Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 27, 2021
2 Samuel 1:1,17-27 Commentary
This is a strange and tough text to preach on, until you look at it through the lens of our contemporary situation, particularly in America. One of the hard realities of this past year was “the presence of [our] enemies,” as David put it in his most famous Psalm.
Let me put this text in sharper focus by asking if you can imagine Donald Trump or Joe Biden singing the words of our text at the funeral of the other. That’s what we have here—a funeral dirge, a sung eulogy, an elegy. We live in a time when political opponents are minimized at least (think “Sleepy Joe” or “Crooked Hilary”) and demonized at worst, so that we see “the Others” as mortal enemies whose victory will mean the destruction of our whole society.
David didn’t look at his political opponents that way, certainly not Jonathan, the King’s son and heir to the throne God has promised to David, and not even Saul, the current, crazy King. Heaven knows that David has abundant reason to minimize and demonize Saul. There was a lot of tortured history between them, mostly from Saul’s side.
When we last saw David (in our reading last week from I Samuel 17), the new secretly anointed King David had defeated the Philistine giant and led the Israelite army in a rout of their enemies. Saul had taken David into his house and under his wing, where David and Jonathon became fast friends, one of the great biblical “bromances.”
Saul’s feelings about David soon changed. Driven by an obsessive jealousy, he became David’s mortal enemy, trying to pin him to the wall with a spear and then pursuing David all over the Promised Land in an effort to capture and perhaps kill him. This went on for months, even years. Our reading from the Psalms (130) today could be taken as David’s plea for deliverance as he ran for his life.
In the last chapter of I Samuel, Saul and Jonathan are locked in combat with the Philistines. Jonathon is killed outright and Saul is mortally wounded. As the Philistine close in for what would be a messy kill, he asks his armor bearer to kill him. When the terrified soldier refuses, Saul falls on his own sword. So, David’s worst enemy and closest friend lie dead on the mountain called Gilboa, unbeknownst to David.
David has been fighting the Amalekites who had plundered the town of Ziklag. In an alliance forged of necessity, David had joined forces with the Philistines and had utterly annihilated the Amalekites. Upon returning to Ziklag, David hears the news that his enemy (Saul) and his friend (Jonathan) have been killed by the Philistines.
Rather than breaking into a victory dance and singing “Happy Days are Here Again,” David breaks into tears, tears his clothes in mourning, kills the Amalekite who falsely claimed he had killed Saul, pens this funeral dirge, and teaches it to his entire army to be sung in perpetuity. I ask again. Can you imagine Trump or Biden or the Proud Boys or Antifa singing that song upon learning that their enemy and his family have died?
The way David refers to Saul is nearly incomprehensible, while his words about Jonathon are nearly embarrassing. He refers to both as “The Mighty.” Three times he wails, “How the Mighty have fallen.” He praises the military prowess of both in verses 22 and 23a. Beyond that he calls them “the glory of Israel,” and sings of the blessings they (and especially Saul) had brought to Israel (verse 24). In spite of all evil that Saul had done to David, David sings well of the dead, even as he curses the Philistines and the place where they killed Saul. Can you imagine Trump or Biden doing that? Can I imagine me doing that? How could David do it?
It is much easier to see why David would lament Jonathon’s death as he does, though the words he uses have raised all kind of questions about their relationship, especially in our sex crazed culture. Jonathon was like family to David; he calls him his brother. But David also speaks of Jonathon’s love, calling it “more wonderful than that of women.” In our culture, people have a difficult time imagining intimacy without sex, so these words sound like homosexual love.
But, given David’s lifelong proclivity for women and given the way Jonathon had expressed his love for David, that conclusion feels like an imposition of contemporary biases on an ancient text. Jonathon’s love had taken the form of self-sacrifice, not sex. He gave up his own claim to the throne to support David and literally saved his life on more than one occasion.
Some scholars explain the intimate wording of David’s song by pointing to the way women loved men in that ancient culture. That love was either for sex and procreation or for familial and political advantage (arranged marriages). There was little emotional support in that kind of love, claim these scholars, whereas Jonathon’s love for David was the kind of strong emotional bonding that occurs between men in combat type situations. For these reasons, we should not read sexuality into David’s expression of this brotherly love between himself and Jonathon.
It is more difficult to account for David’s grief over Saul’s passing, given all the grief Saul had brought on him. How can we explain it? Well, some scholars cynically say that David was simply covering his backside here. By expressing public grief David was astutely signaling that he had no role in Saul’s decline and demise. This was a political gesture, say these scholars. But once again, I think that is imposing our current political cynicism on an old story. Besides, there are better explanations of this inexplicable grief.
For one thing, as David says again and again in his encounters with Saul, he saw the mad King as “the Lord’s anointed” (II Samuel 1:14, 16, and I Samuel 24:6 and 26:9). David knew that God has chosen Saul and anointed him to be king. God himself had placed Saul in that exalted position, and David respected Saul for that very reason—for Yahweh’s sake. Thus, he never tried to take the crown from Saul’s head, even though God had also anointed David. He knew that he had to respect God’s will and timing. (There is an early echo of Romans 13 here.)
Of course, it is harder for us to grieve the decline and death of our enemies today because we don’t have the same direct assurance that God has anointed them, in spite of the certitude some Christians had about Donald Trump as God’s chosen one. Even with a Romans 13 perspective on our elected leaders, we feel free to not only oppose them, but also to rejoice when they fall. That is simply the reality of a democracy.
The only way we can be like David with respect to our enemies is to believe, as David apparently did, that God is providentially involved even in our conflicts. Patricia Dutcher-Walls puts it this way. “As modern readers, we might note David’s ability to see and trust a larger providence despite the current and clouded swirl of circumstances.” David knew that the Lord was with him each step of the way (I Samuel 16: 13). Even outside observers could see that (cf. I Samuel 16:18). Thus, to grieve our opponents as David did, we’ll need to believe that God is sovereign over their lives and even over what they have done to us. We can mourn for them because they are part of God’s plan.
But that is very hard to do when we see them as “Sleepy Joe” or “The Orange Head” or as agents of the Devil (as one evangelical preacher labelled the Democrats). The only remedy for such a situation is Jesus, who taught us very specifically to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us.
And if Jesus’ words of command are not enough to move us beyond our personal experience and our political affiliation, his life and death should be more than enough. As Paul put it in Romans 5:10, “when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son….” If God so loved us, we also should love one another—not only our beloved Jonathon’s, but also those bothersome, demented Saul’s.
As we strive to follow Jesus through Ordinary Time, enemies are a reality of life. God insists on “preparing a table before [us] in the presence of [our] enemies.” In our text for today, Jesus’ most famous ancestor shows us how Jesus’ followers should deal with the decline and fall of their worst enemies. If we did this, the world be a different place. Why, it might even begin to resemble the Kingdom of God, where the fallen mighty are praised to the highest heaven, for Jesus sake.
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