2. What an Amalekite is Dying to Tell David (2 Samuel 1:1-27)
Our text in this first chapter of 2 Samuel reminds me of the story of a young accident-prone American pilot. Everything the young man did always seemed to go wrong. He was stationed aboard an aircraft carrier during World War II, and there was considerable doubt whether this fellow would be allowed to fly, since no one knew what might happen. One particular day he was given a mission, and everything seemed to be going his way. He spotted and sunk a Japanese warship; then he shot down several Japanese Zeros. Out of ammunition and nearly out of fuel, the pilot was trying to return to his aircraft carrier, but he couldn’t locate it. Suddenly the clouds opened up, and there below him was an aircraft carrier. For once, his landing was flawless. With the plane secured, he jumped out and rushed up to the commanding officer, eager to share the details of his successful mission. He reported he had sunk a Japanese warship and downed several fighters -- to which the commander responded, “Ha So!” His successful mission ended with his flawless landing -- on a Japanese aircraft carrier.
This fighter pilot reminds me of the young Amalekite messenger in 2 Samuel 1, who approaches David hoping for a commendation, and even a monetary expression of David’s gratitude. He comes bearing tragic news of Israel’s defeat, expecting David to look upon the deaths of Saul and Jonathan as a great windfall, an unexpected blessing, which rids him of his enemy (Saul) and his competition (Jonathan), and clears the way for him to become king of Israel. Never in the world would he have expected David to respond as he does. Deeply moved by the news of the death of king Saul and his son, Jonathan, David does not respond with a sigh of relief, grateful that Saul, his enemy, is dead, and pleased to assume his place on the throne in Saul’s place. David grieves greatly, and upon learning that this young man has put Saul to death, he has him executed.
The author of our text very skillfully employs contrast to arouse our curiosity and to communicate a very important message. The first half of the chapter depicts the way the Amalekite deals with Saul. The last half shows the way David deals with Saul. On the basis of this contrast, the author explains why David deals with the Amalekite as he does. The first part of our text draws our attention to the young Amalekite, who arrives with torn clothing and the evidences of mourning, along with a report of Saul’s death and the symbols of Saul’s authority as king (his crown and his bracelet). He is the one who bears tidings of Israel’s defeat, of the death of many Israelites, and specifically of the deaths of Saul and his son Jonathan. His report results first in the mourning of David and his men, and then in the sentence of death for the messenger, who took Saul’s life. The latter part of the chapter contains the psalm of mourning David writes, which he recorded so that it might be taught to the sons of Judah. The central thrust of the chapter seems to be the contrast between the Amalekite and David, as well as the key to the lesson it conveys to the reader. We will give this contrast considerable attention as we attempt to grasp the meaning and the message of our text.
As we approach our text, we hardly sense that we have moved from one book to another, from 1 Samuel to 2 Samuel. The transition seems virtually seamless, which in fact it is in the original text. In the original text, there are not two books, 1 and 2 Samuel, but just one book, encompassing both. This one book in the Hebrew text was later divided by the translators of the Septuagint. Since the division of the book by the Septuagint, all subsequent Bibles have followed this precedent, calling these two books 1 and 2 Samuel. It is therefore very natural for us to move from 1 Samuel to 2 Samuel without even realizing it.
1 Now it came about after the death of Saul, when David had returned from the slaughter of the Amalekites, that David remained two days in Ziklag. 2 And it happened on the third day, that behold, a man came out of the camp from Saul, with his clothes torn and dust on his head. And it came about when he came to David that he fell to the ground and prostrated himself. 3 Then David said to him, “From where do you come?” And he said to him, “I have escaped from the camp of Israel.” 4 And David said to him, “How did things go? Please tell me.” And he said, “The people have fled from the battle, and also many of the people have fallen and are dead; and Saul and Jonathan his son are dead also.” 5 So David said to the young man who told him, “How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan are dead?” 6 And the young man who told him said, “By chance I happened to be on Mount Gilboa, and behold, Saul was leaning on his spear. And behold, the chariots and the horsemen pursued him closely. 7 “And when he looked behind him, he saw me and called to me. And I said, 'Here I am.' 8 “And he said to me, 'Who are you?' And I answered him, 'I am an Amalekite.' 9 “Then he said to me, 'Please stand beside me and kill me; for agony has seized me because my life still lingers in me.' 10 “So I stood beside him and killed him, because I knew that he could not live after he had fallen. And I took the crown which was on his head and the bracelet which was on his arm, and I have brought them here to my lord.”
