The Politics of the Death of the Nation’s Beloved—2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 (Alastair Roberts)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

The book of Samuel’s unembarrassed portrayal of a form of political rule suffused by eros—a politics displayed in David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan—may provide an illuminating challenge to our attempts to pursue a rational politics beyond such dynamics.

1After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag.

17David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. 18(He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: 19Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! 20Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. 21You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. 22From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. 23Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. 24O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. 25How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. 26I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. 27How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!

David’s reaction to the news of the death of Saul may surprise some readers of First Samuel, in which Saul mercilessly pursues David and seeks his life. Rather than rejoicing at Saul’s comeuppance, or expressing relief at the removal of his adversary, David pours out his heart in lament over the loss of Israel’s king. Within David’s expression of distress over the death of Saul and Jonathan some profound yet underappreciated truths about the character of political leadership is exposed.

David’s song of lament is entitled ‘the Song of the Bow’ (verse 18). This suggests a particular emphasis upon the death of Jonathan, who is associated with the bow as a weapon both within the song (verse 22) and within the narrative of Samuel more broadly (1 Samuel 18:4; 20:17-40). Indeed, as we look at the song more closely, this accent upon lamenting the death of Jonathan may be borne out in its structure and content.

Peter Leithart observes that verses 19-25 of the song form a chiasm:[1]

A                   glory/beauty/gazelle slain; mighty fallen, v.19
B                 Daughters of Philistia do not rejoice: no offerings to Dagon, v.20
C               Fallen shield, v.21
C’              Bow and sword in life, v.22-23
B’                Daughters of Israel, weep: contrast to the Philistine women, v.24
A’                  Mighty fallen; Jonathan slain on heights, v.25

The parallel between verse 19 and verse 25 might suggest that Jonathan is the glory, beauty, or ‘gazelle’ of Israel that David speaks of as slain upon the high places. Jonathan is the fleet-footed warrior (cf. verse 23), like Asahel in the chapter that follows (2:18). The swift gazelle leaping and skipping in the mountains appears as a romantic image for the Beloved in the Song of Solomon:

The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.—Song of Solomon 2:8-9a

The image of the gazelle reappears in 2:17 and also in the concluding lines of the song (8:14). Jonathan is Israel’s gazelle, the beloved of the people and their glory. His death robs Israel of its bridegroom and favourite son.

David is concerned that the deaths of Saul and Jonathan will be cause for rejoicing among the Philistines. He calls upon the land itself to mourn with him over the fallen Saul and Jonathan—‘You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields!’—who, like strong lions and swift eagles, were jewels crowning its mountains.

The weapons of Saul and Jonathan—the bow, the sword, and the shield—metonymically relate to Saul and Jonathan themselves: Jonathan is the bow and Saul is the sword and the fallen anointed shield (verses 21-22). David’s song concludes with the declaration that the ‘weapons of war perished.’ Leithart observes: ‘The Lord’s anointed king is the shield for his people. Jonathan and Saul not only had weapons but were weapons, but now they lie unused and useless on the heights of Gilboa.’[2] Sacrificial themes also play beneath the surface of the song: Jonathan and Saul offer up blood and fat (verse 22) and they are slain on the ‘high places’. Gilboa is called upon not to provide ‘fields of offerings’ (verse 21).

Throughout the song, David refers to Saul and Jonathan in a way that presents them as romantic figures. Their physicality and virility are prominent throughout: they are described as possessing the strength and speed of majestic animals, identified with the action of their weapons, and described as beloved and pleasant. While David wishes that the daughters of Philistia would not rejoice at Saul and Jonathan’s demise, he calls upon the daughters of Israel to weep over Saul. Saul is like a father or a bridegroom to the daughters of Israel, who dresses them in the finest apparel.

The song does not end with the conclusion of the chiasm. David’s personal grief at the death of his friend Jonathan overflows into a heart-wrenching declaration of the love between them. Jonathan, although about thirty years David’s senior and the crown prince of Israel, had symbolically handed over his status to David (1 Samuel 18:3-4), been loyal to David to the point of risking his life, and had saved David from death (1 Samuel 20).[3] Jonathan’s love for David was remarkable: he had demonstrated a devotion to David far beyond any woman.

David’s song reveals some of the deeper dynamics of political leadership. The leadership described in his song is romantic and erotic; the relationship between the king and his son and their people is shot through with love and desire. Israel’s beloved gazelle, Jonathan, has perished on the high places and her daughters mourn the loss of the king who dressed them for marriage. A land filled with the burgeoning life of awakened love now falls into the barrenness of mourning.

