I offer something quite different this week. What follows is a portion of a novel, “King David,” that I hope someday to publish as a sequel to my 2014 work, King Saul. I hope you enjoy it as a reflection on todays’s text.
David began his march toward the throne in the way one might imagine a well-known and well-loved singer would do; he wrote a poem and set the poem to the very finest of his new tunes, “The Song of the Bow.” It was similar to the tune that had served the infamous ditty about Saul slaughtering thousands, and David ten thousands, but David imagined that no better tune than this one could be chosen. That tune was on the lips of nearly everyone in Israel and was even known by the Philistines, since they had sung it when first David had appeared in Achish’s court so long ago. This new tune, similar in meter and tone to the familiar one, would easily and quickly be learned by any who heard it.
Though the earlier ditty was a song of triumph, David wrote a lament this time, turning his tune into a darker mood, plucking the lower strings of his harp to create a somber series of tones. The poem had to be perfect, because David had several intentions for it. He wanted the song to have multiple audiences. Israel first and foremost had to hear it and love it. Then too especially those of Saul’s followers who were deeply saddened and shocked by the terrible death of the king must hear the song, too. David even had Philistines in mind as he wrote, because he needed to make it clear that he was first and last an Israelite, and though he had spent nearly eighteen moons in a Philistine city, the last of the time during which Saul and Israel’s forces had been obliterated on Gilboa, he was also horrified and staggered and infuriated by the defeat, as dejected as any of his Israelite brothers and sisters. The song, he hoped, would make all of this clear to all those who heard it. All these thoughts flowed through his mind as he labored over the poem. It had to be just right to speak in power to all those very different groups!
He composed the song soon after the murder of the Amalekite who brought the news of Israel’s defeat and the death of Saul and his sons. The blood of the dead fool still stained the floor of David’s tent, and the chieftain commanded that it not be completely obliterated; he wanted to be reminded that even the life of a glorious warrior could be brief, snuffed out by a hidden blade or a soaring spear. David wrote the piece throughout the night of the defeat and into the next day. The lament was on the surface at least a cry of pain over the death of Saul and Jonathan. Saul’s continuous attempts to murder David had made their relationship in fact nonexistent, and it would have been very easy to gloat over the king’s horrendous death, to repeat those harsh words that appear at the end of the famous and very ancient Song of Deborah, celebrating the end of all enemies of Israel: “So die all your enemies, O YHWH!” That song recounts the victory over a king of Canaan named Jabin, and records the slaughter of the Canaanite general, Sisera by means of a tent peg driven into his skull by a dissembling woman named Jael, and the forlorn cries of the general’s mother as she waits in vain for his return from the battle. War is a nasty business, as David well knew, consisting of parades to battle, the lies of battle, and the anguished cries of grieving women whose men have fallen in battle. But war was a massive part of the life of any who tried to survive on the rocky heights of the hill country of Israel, and could rarely be avoided.
So David had to make the war a significant part of his song. He sang and sang, trying words, discarding them, and searching for new ones. The Israelite camp at Ziklag was filled with the sounds pouring from David’s tent, and many a soldier slept at the singing of their leader and then started awake as the tune continued to flow from the lyre’s strings. After David finally had it as he wanted, after many trials and many errors and changes, he gathered his men together, just before the sun was straight overhead, and sang the song to them.
The splendor, O Israel, on your heights lies slain,
How have the warriors fallen!
The word “splendor” struck David as just right. It can mean “glorious things,” like jewelry or holy temples or the cherubim of YHWH, but it can also be the designation of an especially wonderful and unforgettable person. On the heights of Gilboa, that splendid man, Saul, and his equally splendid son, Jonathan, unmatchable warriors both, have been killed. David was suspicious of the Amalekite’s story of his supposed murder of Saul, and imagined the king had probably been slain by the Philistines, but whoever Saul’s killers were, the verb “slain” tells the truth of his death, if not the cause of it. And naming Saul and Jonathan as “persons of splendor” would go a long way to repair whatever breaches between David and the two dead ones existed in the minds of at least some people in Israel.
Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the Philistine daughters rejoice,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised gloat.
David’s audience was now the Israelites, referring to those heathen with whom he was still living, but who he expected soon to leave behind on his one-way trip to the throne of Israel. They had served their purpose, keeping him safe from a rampaging Saul, and supplying him with a base from which he could secure wealth and stability for the quest for power. They were gullible fools, he thought, especially that gluttonous Achish, but David was grateful for what they had done for him, however little they had known about it. More importantly, Israel must know that David had no interest in Philistine celebration of Israel’s defeat, and the king’s death, and could not abide or countenance joy of any sort in Philistine towns. This fact, of course, was doubly important since he was writing this song in one of those very towns! He certainly did not want any reports about his Philistine sojourn “told in Gath,” though that is exactly where he had gone, twice, to hide from Saul and to begin to build his power.
O hills of Gilboa—no dew!
And no rain upon you, high-lifted fields.
For there the warriors’ shield was fouled,
the shield of Saul unannointed with oil.
