A Time to Mourn
David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan.
On this day when we Canadians celebrate our country we often reflect upon the blessings of the way of life we share; blessings that most of the time we take for granted. In point of fact we Canadians have many blessings that will go unremarked upon today. Think about our elections, for example. When one political party is elected with enough seats to be called upon to form the next government, sometimes replacing the political party that has been in power, there is a peaceful handing over of the reins of government. We take this peaceful transition of power almost for granted. There is no bloodshed; no one has to die for a new regime to emerge. This situation is not this case in many countries in our world. According to a 2016 report by a South Korean think tank, North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un had executed more than 340 people since taking power in 2011.
Political life for David and Saul and Jonathan was not like Canada and while executions to secure power was part of the landscape they didn’t rise to North Korean levels. But someone had to die for a new king to emerge. Saul was Israel’s first king. Jonathan was Saul’s first born son whom Saul expected would succeed him on the throne. You will recall the story of David and Goliath when an earlier battle was won against the aggression of the Philistines securing Israel’s ongoing independence. The Philistines tried again to conquer Israel and in this battle on Mount Gilboa Saul and Jonathan lost their lives. (As you heard in the video), the Philistines ruled the city of Beth-shan and they hung their bodies on the walls of the city to celebrate the killing of Israel’s king. (1 Samuel 31:1-13) David didn’t fight in this battle because of a rift between him and King Saul. Saul perceived, rightly so, that David was a threat to his intention that Jonathan would succeed him on the throne. Saul tried to eliminate David on more than one occasion so David went into hiding.
The text we read of David’s lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan is part of the story of David’s response to receiving the news that Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle. David could have cynically seen this news as the political deck being cleared, so to speak, making the way for him to take charge. To be sure, David emerges as Israel’s next king. But first, David writes a beautiful elegy for Saul and Jonathan that he insists be taught and sung by the people of Judah (the tribe David comes from). This poem in Hebrew is a beautiful poem but much of its beauty in Hebrew is lost when translated to other language (often the case for poetry). Clearly the deaths of Saul and Jonathan called from David to be at his creative best.
Many of you will know of another biblical poem; this one written by David’s son Solomon. It begins, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) One of the times enumerated was “a time to mourn.” It is in just such a time that we find David. I invite you to reflect with me about our own times to mourn as we probe this elegy that David writes for Saul and Jonathan. I remind you of a saying of Jesus—“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
1. I invite you to take note of the sense of loss to which David gives expression. “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!” David declares that in the deaths of Saul and Jonathan Israel has suffered a great loss and within that he acknowledges his own personal sense of loss. He probes and explores the loss suffered. I know it seems a little like stating the obvious that the place of mourning is the place of a keen sense of loss; but if it is so obvious why are we so reluctant to talk about our losses? We might say, “I’m sorry for your loss” but are generally afraid to talk about the loss any further for fear of causing harm or discomfort.
A few years ago the 16 year-old son of one of my first cousins was killed in a car accident on his way home from playing in a hockey game; the driver of the other vehicle was intoxicated. You can imagine the great sense of loss felt by the family. There is nothing that can make such a tragedy un-tragic. It was a couple of years after this boy’s death that we were gathered at a family reunion. This cousin and his wife were present. You know well the hesitancy we would have to engage them in conversation fearing we are going to have to broach the difficult subject not knowing quite what we should say. I remember clearly watching my wife walk over to them and ask directly how they were doing in the wake of this great loss. And then this explosion of conversation that followed as if the some blockage in a pipe had been loosened so water could finally gush out. This mom and dad just wanted to talk about their son and have somebody ask about him; somebody to acknowledge that his life mattered and that a great loss had occurred when he died.
We can learn something from David’s elegy about acknowledging loss. I remind you that the assertion of the gospel is that death is an enemy of life; it is nobody’s friend. Yes, there are those moments in the final stages of life when the frailties and vagaries of disease have overtaken us such that we would welcome death; even so those frailties and illnesses are death’s errand boys. The Apostle Paul, in his great tome on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, declares that the last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15:26) Death destroys. Death is not the friend that releases you as if bodily life were some prison house to floating free and unrestrained. It is Jesus Christ who defeated death and renders this enemy that seeks to destroy you a doorway from life to life in him. When a loved one dies there is a loss—a real loss, not a pretend loss. According to the gospel truth that Jesus died and rose for our lives, when we lose someone from the theatre of earthly life there is loss because their presence in life mattered; mattered enough to God to save us.
You will notice that in David’s elegy Saul and Jonathan are named. He speaks about the dead by name. Individuals matter. It a few years before this event God spoke to Samuel, Israel’s prophet and priest, that he was to go and anoint a new King for Israel. God sent him to the family of Jesse (David’s father); one of Jesse’s eight sons was to be anointed. After seven of the sons came before Samuel and God indicated that none of them were the “one”, Samuel asked Jesse if all his sons were there. He had one more, the youngest who has the unenviable task of caring for the family sheep herd. So they called him. David came in from the field and God said he’s the one. God not only knows us by name but he knows us as individuals completely.