Romantic and erotic themes are present throughout the narrative of Samuel and the early kingdom. Leaders are noted for their arresting physical appearance and by the desire and love that they provoke. Saul is head and shoulders above all of the people, more handsome than any other in Israel (1 Samuel 9:2). David is ruddy, bright-eyed, and good-looking (1 Samuel 16:12, 18). Solomon’s physical appearance is a prominent theme within his song. The king is the lover, the bridegroom, the husband of his people—a theme that is powerfully illustrated by the Song of Solomon. Around these figures cluster all of the ingredients of great romance: tales of derring-do, the composition and playing of music, a fecundity of poetic imagery, and the affection and attention of young women.

David and Solomon are the archetypal kings, not on account of military might or prowess, but because they are the great lovers of Israel. David’s story is one of power gained through the winning of people’s love. Saul loved him (1 Samuel 16:21); Jonathan loved him (18:1-4); the women of Israel loved him (18:6-7); Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved him (18:28); all of Israel and Judah loved him (18:16). David—whose name means ‘beloved’—is loved by God and expresses a deep love in return. As Augustine once observed, “Cantare amantis est” (Sermon 336): it is the lover who sings and David is the sweet singer of Israel, the one in whom Israel’s devotion to YHWH bursts forth into the joy of song.

The friendship between David and Jonathan reflects David’s gaining of power through love.[4] The story of their love begins with the young David being taken from his father’s house and brought into the house of Saul, much as a bride would be (1 Samuel 18:2), and as Jonathan initiates a covenant with him. David’s attractive appearance—ruddy, and bright-eyed—is not the arresting masculinity of Saul’s great stature and physique, but a softer, more feminine one. However, after stripping himself of the garments that displayed his royal masculine status and giving them to David, Jonathan, who formerly distinguished himself as a man on the battlefield, stays at home, is paralleled with Michal (1 Samuel 18:28; 19:1), is cast as a ‘mama’s boy’ (1 Samuel 20:30), and becomes more dependent upon David in emotional and material ways. Meanwhile, the text masculinizes David, who goes out and fights in the most virile fashion, obtaining two hundred foreskins from the Philistines. Yaron Peleg observes that the literary portrayal of David and Jonathan’s relationship in gendered imagery serves the purpose of highlighting the political reversal whereby David is established as husband and father for the nation in Jonathan’s place.[5]

Within David’s song of lament, we witness the romance and eros of political leadership. This romantic political lament is not without modern parallel. Jackie Kennedy’s appropriation of the line from the musical, ‘Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot’ describes one such tragic modern political romance in a manner redolent of David’s lament. Though it often evades our analysis, contemporary politics is suffused with such eros and romance. The countless dollars expended on political advertising and the careful cultivation of image are designed, not principally to inform the public, but to evoke their love and desire. We vote for our leaders, not merely for their policies and competence, but for their charm, charisma, personal magnetism, likeability, virility or attractiveness, and other such factors. We attend to their physicality, to their personal ‘presence’, and to their image. Incumbencies can play out like love affairs, with a ‘honeymoon period’ followed by a cooling of affections.

The book of Samuel’s unembarrassed treatment of the dimensions of romance and eros in its account of political rule may provoke our enlightened judgment, leery as we are of the superficiality of ‘image-based’ politics. We may appeal to YHWH’s example of looking beyond the outward appearance (1 Samuel 16:7), searching for virtues such as economic prudence, political intelligence, and the like. Yet the rest of the text of the book of Samuel suggests that, in choosing a leader, God looked primarily for a fitting lover for his people and that even though the appearance of such a person wasn’t sufficient to fit them for rule, it wasn’t unimportant either. Perhaps in our pretensions to a rationality that exceeds the eros of politics we leave ourselves unprepared to reckon with its necessary presence and hence more vulnerable to its vicissitudes. Reflection upon the ‘erotic’ politics of Samuel may prove salutary, alerting us to its continuing power and importance in our own day.


[1] Peter Leithart, A Son To Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003), 164-165
[2] Ibid. 164
[3] The age difference between David and Jonathan can roughly be guessed at from the fact that Jonathan was already active as a military commander early in Saul’s reign (1 Samuel 13:1-2).
[4] The following remarks draw heavily upon the work of Yaron Peleg, ‘Love at First Sight? David, Jonathan, and the Politics of Gender,’ JSOT 30:2, 171-189.
[5] Ibid. 189

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