David and his men are certainly grateful for the defeat of the Amalekites and the recovery of their families and possessions. But this victory must be overshadowed by David’s concern for what is taking place in Israel. When David left Achish to return to Ziklag, the Philistines had mounted a massive fighting force to attack Israel. David knows very well how awesome this military effort was, because he and his men marched in review at the end of the procession. From the time he parted paths with the Philistines, David must have been greatly concerned for Saul and his beloved friend Jonathan, not to mention the rest of his countrymen. During his pursuit of the Amalekite raiding party and the ensuing battle, David has little time to think about how things are going back in Israel. Now, for three days David and his men have been back in Ziklag wondering how the war is going, or perhaps, how it has already gone.
It is his third day back in Ziklag when a young man rushes into David’s camp all out of breath because he has been running for several days. He must have run something like 100 miles to reach David at Ziklag. His clothing almost tells it all, for it is torn and dust is upon his head. It is a sign of mourning. The news is not going to be good. Reaching David, this young man falls on the ground before him, prostrating himself as though approaching royalty, as though he is in the presence of a king.
David immediately begins to question the young man, first wanting to know from where he has traveled. David probably assumes the worst, but he asks a question to determine whether this man has news about Saul. The young man responds that he has come from the camp of Saul.1 Actually his words are more foreboding than this. He tells David he has escaped2 from the camp of Saul. This does not bode well. David then asks how things went in the battle. The young man now reveals what David must have already surmised. Israel has been defeated -- badly. Many Israelite soldiers have been killed, and the rest fled. Included among those killed in battle were Saul and his son Jonathan.3
David is unwilling to accept this man’s report without some verification. Is the messenger absolutely certain that Saul and Jonathan have been slain? The young man goes on to explain. I am not certain that he originally intends to tell David what he now reveals. From all the details this man provides, I believe he was indeed there with Saul, and that he does kill him in his final moments of life. When combined with the facts of the previous chapter (1 Samuel 31), we can arrive at a fairly clear picture of what happened.
This young man just happens to be on Mount Gilboa when he comes upon Saul. He does not really tell us what he is doing there. If I were to guess, I would say it was not to go down fighting to defend Saul from the Philistines, but rather to loot Saul’s post before the Philistines arrive. He certainly is not defending Saul from the Philistines. He comes across Saul while he is still alive.4 Saul is on the ground, or as the text reads, “he had fallen” (1:10). Saul’s body, riddled with Philistine arrows, is now run through by his own sword. Nevertheless, he is not yet dead. He seems to be propping himself up by leaning upon his spear, which probably relieves some pressure and pain from the arrows and the sword.
Looking around, Saul sees the young man arrive and size up the situation. Saul calls out to the fellow, and he responds, “Here I am.” He then asks this young man who he is. He may wonder if he is a Philistine, since they are pressing their attack and will soon be closing in on him (verse 6). The young man informs Saul that he is an Amalekite. Saul then appeals to this fellow to put him out of his misery.
I am indebted to the insight of my friend and fellow-elder, Hugh Blevins, at this point. Hugh points out that the author makes much of the fact that the young man is an Amalekite. Saul seems to take courage in this fact. He seems more confident to ask this fellow to kill him because he is an Amalekite. After all, he has just asked his armor bearer, who declines. An Amalekite will not have such scruples about killing the king of Israel. Indeed, when Saul ordered his servants to kill Ahimelech and the other priests, they declined, and so Saul turned to Doeg, the Edomite, who willingly complied with his orders (see 1 Samuel 22:16-19). Thus, even if an Israelite will not put Saul to death, the king feels relatively certain that an Amalekite will.
