Jonathan.
By acknowledging, respecting and voicing Israel’s grief, he asserts that Israel may not simply move on. While self-interest plagues David as much as anyone, God helps him to both think outside of and speak beyond himself.
Thirdly, Brueggemann continues, David’s elegant elegy reminds us that we live in a society that is deeply engaged in self-deception. We often prefer to pretend that everything is “all right.” Yet we remain a troubled society that has much unprocessed hurt.
As Brueggemann notes, Americans, for example, have not yet fully reconciled with the residual hurt of evils like slavery and segregation. We still haven’t fully faced the ghosts of anti-Semitism that found life in the Holocaust. We’ve not yet fully plumbed the depths of the horror of the Vietnam War.
God’s adopted sons and daughters follow a suffering Savior who graciously gave his life on the cross for us. We follow the One who suffered unimaginable pain when the authorities unjustly executed him and his heavenly Father abandoned him. Christians follow one who, in other words, knew all about suffering and death.
So outsiders sometimes celebrate death. Insiders like us largely continue to go about our daily business without noticing the heavy cost of death. So who will lament even the deaths of the ordinary saints with whom God graciously surrounds us? Who will dare to sing for us about friendships broken, loss unspoken, greatness overwhelmed by death?
When we don’t sing of our grief, as well our faith in the midst of it, we end up like the Philistines in their self-deception. When, however, we sing our grief like David did, we remember that we have lost something wherever people around us have lost.
So Christians look for ways to honestly sing the psalter’s psalms of lament, to give voice to the grief and anguish we sometimes feel. We search for ways to honestly sing, even in the midst of death. 2 Samuel 1 reminds us that death, after all, doesn’t have to render God’s adopted sons and daughters silent.
Our culture wants to pretend that the mighty never fall and that the glory is never killed. David, as Brueggemann eloquently notes near the end of his commentary on 2 Samuel 1, “knew better, sang better, and acted better. And so could we.”
In 2004 the American Friends Service Committee assembled Eyes Wide Open, its traveling Iraq war memorial. The exhibit consisted of thousands of pairs of shoes, lined up in rows, representing all the servicemen and –women killed in Iraq.
While the exhibit generated a great deal of controversy, few denied that its message about the cost of war was poignant. In a society that generally prefers not to think or talk about war’s victims, the exhibit powerfully reminded us that war kills and maims people. It, like David, gives voice to the grief that all of us should feel over the high cost of war.
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