According to the gospel, individuals matter. No clone of you will ever be found. No substitute for you will ever come into existence. David names Saul and Jonathan. When you go to a funeral or a funeral visitation you want to say something helpful but wonder sometimes what that might be. After we express sympathy for their loss then want do we say? I think we can find help here in David’s lamentation for Saul and Jonathan. Speak about the person who has been lost in death. Have ready in your mind a story of your relationship with their loved one and share it. If you didn’t know the person yourself ask about them—read the obituary or look at the pictures around the room and ask a loved one about some aspect of these. Let them tell you of their loved one.
2. I would like to take few moments to reflect on David’s regard for King Saul. David’s friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan is legendary. From that day of David’s victory over Goliath Jonathan and David’s souls were bound to each other; Jonathan appears to know that David is destined to be Israel’s next king (I Samuel 18:1-5, their friendship a subject for another sermon). But David’s relationship with Saul, though, is filled with trouble.
Saul was a man who struggled with dark moods—we might say today that he suffered bouts of depression. David first comes into Saul’s service through his skill in playing the harp; David would play for Saul during those dark moments to help lift his spirit. (1 Samuel 16:14-16) Even so Saul was able to lead Israel is such a way as to preserve Israel from total defeat at the hands of the Philistines. Saul’s leadership was an important first step toward freedom from foreign enemies and a stable government. David knew that he stood on Saul’s shoulders as he came to be king.
But Saul’s jealousy of David’s abilities as a military leader lead Saul to perceive David as a threat to him and to his desire that Jonathan succeed him as king. So he tried to kill David on more than one occasion. And yet David speaks of him in the elegy in lofty terms—“your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon you high places,” Is David being disingenuous; merely following some custom of not speaking ill of the dead? I think not.
There is this incident where Saul was hunting David down and Saul went into a cave to relive himself. It was the very cave in which David was hiding and while he was attending to the matters of the toilet David could easily have killed him. But he didn’t. David refused to do such a thing; in his own words, he refused to touch the Lord’s anointed. (1 Samuel 24:1-7) David’s regard for Saul was profoundly influenced by God’s regard for Saul as God’s appointed king. Remember that God’s eventual rejection of Saul as king is not God casting Saul aside as no longer his own. God chastises Saul because Saul is his own.
And isn’t this the truth for all of us? We all are a mixture having noble things in our lives and the not-so-noble things. David’s elegy for Saul and Jonathan isn’t David saying that God should accept them into heaven because of their noble exploits; somehow trying to convince God to see that the good outweighed the bad. David knows them to be God’s people. Our acknowledging the noble in a loved one’s life in eulogy isn’t to ask God to take note of what God already knows. It is to offer thanks to God for the noble God has enabled through them that will serve God’s eternal purposes to save.
3. I remarked earlier (above) about the beauty of the poem David writes and how in translation some of that beauty is lost. Still some shines through and one aspect of the beauty that shines is the way in which the shape of the poem serves the message of the poem. When someone is sharing sad news with you the genuineness of that news is often seen in their face. When facial expression matches the message it comes across with emphasis. When sad news is shared with a sad expression we know it is much more readily evident how to interpret the news. In a way the shape of this poem, like a facial expression, matches its message.
The poem has three stanzas each with the words “how the mighty have fallen” in the header. The first stanza is the longest reflecting on Saul and Jonathan and their leadership. The second stanza is much shorter and focuses on the loss of David’s friendship with Jonathan. The third stanza is two sentences speaking of Saul and Jonathan as the weapons of war that perished. Each succeeding stanza says less and less as if the author has less and less to say in the face of death. Like a worship service that begins with pomp and moves more and more contemplatively until there is silence. The shape of the poem is that the sting of death eventually renders us silent about ourselves if we only focus on ourselves. As the Psalmist said, “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. (Psalm 103:15-16)
I shared with you before how my six-year old grandson one day asked me, “do you miss your Dad.” His follow-up question was, “do you miss you Mom.” I of course do, but his question also highlighted for me that I didn’t think about them often. The press of responsibility and other things of a busy life leaves little time for reflection and I don’t set aside time to think about them—when I do it arises occasionally like when a grandchild poses a question. I hear people promise at funeral time to always remember their loved one. I don’t doubt their sincerity. The truth is we do forget because their place knows it no more.
So we are rendered silent; is there no more to be said about this matter of mourning? David had more to say. The one who penned this elegy for Saul and Jonathan also wrote many Psalms about the steadfast love of God. The more to be said is about God and his preservation of our life. The Lord is my shepherd—even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me—goodness and mercy shall follow all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (As hard as it is to imagine, there was a time when Canada didn’t exist; will it always exist? As grateful as we are to have lived here at our now of history the more to be said is always about God.)
And the ultimate of more to be said is by David’s greater son, Jesus Christ our Lord. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Amen.