Saul asks the young man to come and “stand over” him and put him to death. The NASB renders it more generically: “Please stand beside me and kill me” (verse 9). The King James Version is more starkly literal when it renders these words, “Stand, I pray thee, upon me, and slay me. . . .” The young man then says, “So I stood upon him, and slew him” (verse 10, KJV). My point in emphasizing these words is that the young man must have “been there and done that” to be so precise in his description of Saul’s last few moments and death. Saul is lying on the ground, partially propped up by his spear (not his sword). Saul begs the young man to come and stand over him because he is on the ground, and the young man would have to do this to kill him. The young Amalekite obliges Saul by killing him. We are not told what weapon he uses or how he uses it to dispatch Saul. The irony is that Saul would have been dead in a few moments anyway. This “murder” (recounted as though it was a mercy killing) deprives Saul of but a few minutes of life. Nonetheless, it is murder.
The Amalekite confesses to killing Saul, and then rationalizes his actions in verse 10. He did stand over Saul and kill him, but this was because he knew that having fallen, Saul would never get up again. He would have died anyway, right there in that place. Besides this, he did for Saul exactly what Saul begged him to do. Saul wanted to be put out of his misery, and this young man obliged him. Isn’t this the compassionate thing to do? He thinks a reward might be given for this, but he ends up getting much more than he expected. He did what Saul wanted, and he did what he supposed David wanted. He believed he could not be faulted for doing what Saul and David desired. He removed the crown and bracelet from Saul’s corpse and rushed with them to David, his “lord” (verse 10). Is it not the time for David to assume his place as king?
Before we turn to David’s response to the Amalekite’s report, it might be helpful to sum up some of the key elements of this event:
(1) The messenger seems eager to make this journey to find David and tell him of the death of Saul and Jonathan. Like Ahimaaz in 2 Samuel 18:19-23, he seems to want to bring David the news because he expects David to be pleased with what he hears (see 2 Samuel 4:9-10). Also like Ahimaaz, he does not understand the depth of sorrow and sadness this news will bring to David.
(2) It appears he expects to be rewarded by David.
(3) He knows exactly where to find David.
(4) David questions the Amalekite thoroughly and seems to learn more from him than the messenger intends. Far from lying to David about Saul’s death or his role in it, this messenger seems to tell all.
(5) For some reason, the messenger makes a point of Jonathan’s death, but fails to mention that Saul’s other sons are also killed in battle.
(6) The messenger seems to assume that Saul and Jonathan are David’s enemies, obstacles to his ascent to the throne. He appears to believe that killing Saul is getting him out of David’s way, and thus believes he is doing David a favor (again, see 2 Samuel 4:9-10).
(7) The text emphasizes that this messenger is an Amalekite, which is no coincidence. Saul was to have killed the Amalekites (see 1 Samuel 15). It was Amalekite raiders who sacked Ziklag and kidnapped the families of David and his men. Only three days earlier David had returned to Ziklag, after pursuing these Amalekites and slaughtering them (2 Samuel 1:1).
(8) This messenger knows David is designated to be (or expected to be) Israel’s next king. He brings the crown and bracelet he took from Saul’s body and gives them to David, as the king.
(9) This man almost proudly admits to having killed Saul, God’s anointed.
11 Then David took hold of his clothes and tore them, and so also did all the men who were with him. 12 And they mourned and wept and fasted until evening for Saul and his son Jonathan and for the people of the LORD and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword. 13 And David said to the young man who told him, “Where are you from?” And he answered,” I am the son of an alien, an Amalekite. “ 14 Then David said to him, “How is it you were not afraid to stretch out your hand to destroy the LORD'S anointed?” 15 And David called one of the young men and said, “Go, cut him down.” So he struck him and he died. 16 And David said to him, “Your blood is on your head, for your mouth has testified against you, saying, 'I have killed the LORD'S anointed.'“
As I read this chapter in 2 Samuel, I am reminded of the old “good news, bad news” jokes. I’ll spare you any examples. I think the messenger is thinking in terms of “good news” and “bad news” when he reaches David. I believe he expected to come to David in this way:
“David, I’ve got some bad news, and I’ve got some good news. The bad news is that Israel has been defeated by the Philistines. Many men have been killed, and many more have fled from the battle, and even from their land and homes. The good news is that your enemy Saul is dead, and so is his heir, Jonathan. This means that you can now place this crown on your head and rule as king over Israel.”
