The Mighty have Fallen!

Reading: 2 Samuel 1.1-27
Ours is an age of science and technology. We marvel at the many discoveries and advances that have been made. How different are our cars - and the roads they travel! Think of aircraft and the many thousands of people travelling every day. Space exploration is still very expensive - but part of reality. How much of the imaginings of the new science fiction will, in time, become reality?

Consider advances in medicine. On 3rd December 1967 Dr Christiaan Barnard performed the world's first heart transplant operation in the Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. The recipient, 55-year-old Louis Washkansky, survived only eighteen days. Many were sceptical that this could ever become an accepted procedure. I recall a broadcast on ABC radio in which Dr Barnard insisted that the only limit on human achievement is our imagination. He was sure that there is nothing we imagine that will not be achieved one day. That is a bold claim, but already his prediction of organ banks for a whole range of transplants has come to pass.

Yet our trust in "the mighty" has been shaken in our time. Not only has the communist ideal been shattered, but we see former communist states facing instability, social unrest and even war. We thought we were sexually liberated - but face the spectre of HIV and AIDS. We have unlocked some of the secrets and potential of the atom - and unleashed weapons of horrific mass-destruction. We have refined farming techniques and developed high-yield varieties - yet the world still faces starvation on a major scale.

I am not decrying scientific discoveries and developments in themselves. We all want the researchers to get on with it and find the right means of early diagnosis, prevention and cure for cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's… But finally we are to trust in God. We rightly mourn the failures of modern society, even as we seek a vital faith in God.

Saul and Jonathan

Saul was the first king of Israel. Samuel the prophet was very reluctant to give the people a king. But Saul made a promising beginning, we read, "God gave Saul a new nature… When Saul and his servant arrived at Gibeah, a group of prophets met him. Suddenly the spirit of God took control of him…" (1 Sam. 10.9-10). But Saul showed on at least three occasions that he had ceased to be a good king. The first was when he became impatient and took to himself the priestly office, offering sacrifice at Gilgal (13.7-10). The second was following the defeat of the Amalekites (ch. 15) when he sought ways of making a name for himself - setting up a monument to his own honour and keeping the fattest sheep and cattle. The third occasion was after Samuel's death when Saul went to the witch of Endor to try to consult with Samuel (ch. 28). Saul was rejected as king and Samuel had anointed David to be the next king (ch. 16). But, although Saul relentlessly pursued him, David maintained his honour for Saul as the anointed king and consistently refused to take Saul's life when he would have had opportunity to do so (1 Sam. 24.1-15; 26.1-20).

Saul's son, Jonathan, was David's close friend through all these years of persecution. They had made a solemn promise to one another - a promise of loyalty which they maintained through all the changing circumstances of the years.

But now at last Saul and his three sons have died in a battle against the Philistines. Regarding Saul's death we read at the end of 1 Samuel, "The fighting was heavy round Saul, and he himself was hit by enemy arrows and badly wounded. He said to the young man carrying his weapons, 'Draw your sword and kill me, so that these godless Philistines won't gloat over me and kill me.' But the young man was too terrified to do it. So Saul took his own sword and threw himself on it. The young man saw that Saul was dead, so he too threw himself on his own sword and died with Saul" (31.3-5).

The story is rather different from the report brought to David. "I happened to be on Mount Gilboa, and I saw that Saul was leaning on his spear and that the chariots and horsemen of the enemy were closing in on him. Then he turned round, saw me, and called to me. I answered, 'Yes, sir!' He asked who I was, and I told him that I was an Amalekite. Then he said, 'Come here and kill me! I have been badly wounded, and I'm about to die.' So I went up to him and killed him, because I knew that he would die anyway as soon as he fell. Then I took the crown from his head and the bracelet from his arm, and I have brought them to you, sir" (2 Sam. 1.6-10).

The story was fabricated, possibly with the thought that he might stand favourably with David for killing his enemy. David was not pleased and the fabricated story cost the man his life - how dare he kill the Lord's chosen king? (v. 14)


David grieved the passing of his enemy and persecutor Saul, as well as of his dear friend Jonathan. Though one had offered hatred and the other true friendship, he mourned them both.

"On the hills of Israel our leaders are dead! The bravest of our soldiers have fallen!" (v. 19) But don't let the Philistines gloat over this!

"May no rain or dew fall on Gilboa's hills; may its fields be always barren! For the shields of the brave lie there in disgrace; the shield of Saul is no longer polished with oil" (v. 21). The deaths had occurred on Mount Gilboa (1 Sam. 31). In fact his armour was displayed as a trophy in the temple of Ashtaroth, the goddess of fertility (v. 10) - taken as a sign by the Philistines that their god was more powerful than Yahweh.

"Saul and Jonathan, so wonderful and dear; together in life, together in death; swifter than eagles, stronger than lions" (v. 23). Is this the Saul who had pursued David? or is David remembering the days when Saul was a good king? We recall the honour in which David had kept Saul. Even a bad king has good in him. When we hear Paul's call for us to give "respect and honour" to the state authorities (Rom. 13. 1-7), we need to remember that they were pagan and ruthless, with complicity, not only for Jesus' death, but for the deaths of many Christians as well - yes, in time for Paul's death too! There was good to remember in Saul - he had brought luxury and bounty to his people (v. 24). In spite of the deep division of father and son over their attitude to David, David sees them now "together in life, together in death."

David sums up the years of his life-long friendship with Jonathan with the words, "I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan; how dear you were to me! How wonderful was your love for me, better even than the love of women" (v. 26). David was experiencing real grief - a grief shared with all his men (vv. 11-12).

In his later years, C.S. Lewis, a confirmed bachelor, married Joy Davidman Gresham, an American poet. Their love grew deeper and richer during Joy's illness, from which she had a remission, but which was subsequently terminal. After her death, Lewis published A Grief Observed:

In bereavement there is an aloneness that nothing else can truly fill. David knew it. C.S. Lewis experienced it. One lives again, but life will never be the same.

In a wider sense, "How are the mighty fallen!" as the older translations put it. The very people and institutions in which we had put our trust, in whom we saw the possibilities both for stability and change.

"In the midst of life we are in death", the funeral directors remind us. Yet the discovery and affirmation of faith is that in the midst of death we find life. Death is pictured as the grim reaper, yet death isn't the final reality. God is the final reality - offering life and hope. And Jesus Christ - God the Son - is the final Word. Paul wrote, "I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below - there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8.38-39).

Jesus said, "Happy are those who mourn; God will comfort them!" (Matt. 5.4) Let us put our trust, our confidence in him!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 25 July 1999
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.

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