David smiled as he wrote those lines. He loved the play of language, and however simple Hebrew appeared to be, its greatness was in its flexibility, its possible double and triple meanings. The image of a perpetually dry Gilboa, cursed by drought for its reception of the death of king and son, was a good one, but the shield image was better. Shields fouled in the mud of a battle site were a common enough occurrence, but the “unannointed” shield of Saul had a fine double sense. The phrase could mean “unburnished.” Every warrior knew that before battle it was wise to coat the shield with oil, so as to increase the possibility of deflecting arrow or spear from its slick surface. So, Saul’s unburnished shield could simply mean that no oil would ever coat it again. But the phrase was, more literally, “unannointed” in the sense of “messiah-less.” In that use of words, the shield of Saul becomes a living symbol of the death of the anointed of YHWH; Israel is now in truth without anointed one. Well, thought David with a smirk, not quite—he too was YHWH’s anointed, and the land would soon see the reality of that truth.
From the blood of the slain,
from the fat of the warriors—
Jonathan’s bow did not retreat,
and the sword of Saul never turned empty away.
Both Saul and Jonathan were superb fighters, who dealt out death to many a fleshy heathen warrior; they may have died, but they took many of the enemy with them into the realm of Sheol. But now for some very important lines.
Saul and Jonathan, beloved ones, dear ones,
in their life and in their death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles,
and stronger than lions.
This, of course, was at best a half-truth. Saul and his son parted completely over the rise and apparent threat of David to the throne of Israel, not to mention that Saul tried to murder his son at least twice. Both were, according to David, both “beloved and dear,” although David had no intention of naming specifically those who found them that way; he supposed there were many in Israel who did. The use of the eagle’s speed and the lion’s strength were somewhat clichéd but effective in their familiarity. It was crucial to make it plain that both Saul and his son had been exemplary in the arts of war, flattery easy to express now that they were dead.
O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
Who clothed you in scarlet and luxury,
Who adorned your clothing with golden jewelry.
David did not want the hated Philistines’ daughters to rejoice over the demise of Saul, so he began the poem by demanding that no Philistine be told of the great defeat. But Israel must know the truth in full and its daughters must weep. Saul was strange and too often unpredictable, but he deserves the tears of Israel’s sons and daughters. And never forget, Israel, David sang, that the great Saul once brought much luxurious booty from his multiple battles and handed it out to many in the land. It would not do to have Israel remember Saul only as a titanic man who late in life fell into melancholy brooding and murderous rages, though he surely did both. At the beginning of his reign he was every span a king, and thought David, the new king will also be fully monarchical, though, he imagined, without the murderous and dangerous moodiness of his predecessor.
How have the warriors fallen
in the midst of the battle.
A repetitious interlude is good, imagined David; it reiterates the fact of the death and its heroism in the heat of battle. In short, Saul and Jonathan are martyrs to the cause of YHWH.
Jonathan, slain on your heights!
I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan.
Very dear you were to me.
More wondrous your love for me,
than women’s love.
These lines needed a careful ear. David’s relationship to Saul’s son, Jonathan, was the subject of much talk and rumor. Saul himself had accused Jonathan of something quite sordid and tawdry with respect to David, going so far as to say Jonathan was not really his child, but the “son of a perverse woman,” some passing whore that Saul had impregnated one forgotten day. Not only that, Saul had then said that Jonathan’s actions with David had “uncovered the nakedness of his mother,” meaning that her female sexuality was mocked by the unseemly liaison between Jonathan and the blue-eyed upstart from Bethlehem.
In truth, David could not have described simply his relationship with Jonathan. Saul’s son had obviously been enamored with David, had given over his succession to the throne of Israel for him. Perhaps there was something not quite seemly about this from Jonathan’s side. Yet, David could not remember if he ever said that he loved Jonathan, though Jonathan had often enough said that of David. So, David sang that Jonathan was “dear” to him, a vague enough term to suggest serious friendship but nothing more, and he sang that Jonathan’s love “for him” was perhaps more wondrous than a woman’s love. That phrase, of course, implied nothing about any love that David had had for Jonathan. David left that uncomfortable theme with those lines and hoped that it would lay aside any dangerous ideas that had circulated about Jonathan and him.
How have the warriors fallen,
and the implements of battle been lost.
David ended his poem with a fine flourish. Yes, he had already said twice that the “warriors had fallen,” yet that is the center of the poem’s meaning; Saul and Jonathan, and all the soldiers with them, have died on Gilboa. But the final line leaves the singer with a marvelous image of that final falling. The battle gear is now lost, because their bearers are dead. Shields, bows, arrows, swords lie now unused on Gilboa, because Saul and Jonathan are dead on the hill. What better way to seal the harsh truth of the king’s death but with an image of unused and useless battle gear.
David plucked the final chord of the song and put his harp gently on the ground at his feet. He noted the deep silence that accompanied the ending of his song. Many of his strongest men wiped tears from their eyes as the song lead them to Gilboa, a place most had never seen, but a place now hallowed for them in the words and tune of the song their leader had composed. It was a song for them, for Israel, for the hated Philistines, and at the same time it hid within its cadences and nuances many political challenges that needed immediate address. Saul was dead, and he had no serious heir, since the likely heir, Jonathan, was also dead. However, two Saulide relatives were still living, though one was decidedly odd and the other was a cripple from a disastrous fall not long after the news of Saul’s death came to Gibeah. To these men who first heard David’s great song, it was more than obvious to them that the singer was the new king of the land. The song had rejected the Philistines completely; that chapter of David’s life was now closed. The song had also said that David had loved Saul, despite the king’s intent over and again to kill him. And he had loved Jonathan, or at the least held him dear. Saul and his son had fought long and valiantly for Israel, but their day was over. Israel was prime for a new leader, and both the men who heard the song and the one who sang it were convinced about just who that new leader must be. But there was much work to do to make that leadership a reality.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)