For David, this is all bad news. He is grief-stricken over the defeat of Israel and the death of Saul. He is devastated by the death of his closest friend, Jonathan. Any thought of personal gain at the expense of others is cast aside.
As we read in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “there is a time to mourn” (Ecclesiastes 3:4b). David sets the pace in the mourning that occurs in response to the messenger’s words. His men promptly follow his lead. We can remember occasions when some of his men wanted to see Saul dead. Okay, so neither David nor they could kill Saul. Someone else has, and this might be seen as grounds for some kind of rejoicing but not while David is around! David tears his clothes, and so do the rest. They all mourn and weep and fast until evening. They mourn for the house of Israel, for king Saul, and Jonathan.
Now there is another matter which must be dealt with, a matter that can wait while David and his men express their grief over Israel’s defeat and the deaths of Saul, Jonathan, and many other Israelites. This messenger has confessed to putting Saul to death. This may not seem wrong to him, but it is an outrage to David. How many times has he refused to put Saul to death, even though he might have claimed self-defense? And yet this Amalekite had no reservations about finishing off Saul.
This Amalekite messenger has no idea of the situation into which he has gotten himself. I am reminded of my oldest daughter and a story she loved to tell as a little girl about a wide-mouthed frog. Mrs. Frog would go about asking other mothers what they fed their babies. She would ask one animal and then another. Finally, she came upon a snake, and she said to it, “Mrs. Snake, what do you feed your babies?” (It was here that my daughter Beth especially enjoyed the story, because she would open her mouth up very wide in an exaggerated expression.) Mrs. Snake responded, “I feed my babies wide-mouthed frogs.” Now, with lips pursed ever so tight, Beth went on to say for Mrs. Frog, “Oh, is that so?”
Mrs. Frog did not realize she was setting herself up for disaster, and neither does the Amalekite messenger. He speaks openly of being an Amalekite, without realizing what he is saying. He almost brags about killing Saul, with no sense of hesitation or impending danger. He also speaks lightly about the death of Jonathan, David’s dearest friend. This young man has put a noose around his own neck, and he never realizes it until it is too late.
The Amalekite messenger has said all that David needs to hear. He is already as good as dead. Nevertheless, David asks the young messenger where he comes from for the second time. I must admit being somewhat puzzled about why David asks virtually the same question twice. I may be starting to get the point. Often we ask someone the same question twice, not because we did not hear the answer, but because the answer catches us off guard and puzzles us. The first time David asks this young man, he answers that he has come from the camp of Saul (verse 3). Then, in his report of what happened on Mt. Gilboa, he includes his statement to Saul that he is an Amalekite (verse 8). During his time of mourning, David may have been saying to himself, “Now just how is it than an Amalekite can be among those in the camp of an Israelite king, especially when the Amalekites are an enemy of Israel?5 The messenger may just be starting to get the drift of David’s question, and so he at least seeks to clarify his answer by indicating that he is the son of an alien, who is an Amalekite.
But his answer is too little and too late to do him any good. No matter what his explanation might be, he has “stretched out his hand to kill the Lord’s anointed,” and then boasted of it. He is without excuse, condemned by his own words. David orders him to be executed. The Bible Knowledge Commentary makes an insightful comment here:
It is ironic that Saul lost his kingdom because he failed to annihilate the Amalekites, and now one who said he was an Amalekite died because he claimed to have destroyed Saul.6
The issues are clear and simple to David, and not as the young man sees them. The young man sees Saul as David’s enemy, an obstacle to his rise to the throne. He sees the death of Saul as good news to David. He sees killing Saul as “putting him out of his misery,” like shooting a horse with a broken leg. David sees it much more simply: he killed the Lord’s anointed. It does not matter that Saul would have died anyway -- it does not matter that he made David’s life hell. It does not matter that Saul was suffering. It does not matter that Saul wanted to die, or that Saul had only moments of life left. It does not matter that the Philistines may soon be upon him. This man killed the Lord’s anointed. And now David has him put to death.
How the Mighty Have Fallen
17 Then David chanted with this lament over Saul and Jonathan his son, 18 and he told them to teach the sons of Judah the song of the bow; behold, it is written in the book of Jashar.
19 “Your beauty, O Israel, is slain on your high places! How have the mighty fallen! 20 “Tell it not in Gath, Proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, Lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult. 21 “O mountains of Gilboa, Let not dew or rain be on you, nor fields of offerings; For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, The shield of Saul, not anointed with oil. 22 “From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, The bow of Jonathan did not turn back, And the sword of Saul did not return empty. 23 “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and pleasant in their life, And in their death they were not parted; They were swifter than eagles, They were stronger than lions. 24 “O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, Who clothed you luxuriously in scarlet, Who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. 25 “How have the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan is slain on your high places. 26 “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; You have been very pleasant to me. Your love to me was more wonderful Than the love of women. 27 “How have the mighty fallen, And the weapons of war perished!”
Let’s face it, it is hard to know what to say or not to say at a funeral, especially if you are the preacher conducting the service. I have heard a lot of lies told at funerals, many of them by preachers. I have heard lies told about God (e.g., “This wasn’t God’s fault. He had no knowledge or control over what has happened.”), and lies told about the one who died. Usually, these lies about the departed tend to exaggerate the good things and deny the bad. I remember hearing the story of a preacher who was very honest at the funeral of a man who was a scoundrel. In the middle of the funeral service, the preacher looked straight at the widow of the man who had died and said something like, “Millie, you know Ralph was a worthless man. Now when you marry again, let’s pick a better man than this.” That’s honesty.
Even though I have conducted many funerals (and some of them were difficult), I think one the toughest funerals ever would be Saul’s. For example, what if you acted in accordance with the saying, “If you don’t have anything good to say about someone, don’t say anything.” What would you do, have 45 minutes of silence for Saul? In our text, it is David who conducts Saul’s funeral, or at least its counterpart. It is certainly not what I would have expected. I think it is safe to say that it is not what his young Amalekite messenger expected either. Since there is not sufficient time or space to carefully expound David’s eulogy (or dirge), let us focus on some overall characteristics.
This eulogy, or dirge, is a psalm of David, a special labor of his love. My father is a retired school teacher and has written poems for years. He has written them for friends who were retiring. He has written them for each of his children on their birthdays. Until there were too many grandchildren, he would write a poem for each of them on their birthday. I know what the Hallmark people say about their cards, but a poem from my father means a lot more than a Hallmark card. It is a labor of love. We know that he has taken the time to think about the one for whom he is composing the poem. We know that it is his way of telling us how much he loves us. That is what David’s eulogy is saying as well. He is expressing his love for Saul and Jonathan, in the finest manner available.
David’s eulogy is a psalm that mourns the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. David mourns over the defeat of Israel and the death of many Israelites, but this is not the focus of his psalm. His psalm expresses David’s sorrow over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. The Amalekite messenger thinks the news of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan will be good news to David. He is wrong. This psalm tells us that David feels a deep sense of loss and sorrow because of their deaths. David genuinely grieves over the news he receives.
David’s eulogy says nothing negative about Saul. When David mourns the death of Saul, there is not even a hint of the mention of any of the evil or unkind things Saul did against David or others. How easy it would have been to include some of these details, to have indicated some kind of divine vindication, but David does not do so.
David’s psalm honors both Saul and Jonathan as fallen heroes. David not only restrains himself from speaking ill of the dead, he honors Saul and Jonathan as war heroes, as men worthy of respect and honor.
David’s psalm begins by focusing upon Saul and ends with the focus on Jonathan. While David has good things to say about his king, it is evident in this psalm that David has a deep love and commitment to Jonathan.7 What may have been somewhat private while Jonathan was alive, David now makes public. Here is something the Amalekite totally missed. He seemed to think that Jonathan was David’s enemy, not his closest friend.
David’s psalm appears to be an expression and consequence of the covenant between David and Jonathan. We have seen the covenant made between these two men (1 Samuel 18), implemented (chapter 19:1-7), and then extended and reaffirmed (chapters 20 and 23). By his eulogy, David is already blessing Jonathan and his descendants as he eulogizes him as a hero, whose memory is to be honored.
David’s psalm has been written for a much wider audience than David and his 600 men. The psalm is written and recorded in the “Book of Jashar.” We see this “book” referred to in Joshua:
12 Then Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, “O sun, stand still at Gibeon, And O moon in the valley of Aijalon.” 13 So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, Until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. 14 And there was no day like that before it or after it, when the LORD listened to the voice of a man; for the LORD fought for Israel (Joshua 10:12-14).
In this text in Joshua, we read of the victory God gives Israel over the Amorites, assisted by causing the sun to stand still. This incident is so awesome and monumental it is recorded for later generations to read and to be amazed. Not only does David wish to honor Saul and Jonathan, he wants all of the “sons of Judah to join him” (2 Samuel 1:18), and thus instructs that this song be taught to them. I understand this to mean that not only this generation, but the generations to come are to learn this song and thus to honor Saul and Jonathan.
I am not sure we can grasp the significance of what David does here. Those who rise to the top position of power in a nation normally take all kinds of precautions to prevent any rival from overturning their administration and taking their place of power. This often means the execution of the entire family of the dynasty being ousted from power. It can mean rewriting history, so that this family is disgraced and despised. David does just the opposite. He honors Saul and Jonathan and assures that future generations will look upon these men as national heroes. He honors Saul and Jonathan among the “sons of Judah.” The “sons of Judah” are not Saul’s relatives;8 they are the kinsmen of David, the very group he would look to for support as their king. Indeed David does a most remarkable thing in the writing and preservation of this eulogy.
David’s response to the death of Saul is remarkable, but is it sincere? Is David simply gilding the lily here? Is he sweeping all of the evils Saul has committed under the rug? Is this hypocrisy on David’s part? I think we must conclude that David is completely sincere. There is no hypocrisy to be found in what David says or does here. I believe everything David says is true.
This leads to a very important principle which is frequently violated today: Being honest and truthful does not require telling everything that could be told, or everything we know to be true. David is honest and truthful, and godly, while not telling everything he knows to be true of Saul. One principle of pop psychology holds that we should “get it all out,” that every frustration should be vented, every grievance aired, every thought expressed. The Bible simply does not teach this. The Book of Proverbs, in particular, teaches that the wise man carefully chooses what he will say, and how and when he will say it. Some things ought not to be said at all. The New Testament contains a very important guiding principle which should govern what we say or do not say: “We should speak only that which edifies (builds up or benefits) the hearer(s)” (see 1 Corinthians 14:4-5, 17, 26). Chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians teaches that the church is edified by our silence as well as by our speech. It is not a sin to refrain from saying what would prove to be unprofitable, even if it is true. David does not say anything about Saul that is untrue. He says only what is true. He tells no lies. Yet he does not tell all. That is the way it should be.
I should go on to say that in those instances in which Saul did sin, and in which David had to speak to Saul, he confronted him with this sin (see 1 Samuel 24 and 26). There is a time to speak to the sinner about his sin. But Saul is dead. David cannot benefit Saul by drawing attention to his sins. In speaking “ill of the dead,” David would only bring hurt and harm upon Saul’s descendants, whom he promised to bless.
We see then that David is right and righteous in not speaking of Saul’s sins at this time. People knew well enough about Saul and his sins. David wants Saul to be remembered and honored for the positive contribution he made to the Israelites over whom he reigned. But this raises an important question: “How does David do it? How does David manage to speak so well of Saul, after all the suffering he caused David to endure?”
There are several answers to this question. First, David trusts in the God whom he serves. David knows that his God is a mighty God. His God is in control of all things. Therefore, his God allowed Saul to pursue and persecute him. David trusts that God has allowed his suffering at the hand of Saul in order to instruct him in the way of righteousness. Saul is used of God to help prepare David for the leadership role he will soon to assume. His suffering was not in vain, and thus he need not feel badly toward Saul. As Joseph was able to be grateful for the hand of God in his life through his suffering (see Genesis 50:20), so David is able to do likewise.
Second, David seems to have already dealt with Saul’s sins against him by forgiving him. This is what seems to have freed Joseph to deal kindly with his brothers, in spite of their wicked actions toward him. I believe David has forgiven Saul, and thus he has no bitterness to suppress or to vent. It is a sad thing to harbor bitterness, because once a person is dead, it is a little bit late to forgive them.9 David does not have to dredge up the past because he keeps short accounts.
Third, from what I read I am forced to conclude that David thinks more highly of Saul than I do. I must confess that I do not like Saul very much. I want to think badly of him, and thus I am inclined to think the worst of him, rather than the best. I believe our author sides with David in thinking more highly of Saul than I may. This seems especially evident in his summation of Saul’s reign in chapter 14:
47 Now when Saul had taken the kingdom over Israel, he fought against all his enemies on every side, against Moab, the sons of Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines; and wherever he turned, he inflicted punishment. 48 And he acted valiantly and defeated the Amalekites, and delivered Israel from the hands of those who plundered them (1 Samuel 14:47-48).
These verses seem almost out of place. They are a kind of eulogy or benediction, placed before Saul’s irrecoverable error in chapter 15, and also before the account of his death in chapter 31. I think the author is indicating to us that it is over for Saul, long before his life ends. But wherever in the text the evaluation of his reign might be placed, I must concede that Saul is spoken of much more positively than I would expect. I believe the author of 1 Samuel gives us this relatively positive assessment because we need to keep this in mind as we focus on a very narrow slice of Saul’s life in this book. The author chooses to focus on Saul’s failures to teach the reader some very important lessons. I believe the way Saul failed is the same way Israel failed. To press this a step further, the way Saul failed is also the way we fail today. The focus of 1 Samuel then is on Saul’s failures, those that brought about the end of his reign. In spite of these failures, Saul did many good things. In his eulogy, David dwells on these good things.
Fourth, David illustrates his obedience to a very important command, expressed clearly in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things (Philippians 4:8).
Truth is but the first test of what should occupy our hearts and minds and proceed from our mouths. This is the baseline test, but there are many other standards as well, as we see in this text. David has written a psalm to help Israelites of his day and of later generations to remember and honor Saul and Jonathan. If they remember Saul the way David portrays him in the last part of our text, they will most certainly “let their minds dwell on what is honorable, right, pure, lovely, and of good repute.” David will not have us dwell on Saul’s sins. Neither are we to overlook Saul’s sins. The author of 1 Samuel recorded them for us to learn from them.
These days there is a whole lot of emphasis on the wrongs which others, especially our parents, have committed against us. We think we have to dredge them all up, understand them fully, and then dwell upon them. I think David would differ with us on this point. If we have not forgiven our parents for the wrongs they have done against us, then we should do so, and then forget them. If we have not confronted sins that they still practice, we may need to confront them in a biblical manner. But there is no virtue in brooding over past wrongs against us. These are not things which should occupy our minds.
Fifth, David thinks of Saul in terms of his office and honors him in this light. We see this matter of honor mentioned in Philippians 4:8: “. . . whatever is honorable. . . .” But this principle is taught in a number of other contexts as well:
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12; see Matthew 15:4, etc.).
Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor (Romans 13:7).
Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king (1 Peter 2:17).
In these verses, God calls upon us to “honor” others due to their position. In most cases, this honor is clearly to those in a position of authority over us (parents, kings). As Christians, we should honor all men, not only because God created them, but because we are to put their interests above our own (Philippians 2:1-8). David provides us with an excellent example of how we are to honor others.
We should also recognize that honoring the king of Israel had special significance. The king held a very special position of honor. He was referred to as God’s “son” in this capacity (see 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7-9). In this sense, the Lord Jesus Christ was God’s “Son,” partly because He was God’s appointed King.10 The king was “God’s anointed.” This expression is first employed in 1 Samuel and is used in reference to Saul and then David. It also refers to future kings, especially the Messiah. The Hebrew word rendered “anointed” is the term transliterated “Messiah” in the English language. David honors Saul as “God’s anointed,” and in so doing, honors the “Anointed One” who was to come. As the Old Testament revelation progresses, this becomes more and more clear.
In his eulogy, David speaks of Saul as Israel’s beauty. This same word, translated “beauty” in our text, is employed in Isaiah to refer to Israel’s coming Messiah, who is Israel’s beauty and glory:
In that day the Branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth will be the pride and the adornment of the survivors of Israel (Isaiah 4:2).
In that day the LORD of hosts will become a beautiful crown And a glorious diadem to the remnant of His people (Isaiah 28:5).
As David honors Saul as Israel’s beauty, he does so in the hope and expectation of seeing Israel’s perfect king, Messiah.
As we close, there is yet another lesson in our text which I dare not neglect to point out to you. It is a word of warning to any who may be trusting in his or her own righteousness for eternal salvation, who expects that God will surely welcome you with open arms though you have rejected His provision for salvation in the person of Jesus Christ.
The young Amalekite takes Saul’s life thinking he is doing Saul, David, and himself a favor. He supposes he is putting Saul out of his misery, that he is getting Saul out of David’s way, and that he is in the process of gaining David’s favor and gratitude, perhaps in the form of a reward. Instead of being rewarded, he kindles David’s wrath and is put to death. We are tempted to be more shocked that David had this young man killed than that the young man killed Saul. David was right to put this Amalekite to death, on more than one count. First, he could and should have killed him simply because he was an Amalekite (see 1 Samuel 15, 31). Second, he was obliged to execute him for killing God’s anointed. David was right to be angered by the Amalekite’s treatment of Saul, and he was right to put him to death.
Many people know that Jesus Christ claimed to be God incarnate, God’s Son. They know that He died on the cross of Calvary, and that He rose again from the dead. They know that He claimed to have died for their sins, and that He alone is the way to eternal life. In spite of all this, they reject Him as their Savior. They suppose there are other ways of salvation, in addition to the shed blood of Jesus Christ. They think that when they stand before God, He will accept them on the basis of their good deeds, or their faith in some other method of salvation. They expect God to receive them warmly into His kingdom and to reward them with eternal life. They are greatly deceived.
If David was right to be angry because a man had killed Saul, God’s anointed, how do you think God will deal with those who reject Jesus Christ, His anointed? If there was more than one way for God to save men from their sins, do you think He would have sent Jesus Christ to die an agonizing death on the cross of Calvary, as one option among others? Those who trust in any other way of salvation reject Jesus Christ as God’s anointed One. And those who reject Him as God’s anointed are as guilty of putting Him to death as those who stood before Pilate centuries ago, crying, “Crucify! Crucify!” How foolish to expect God’s approval and acceptance when one has rejected God’s only provision for salvation. As David dealt harshly with the Amalekite who slew Saul, so God will deal harshly with those who reject His Son, Jesus Christ. The way to receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life is to trust in God’s anointed One, Jesus Christ. He is God’s King, who will reign forever and ever. He is also the Lamb of God, who died for the sins of men. All who trust in Him will be saved. All who do not await God’s eternal wrath. If you have never acknowledged your sin and trusted in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on your behalf, will you not do so today?
1 A number of scholars feel this young man is merely telling David a tale that he made up. I find this conclusion hard to accept, however. Our author tells us specifically that this young man “came out of the camp from Saul” (verse 2). Further, the young man’s description of Saul’s physical condition, of the closing pursuit of the Philistines, and of his request to be put to death (not to mention the fact that he has obtained Saul’s crown and bracelet), almost forces us to conclude that he was indeed there just as he said. Also, we must note that David takes his words at face value. David does not have this young man put to death for claiming to kill Saul, but for having done so. As David takes this man’s words at face value, so should we.
3 It is interesting to me that the messenger is never said to have mentioned Saul’s other sons, who were also killed at the same time (see 1 Samuel 31:2, 6). Is this because it was known to all that Jonathan was the heir apparent?
4 Some think this is inconsistent with the description of Saul’s death in chapter 31 of 1 Samuel. I do not. I believe that when Saul’s armor bearer hesitated (or refused) to kill his master, Saul fell on his own sword. The armor bearer did not stop to pronounce Saul dead, or even to wait for him to be completely dead. He knew Saul either was dead or would soon be. And so he quickly fell on his own sword, dying quickly and leaving Saul still alive. This is the point at which the young Amalekite seems to come on the scene.
7 While there should be no need to say so, I will say it again here. The “love” relationship between David and Jonathan was not a sexual one in any way. In fact, David makes it clear that his relationship with Jonathan was a higher and greater one than this (see verse 26).